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I recently met a woman who told me why she will never serve in a church again.

While a new believer, she became the office manager for a prestigious megachurch.  She served in that position for seven years.

The pastor governed the church without any kind of board or advisory group … an acceptable practice within that church’s wider Christian movement.

After she eventually left her position – she said she “knew too much” – she was asked to go back and comb through seven years of financial records.

When she did so, she found that the pastor had used church funds to do work on his house, among other things.

But then the coup de grace came when the pastor had an affair … divorced his wife … and married his lover.

The pastor left his position, but several years later, was placed in another church by the leader of that wider Christian movement.

That was it for her.

She told me that she attends a church with her husband, but that they will not serve as volunteers or in any other fashion.

I asked her, “So you just sit on the back row and leave after the service?”

“Yes,” she said.

This woman was thoughtful, intelligent, and interesting, with a great personality.

But she also has her limits for witnessing and tolerating bad behavior … as is true for most of us.

_______________

Christian leaders are fond of proclaiming that Jesus wants His Church to fulfill His Great Commission … to “make disciples of all nations” … and making disciples initially involves bringing people to faith in Christ.

So Christians share Christ through mass crusades … rock concerts … youth camps … men and women’s retreats … movies and literature … and numerous other methodologies.

But we devote little to no personnel, time, energy, or resources to believers who are the victims of Christian misbehavior.

Our country is littered with tens of thousands of Christians who feel so wounded and violated by the sins of Christian leaders (pastors, staffers, board members and other leaders) that they either don’t go to church or, if they do, they sit on the back row.

And when they hear the pastor say, “We need volunteers for Vacation Bible School next week,” or “We ask you to give so our mission team can go to Russia,” they immediately exempt themselves from any involvement.

These people are believers in Jesus Christ … they have just stopped believing in the local church.

After they have seen and heard “enough,” they pull back on church participation.  They become isolated … sometimes from other Christians, mostly from local churches.

And they don’t identify themselves inside the Christian community.  They just keep quiet.

I encouraged the woman I mentioned above to tell me her story.  She was hesitant to do so.  Like most believers, she didn’t want to cause any trouble.

_______________

Thirty years ago, I read an article in Leadership Journal written by John Savage.  Based on his research, Savage claimed that whenever a churchgoer stopped attending their home church for six to eight weeks, they would reinvest their lives in other pursuits and quit church altogether because they concluded that nobody at the church cared enough to notice they were missing.

Savage believed that congregations need systems to track their attendees and that they should be contacted by someone from their church well before that six-week period.

For instance, in our last ministry, once a regular attender was missing for two Sundays, someone contacted them the very next week and said, “We’ve missed seeing you.  Is everything okay?  How can we help?”

Savage said that once someone stops attending for eight weeks, there is only one way to get them to return.

He said a loving, well-trained person/couple need to set up an appointment with the lapsed attender(s) … and the meeting needs to take place in the attender’s home.

Savage said that the people from church should only stay one hour … and that they should spend at least fifty minutes of that hour listening rather than talking.

Savage said it takes five or six similar meetings before the lapsed churchgoer(s) shares the real reasons why they aren’t attending church … and only then is there hope they might return.

Assuming that Savage’s research was accurate, there are obvious downsides to his approach.

To reclaim lapsed attenders, a church would need to:

*make such a ministry a priority

*identify people who could do it well

*get them to buy into Savage’s approach

*train these people to listen attentively to the hurts of lapsed attendees

*expect little return from such a ministry

That’s why it’s far better for a church to set up a ministry to identify and contact missing churchgoers within two weeks than to wait two months.

And the pastor can’t engage in such a ministry personally because many of the complaints center around him … and most churchgoers will never share that information in his presence.

_______________

How can we minister to people who have been deeply wounded by Christian leaders?

Let me offer four suggestions:

First, stop blaming them for the way they feel.

If you’ve been hurt by a Christian leader, you may feel anger … disappointment … hurt … and fear.

Those feelings are all legitimate.

When most Christians are violated in some way by a leader, they can’t reconcile that leader’s behavior with the gospel or New Testament Christianity.

Especially since most of the time, sinning leaders don’t repent and ask forgiveness from their victims.

The closer a Christian was to that leader, the more deeply they feel the pain.

When a pastor commits a major offense, he creates unknown collateral damage … so we shouldn’t blame the victims.

I’ve heard pastors criticize these Christian victims from the pulpit.  It doesn’t work.

Instead:

Second, we have to understand where they’re coming from.

I once knew a pastor who was trying to convince the people in his congregation to serve as volunteers.

He proudly told me what he told them: “If you aren’t serving in this church, you’re out of the will of God.”

That statement was not only insensitive … it was just plain dumb … and designed to drive people away from service rather than move them toward it.

Is is possible that some people in that church had tried to serve in another church and had a terrible experience?

Yes.

Then why condemn them because they didn’t want to feel the same kind of pain again?

It would be better for someone in that church to set up meetings and listen to people’s stories than to tar them all as being “out of the will of God.”

In fact, if I’d been wounded by a leader, the only way I’d even consider participation in a church again is if I could tell my story to a safe Christian.

Where are such safe Christians today?

Third, most Christians will only tolerate so much sin in their leaders.

Most people know who actress Patricia Heaton is.  She is a Roman Catholic Christian who stands strongly against abortion and often quotes Scripture on her Twitter account.

Yesterday she tweeted about a priest who has been found guilty of raping young boys.  She wrote: “The church will continue to decline and lose people like me if they keep tolerating this abomination.”

The woman I wrote about at the beginning of this article was most upset that her former pastor was given another church by his superior.  She felt that his behavior was so horrendous that he should never pastor again.

Since I don’t know the details, I can’t comment on that pastor’s reassignment.

But that reassignment came with a price … one that most people would never hear about: the alienation of a good woman and her husband from Christian service.

I know many pastors who have been married for decades and have always been faithful to their wives … yet because they were forced to resign from their churches, no church will even consider them as a pastoral candidate.

But if a church has a pastoral opening, shouldn’t those pastors be considered before someone guilty of sexual immorality?

Finally, we need to speak openly about wounded Christians because their ranks are growing.

Many years ago, when I was still a pastor, I had a conversation with a Christian couple I’ve known for decades.

When I asked them about their current church commitment, they told me they weren’t going to church anymore.

They told me a story about how they went to their pastor, and tried talking to him about a family issue, and how insensitive the pastor was toward them.

Instead of trying to understand, I got on them a bit, telling them, “But all pastors and churches aren’t like that.”

What I failed to understand was that the experience was so painful that they couldn’t go through it again … so their best solution was just to stay away from church altogether.

Right now, I know many Christians who used to attend church regularly and serve enthusiastically.  But now they aren’t going to church at all, go only sporadically, or warm a pew and then zip right home.

Sometimes they have good reasons for their non-participation.  Other times, their reasons don’t seem very compelling.

But there are thousands and thousands of good, solid believers who could be reclaimed, restored, and renewed if only someone in Christ’s church would devise a ministry for them.

Any ideas?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One Friday night in winter … nearly twenty years ago … the Bay Area church I was pastoring advertised that we were going to have snow for the kiddies.

Since it never snowed in our area, the snow had to be imported on a truck.

My wife … who ordered the snow and was coordinating the event … was anxious.  She promised snow at 7:30 pm, but the truck got lost.

Finally, the driver found his way to our campus … almost an hour late.

A man from our church … who was in his eighties … was present that night and put things into perspective when he said, “Pastor, a good church is hard to find.”

Amen to that!

Until I was 56 years old, I never had to search for a church:

*During my childhood, my dad was a pastor, so I went to the churches he served, mostly in Orange County.

