Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Current Church Issues’ Category

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: