Oct 31, 2010

What are the Markers of a Healthy Pastorate and Ministry?

Facts are our friends.

Good and wise decisions can only be made based on facts.

According to the latest statistical report from the Office of General Assembly, there are 10,623 congregations in the PC(USA).
  • Of those 2,949 churches have less than 50 members
  • 2,490 have fewer than 100 members
  • That means over 50% of PC(USA) congregations (5,439), have less than 100 members.

If we were to ask the typical church person what the markers for a healthy and successful ministries and pastorates are, the most common answers would center around things like, growing memberships, growing financials, growing influence, growing attendance, etc.

And because these are the criteria we typically think of for successful and healthy ministries and pastorates, the great majority of PC(USA) pastors and congregations find themselves feeling inadequate. If growth is the only marker for healthy and successful pastorates and ministries, we have just declared that the great majority of PC(USA) pastors and churches unhealthy and unsuccessful.

While we cannot claim that PC(USA) congregations and pastorates are all healthy, to outright declare that they are failures and unhealthy is just as false and unhelpful.

There’s got to be more to being a healthy and successful church and pastor than these indicators.

Before I go any further, I do want to say that I think numbers are important. It’s just that numbers cannot be the only indicators for health.

Gordon Lathrop, in his book "The Pastor" says:
“The text seeks to call pastors to find the center of their vocational identity, the heart of their spirituality, in the communal tasks of presiding at the holy table and at the holy bath, of preaching, and of seeing to it that there is a collection to be justly distributed among the poor” (p.viii).

Presiding at the holy table and the holy bath. Preaching. And seeing to it that there is a collection to be justly distributed among the poor.

In the PC(USA) vernacular, we refer to the pastor as Ministers of Word and Sacrament.

It is interesting that while this liturgical and sacramental understanding of the role of the pastor is clear in our confessions and polity, in practice, what we most congregations want from pastors is for them be organizational growth experts.

And when growth doesn’t occur, guilt and blame abound.

For congregations and pastors alike, a Biblical and reformed reflection on what constitutes a healthy pastorate and a healthy ministry would be fruitful.

Oct 29, 2010

Moving From Being "In" Church to Being "As" Church

As long as I can remember, the operative word for the church's self understanding has been for its members to be "in" church. Thus the primary emphasis for ministry was of gathering.
  • The churches held revival meetings so that the church could get more people to be "in" church
  • Members invited non-members to come to church 
  • The goal was to provide as many programs and facilities in the church so people could come to church to be ministered to
The goal has always been to get as many people to be "in" church. The more people a church had "in" church, the more that church was viewed as being successful.

However, I am convinced that unless the church starts incorporating a new preposition for its self understanding, the church will continue to die and become ever more irrelevant.

For the imminent and emerging culture we are living into, the church needs to move from being a church that focuses on being "in" church as one who see herself primarily being "as" church in the world.

The church needs to change from being a place of gathering to becoming a place of sending. The primary role of the church is no longer gathering the members to be "in" church but of sending its members into the world to live "as" the church in their work place, their communities, neighborhoods, their schools. 

Its as the people of God show up as the church of Christ in the world that people do not know Jesus as Lord and Savior will come to experience Jesus Christ.

In a non-Christian majority world, Jesus will have to show up where the people are. Christ will have to show up through the lives of Christ-followers in everyday places - the marketplace, the boardroom, the classroom, the neighborhood, etc.

If the only place where God's presence resides is within the walls of the church facilities, such churches will die.

Our churches have to become places where Christ-followers are being sent out into the community "as" the church of Jesus Christ.

Jesus told the church, "Go!" Go and make disciples of all nations.

Negative Political Ads Don't Work and They Make Me Not Want to Vote

Mr and Mrs Politician,

I can't remember an election year where the ads have been as negative and misleading as they have been this year.

I know you want my vote. You are running these ads and you have collectively spent $5 billion because you want my vote.

I have been faithfully taking part in the electoral process since I turned 18.

Please hear me loud and clear...your ads disgust me.

They make me not want to vote at all. Your ads make me wish there were more choices than just the democrat and republican options.

I want candidates who will tell me what they believe, what they stand for, and how they will be on the solution side of the messes we find ourselves in. I do not want you to tell me how much worse your candidate is. I don't want to vote for the less evil of the two terrible candidates.

If you want my vote and my support, you're going to have to stop it with the negative attacks and start convincing me of how you are going to be solving the problems of our country.

Oct 28, 2010

If You Are Not Innovating, You Are Declining

If you're not innovating, you are maintaining and declining.

The Crystal Cathedral is a perfect example.