*For the next eight years, I attended where my family attended.

*From ages 19 through 27, I was a staff member in three churches.

*After that, I served as the solo or senior pastor of three churches.

So for most of my life, I didn’t have to search for a church home … but that all changed after we left our last church in 2009.

While living in Arizona, it took my wife and me a long six months to find a church home.

But when we moved to the Inland Empire in Southern California six years ago, finding a church home became a complicated and painful experience.

We’ve had three church homes over the past five-and-a-half years: a Baptist church, a Calvary Chapel, and a Reformed Church.

We left the Baptist church because it was too far away to become socially involved … and because they were much too ingrown.

We left the Calvary Chapel because their worship time was becoming weirder.

We left the Reformed Church because, while they didn’t do much that was wrong, they didn’t do much that was right, either.

So now … once again … my wife and I are searching for a church home.

What are we looking for in a home church?

Five things:

First, we want to hear a biblically based, intelligent sermon.

Most pastors in our area offer a sermon based in Scripture.  That’s the easy part.

But most pastors don’t offer a sermon with much, if any, intelligence.

As a former pastor, I want a pastor to:

*Give us evidence that you’ve immersed yourself in the text.

*Show us that the passage under study has passed through and touched you.

*Share with us a quote … a story … an application that is fresh and moving.

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones … one of the greatest preachers of the twentieth century … sometimes visited churches in America.  Pastors would get up to preach and be astounded to see the good doctor sitting in their congregation.

Lloyd-Jones said he looked for one primary thing in a sermon: evidence of the presence of God.

I’ve tried to apply that standard to the sermons I’ve heard, but I don’t always succeed.

Lloyd-Jones also summed up what a great sermon is in three words: “Logic on fire!”

I hear fire sometimes in the churches we visit.  Sadly, I don’t hear much logic.

On Sunday, April 1, my daughter and I attended an Easter service at All Souls Church in London, England, where John Stott had been the pastor years before.

The Minister of Evangelism gave the sermon that morning, and knocked it out of the park.

There was logic … and there was fire.

I loved it.

My longtime friend Dave Rolph preaches live on Roku every Sunday morning from his Orange County church.  (He’s also on the radio here in SoCal.)  I watch Dave’s sermon most Sunday mornings because while he’s thoroughly biblical, he’s also original, thinks broadly, and offers stories and applications that make me think.

With most sermons I hear, I forget them as soon as I hear them.  With Dave, his insights sometimes stay with me for days.

Second, we want the worship music to be singable and meaningful.

By singable, I mean that the band on stage isn’t playing too loud.  You can hear the people around you singing … not just the music … and you don’t have to strain to sing yourself.

By meaningful, I mean the songs are not selected because they’re currently popular, but because they say something significant about the Lord.  The words are both theologically accurate and touching.

Many churches in our area offer music that’s too loud for singing.  You can hear the band and singers on stage, but you can’t hear anyone around you.

And so many of the song lyrics are repetitious.  I refuse to sing the same words over and over for no reason.

The trend in many churches is to sing the same song for eight to ten minutes … like what you’ll hear at a Chris Tomlin concert.

That may work for some people, but it doesn’t work for me.  What is the point of singing the same words five and seven and nine times?

My son attends a Calvary Chapel that uses acoustic music.  You can hear the voices around you.  I enjoy their worship times.

My daughter attends a Reformed church that also uses acoustic music.  The words to the songs are elegant and deeply moving.

I’d attend either church in a heartbeat … but my son’s church is 60 miles away, and my daughter’s church is 500 miles away.

I’m sure there are churches out there that offer what we’re looking for.  I just don’t know where they are.

Third, we want to meet people who are in our socioeconomic background.

This is a big problem for us around here.

I grew up in suburban Anaheim, California.  Every church I pastored was located in a suburban area as well.

I don’t fit in an urban environment, and I don’t fit in a rural environment, either.

My wife and I spent 27 years ministering in the San Francisco Bay Area.  We fit best with the people in that region.  They are “our people.”

But we don’t live there … we live in the Inland Empire … and much of our community is rural … along with the communities ten miles north, west, and east of us.

This is really tough for us.  We don’t want to come off as snobs.  We aren’t better than the people around here … we’re just different.

There are churches around here where most of the people have tattoos or piercings.  Praise God that those people know the Lord … but it makes us feel very uncomfortable.

You can’t determine a “relational fit” from a church website.  You have to visit the church first.

And this is a major reason why we visit most churches only once.

Fourth, we want to be theologically compatible with the church’s faith and practice.

Two Sundays ago, my wife and I visited a church 15 miles south of us.

There was nothing on the church website that indicated the kind of church they were.

After a couple of worship songs, I turned to my wife and said, “This is a charismatic church.”

Now there is nothing wrong per se with a charismatic church … it’s just not our preference.

The pastor’s son spoke that morning … at a supersonic rate.  He spoke on the Lord’s appointing and anointing.

My wife wanted to walk out after a few minutes.  He was making us both highly anxious by his rapid-fire delivery.

I told her later that in some churches, when a pastor speaks fast, that’s an indication that he is anointed with the Holy Spirit.

After the sermon, the pastor asked everyone in the congregation to pray to receive Christ.  Everyone!

That, my friends, is manipulation, pure and simple … and I refuse to attend any church that uses manipulation.

We attended another church for a few months where a woman was on the staff.  That was okay.

But one Sunday, we came to church, and she delivered the sermon.

For us, that was not okay.

Churches aren’t going to tell you their peculiarities on their website.  You have to visit them first.

If you visit them a few times, they won’t hide their unique beliefs or practices very long.

And then you can decide if you want to stay or not.

Finally, we want to be able to use our spiritual gifts in service.

My top spiritual gift is teaching.

My wife’s passion is outreach.

I have tried to find a church that will let me use my teaching gift, but I keep hearing the same thing: the pastor is our only teacher.

And if the pastor shares his pulpit, he shares it with staff … or a visiting missionary … or an old pastor friend.

I’m not angling to preach.  I just want to teach God’s Word to God’s people.

In our community, my guess is that less than 10% of the churches even offer Sunday School or adult Bible classes.

And I don’t know where those churches are.

Instead, the churches offer small groups, which is good … but the whole idea of groups is that everyone participates … and no one teaches.

I suppose I could volunteer to clean toilets … or move chairs … or work in the nursery … or fill a slot somewhere.

Forgive me, but no thanks.

Since I can’t use my gifts inside a church, I write instead.

_______________

A couple weeks ago, my wife spent several hours looking for a church for us to visit.

She checked out dozens of websites … and only found a handful of churches that might appeal to us.

When I checked out the churches, I eliminated most of them for the reasons listed above.

I’ve decided to make a chart and rank the churches in priority order.

But my big concern is that we aren’t going to find a church where we fit.

Yes, we’ve visited several churches, and gone back two or three or more times … hoping that would become our church home.

But it just hasn’t worked out.

We’re not looking for a perfect church … just one where we fit.

There are many such churches in the Bay Area … and in Orange County.

There aren’t that many in the Inland Empire.

That older gentleman was right:

A good church is indeed hard to find.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I wanted to walk out of church last Sunday morning.

All because of a song.

During last Sunday’s praise and worship time at the church Kim and I have been attending, I became very uncomfortable because we kept repeating the same phrase while singing a popular worship song called “King of My Heart.”

Two Sundays ago, the worship team led the congregation in singing this song.

And I noticed that one phrase was repeated 22 times:

“You are good, good, oh” … which means we sang the word “good” 44 times.

Then last Sunday, they sang the song once more!  (As the song was starting, I turned to Kim and said, “Oh, no, not again.”)

