Open Letter to the Wearied Pastor

I purposefully write this article to you on a Monday morning because that is when a wearied pastor needs it the most.   Every pastor I know has at one time slouched in his desk chair on Monday morning feeling completely exhausted both mentally and physically.  Sometimes you suffer from Monday fatigue because you had a marvelous Sunday which led you to a “good tired”.  However, there are other weeks where your fatigue is mostly emotional and spiritual.  Maybe for you attendance hasn’t been good lately,  tithing is down,  deacons meeting didn’t go as you would have preferred, you feel as though you “swung and missed” on the sermon yesterday and you have a difficult counseling appointment coming to your office this afternoon.  I have been there.

You are not alone in your weariness. Focus on the Family indicates that 90% of pastors work more than 46 hours a week.  75% of pastors report they have gone through a significant stress related crisis at least once in their ministry. 50% feel unable to meet the needs of the job and 40% report a serious conflict with a church member at least once a month. (Pastors at Greater Risk, H.B.London and Neil B. Wiseman). For these and many other reasons pastoral tenures are down and the number of pastors leaving the ministry is at its highest rate in many years.  Another study found that 45.5% of pastors say they have experienced depression or “burn out” to the extent that they needed to take a leave of absence from ministry. (The Parsonage, April 2002).  Don’t be a statistic.

I offer to you, my wearied pastor friend,  3 scriptural reminders:

  1.  God has placed in your heart an irrevocable calling .  No matter how bad things seem or how low you feel, the calling of God on your life is not impacted or lessened during difficult days.  I was told early on in ministry that there would be rough days where I would need to hold on to my calling a little tighter than usual.  Out of the billions, God has called a few to do what you do.  It is the highest privilege known to man. In speaking of his ministry Paul says to the Corinthians, “For God, who said, ‘Let there be light in the darkness,’ has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor. 4:6).  In the 4th chapter of 2 Corinthians Paul is reflecting on the purpose and passion of his call to ministry.  He compares his calling to a “light shining in his heart” which is likened to the moment God called light out of darkness in Genesis.  Paul states that his ministry calling includes the same Glory that shown on the face of Christ at the transfiguration!  In verses 7-12 Paul lists his various struggles in ministry all leading to the peak of this passage, “That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever!” (16-17).  The surpassing Glory of God which empowered Paul’s calling was glorious enough to overwhelm the worst of his situations which led him to exclaim, “That is why we never give up.”  Though your body is fatigued, your mind exhausted and your spirit feels crushed, the calling in your heart is as glorious as the first light of creation and the face of Christ on Mount Hermon. On my toughest days in ministry I often go back to that day when I felt the assurance of his holy calling on my life. Ministry can get messy and complicated. There are times I have to go back to the place of my calling simply to be reminded of the powerful truth that God chose me.
  2. God placed you in his hand with an inexhaustible grip.  There is an unseen hand holding you.  On your worst days he holds your chin up, while you are in the pulpit he holds your spirit up and on your most stressful days his grip will grow even tighter.  As John writes to the 7 churches in Asia Minor he writes about his powerful vision of our victorious Lord.  In the midst of his description is a great reminder of the love that Jesus Christ has for his pastors.  “He had in His right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and his Countenance was like the sun shining its strength.” Revelation 1:16.  The “seven stars” in his right hand were the seven pastors of the churches to which he was writing.  He is not seen here simply watching over the pastors or keeping them in close proximity, he is holding them in his right hand. His right hand signifies his eternal strength and the fact that he is holding these pastors in his dominant hand should give us great encouragement as his under shepherds.  When ministry gets tough I often picture myself as a child in the midst of a hurried crowd, holding a tight grip to my father’s hand.  However, the visualization becomes more scriptural when I recognize that I am not holding his hand, I am actually nestled in his hand. It is a place of protection and ownership.  It is also a sign that he is using us for his glory. It is in our dominant hand that items are used most effectively, so it is with us in the hand of Christ.   Paul gives us the same picture in Philippians 3:12b, “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”   At the time of your calling Christ Jesus took hold of you.  He has you in the palm of his powerful, protecting hand.  Take a deep breath, sit back, pray and enjoy his presence. In the quietness of that moment you will sense his strong grip.
  3. God will one day place on your head an incorruptible crown. “Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly–not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example. And when the Great Shepherd appears, you will receive a crown of never-ending glory and honor.” 1 Peter 5: 2-4.  Though I don’t pretend to understand or comprehend, Peter looks to a day when our Great Shepherd presents to us a crown of glory.  There are many crowns mentioned in the Scripture, but this one in particular is reserved for faithful church leaders. I know there are days when your head is spinning with tasks and other days when your head is overwhelmed with burdens.  Yet, I can guarantee there is coming a day when your head will be crowned with glory.  Is pastoral ministry worth all the stress?  Would it be easier to quit and do some thing else?  Maybe.  However, on your worst days reflect on the truth of this verse and the reality that it represents.  This is not just some story or something to make you feel better about ministry.  My wearied pastor friend, don’t give up, don’t give in, don’t lose heart.  One day in eternity the very one who you have preached about, prayed to and spoken of will take those nail scarred hands and place a crown on your head.  You have preached about his glory but one day he will share it with you in the form of an incorruptible crown.