At its beginning, Crystal Cathedral was the leader of ministry innovation. They opened up a drive in chapel for goodness sake! They were innovators with television ministry. They were crazy innovators doing whatever it took to reach people no one else was reaching.

And then over time, the innovations stopped. The entire organization became static. They became stuck in their success. And their stuckness spelled doom for the Crystal Cathedral.

Leaders, if you are not constantly looking for better ways to reach people no one else is reaching, at best we are doing maintenance ministry, and at worst we are babysitting a ministry's slow death.

The second lesson we can learn from the Crystal Cathedral is what worked before will not always work.

The television ministry, the Crystal Cathedral itself, was a draw for folks in the 70's and 80's. The television ministry and the grand Crystal Cathedral communicated the power and the presence of God to folks living in the 70's and 80's. But those same things in today's culture no longer communicate the same message. 

In fact the message of the grand Crystal Cathedral communicates to today's world is negative. The same Crystal Cathedral that once communicated God's power and grandeur communicates the grotesque disconnect of the opulence of the Crystal Cathedral and the suffering and the real need of the community blocks away from the Crystal Cathedral to the people of today.

What has never changed throughout human history is the need people have for a God who loves them enough to die for them on the cross.

What continues to change throughout human history is how that message is best communicated.

If you are not innovating, you are maintaining and declining.

Oct 27, 2010

Complaint Focus or Mission Focus

The average age of presbyterians is 62. It's no secret that the PC(USA) has not been doing a very good job of reaching those who are forty and younger.

Listen to what Edward Hammett says in his book, "Reaching People Under 40 While Keeping People Over 60":

In most communities, if the congregation decides to keep the over-sixty crowd satisfied, the church will not grow numerically, and, in time, the congregation will die (unless the community demographic can support a church focused on senior adult ministry). In all probability, keeping the sixty-plus crowd happy almost always assures that the church will reach few new people under the age of forty.

In the church, there are at least four groups of people:

  • the core - these are the people who are at everything, doing everything. These are the people who are the financial base for the church.
  • the regulars - these are the people who attend most Sundays. They are involved with bible studies and small groups. They have no problems identifying with the church.
  • The fringe and visitors - these are the people who attend some Sundays. They will most likely be at church on Christmas and Easter. 
  • Those who are not part of the church. 
In the life of the church, whose complaints are most aptly to be heard by the leadership? The core, the regulars, the fringe/visitors, or those who are not part of the church?

The complaints most likely to be heard by the leadership of the church are the complaints of the core and the regulars.

If the leadership of the church focuses on the complaints of the core and the regulars at the expense of others, that church will die.

You see, fringe and visitors are not likely to voice their complaints to the leadership of the church. If they don't like something, they are not going to call the pastor or the leadership. If there's something they don't like, they're just going to leave. They complain by never coming back. But it is highly unlikely that the leadership will ever hear about the complaints of the fringe and visitors. And this exodus is taking place all over the country in established congregations.

The only ones who feel comfortable enough to complain to the leadership of the church are the core and the regulars. 

But here's the problem. If the church only hears from the core and regulars, the church will become a place where only the core and regular are comfortable. And when that happens, the church will die.

The task of the leadership is to help the core and the regulars see themselves as a people whom God has called to minister to those who are far from Jesus Christ. And unless this becomes the main reason why the church exists, it will become inwardly focused. And inwardly focused churches will die a slow death. 

And, if the truth be told, without the core, the church will not have the financial and people resources to do the ministry required to become a healthy and growing church.

To become a vital and healthy church, there needs to be a compelling enough vision for the core and regular to invest themselves into the future of the church. If there is no compelling vision, people won't. 

Oct 26, 2010

I'm Praying for You...How to Actually Pray for Those We Promise to be Praying For

I'm praying for you...

What Christian hasn't said that before?

I honest believe most Christians who say this actually have every intention to pray for the person they said they were going to pray for. But, if the truth be told, it's much easier said then done.

And since outright lying isn't good either, coming up with a way of actually praying for the people we say we are going to pray for would be a good thing.

Here's how I've been going about organizing my prayers so that I can honestly pray for the people I say I will be praying for.

First, let me confess that I am no prayer expert. I'm just a normal guy trying my best to do what I say I will do. Secondly, I pray because I am a absolute believer in the power of prayer. I pray because God answers prayers. It's that simple.

Here's what I've found to be helpful in organizing my prayer life.

Mondays - I pray for missionaries, mission projects, and friends outside of the United States.
Tuesdays - I pray for my family
Wednesdays - I pray for my friends in the US
Thursdays - I pray for my local church
Fridays - I pray for the weekend services
Saturdays - I pray for my denomination

I've found organizing my prayer life in this fashion helps me to break up my prayer life so that it doesn't become repetitious and also so overwhelming.