Just in case singing this phrase over and over was an aberration, I decided to go online and see if I could find a video of a praise and worship band singing the song.

I did.

By my count, they sang the phrase, “You are good, good, oh” 24 times … and the phrase “You’re never gonna let, never gonna let me go” 16 times … in the same song.

You might like this … but it drives me nuts … so much so that I wanted to run out of the service, get in my car, and drive … anywhere.

I remember when praise songs first came from Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa in the mid-1970s.  We’d sing a song twice and some older people would get upset, claiming that singing the song several times consisted of vain repetition.

What would they think now?

In a blog that’s usually devoted to resolving conflict, I may be creating more conflict than I’m helping to resolve … but I feel strongly about this issue even though some might consider me nit-picky, ungodly, or nearly heretical.

Since this isn’t the only song that relies on the repetition of certain phrases, why are Christians writing and singing songs with such repetitive lyrics?

I don’t know … so I’m going to make three guesses:

First, we need to repeat those phrases for God’s benefit.

But God knows He’s good.  He doesn’t need us to remind Him.

Yes, He likes it when we recite His attributes … whether in prayer or in song … but the biblical pattern is to recite many of His attributes at once, not just to focus on one.

For example, in 1 Timothy 1:17, Paul writes, “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever.  Amen.”

Or in Jude 25, Jesus’ half-brother writes, “… to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord; before all ages, now and forevermore!  Amen.”

But do we have biblical evidence that God doesn’t like His people repeating phrases?

In Matthew 6:7-8, Jesus said:

“And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

The song “King of My Heart” is certainly written as a prayer because it’s directed to God.   While I don’t think that singing “You are good, good, oh” necessarily rates as babbling, the constant repetition of phrases does seem to fall into the category of “many words.”

In light of Jesus’ instructions, can we at least think twice about singing so many phrases over and over?

We also have nearly zero examples in the Bible of such repetition during worship.  For example, we have 150 psalms, yet there is only one where I can detect a repetitive phrase … in Psalm 136 … where the phrase, “His love endures forever” is found at the end of all 26 verses.

But one example hardly a pattern makes.

I tell my wife that I love her all the time, and when I do, I try and do it with a degree of creativity.  But what would she think if I turned to her and said:

You are good, good, oh

You are good, good, oh

You are good, good, oh

You are good, good, oh

So why do we do that with God?  Could we even be boring Him?

Second, we need to repeat those phrases for our own benefit.

When we’re singing the phrase, “You are good, good, oh” repeatedly, I wonder if we’re doing it for ourselves.

Maybe we don’t really believe God is good, but if we sing it and sing it and sing it and sing it out aloud … and loudly … maybe we’ll start believing it.

But how many times do we need to sing that phrase before we do believe it?  8 times?  12?  16?

24 times?  Really?

I once attended a workshop led by one of America’s best-known worship leaders.  He told us that he would initially select the songs for the following Sunday, then submit them to his pastor, who would either approve his selections or cross out certain songs and replace them with others.

The worship leader told us that the previous Sunday, the pastor had crossed out all of the songs he proposed.

This is one I’d be tempted to cross out myself.

I think the song “King of My Heart” is an okay song (my apologies if it’s one of your favorites) … but if I were pastoring again, and the worship leader proposed that song to me, I’d say, “We’re singing the phrase ‘You are good, good, oh’ a maximum of 8 times, and ‘You’re never gonna let, never gonna let me down’ 4 times, and that’s it.  If you can’t live with that, we’re not going to do it.”

I banned the song “Draw Me Close to You” at my last church because I felt the song didn’t appeal to men … and that leads me to my third guess:

Third, we need to repeat those phrases so we can feel something.

And this is what I think is really going on.

Without actually saying it, I believe that in many churches, the praise and worship time is considered to be the emotional time of the service, while the preaching is viewed as the intellectual part.

So during the emotional part of the service, it’s okay for any technique to be employed just so people feel that elusive “worship high” … an indication they’ve connected with God.

And repeating a phrase is one of those techniques.

On the video I watched online of a church’s worship band playing this song, I noticed that the song started quietly … built up to a place where the singers were nearly shouting, like in a power ballad … and then ended quietly.

Everyone had their eyes closed.  Some of the singers were going through various bodily gyrations with their hands raised.

The purpose of the song didn’t seem to involve reciting truth, but inciting feeling. 

Could we be using phrases like mantras?  Certainly transcendental meditation relies upon the repetition of words and phrases.

In his book Why Men Hate Going to Church, David Murrow contrasts “old worship” (the kind many of us grew up with) with “new worship” (what he calls P&W … praise and worship):

“The old worship was formal, corporate, and emotionless.  The new worship is informal, individualistic, and touchy-feely.  The old worship was about coming together to extol God; the new worship is about coming together to experience God.  The target of worship has fallen half a meter – from the head to the heart.”

Maybe, as Murrow says, I respond negatively to songs like this because I’m a man.  He believes that praise and worship music “has harmed men’s worship more than it has helped.”  Murrow writes:

“Before P&W, Christians sang hymns about God.  But P&W songs are mostly sung to God.  The difference may seem subtle, yet it completely changes how worshipers relate to the Almighty.  P&W introduced a familiarity and intimacy with God that’s absent in many hymns.”  (“In the Garden” being a noted exception.)

Murrow then summarizes his observations:

“With hymns, God is out there.  He’s big.  Powerful.  Dangerous.  He’s a leader.  With P&W, God is at my side.  He’s close.  Intimate.  Safe.  He’s a lover.”

Murrow then puts his finger on how many men feel … including me:

“The great hymns summon men to the battlefield – but many of today’s P&W songs seem to be summoning men to the bedroom.  Some contain man-love imagery that’s plainly uncomfortable for men…. Lovey-dovey praise songs force a man to express his affection to God using words he would never, ever, ever say to another guy.  Even a guy he loves.  Even a guy named Jesus.”

His conclusion:

“The Bible never describes our love for God in such erotic terms.  The men of Scripture loved God, but they were never desperate for him or in love with him.  Men are looking for a male leader – not a male lover.”

My own view of worship is that:

*Every song should start with biblical truth and that our emotions should be a response to that truth.  There should never be a time when we’re simply emotional without engaging our minds.

One passage that can give us guidance is 1 Corinthians 14, where the context is public worship.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14:15, “So what shall I do?  I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind.”

He adds in 14:19, “But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.”

And then he adds in 14:20, “Brothers, stop thinking like children.  In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.”

*The preaching time should also be characterized by biblical truth first, emotion second.  As Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones used to say, preaching may be defined as “logic on fire!”

I’ve heard some mindless sermons that simply tried to engage people’s emotions, but also I’ve heard plenty of sermons that espoused truth but lacked any semblance of passion.

We need truth first … followed by emotion … in all of our worship experiences.

I love many … not all … of the old hymns, and I also love many of the newer praise and worship songs … although I have a bias for the songs from the 1990s.

But as I get older, I have to admit, I’m leaning more toward hymns with rich theology … and away from newer songs that are more emotional and repetitive.

_______________

My wife and I recently perused the book Hymns: Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs, written by William J. Petersen & Ardythe Petersen.

I’d read aloud the stories behind the writing of some of the songs to my wife, and then without looking at the lyrics, we’d just start singing them … including some I haven’t sung for 50 years.

And we’d cry …. and barely be able to get through some of them.

We know those songs so well because we sang them so many times in the past, even if we haven’t sung them for decades.

But those songs rarely if ever repeated the same phrase over and over again … unless we were singing “Deep and Wide” while using motions.

How about you?  Do you like singing the same phrases over and over?

And if so, how much is too much?

I’m curious.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Something didn’t happen at the last two Sunday services I attended … at two different churches … and it’s been bothering me … a lot.

Neither church made any mention of the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in the wider Houston area, even though it’s been the top story in our nation for many days.

The crisis wasn’t mentioned in any prayer … during the announcements … or in either sermon.

And I wondered, “Why not?”

I’ve been noticing a trend in churches that greatly disturbs me … the ability we Christians have to block out what’s going on in the world around us … both during our services and our sermons.

I’m increasingly seeing churches … and pastors … who act like the entire world is encapsulated inside their congregation.

And personally, I think this makes us look foolish.

The trend is for pastors to designate the first half of their services to their worship/music director … who usually insists that the only way to worship God is to have the congregation stand and sing for at least thirty minutes.

Whatever happened to a meaningful public prayer … a heartfelt performance song … or interviews/testimonies involving people from the congregation?

They’ve disappeared … and I wonder why.

In my last two pastorates, I met every Monday night with the teams that planned our Sunday services.  It gave me the opportunity to present where I was going with the following Sunday’s sermon … solicit ideas from others … and make sure the services were characterized by CARE: creativity, authenticity, relevance, and excellence.

But in their place, we now have a half hour of non-creative, often inauthentic, and largely irrelevant songs done in an excellent manner.

I guess if a church is trying to shut out and separate itself from the world … and give people a weekly foretaste of heaven … that’s okay.

But I don’t think most churches that do that are going to reach very many people.

Many years ago, my wife and I were in Edinburgh on a Sunday morning, and we attended a Church of Scotland service.

We met in a darkened room with a minimal amount of light.

We sang psalms without any musical instruments.

The pastor preached on Mark 9:14-32, the story about Jesus casting out a demon from a little boy.  His exposition was top-notch … but he didn’t offer even one story or apply the message to our lives in any way.

Maybe that’s why I counted only 32 people in that service.

But that kind of irrelevance isn’t just found in somebody else’s culture … it’s in ours as well.

Several years ago, I was invited to attend a planning meeting with a pastor and a few of his key leaders.

I made an offhand comment about dealing with the issues of the day from a biblical viewpoint, and received pushback from everyone present, which startled me.

The upshot was, “We don’t talk about cultural issues in this church.  We don’t mention anything that might be controversial.  We leave those issues at home.  We’re only going to talk about our relationship with God and our relationship with each other.”

I countered by saying, “I believe that Jesus is Lord of our entire lives, and that means we need to relate His Lordship to what’s going on around us: in our homes, our neighborhoods, our workplaces, our schools, and our country.”

But my plea fell on deaf ears.

John Stott is the closest we evangelicals have had to a pope over the past fifty years.  In his book on preaching titled Between Two Worlds, Stott recounts a conversation he once had with two university students in Great Britain.  Both students had been raised in a traditional Christian home, but had renounced their parents’ faith and their own upbringing.

One was an atheist, the other a self-proclaimed agnostic.

Stott asked them, “What had happened?  Was it that they no longer believed Christianity to be true?”

They replied, “No, that’s not our problem.  We’re not really interested to know whether Christianity is true…. What we want to know is not whether Christianity is true, but whether it’s relevant.  And frankly, we don’t see how it can be.”

Charles Spurgeon once said: “I know a minister who is great upon the ten toes of the beast, the four faces of the cherubim, the mystical meaning of badgers’ skins, and the typical bearings of the staves of the ark, and the windows of Solomon’s temple: but the sins of business men, the temptations of the times, and the needs of the age, he scarcely ever touches upon.”

In other words, he was totally irrelevant.

One might think that only small churches lack relevance, but that isn’t always the case.

I visited the largest church in my city several times a few years ago.  The pastor was preaching through Ephesians, and when he got to 5:22-33 … Paul’s passage on marriage … the pastor gave a solid exposition but failed to say anything about gay marriage even though it was the hottest topic in the land at the time.

Why couldn’t he at least say, “Moses … Jesus … and Paul all agree that God ordained marriage to be between a man and a woman?”

Instead, why did he punt on that issue?

Some might counter with, “He’s not going to change anyone’s mind on an issue like that.”

But why preach at all then?  Isn’t that what a preacher is supposed to do … change minds and hearts using God’s Word?  How limited do we think the Holy Spirit is?

John Stott … who wrote two entire books devoted to contemporary issues in the 1980s (including gay partnerships) … writes to preachers:

“On the whole, if I may generalize, we do not make sufficient demands on the congregation.  When they come to church, they have heard it all before.  They have known it since they were in junior Sunday School.  It is stale, boring and irrelevant.  It fails to ‘grab’ or excite them.  They can scarcely stifle their yawns.  They come with their problems, and they leave with their problems.  The sermon has not spoken to their need.”

I am not advocating that pastors comment on The Issue of the Week like many liberals do … but I am saying that we need to do a much better job of dealing with the issues that are on our people’s frontal lobes.

Pastor Bill Hybels once said something like this: “What’s on everyone’s minds?  Sex!  But what do we talk about?  Some obscure passage from Isaiah.”

(Which reminds me … over the past few years, as I’ve visited scores of churches, I can hardly remember any sermon that even mentioned sex.)

One of my favorite preachers, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, wrote that “the business of preaching is to relate the teaching of the Scriptures to what is happening in our own day.”

He was a biblical expositor par excellence … and usually preached to packed congregations.

Listen again to John Stott:

“My plea is that we treat them as real people with real questions; that we grapple in our sermons with real issues; and that we build bridges into the real world in which they live and love, work and play, laugh and weep, struggle and suffer, grow old and die.  We have to provoke them to think about their life in all its moods, to challenge them and to make Jesus Christ the Lord of every area of it, and to demonstrate his contemporary relevance.”

When was the last time your church mentioned issues that people are talking about like North Korea … sexual boundaries … marijuana use … divorce (even among Christians) … or how Christians should respond to our unorthodox president?

Just wondering.

For eighteen months, my wife and I attended a church in Peoria, Arizona called Christ’s Church of the Valley.

Pastor Don Wilson … the church’s founder … told the following story several times in his sermons.

He said that during World War 2, there was a church located next to a railroad track.  Sometimes, a train loaded with Jewish people on their way to a concentration camp went right by the church during Sunday morning worship.

As the train passed by, the cries of those who were incarcerated could be heard by those who attended that church.

Because those cries were so distressing, the congregation came up with a way to ignore them.

They decided to sing louder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Which two areas in a local church have the greatest potential to catapult a pastor out of ministry?

According to church conflict expert Dr. Peter Steinke, those two areas are money and sex.

When I first became a pastor, I was unprepared for the value placed on money in the local church.  In fact, I can’t recall even one word being devoted to the topic in seminary.

But the quickest way for a pastor to be pushed out the door is for him to mess up – even in a small way – on church finances.

Let me share with you seven brief thoughts I’ve learned about pastors and church finances:

First, the pastor’s personal finances need to be in pristine order.

A pastor needs to watch his spending and his indebtedness very carefully.

Although they shouldn’t, some people watch the kind of car the pastor drives and the kind of house in which he lives … and if they think he’s being excessive, they will rip into him behind his back.

One famous pastor bought a cabin in the mountains with income unrelated to his church ministry, but a vocal minority howled about it, and it became a factor in his eventual departure.

I remember hearing another time about a pastor who had a gambling problem.  As I recall, he finally gambled away his house … and soon afterwards, his career.

My wife and I have lived by a budget for most of our married life.  We both have set allowances every month, and we can spend those funds however we like, but each of us is accountable to the other for every other expenditure.

I check my bank accounts online nearly every day and balance my checkbook at the same time.  At any given moment, I know exactly how much money we have and how much we have to spend.