Tear up that resignation letter and do away with those thoughts of quitting.  Your calling is grand, his grip is great and your future is crowned with an incorruptible glory.  Keep a tight grip on the Gospel plow!

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Overcoming Attendance Plateau

lifecycle

Every church has a life cycle.  Aubrey Malphurs represents this by using the bell curve approach or as he calls it “the sigmoid curve”.  The bell curve of church life involves a start (birth), growth, various levels of plateau, decline and eventually death.  Everything has a life cycle, even churches.  The key is to create new growth at the top of the curve before the natural down hill momentum carries the church toward decline.  The majority of churches (70%) never reach the age of 100. For new churches, the 15-20 year mark usually takes them to a point of natural plateau unless they are consistently evaluating ministries and refreshing the churches vision statement.

All declining churches were at some point in their history at a plateau in membership and chose either to ignore it, become indifferent to it or the church failed in efforts to overcome it.  

Often times when a church reaches out to their state convention or a consultant for help they are in such deep decline that it is almost impossible to stop it.  One of the most critical decisions church leaders must make is what actions to take when attendance plateaus and growth stagnates.

How do we define attendance plateau?  If your regular attendance has not seen more than 5% growth in a two year span, you are likely at the top of the curve. Churches at the top of the curve have plateaued in attendance and if nothing is done inevitably it will begin to decline.  If this is your church, don’t panic!  Remember that these plateaus are a natural part of the life cycle of every church.  What you do with this discovery will be the key to where the church will be on the life cycle curve in 10 years.  Most causes for stagnated attendance are completely fixable.

Here are 5 common reasons why church attendance becomes stagnate.

The vision of the church becomes stale and uninspiring.

When a new pastor is brought to a church often the first item on the agenda is to cast a new exciting vision for the ministry of the church.  Often the pastor will take the first year to evaluate, plan, pray and have dialogue with key leaders in order to cast a new vision for the congregation.  The church’s vision involves what the mission and purpose of the church would look like if it is fully realized. The pastor reveals the new vision with excitement and enthusiasm to which the congregation is emboldened to more effective ministry.  However, over time this vision runs its course and loses forward momentum. Over time vision must be re-cast, renewed and refreshed. I believe that a pastor must inspire the congregation with a new vision statement every 5-7 years.  A Holy Spirit led vision has the capability of rallying the congregation and awakening even the coldest of hearts to the grandiose Christ led possibilities of ministry effectiveness.   If the vision of the pastor has grown stale it will not be spoken of and will become only a faint dream of past success.  Pastors must ask God for fresh vision on a reoccurring basis.

The church is not staffed properly for continued growth.

