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Posts Tagged ‘taking risks for Jesus’

Last Saturday night, my wife and I attended a birthday party for my oldest friend.  We first met nearly half a century ago!

During the party, I spoke with a woman who had been in my youth group at the second church I served as youth pastor.  I asked her how the church we had both attended was doing.

She said, “The church went downhill for years.  I was hoping they wouldn’t sell the property and put houses on it.  But they finally sold the building to another church.”

That church we attended was going downhill when I was there more than three decades ago.  Although the property encompassed nearly a city block, there were large cracks in the parking lot … the rooms were dark and scary (one room looked like a mausoleum) … and some rather unsavory people were running the church.

Why do churches like that one slowly die?

There’s been a lot of research done on church pathology.  I recall terms like social strangulation … St. John’s Syndrome … and koinonitis, to name just a few.

But one of the biggest reasons that churches start to die is that they stop taking risks.

Risk taking is required when a church begins:

*It’s risky for a pastor to start a church.  What if nobody comes to the first service?

*It’s risky for the pastor to recruit a core group.  What if those people are incompetent or unspiritual?

*It’s risky for the church to sign a lease for their first meeting place.  What if offerings don’t cover the costs?

*It’s risky for the church to secure an office and purchase office equipment.  What if the church can’t make the payments?

*It’s risky for the church to try and pay the pastor’s full-time salary.  Will they lose him if they can’t?

*It’s risky for the church to hire staff.  What if they don’t work out?

*It’s risky for a church to raise money … buy land … hire an architect … battle city government and neighbors … do a capital campaign … buy furnishings … and wait for a building to be completed.  What if the church doesn’t grow?

But whenever I think of taking risks for God, I think of Hebrews 11.  Most of the men and women mentioned in that passage heard a word from God and then did unprecedented things … risking their reputations (Noah), families (Abraham), positions (Moses), and lives (Rahab) because they believed in the promises of a big, big God.  As Hebrews 11:6 puts it:

“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”

Without faith … which I believe is acting on a word from God … we cannot please God.

God places His hand of blessing on those who do please Him … and removes that same hand from those who don’t.

Even when we believe that God is leading us to do something great for Him, risk taking doesn’t always work.  Sometimes:

*New church plants don’t make it.

*Staff members bomb out.

*Churches split and can’t pay their mortgages.

*Pastors implode morally or relationally and leave their ministries.

But even though these are all possibilities, most churches never do anything significant for Christ unless they take some major risks.

In fact, if you view a graph of a church’s history, you’ll find that whenever a church enjoys a significant period of growth, it’s because they stepped out in faith and took some risks.

I have a pastor friend who leads a church that God is blessing … and the church engaged in risk taking all along the way:

*The church hired my friend even though it was his first pastorate.

*The church kept going even though they were leasing a commercial building at an exorbitant price.

*The church had the opportunity to buy an existing church building nearby for $5 million … and raised the funds in one month.

*The church has grown to the point where they had to knock out the side walls so they could accommodate more people.

*The church added a third service … and the last time I attended there, the place was so packed my wife and I had to squeeze into the last row.

In many churches, the leaders would have said, “It’s not the right time … we don’t have the money … we’re not sure this is going to work … let’s wait until the economy improves” … and like Israel standing at Kadesh Barnea, they would have missed their God-given opportunity and chosen fear over faith.

But they chose to trust God instead, and the Lord has rewarded them with a healthy, growing ministry.

I wish I had learned this principle sooner.  In my first decade of ministry, the two churches I led as pastor took zero risks.  Both our faith and our God were small.  We existed for ourselves … and were slowly dying.

But when we realized how big God is … and that He wants His people to reach unbelievers for Jesus … everything changed.

What kind of faith-risks should pastors consider?

*Start another service.  Reach a different demographic.  Change the music and the feel of the service.  It might take six months to a year to pull it off, but it gives a church a sense of momentum.

*Hire that needed staff member.  Okay, maybe you don’t have the money in this year’s budget, but if it’s the right person, they’ll pay for themselves after a year or two.  Just do it.

*Be edgier in your preaching.  Start sharing how you really feel.  Be more prophetic, touching on both church and cultural sins.  People will remember what you say longer and better when you’re authentic.

*Start another church.  Four years ago, I attended a service at Holy Trinity Brompton in London where Nicky Gumbel is the pastor.  The church bought an old cathedral in Brighton and was recruiting a core group that Sunday to move from London to Brighton to reach people for Christ in that resistant city by the sea.  I was moved to tears and was so excited I felt like joining that core group!

*Make a difference somewhere else.  Build a well in Africa … construct a church building in Mexico … buy a jeep for a missionary in Brazil … go and train pastors in a Third World country.

These are just some ideas, but realize this: both you and your church will sense excitement … and feel God’s blessing … when you take a risk and step out in faith.

However, pastors instinctively know that if and when they attempt to do something great for God, they will have to battle the naysayers and joysuckers who want to keep things the way they are.

Listen to them, and your church will wander in the ecclesiastical wilderness.

Listen to God, and you just may enter the Promised Land.

 

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Want to know a dirty little secret about large churches?

Many of them … if not most of them … grow because they’re far better at reaching the already-saved than spiritually lost people.

I once heard a nationally-known pastor confess that after 15 years of ministry, the next thing his church was going to focus on was evangelism.  A friend who attended that church told me that 98% of all their new members were Christians who came from other area fellowships.

If that’s ministry success, then maybe Jesus should have stated the Great Commission this way:

“Therefore invite disciples from smaller churches to your church, baptizing them and teaching them so they can pad the membership roster and turn your ministry into a megachurch.”

But, of course, Jesus’ Commission is to “make disciples of all nations [people groups]” … and making disciples always begins with bringing people into a relationship with Christ first.

As I mentioned in my last article, I came to a place in my life nearly 25 years ago where I saw that the gather/scatter philosophy was not working.  (The church gathers for worship on Sundays and then scatters for evangelism during the week.)

No matter how many times I told people to share their faith … or trained them how to do it … few if anybody ever did it.

(Is it because Christians can’t answer the objections of secular people?  Because we’re not filled with the Spirit?  Because we don’t make time for spiritual discussions?  Or because we don’t think anybody is really going to hell?)

Whatever the reason, I learned that 85% of all churches are either stagnant or declining, while only 15% are growing … and many growing churches are simply siphoning off believers from smaller churches.

I can tell you the day things changed for me.

A pastor friend loaned me four tapes of some talks given by Bill Hybels.  By the second tape, I was in tears.  Bill said that a high school football player at his church was so excited about their services that he reserved an entire row for members of his football squad to join him.

I wanted to be in a church like that!

So after much prayer, research, and discussion, the church I led voted to sell our property … all 1.8 acres of it … and used the proceeds to start over in a light industrial building several miles away.

In the process, we took some major risks, convinced that God was leading us:

*It was risky to sell our property… some experts advised against it … but the place had run its course.  It was time to try something new.

*It was risky to convert a warehouse into a worship center … but when it was done, it felt like heaven on earth.

*It was risky to start a new church with a group of 50 veteran Christians … but they made a great core group for a new church.

*It was risky to let a cautious, seminary-trained pastor lead such a venture … but I was able to make the transition, even though it took time.

But taking risks for Jesus is never easy, and we paid many prices:

*We sensed strong spiritual opposition constantly.

*We were continually hassled by the building department.

*We were cheated by our contractor, who charged us three times what that remodeling project should have cost.

*We kept setting and missing deadlines for our grand opening service … seven deadlines, in fact.

*We constantly battled discouragement because the remodeling project went so slowly.

One night, we took a risk and planned a concert with a well-known Christian artist for a Sunday evening.  The concert could only come off if we obtained our conditional use permit.

We finally obtained it the Friday before … with a few minutes to spare.

400 people attended that concert … one of the greatest nights of my life.

And one month later, when our church officially opened to the public, we had 311 people at our first service.

God performed miracle after miracle for our church.  Unbelievable stuff.

Many people came to faith in Christ and were baptized.

Our worship services were incredible … the best I’ve ever witnessed … and were so good that people constantly invited friends and family to them.

A bond formed among the leaders that will always be present …  and most of those individuals later became leaders in other churches.

Here are five lessons I learned by taking risks for Jesus:

*I had to change as a pastor and as a person.  I could no longer preach one way and live another way.  I had to incarnate change before anybody bought it.  But leading that church made me feel fully alive!

*Our core group had to change as well.  Some couldn’t make the changes and left the church … but most were transformed as leaders and people.

*We were forced to our knees in prayer … forced to address relational issues with others … forced to give beyond a tithe … and forced to rely on the Lord for everything … because we wanted God’s blessing on our ministry.

*We had to rely on the Lord every single day.  We were a couple offerings away from extinction … just like Willow Creek Church in their early days.

*God honors faith.  Hebrews 11 is filled with stories of people who heard God’s voice and obeyed Him against great odds, even though their actions didn’t make sense to those around them.

The late Guy Greenfield, a pastor for many years, once wrote:

“When a church is focused on taking care of itself, paying off its mortgage, paying its bills, and saving money, and shows little interest in outreach, evangelism, ministry, and missions, it is often headed for trouble. . . . Outreach, evangelism, ministry, and missions will keep a congregation on its knees in prayer (which always frightens Satan away). Satan can more easily invade a church that is consumed with secondary matters.”

I have found this to be true in all of the churches that I served as pastor.

When we were focused on reaching lost people, we were forced to get into spiritual shape, make sacrifices, and take risks.

When we were focused on ourselves, we became spiritually shabby, sought our own personal comfort, and stopped doing anything that required real faith.

God did not make churches to become self-contained clubs.  He made churches to become service-oriented organisms.

In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus commended the two men who took their master’s talents … “put his money to work” … and doubled their talents.  But Jesus harshly judged the man who received one talent and hid it in the ground.

The Christian church in America is hiding most of its talents in the ground … spending its time, energy, and funding on staff salaries and building mortgages.

It’s why our services are unexciting … why we’re not growing spiritually … why people are bored at church … why nothing of any consequence is happening.

Where is the sense of adventure?

What is happening in your church that requires God as the only explanation?

It’s time we started taking risks for Jesus … just like the first church in Jerusalem.

Even if we fall flat on our face.

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