Because when it comes to personal finances, I hate being surprised.

In 36 years of ministry, I can’t recall a single time that anyone criticized me in the area of personal finances.  I’m sure some did, but their comments never got around to me.

But realize this: people assume that church funds are managed the way the pastor manages his own funds.

This area is crucial because of the next lesson:

Second, the pastor must give generously to his local church.

By generously, I mean at least a tithe, and preferably beyond a tithe.

I don’t know if he still does this, but for years, whenever he preached on giving, Pastor Bill Hybels from Willow Creek Community Church would invite people up to the front after his message so they could view his checkbook and see how much he gave to the church.

Following his example, I did this for years, but my son Ryan was the only person who ever took me up on it!

If a pastor isn’t giving at least a tithe to his church, he can’t speak with integrity on the subject, and that will come through in his preaching.

The day after the conflict broke in my last church seven years ago, I preached on the story of the widow’s mite from Mark 12:41-44.  I was so rattled that I forgot my tithe check at home.  Between services, I drove home, wrote my usual check, returned to the church, and dropped the check in the offering … then shared that story during the second service.

I don’t believe that if a pastor tithes, his church will automatically do well financially, but I do believe that if a pastor doesn’t tithe, his church won’t do well financially.

And there are always a few people in the church who know the truth about the pastor’s giving, especially the money counters and the financial secretary.  During anxious times within the congregation, if even one financial person tells someone else about the pastor’s giving patterns … well, let your imagination run wild!

Third, the pastor should never handle people’s donations: period.

In my last ministry, people would sometimes come up to me after the service – especially people on the worship team – and tell me, “Hey, Jim, I wasn’t able to put my donation in the offering today.  Will you take care of this for me?”

I always told each person the same thing, “No, I don’t handle money, but let’s go together and you can put your donation in the drop safe.”

We had a slot carved out of the wall next to the church office where people could insert their donations.  They went down a chute and instantly fell into a safe.

I treated other people’s money like poison.  I didn’t want anything to do with it.

In that way, it would be difficult to accuse me of stealing someone’s donation, whether by cash or by check.

Years before, at another church, someone once slipped fifty dollars in cash under my door.  Whoever put the money there didn’t identify themselves or the purpose of their gift.

When I mentioned it to the finance team leader, I thought he’d hand me the money.  Instead, he immediately deposited it in the offering … and his actions protected my financial reputation.

Fourth, the pastor needs to make sure that people’s donations are protected by safeguards.

I once knew a married couple who scooped up the Sunday offerings, took them home, counted them together, and then deposited the funds in the bank the following day.

This practice was a carryover from the previous administration, and when I found out about it, I quickly put a stop to it.

Another time, a law enforcement officer in our congregation told me that after the offerings were taken in each service, a woman took the proceeds, walked several hundred feet by herself, and then locked the money away until after the service.  He told me, “It’s dangerous for her to carry those funds by herself.  What if someone knows her route, hits her on the head, and steals the money?”

I didn’t think about things like that because I was preaching when she made her walk, but his comment spurred me to make sure that she was accompanied by at least one other person … preferably a strong man.

We eventually devised a system that started with donations … ended with the bookkeeper writing checks … and covered everything in between.

For example, we always made sure to have three people counting money.  If one person counts the offerings, they might be tempted to embezzle funds.  Even two people working in concert could engage in embezzling.  But when there are three money counters, embezzlement almost never occurs.

Fifth, the pastor must communicate that the church budget is a servant, not a master.

Let’s say that you have a family budget, and that you have a category marked “household repairs.”  You just fixed your garbage disposal for $200 so you have little money left for other problems.

But then your refrigerator begins to leak water, and after calling out a friend, he tells you, “Your refrigerator is shot.  You need another one.”

Since the “household repairs” category has been depleted, are you going to wait months to buy a refrigerator?

No, you’ll move heaven and earth to buy one right away, regardless of the budget category.  Your family NEEDS a refrigerator.

Unfortunately, I’ve dealt with a handful of board/finance people who act like the church budget is a master.  If a category becomes depleted, they’ll say, “I’m sorry, but we just don’t have funds for that item until next year’s budget.”

Church budgets should be as flexible as possible.  Yes, God’s people need to learn to live within their means, and yes, some items and repairs can wait, but there are times when a church will limp along unless it replaces the copier or fixes that leaky toilet in the men’s room.

One of the great things about not being a pastor is that I don’t have to consult the bean counters anymore.

Sixth, the pastor needs to realize that money flows toward the most effective ministries.

In my last ministry, my wife was our church’s outreach director for nearly nine years, and she knew how to get things done.

One Saturday night early in her tenure, we had a big feast on the lawn outside the worship center.  The place was packed, we had gondola rides on the lagoon adjoining our property, and the mayor and his wife even stopped by for a visit.

My wife’s vision and passion to reach people became contagious.  One couple in particular began donating large amounts of money directly to her ministry through the offering.

Some on the board were very upset about this development.  They wanted to ask the couple to give to the general fund instead.

While I understood their viewpoint, I pointed out that if the couple was told where to give the funds, they might stop giving altogether.

During our entire time in that church, funds flowed easily toward the outreach and missions ministries because that was the primary area that God was blessing.

But there were other ministries that weren’t as well funded … mostly because nobody was very excited about them.

I still believe this basic principle: money flows toward the ministries … and churches … that God is blessing.

Finally, the pastor needs to monitor the financial systems privately but stay away from the money publicly.

If there’s a breach in the financial systems of a church, the pastor may very well be blamed, even if he had nothing directly to do with a violation.

For that reason, the pastor needs to make sure that his church does everything in the financial realm properly, because if he doesn’t, it may be his head that rolls.

About ten years ago, a prominent megachurch here in Southern California suspended the senior pastor because of financial irregularities involving a staff member.  The pastor knew nothing about the staff member’s sloppiness, yet the pastor was scapegoated and eventually forced to resign.

I believe that a pastor’s involvement … at least in a small or medium-sized church … extends even to who the money counters are.  Whenever my last ministry needed a new money counter, I would make a list of potential volunteers.  We needed someone who was committed to the ministry … had a lifestyle of integrity … and who would keep their mouth shut about who gave how much.

Those people aren’t always easy to find, but they are worth waiting for.

At home, I’m hands on with the money: budgeting … keeping records … transferring funds … paying bills online … the works.

But even though I could handle the funds directly inside a church, it’s crucial that I delegate those duties to others who are optimally qualified or else I will be viewed as a control freak.

Nearly twenty-five years ago, I was pastoring a new church in Silicon Valley.  We had the location, the staff, and the ministry for growth, but in that resistant environment, the ministry was not growing as fast as I wanted … and that included the finances … which made me anxious and even fearful at times.

One night, during our midweek worship time, the Lord spoke to me in an audible voice … the only time I ever remember this happening.

His word was just for me.  The Lord said, “You take care of the ministry, and I will take care of the money.”

And He did.

The Lord wants all of His shepherds to know that taking care of the money is a huge part of taking care of the ministry.

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It was one of the spookiest sights I have ever seen.

A few years ago … while waiting for my car to be repaired … I found myself walking across a bridge over a major freeway.

And below me … as far as the eye could see … I saw hundreds of police cars … with their headlights on … driving slowly but uniformly toward the cemetery where a fellow officer … who had been gunned down a few days before … was soon to be buried.

The sight of all those police cars was eerie … but also impressive … because the officers were saying to each other … and to the world:

“What happened to my fellow officer could have happened to me, and in life, or in death, we stand together as one.”