I was recently speaking with a pastor who wanted to increase the number of children and young families that attend his church.  My suggestion seemed to be a no-brainer, “You need to bring a children’s minister on staff.”  He looked at me as if I had 3 heads and said “Why do we need a children’s minister when we don’t have any children to minister to?”  Staff shouldn’t be hired simply based on existing needs, they should be hired based on future wants.  I said to the pastor, “You don’t hire a children’s minister because you HAVE children in your church, you hire a children’s minister because you WANT to have children in your church.”  Your church may be stagnant simply based on the fact that you are not adequately staffed.  Three good questions to ask in relation to this point are:  Have we staffed for growth? Are current staff members able to lead the church to the next level of ministry?  Are current staff members serving in roles that have outgrown them?  Not all staff positions have to be paid positions, some will take a position simply for the experience and passion they have to serve and use their spiritual gifts.

The church isn’t utilizing its current space effectively.

For about a 1 year period the church I was pastor was stuck at the 300 attendance mark. We would occasionally have more than 300 in Bible study but not on a regular basis. To fix this I reached out to one of our state missionaries to come and lead our church in small group training.  As I finished giving him a tour of our facilities he turned to me and said, “The issue you have isn’t how you are doing Sunday school, it is the space limitations that are holding you back.”  Of course!  How could I not have seen that?  The maximum capacity of educational space in our church was around 300-325 and most Sundays we were bumping capacity.  We did a space inventory and reconfigured the way we were using our building. We instantly found more room and eventually built new youth space and a children’s building.  As soon as we found more space we broke the 300 barrier!   The old adage goes like this:  If you are 80% capacity, then you are FULL! Time to start planning for future space.  Some questions to ask in regards to facilities: Do your buildings limit our growth?  Is there other ways to configure your space that will maximize its potential capacity?  Does the church need to start a second worship service? Is the facility outdated and in need of a fresh look? Is it time to begin discussing a building campaign?

New Members aren’t effectively assimilated into the church and new believers aren’t being discipled. 

If either of these are true in your church the attrition rate will sky rocket and thus attendance will plateau. The more new members and attenders buy into the vision and ministry of the church the more attendance growth will continue.  Assimilation describes the method in which new members and attenders become deeply connected with the church.  Churches need to require new member classes in order for membership to be finalized.  The more new church members understand the function, purpose and vision of their new church the more they will attend, serve and invite others.  Also a church must train a core group of disciple makers in order to effectively fulfill the Great Commission.  Matthew 28: 18-20 is not only an evangelistic statement from Jesus, it is a clarion call for disciple making churches!

 

Why Plant New Churches?

This was a question posed to me in a phone conversation with an associational leader.  I didn’t call him to speak about church planting, but I guess he just needed to vent. “I have many established churches that are struggling to keep their doors open. We need to focus more on revitalizing these churches and less on planting new ones. We already have enough churches, we just need to strengthen the ones we have.”  While I certainly sympathize with this associational leaders concern for the churches in his area I also recognize his statements to be a little short-sighted.  C. Peter Wagner is widely known as the father of the modern day church growth movement.  In his book, Church Planting for a Great Harvest Wagner states, “Planting new churches is the most effective evangelistic methodology known under heaven.”  Interestingly Wagner wrote that statement 26 years ago when church planting wasn’t a hot topic.  What did Wagner see that some don’t see in relation to the importance of planting new churches?

I sometimes hear people say things like, “We don’t need new churches because there are plenty of unused seats in our existing churches” or “A new church will only take people out of the pews of already struggling churches.”  But are those statements actual facts or simply statements based on assumptions from uninformed observers?  The truth is that we MUST plant new churches and I think there are many reasons why this must be an emphasis in the Southern Baptist Convention and other mainline denominations.

  1. Planting new churches helps fulfill the Great Commission.  If we are going to make disciples of all nations then we must begin new works that will effectively reach the nations.  I would make the argument that this was exactly the Apostle Paul’s mindset.  When you study the book of Acts you find that Paul went to the major cities of his day for one reason, to plant churches.  Paul first went to Lystra, Derbe, Philippi, Ephesus, Corinth and other major urban areas to plant churches that would plant more churches. Paul understood that if the Gospel was to spread effectively he needed to reach the major cities and build strong churches that would begin new works in the surrounding areas.  We know that he placed Titus in Crete in order to “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5), which essentially means, “train new church leaders”.   Most scholars agree that the church at Colosse was a church plant which began through Paul’s work in Ephesus. (Col 1:7; 4:12).  If church planting was the focus of the Apostle Paul it should certainly be the focus of the church today.
  2. It takes all kind of churches to reach all kinds of people.  America is growing increasingly diverse while many churches remain narrowly focused on a specific demographic.  In a recent study Demographer William Frey, research professor at the University of Michigan, found some interesting trends in regards to the growing diversity in the United States.  He focuses on the diversity in terms of age, “Forty-seven states and 90 percent of the counties have an absolute decline in white population under age 20. All net growth of children in this country is coming from racial and ethnic minorities.” (Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America).  That is a shocking statement, but what does it mean for the church?  If we are going to reach the “nations” we must realize that the “nations” are coming to us and largely they are coming unreached.  A Pew Research Study released in March 2016 revealed the changing landscape of American population.  “By 2055, the U.S. will not have a single racial or ethnic majority. Much of this change has been (and will be) driven by immigration. Nearly 59 million immigrants have arrived in the U.S. in the past 50 years, mostly from Latin America and Asia. Today, a near-record 14% of the country’s population is foreign born compared with just 5% in 1965. Over the next five decades, the majority of U.S. population growth is projected to be linked to new Asian and Hispanic immigration.” (10 Demographic Trends that are Shaping the US and the World, Pew Research Council).  As the church of Jesus Christ how should we respond to these statistics? We could shake our fist at such numbers and galvanize our selves in our churches in order to maintain the uniformity that most congregations now realize.  This is not Great Commission thinking.  I believe that Jesus Christ would rather his church begin new churches that will best reach this growing diverse population.  We must be “in front” of the changing dynamics of diversity and not playing catch up for the next 50 years.  Lets be honest, most SBC churches in rural America will not effectively reach a diverse population and many have no desire to.  Yet if we are going to be true to the command of Christ to “make disciples of all nations” then we MUST plant churches that will most effectively reach all kinds of people.
  3. Many of our established churches will close their doors in the next 20 years.  I hate that my fingers just typed that last statement.  It is a sobering thought yet it is undeniable.  In his book, This Present Future Reggie McNeal states, “The current church culture in North America is on life support.  It is living off the work, money, and energy of previous generations from a previous world order. The plug will be pulled either when the money runs out or when the remaining three-fourths of a generation who are institutional loyalists die off.” He also states, “80% of money given to churches comes from people aged 55 and older”.  Wow! Our state convention has placed strong emphasis on church revitalization in the past 3 years.  Much resources have been given to send “church coaches” to declining churches in order to assist those church leaders in assessing the current church culture and recommending systemic changes to promote new growth.  I have seen evidence that this is working, yet most churches that need this the most don’t seek assistance. For many churches, by the time they do ask for help it is too late, the dye has already been cast. I see the “ground truth” of this as I travel.  We should assist church leaders to revitalize these churches who are in decline and celebrate the success stories, but also realize that many churches will close.  For every church that closes we must replace it with a new work that has a better chance to reach new people for Christ.
  4. New churches are often more effective in reaching new people.  “Dozens of denominational studies have confirmed that the average new church gains most of its new members (60-80%) from the ranks of people who are not attending any church, while churches over 10-15 years of age gain 80-90% of new members by transfer from other congregations.” (Tim Keller, Why Plant Churches) I know there are other variables and this isn’t always the case, but I believe that new churches do a better job reaching and baptizing new believers and study after study reveal that truth.
  5. Church population is losing ground to numerical population.  From 1990-2004 America grew in population 18.1% while the church population slightly declined. (ChurchLeaders.com) Thom Rainer has stated many times that the greatest concern for the evangelical church is the rapid rate in which churches are unable to keep up with the growing population rate.  Every time I hear hear a well meaning person say, “The last thing we need is another new church, we already have enough churches”, I cringe. We may have lots of churches, but most aren’t missional and most are not reaching the growing diversity in population.(and have no desire to reach them.)  In Alabama, (the Bible belt) we are accustomed to churches on every corner, but in most areas of the united states this is not the case.  I once preached a revival in Montana and was struck by the fact that we drove 30-50 miles each day without seeing an evangelical church.  In America (and yes in Alabama too) we must be robust in our church planting efforts.

We are blessed in our state to have a tremendous church planting strategy through ALSBOM and Church Planting Strategist Lamar Duke, yet it cannot be accomplished by one man or one organization.  If thriving churches would assist our state convention to plant more churches in the coming years we could more effectively carry out the Great Commission in our state and beyond. Also, if pastors, ministers, associational missionaries and lay leaders would all pray for the Lord to send out more workers in the field and for effective new works to begin we would truly see a Great Commission resurgence. So yes, lets revitalize our declining established churches, but also maintain a strong commitment to begin new works for the glory of God.

The Greatest Miracle of Christmas

For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6

This prophecy by Isaiah was given over 600 years before the birth of Christ.  The titles listed for the “son” that would be born have eternal ramifications.  Each one of the titles are divine in nature and point to a most significant event in which divinity and humanity would collide.  It is the most important prophecy in the Old Testament Canon because it points to both the incarnation of the birth of Christ and the redemption he provided by his death on Calvary.  Isaiah says of this “son“, that “…the government will rest upon his shoulder.”  The Hebrew word used here is misrah which could also be translated kingdom or empire.  In other words,  the burden of a kingdom would be placed on the shoulders of this “son”.   The cross was violently thrust upon the shoulders of the Son of God along with the burden of fallen humanity.  Thus the burden of the misrah or Kingdom rests solely on the atonement he provided for us.

Before the burden was thrust upon the shoulders of Christ at his death we are faced with the significance of his birth.  “A child is born, a son is given...”  Yet, not just any child or any son.  He would be Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace.  As a wonderful counselor He is the great High Priest who “understands our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15).  As Mighty God He came to us through the miracle of the virgin birth and incarnation. (John 1:14).  As Everlasting Father His birth was not his true beginning and his death would not be His end. (John 8:58 & John 1:1).  As the Prince of Peace He would reconcile forever the enmity between God and Man. (1 Timothy 2:5).

The greatest miracle of Christmas is found in the first chapter of John’s Gospel.  Unlike Matthew and Luke, John starts his narrative long before the birth in Bethlehem.  He looks back through eternity with the opening statement of his Gospel.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1).  Three different times John uses the word “Logos” to describe Jesus Christ.  This Greek word encapsulates the full meaning of all thought, ideas and reason.  It is a BIG word.  The Logos was God.   If there was ever any doubt of the deity of Christ, Isaiah’s prophecy in 9:6 ought to quiet the critics.  He would be born “Mighty God“.   The Word was God and John says, “So the Word (Logos) became human and made his home among us.” (John 1:14 NLT).  God made his home among us!  There it is!  That is the greatest miracle in history.

The fall of mankind occurred in Genesis 3 and from that time to the moment the angels announced the birth, there were only futile attempts of restoring the broken relationship. The Tower of Babel could not reach high enough,  no amount of slaughtered oxen could suffice and even the law could only reveal humanity’s need of reconciliation.  In Genesis 3, God cast humanity out of his presence,  yet in the Gospels he interjects himself into humanity.  John says, “He made his home among us.”  HE came to US.  We could never have come to him, but he came to us.  The uncorrupted seed was placed in the womb of Mary through immaculate conception and heaven came near.  In every religion there is a group of committed people who are seeking to find a way to “get to God.”  Yet the miracle of the Advent reveals God coming to us.  Deity did not only come to live among us, He came to die for us.  No wonder Paul said of this message, “to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness.” (1 Cor. 1:23)  It may sound foolish to some but to me it sounds like salvation. The angels announcement was very clear, “For there is born TO YOU this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11).   That announcement resonates through the halls of human history and in the hearts of broken humanity.  The Kingdom has been restored, the burden of our sin rests upon his shoulders and eternal life has now been made possible.  The story of Christmas is, “God became man so that man could come to God.”  On a very dark night 2,000 years ago light came and that light “gives light to every man coming into the world.” (John 1:9).