How do you pray?

Oct 22, 2010

Blessed Are the Ones Who Don't Quit on Account of Jesus

John's disciples told him about all these things. Calling two of them, he sent them to the Lord to ask, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"

When the men came to Jesus, they said, "John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, 'Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?'"

At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind. So he replied to the messengers, "Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me."
Luke 7:18-23

This is one of the strangest passages in the Gospel according to Luke.

The passage begins with the phrase, "John's disciples told him about all these things..."

So the question begs to be asked, "What things were John's disciples telling him?

  • Luke just got done telling us of how Jesus raised the widow's only son from the dead in the town of Nain. 
  • And right before that, Jesus heals the Roman centurion's son from a distance. Jesus just says the word that the centurion's servant be healed from a distance and it was so.

Here's another thing that is puzzling about this passage - After hearing about all the stuff that Jesus is doing, John sends two of his disciples to Jesus to ask, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"

Why would John ask Jesus this question?
  • Of all people, John the baptist should have known who Jesus was. 
  • After all, even before John was born, when he was in his momma's tummy, the mere presence of Jesus in the belly of Mary, caused him to leap with joy. 
  • John was there when the heavens opened up as he baptized Jesus in the Jordan river. He heard God's voice affirm, "This is my Son whom I'm well pleased."
So why would John ask Jesus, his cousin, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"

The final puzzling aspect of this account is the final phrase of Jesus. After telling John's disciples to report back to John all that they have seen - Jesus healing the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, and raising the dead - Jesus says, "Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me."

What is that about? Why would Jesus say that?

Why would anyone fall away on account of Jesus doing all these good and awesome things? Have you ever met anyone who said, "That's it!!! If Jesus heals another person, I'm out of here!!!" or "Jesus is just doing too many miracles!!!"

Why would anyone fall away on account of all that Jesus is doing?

It is imperative that we remember that Luke tells his readers in Luke 3:19-20, "But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of Herodias, his brother's wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison."

When John is being told all these stories of how Jesus was able to heal from a distance, how Jesus was raising the dead, of how Jesus was performing one miracle after another, John has been rotting away in jail.

For John the Baptist, this was absolutely personal. You see, what Jesus was saying to John was, "John. I am your cousin. I am the Son of God. I am the one who heals the blind. I am the one who heals the lame. I am the one who raises the dead. I am the one who can heal a man from a distance with an utterance of my word. And John, I am the one who is going to leave you in jail. And I am the one who is going to do nothing while Herod beheads you."

And remember John, "Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me!"


You see, the thing that is so difficult for we American Christians who have such a hyper valuation of our individual lives to see is that God's salvific plan is bigger than individual lives. We matter to God, but not in the sense most of think. We may just be a Bonhoeffer, John the Baptist, Paul, or any one of the disciples of Jesus. None of these people ever saw the fruition of their sacrifice. 

God's will is certainly accomplished. But it just may not be in one's life time. For some, they die in prison. They are beheaded. They never see the end.

But God's will is certainly accomplished.

Our lives absolutely count. Our lives absolutely matter to God. But God never promised that all of us would see the fruition of God's salvific plan in our lifetimes. God never promised that we would not suffer harm and difficulties in this existence. What God does promise is that we all get to do our part in God's awesome plan for his created world. 

Christian...Are you okay with that?

Jesus declares, "Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me..."

Oct 21, 2010

Christianity is Compassion in Action

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

"The the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite yo in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

"The the King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirst and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'

"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'

"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'

"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

Jesus Christ - Matthew 25:31-46

Oct 20, 2010

Jesus Loves Me This I Know For the Bible Tells Me So...

Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so...

So the children's song goes.

Don't let the profound truth slip by.

The Christian's assurance comes from knowing the truth of God through scripture. There is no other way we can be certain of the promises of God, the salvation of God, the eternal truths of God apart from scripture.

The devil isn't afraid of Christians going to church. The devil isn't afraid of Christians who read Christian books. The devil doesn't mind Christians listening to Christian radio and watching Christian television. The Christian can go on accumulating Christian experiences.

What the devil is afraid of are Christians who are transformed by the truth of God's word. Because that's where our assurance of all the promises of God come from...

  • it's the Bible that tells us of God's love for us...
  • it's the Bible that tells of God's purpose in creating the heavens and the earth...
  • it's the Bible that tells us how the history of the created world will come to an end..
But if Christians are ignorant of the Bible?.....well, all you have are individual experiences and personal opinions.