We’re seeing the same outpouring of unity and solidarity today after twelve police officers were shot last night in Dallas … and sadly, five of them have died.

I just wish that pastors felt the same way toward each other … but for some reason, they often don’t.

Inside the local church, Paul commands believers to “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15).

And in 1 Corinthians 12:26, Paul writes, “If one part [of the body] suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”

When Christians act this way toward fellow believers inside a congregation, it’s like heaven on earth.

But for some reason, many pastors of congregations don’t tend to act this way toward their fellow pastors.

I’m not saying they never act that way.  I’ve met some pastors who are gifted at pastoring their peers, and at times I’ve been the recipient of their grace.

But when a fellow pastor suffers … especially if he’s under attack or has been forced out of his church … most pastors won’t even bother to pick up the phone and contact that pastor personally.

And in many cases, they’ll hear something through the grapevine about that pastor’s departure and assume the rumors are true without bothering to check with their hurting brother directly.

As I wrote in my book Church Coup:

“Why don’t pastors demonstrate more concern for their colleagues who experience forced exits? Maybe pastors have enough happening inside their own churches to reach out to peers, or they wouldn’t know what to say to a colleague, or they don’t want to become embroiled in another church’s issues. But my guess is that most pastors don’t want to associate with anyone they perceive as a loser. If you’re forced out of a church, the perception is that you must be incompetent, immoral, or ignorant of church politics.  There is something wrong with you, not the church, and if you were smarter, you wouldn’t have such problems. For example, I recently heard a seminary professor refer to a leadership structure he utilized when he was a pastor, stating that he never really had a major conflict with a congregation over two decades of ministry.  Translation: If you handled matters my way, you wouldn’t have any conflict.”

Let me offer three suggestions along this line:

First, I wish that pastors met together more often.   

Many years ago, when I pastored a church in Silicon Valley, pastors were invited to a monthly luncheon sponsored by the National Association of Evangelicals.  I went to as many of those gatherings as I could.  They were held in various churches and often had meaningful speakers.

It was a chance for pastors to get to know each other … be exposed to other ministries … pray together … and root for each other.

But at least in my community, such meetings don’t occur.

I suppose that district/denominational meetings have taken their place in many locales, and that’s fine, but there’s often an underlying competition among denominational pastors that I didn’t find with the NAE group.

But it’s not always great when pastors meet together.

Thirty years ago, I heard the great J. I. Packer … author of Knowing God and numerous other books … speak at the Congress on Biblical Exposition in my hometown of Anaheim, California.

As he looked out among the throng of pastors, he said, “You know, pastors are a lot like manure.  When they’re all spread out, they do a lot of good, but when they all get together, it’s one big stink.”

There’s a lot of truth in Packer’s words.

Second, I wish that pastors could be honest with each other.

Many years ago, I went to a major church conference at one of America’s largest churches.  During lunch, pastors sat together at large, round tables that seated ten people.

I was looking forward to meeting some pastors from around the country, but when I sat down, two pastors were doing all the talking … and talked for the entire lunch hour.

Nobody else said anything.  Nobody else asked even asked a question.  These guys had the floor, and everyone else was irrelevant.

I’ve had that kind of experience with pastors before.  In fact, one time a few years later, I became visibly upset when one pastor did all the talking at another pastor’s event … and we spent the rest of our time discussing my concerns.

It’s true, so I’m going to say it: many … not all … but many large church pastors are arrogant jerks.  They have no time for pastors from smaller congregations.  They view them negatively … and you can feel it when you’re around them.

In fact, I once read a book where a Christian leader wrote that if you’re pastoring a church of 250 people, you’re wasting your life.

By contrast, I once put together a group of pastors that met every month for lunch.  One was a megachurch pastor … several others pastored medium-sized churches … and I probably pastored the smallest church in the group, but over the years, we came to trust each other with our feelings and our dreams … and when we needed to, we met with each other individually.

In fact, the megachurch pastor once told me something at one of those lunches that turned my entire ministry around.

Years ago, I heard Christian professor, counselor, and author Norman Wright make the following statement: “Everyone needs someone with whom he can be weak.”

I don’t know why, but pastors are terrible at demonstrating weakness toward each other … and yet the entire book of 2 Corinthians is written from the point of view of a Christian leader sharing his weaknesses … and for that reason, is probably the New Testament book I read the most.

I’m drawn to Christian leaders who share their weaknesses … like Bill Hybels, who for years was my favorite preacher … and I’m repulsed by leaders who never share their weaknesses … because I believe they’re phonies.

And sadly, there are all too many of those pastors around … and that phoniness pulls us apart rather than brings us together.

Finally, I wish that pastors would stand together across generations.

Several years ago, there was a national convention for pastors held not too far from where I live.  In fact, the convention was held at a hotel where my wife and I have stayed before.

But the convention blew up … and hasn’t been reactivated … largely because the younger pastors rebelled against the older Christian leaders.

W. A. Criswell was the pastor of First Baptist Dallas for decades.  He considered Rick Warren to be his son in the faith … and Warren considered Criswell to be a spiritual father.

But Criswell was from the builder generation … and Warren was a boomer … and there was usually a mutual respect between pastors from both those generations.

But for years, I have seen that respect missing between boomer and buster pastors.

My wife and I are catching up on the TV show Blue Bloods via Netflix, and one of the great things about the Reagan family … who are all in law enforcement … is that everyone in the family meets for Sunday lunch together.

And four generations are represented.

The discussions around the table are authentic and emotion-filled … but often enlightening.

But if anyone attacks a Reagan outside that house, the other Reagans stand up and support each other.

I wish pastors would act the same way.

Many years ago, I heard Stuart Briscoe … one of my favorite preachers … tell about the time he spoke to a group of policemen.

He quoted from Romans 13:4 and applied this verse to his audience:

“For he is God’s servant [minister] to do you good.  But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing.  He is God’s servant [minister], an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”

Briscoe told those officers, “I am a minister, but you are a minister as well …” and then he went into his talk.

Yes, police officers can learn some things from pastors … but when it comes to standing together … no matter what … pastors have a lot to learn from police officers.

And if pastors could learn to stand together in practice … maybe, just maybe … we could advance Christ’s kingdom significantly.

 

 

 

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Thirty-some years ago, I had a late-night discussion with a Christian leader outside my church office in Silicon Valley.

I don’t remember the leader’s name, but I’ve always recalled a story he told me late that evening.

This leader had a friend who was a former pastor, and his friend told him, “I served as pastors in various local churches over several decades, and looking back, it was all a waste of time.”

During a pastor’s more cynical times, he may feel that way, but the truth is that pastors do much more good than they’ll ever know.

Let me give you an example.

This past week, I read about a bill that is pending in the California legislature.  The bill seeks to strip all faith-based colleges and universities in California that interweave academics with religious doctrine of their exemptions.  According to World magazine, which reported on this story, this bill “would force Christian schools to relinquish their fidelity to Scripture as a distinguishing characteristic of their institutions or risk lawsuits for religious and sexual discrimination.”

If passed, only seminaries would be eligible for exemptions.

(My wife and I live in California for two primary reasons: first, our two adult children live here, along with our two grandsons; and second, we have a large network of friends here. Otherwise, we’d live somewhere else, especially with all the garbage that emanates from the capitol 500 miles to the north.)

What struck me most was not the bill, but a response from a Christian university official.  Here’s the quote from World:

“We are not willing to forego our biblical and covenantal convictions regardless of what laws are passed,” William Jessup University President John Jackson told me. “Jessup continues to believe we are to submit to Scripture and operate in accordance with the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights that includes the First Amendment providing for freedom of press, association, and religion.”

That was a clear and unequivocal response from a Christian college president.  Good for him!

Dr. Jackson also happened to be a kid in my youth group forty years ago.

He was only in the group less than a year, but I remember that he was smart, funny, and for a kid of fifteen, liked girls a lot!

Several years after I left that church, we had lunch, and although that time went well, I lost track of him … but later heard that he was the pastor of a megachurch in Nevada.

Didn’t surprise me one bit.

I don’t take any credit for Dr. Jackson’s ascension to the top spot in a Christian school.  That was due to his parenting, his professors and mentors, his own hard work, and the blessing of God upon his life.

In his case, I’m privileged to hear that he’s been placed in a position of trust in Christ’s kingdom.

There’s another person whose exploits I do follow.

Sheri was a girl in my last youth ministry.  Because we didn’t have anyone who was musically talented, Sheri secured a guitar, learned how to play, and led the youth group in singing praise songs.

I lost track of her more than thirty years ago, and wondered if she was still following the Lord, only to discover that she heads up the children’s ministry in her church, about which she shares Facebook posts several times a day.

Sheri recently wrote an article on Facebook mentioning different leaders who have influenced her life, and I was deeply touched to be included.

So often, pastoring is like watching a parade.  People come … stop for a moment … and then move on.

But on occasion, you hear that someone you taught or mentored is still following Christ, and making an impact … and there’s no greater feeling than that.

Because I am no longer a pastor, I don’t have an influence upon any Christian institution.

But just by being faithful, the Lord used me to touch the lives of people like John and Sheri … and they are now doing their best to advance Christ’s kingdom.

I don’t know why it is, but God often hides the good that His servants do from them.

Back in the late 1980s, I went through a time of doubt and darkness about my role as a pastor, and I clung tenaciously to one verse in particular: Galatians 6:9, where Paul writes:

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.

When you’re a pastor, you want to see lives changed instantly … you want to see your church grow steadily … and the slowness of ministry can be extremely frustrating.

In fact, that slowness can make you so weary that you’re tempted to give up … and even turn you a bit cynical.

But as J. I. Packer once wrote, spiritual work is slow work.

Instead, Paul advises, “There is a harvest of changed lives ahead, but it’s not going to happen when you want it to happen … it’s going to happen when God wants it to happen.  So keep leading … keep teaching … keep loving … because you never know whose lives God is going to change … and you don’t know when or how He’s going to bless.”

For all you know, someone you’re ministering to right now may just become a church staff member … a megachurch pastor … or a Christian university president.

Even if you’re in a ministry that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere very fast.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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When a major conflict surfaces in a local church, the pastor usually becomes entangled in the mess … even if he didn’t start it … and even if the conflict doesn’t initially center upon him.

And in too many cases in our day, when the pastor becomes embroiled in a church conflict, those who don’t agree with the pastor’s position seek to force him from office.

Both in my book Church Coup, as well as in this blog, I write a lot about how pastors are negatively impacted by such conflicts.

But pastors aren’t the only casualties.

In fact, the primary casualty resulting from severe conflict may be our message: the Christian gospel.

Paul gives the most complete description of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 when he says that:

*Christ died … and His burial proves He died.

*Christ arose … and His appearances prove He rose.

History tells us that Christ died and rose again.

Faith tells us that Christ died for our sins.

Over in 2 Corinthians 5:18-19, Paul tells us that God “reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.  And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”

Paul tells us twice within the space of two verses that God has given us [believers] the ministry/message of reconciliation.

Paul’s emphasis in these verses is that God took the initiative to turn enemies [unbelievers] into friends [believers] through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross … and God wants us to share this message of reconciliation with the world.

God wants to reconcile us to Him, but He doesn’t want to stop there.

God also wants those who have been reconciled to Him to reconcile with one another.  Jesus told His followers in John 13:34-35:

“A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

In His High Priestly Prayer in John 17:21, Jesus made a similar statement to His Father:

“… that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Francis Schaeffer, the Christian theologian and philosopher, called Christian unity “the final apologetic.”  The world may be able to argue with our doctrine, but if we love each other authentically, they can’t argue with our community … which is a testimony to the truth of our message.

But the converse is also true: if we don’t love one another … if we backbite and fight and quarrel and separate … then people will not know that we are Christ’s disciples, and the world will not be inclined to believe our message: that the Father sent the Son.

Let me share four ways I have seen the gospel message negated by major church conflict:

First, the bad news of the conflict seems to overwhelm the good news of the gospel.

When a pastor is under attack … when a staff member is engaging in rebellion … when a group threatens to leave the church together … those actions result in negative emotions, and they tend to permeate the entire congregation.

You can feel it when you step onto the campus.

Many years ago, when my wife and I lived in Anaheim, we had the weekend off from our church, so we decided to visit the church behind our apartment complex.

When we entered the worship center, I could sense that something was wrong, even though no one said a word about it.  You could cut the tension with a knife.

The pastor spent the first twenty minutes of the service defensively explaining some changes he wanted to make to the church’s schedule.  Twenty minutes!

Soon afterwards, that pastor resigned … and I never visited that church again … in part because I didn’t want to experience those anxious feelings again.

My guess is that others felt the same way.

Second, people don’t feel like inviting unbelievers from their social network to church during a conflict.

Imagine that you’re ten years old and you’ve invited your best friend to your house one Sunday.

Since your friend lives a few houses down the street, you wait for him in your front yard … but as he approaches, you hear your mother and two siblings verbally fighting with each other in the house.

Do you want your friend to enter your home with all the tension going on?  Probably not … because it’s embarrassing.

In fact, as long as there is the possibility that there’s going to be fighting inside your house, you’re probably not going to invite any friends over at all.

When churches are filled with anxiety and tension, attendees don’t want to invite family, friends, or co-workers over because it’s poor marketing for the truth of the gospel.

Churches don’t grow during times of major conflict … and the gospel message, powerful as it is, falls on rocky ground.

Third, people aren’t attracted to our message during a major conflict.

There is a religious group in our neighborhood that goes door-to-door sharing their message.  My wife and I know some people in this group, and they have tried sharing their faith with us.

But their buildings are tiny … they don’t celebrate Christmas or birthdays … and I can’t point to one thing that I find attractive about their faith.

Why would I want to join their group?

Conversely, many Christian buildings are quite spacious … we do celebrate Christmas and most birthdays … and there are many things that are attractive about our faith.

And yet … who wants to believe our message if it seems to result in people despising each other?

If Christians are going to win people to Christ, we have to embody our message … not only that Christ died for everyone, but also that Jesus wants His people to love one another.

And when the opposite is occurring, people stay away from our churches.

In my last church, my wife always talked about “spreading good rumors.”  For years, the news that come out of our church was positive, inspiring, and uplifting.

But when a major conflict broke out, it was reported to us that someone in city government … speaking about our church … told a friend, “They’re having problems.  You don’t want to go there.”

The power of our message to attract unchurched people was negated by our inability to get along.

Finally, people leave our churches in droves during times of major conflict … and don’t feel like sharing the gospel.

I vividly remember a Sunday during the conflict in my last church when our leaders held two public meetings to discuss some issues that were affecting our spiritual family.

The meeting was hijacked by one person.  He shared a litany of charges against me … most of them untrue … and from that time on, the congregation morphed into something unrecognizable.

After the second meeting, a kind and gentle man came up to me and expressed his sorrow for what I had experienced.

I never saw him again … and he never came back to the church, even though he had attended for many years.

That meeting ended his association with our fellowship forever.

Some tried to stay at the church they called home, but over time, many good people gradually left … some finding a new church home … some not going to church anywhere.

God’s people expect that their church will be a place of love and peace and joy … and when it’s like that, they are open to sharing their faith.