There's no power there.

There's no certainty.

There's no assurance.

There's nothing but personal opinions and individual experiences.

Listen once again to the profound truth...


Take a moment everyday and read God's promise for you and his created world.

Oct 19, 2010

What Can Denominations and the PCUSA Learn From the Crystal Cathedral?

You've seen the headlines: "Crystal Cathedral files for bankruptcy."

Hate to see that said about any church.

Robert Schuller and the Hour of Power programs ministered to thousands of people.

I am sure there were a host of issues that lead to the Crystal Cathedral being where it is today. But, I think one of the major factors was that the leadership of the Crystal Cathedral failed to make the necessary adaptive changes necessary to a rapidly changed and changing culture.

It's not just that there's been a terrible recession. It's not just that a charismatic leader retired. It's that the Crystal Cathedral's model of ministry was perfectly suited for 1970's-1990's America. But the problem is that America has changed. She is no longer the same country as she was.

They could have tinkered with their existing models of ministry and they would still be right where Crystal Cathedral is today.

Because ultimately, I think what would have made the difference is for ministries like Crystal Cathedral to concentrate more on million dollar ministries that impact the community rather than building million dollar facilities.

Our culture is not impressed by crystal cathedrals anymore. Our culture recognizes that there is something inherently not right about investing huge chunks of financial resources into facilities when there are such great needs in the communities those multi-million dollar facilities find themselves in.

I think what our society is looking for are ministries that are investing millions of dollars and countless millions of hours of volunteerism that are focused on compassion initiatives.

This is more than tinkering with a system that based its ministry on gathering people. This is a transformation of the ministry from gathering to dispersing God's people with God's resources into the very world that needs God.

It is precisely this kind of shift that an adaptive change requires which the Crystal Cathedral was not able to make.

What can the PC(USA) learn from this?

The PC(USA) is headed down a very similar path as the Crystal Cathedral unless we learn to make the necessary adaptive changes required for ministry in the emerging culture we find ourselves in.

Adaptive changes require a whole-sale transformation of who we are and what we do as a church. What is needed for the future is a reformation.

The PC(USA) also must shift from a ministry and a church that is centered around the idea of gathering people to become a church and a ministry that is focused on dispersing God's people and God's resources to our communities and the world around us.

And who knows, in the future imminent church, denominations may not even be necessary.

For certain, if there are denominations in the future, they will look nothing like what they do today.

Oct 18, 2010

My Day - Really all Day - at the Department of Licensing

I have been putting off getting a Washington State license for months now. Somehow, holding onto my Texas license makes me feel more connected to Texas. I know. Pretty dumb.

I know Washington is my home and it already feels like home.

But I still miss Texas. I can't help it. I lived in Texas longer than I have anywhere else in my life.

Another reason why I didn't want to change out my license is because the departments of licensing are always such "pleasant" - wink, wink - places to visit.

Well, today was the day. I couldn't put it off any longer.

Nothing could have prepared me for the ordeal it ended up becoming. I thought the lines in Texas were bad. But they were never four and half hours bad! That's how long it took me to get my driver's license. FOUR AND HALF HOURS.

I couldn't help but wonder what a visit to the doctor would be like if the government took over health care.

There's got to be a better way of processing people.

I arrived at 11:00am and they gave me a number - 346.

They were servicing 110.

There were 10 windows. I don't know why. Only three people were working them.

It didn't matter that there were hundreds of people waiting in line. They know we have to be there.

When I asked how long the estimated wait time would be, the guy at the desk said three hours and 45 minutes without even a blink. Three hours and 45 minutes!!!

After spending my entire afternoon at the Department of Licensing in Federal Way, Washington, I now know why driver's license pictures all look so bad. A guy forgets how to smile after an ordeal like that.

So when it came time when 346 was actually called four hours later, I was so tired, stressed out, and irritated that by the time the lady said look at the blue dot and smile, this is what happened.

Now, I am stuck with this dorky picture.

Will I go back to get a better picture taken? NO WAY!!!

This is my trophy to my day - really my whole afternoon day - at the Department of Licensing.

Oct 13, 2010

Wee Kirkers - Heroes and Heroines of the Faith

Just recently came back from a Wee Kirk Conference in Wagoner, OK.

As I reflect on my time there and the nine or so other Wee Kirk conferences I've had the privilege of being a part, I cannot help but think that there is something terribly wrong with the markers the church world uses for "successful" ministries.

All the markers that are typically mentioned - big buildings, big programs, big budgets, and big memberships - for healthy congregations cannot be the only markers God has in mind for successful churches. There's got to be more.