But when their church becomes a place of hatred and war and sadness … people resist sharing their faith because their fellow Christians fail to embody the message of reconciliation.

Yes, I know that disagreements between Christians are normal and can even be healthy in the long run.

But when conflicts spill over boundaries … when people conspire to “take out” their pastor … when God’s people are obsessed with winning at all costs … the greatest casualty may not be the pastor’s job … or the well-being of the staff and official board … or a slide in church donations and attendance.

The greatest casualty of all may be the negative impact on the gospel: that God in Christ came to reconcile sinners to Himself … and that when God’s people love each other, we provide a powerful message to a fractured world.

The question that we should ask when we’re engaged in a major church conflict … but rarely do … is this one:

How will the gospel be impacted by this conflict?

 

 

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“How many times does the Bible mention abortion?”

That was the question my philosophy teacher asked more than 40 years ago at the Christian college I attended.

His answer?

“Zero.”

That startled me.

I had been told by Christian leaders that the practice of abortion … which had just been sanctioned by the Supreme Court in Roe vs. Wade around the time I took that class in Ethics … was wrong.  So I assumed that somehow … somewhere … the Bible soundly condemned abortion.

But it never does.

This doesn’t mean that abortion is good and right.  But it does mean that we can’t just quote one or two verses condemning the practice, either.  Those verses aren’t there.

I bring this up because I’m always amazed … and sometimes amused … by the fact that some Christians make a big deal out of beliefs and practices that the Bible says little or nothing about.

In fact, some act like because they emphasize a certain doctrine … or a specific practice … that they are enlightened while you are not.

Let me give you some examples.

When I grew up, there were churches that proudly used the following slogan:

WE BELIEVE IN THE BOOK, THE BLOOD, AND THE VIRGIN BIRTH.

I believe in the authority of Scripture … the atoning work of Christ … and the fact that the Holy Spirit conceived Jesus as well.  All three doctrines are taught in the Bible.

But the weight of Scripture lies with the first two … and not necessarily with the virgin birth.

The virgin birth of Christ is mentioned in just three places in Scripture: Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:18-25; and Luke 1:26-45.  There are allusions to it in other places (Galatians 4:4) but 25 books of the New Testament never mention it directly.  The virgin birth is true … it’s a biblical doctrine … and it has its place in Scripture and theology … but does that justify a church using a slogan like WE BELIEVE IN THE VIRGIN BIRTH when they could have put so many other beliefs in its place?

By contrast, the second coming of Christ is emphasized much more in the New Testament … more than 300 times!

Let’s look at another issue: speaking in tongues.

Tongue-speaking is mentioned in only three books of the New Testament, and is missing from the other 24.  I have a theory as to why that’s the case, but let’s let that slide right now.

Tongue-speaking is mentioned in Mark 16:17 (the famous extended ending of Mark) but the practice is grouped with picking up snakes with hands and drinking deadly poison, so it’s possible … even likely … that Mark’s ending is not genuine.

Tongue-speaking is also mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:10, 28, 30; 13:1, 8; and chapter 14, where the practice is dealt with extensively.

Tongue-speaking is also mentioned in the Book of Acts, but it’s not nearly as prevalent as one might think.

Acts covers a 30-year period, yet speaking in tongues is only mentioned three times (at Pentecost: Acts 2:3-13; in Cornelius’ house: Acts 10:44-48; at Ephesus: Acts 19:1-7).  Although it’s not mentioned explicitly, tongue-speaking probably occurred in Samaria in Acts 8:14-17 as well.

I believe that the tongue-speaking in Acts is always connected to a new advance of the gospel among a different people group.

In Acts 2, the gospel came to the Jews; in Acts 8, to the Samaritans (half-Jew, half-Gentiles); in Acts 10, to the Gentiles; and in Acts 19, to the intertestamental saints (disciples of John the Baptist).  The evidence that the Holy Spirit had come to each group was that new converts supernaturally and spontaneously spoke in tongues.

So over thirty years of history, there are only three explicit references to tongue-speaking in Acts … an average of one incident every ten years.  And yet some pastors and churches build their whole ministry around a practice that is absent from 88% of the books of the New Testament and that only occurred in Acts on three occasions over three decades.

While I’m at it, let me mention one more practice: raising hands during worship.

The Old Testament mentions raising hands in praise (Psalm 63:4; 134:2) and raising hands in prayer (Ezra 9:5; Psalm 28:2; 141:2; Lam 2:19) a few times.  The emphasis doesn’t seem to be on connecting with God or feeling something during worship but with demonstrating to God and to the worshiper that one’s hands … and by implication, soul … are clean before God during worship.

By contrast, how many times do you think the New Testament mentions lifting hands during worship?

There isn’t a single reference in the New Testament to lifting hands in praise.  Based on the prevalence of this practice in our day, do you find this surprising?

But there is one reference to lifting hands in prayer in 1 Timothy 2:8:

I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or dissension.

I have no problem with people raising their hands while singing to the Lord … although some can be distracting and even annoying at times … but when is the last time you saw men (not women) encouraged to lift their hands during public prayer?  And yet that’s exactly what Paul tells Timothy he wants done during public worship.

The weight of Scripture is that lifting hands during worship applies more to prayer than to praise … so why do we emphasize one practice but not the other?

I want to be a biblical Christian, and I assume that you want to be one as well.  For that to occur:

First, we need to pay attention to the number of times Scripture emphasizes a belief or a practice.

Scripture mentions but never emphasizes practices like drinking poison, handling snakes, and baptism for the dead.  I think it’s silly to engage in these practices on a regular basis, or even to build an entire movement around them, but that’s what some have done over the past twenty centuries.

Think about some of your favorite theological hobby horses.  How much does the Bible really say about them?

In some churches, the altar call has become a third sacrament … yet you’ll never find the practice in Scripture.  Or what about the practice of holy laughter that was all the rage not too many years ago?  Or how about the practice of “slaying in the Spirit” (the phrase is never used in Scripture) that so many Christians believe in yet which has virtually no biblical support?  (My daughter once attended a church where her peers were called to the front and then fell over in the Spirit.  When the “prophet” tried to knock my daughter over, she resisted and never went down … and left the church soon afterward.)

Second, we need to emphasize what Scripture emphasizes. 

The Bible mentions prayer … obedience … living a holy life … trusting God … sharing Christ with others … worshiping God … and loving others time after time after time.

These are the kinds of practices that God wants us to build our churches and our lives around.

Sometimes I think that Christians emphasize beliefs and practices that Scripture never mentions because they don’t feel they’re doing a very good job of emphasizing what God emphasizes.

Finally, we may need to rethink some of our beliefs and practices if they aren’t emphasized in Scripture.

Nearly nine years ago, my son and I took a vacation together to the Southern part of the United States.  I had never been to states like Arkansas, the Carolinas, Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, and I wanted to say I had at least been to those places.

One Sunday, we found ourselves attending a church on Music Row in Nashville, Tennessee.  The church sang for 42 minutes (yes, I remember details like that), and during the songs, people from the congregation walked to the front, chose a flag from a bin, and while standing between the stage and the pews, waved those flags during the singing time.

I thought the practice was a little odd, so when I got home, I went online and read that some churches engage in a “Banner Ministry.”  I thought the biblical support for the practice was weak, and I still think the whole thing has more to do with pageantry than worship, but I’m not here to say it’s wrong … just not very important.  (I’m still looking for the New Testament verse on the topic … and yes, I know the NT doesn’t mention pews, pulpits, microphones, or video players either.)

There’s much more I can say on this issue of emphasizing what Scripture does, but for now, I’d like to hear from you.

What do you think about what I’ve written?

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