When we get to heaven, I am sure that the Bill Hybels, Chuck Swindolls, Rick Warrens will get their crowns.

But I can't help but think that God will have the biggest crowns for the Wee Kirk pastors.

You see, I don't think God holds pastors and leaders of churches accountable for the numerical growth of the congregations we serve because growth is ultimately a Holy Spirit led thing. But I do believe God will hold every single church leader and pastor accountable for our faithfulness to the ministry which God has called us.

When it comes to the faithfulness department, some of the Wee Kirk pastors I've met have faithfulness by the bucketloads.

Most of the Wee Kirk pastors serve in congregations that are aging and declining. Not only are the churches aging and declining, most of the Wee Kirk pastors find their congregations in towns that are aging and declining as the younger generations have been fleeing to the cities.

One of my heroes of faith is a Wee Kirk pastor I met from Alaska. He has been faithfully serving a congregation of 8-12 people in a small fishing village in Alaska. The only way to get into this fishing village of 90 people is either by boat or sea plane as there are no roads into town. There is only one ecumenical church in town which he is the pastor. He has been pastoring in this town for over four decades in complete isolation.

When I asked him how he's able to pastor in such a fishing village (only recently have they had satellite tv - no libraries, no radio stations, no other pastors, no other churches), he replied by saying, "If I am not there, who's going to go to pastor a village like this? And those 12 people in town and the rest of the fishing village deserve to have a pastor in town."

That's faithfulness!

I know I couldn't do it.

Compared to settings like that, my church setting - where we are growing, where there are lots of opportunities to grow, etc. - is easy in comparison to a fishing village of 90.

While that pastor will never have a congregation in the hundreds or thousands, I am absolutely convinced God is pleased by his faithfulness to Christ and to his people in that fishing village.

I thank God for the Hybels, Swindolls, and the Warrens for such leaders have been wonderful teachers to me and to so many others. But I also thank God for the Wee Kirk pastors and their faithfulness to Christ's church.

Wee Kirkers are my spiritual heroes and heroines.

May God bless you and keep you, and may you be found faithful in serving Christ's church and his people.

Oct 4, 2010

Why Christ-followers are Needed In a Broken World

Why Christ-follwers are needed...

People don't need Christ-followers to help them understand that we live in a world of sin. 

I think people already know and sense not all is right with the world around us. 

People already know that there is pain and darkness all around.

There has never been anything wrong with the content of the message of the church. The problem has been in how the message of hope and renewal has been communicated by the church.

Somehow, some of us in the church have managed to take the greatest news of hope, mercy, and grace and made it ugly, hate-filled, and angry.

People don't need Christ-followers to help them understand how wrong our world is, what Christ-followers are needed for is to help people understand the incredible grace and mercy of Jesus Christ...
  • because of Jesus everything has and will be changed, 
  • because of Jesus all our sins and failures have been dealt with,
  • because of Jesus everything can be made new.
The key to hope is not in this world, but in the forgiveness God offers in the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. 

That, in my humble opinion, is why I believe Christ-followers are needed in a broken and hurting world.

Oct 1, 2010

Peace in the Storm

Without warning, a furious storm came upon on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping (Matthew 8:24).

Isn't that normally the case? Most storms we encounter in life come at us furiously and without warning. Sure there are storms you can see coming, but those are normally of our making. 
  • If one is messing around with a person who's not their spouse, of course, there's a storm brewing. 
  • If you smoke enough cigarettes, one ought not be surprised about the diagnosis of lung cancer.
  • If you drink and drive, one of these days, bad things are going to happen.
I'm not talking about the storms we create. 

Peace - I picture a lake so calm you can see your reflection as in a mirror on a picture perfect day. 

But here's the thing: who doesn't find such scenes peaceful. When life is at peace because everything is going as it should, who couldn't be peaceful under those circumstances?

It's not that kind of peace that I need in my life. The kind of peace that I need is the peace that surpasses understanding, the kind of peace precisely when the storms of life are upon me and the waters are about to drown me.

Look at where Jesus is. Look at what he's doing. He's sleeping! 

You know why? He is peace.

Wherever Jesus is - peace is there.

The peace Jesus offers doesn't depend on external circumstances because he is the Creator of all things. Peace is wherever Jesus is. Jesus is peace.

When the disciples freak out thinking they were going to die, Jesus gets up from his nap and rebukes the wind and the waves, "and it was completely calm."

Friends, when the storms of life come furiously and without warning, I pray that Jesus is in your boat.

Won't you take a moment to receive Jesus as Lord and Savior over your life right now and welcome him into your life?