This Christmas I hope you enjoy being with family. I hope you eat lots of good food and exchange gifts with those you love.  In the midst of this busy season,  I hope you will recall the greatest miracle of all.  God came to us, died for us so we could one day live with Him.

Five ways to make your church”Guest Ready”.

 

Is your church “guest ready”? Most church members never consider this question because they assume the answer is YES!  However, after visiting a number of churches over the past few years it is my observation that most churches are not very “guest ready”.  The best advice I have seen pertaining to this subject is actually found on an old shampoo commercial, “Your never get a second chance to make a first impression.”  That is true in the dandruff world but it is also true for your church.  First impression is everything.   When guests visit your church they begin making decisions regarding a return visit long before the sermon is over.  Actually, many will make their decision shortly after they drive on to your campus. (I am not saying I agree with this mentality but it is a simple fact.)  What they see or don’t see may be as important as what they experience in your church service.  It is a good idea for church leaders to consider the following points to make sure you are prepared for that family that visits this Sunday.

Here are a few things to consider (along with thought provoking questions) in making your church “Guest ready”:  

  1.  Carefully consider your “first impression.”  Often times a simple work day and a small amount of budget money can go a long way in making a guests “first impression” more pleasant.  I think a church’s campus ought to be one of the most beautiful campuses in town.  After all, you are the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. (I realize the church is the people not the building, but I didn’t want to speak on the attractiveness of your members) A run down campus sends a strong message to potential guests.  They will make initial judgments in regards to how aesthetically pleasing your campus appears.  Questions to consider: Is the campus attractive to prospective guests?  Do repairs need to be made to the parking lot?  Is there a covered drop off area in case of weather issues?  Are there simple repairs to your building that need to be done such as paint, pressure washing, brick repair, disheveled steps?
  2. Carefully consider your parking.  The parking lot is usually the most overlooked part of the campus even though it is the first thing your feet touch when you come to church.  I remember as a pastor of a growing church my frustration when we hit an attendance wall.  We could not seem to bust through a certain attendance number.  After inviting a pastor friend of mine to church one Sunday I realized why we were not able to eclipse a certain attendance number.  After circling our parking lot for over 10 minutes looking for a spot he said to me, “You need more parking.”  A light went off in my head!  That was our number one attendance inhibitor.  But it is more than just having adequate parking, you should also consider the condition of your parking lot.  Questions to consider: What is the current number of parking spots on your campus?  Estimating 3 people per car, what is the total number of people that could park on your campus? Are there dedicated parking spots for guests?  People with disabilities? Is there a proper flow of traffic in your parking lot when entering and exiting the campus?  Do the parking lines need repainting or are they clearly visible?
  3. Carefully consider your signage.   Directional signage should be visible to guests as soon as they enter campus.  Arrows should point to the most important areas such as the sanctuary, nursery and children’s areas and welcome center.  Doors should be clearly marked along with areas of intersecting hallways.  There is never a situation when churches have “too many directional signs.”  In this case too much information is actually a good thing.   Questions to consider: When guests enter your parking lot are there signs pointing them to dedicated parking areas?  Is there clear signage pointing guests to nursery, children’s space, youth areas and sanctuary?  Are the signs easily readable?  Are they outdated, faded or scratched?  Are they highly visible?  Is there a low likelihood that guests would ever ask the question, “Where do we go?”
  4.  Carefully consider your accessibility.  Many churches, particularly older buildings, are simply not handicap accessible.  If your church isn’t prepared for those with disabilities you are inadvertently saying, “If you have a disability you are not welcome here.” Questions to consider: Is your church accessible to everyone who would come?  Are handicap parking spots close to level entrances or ramps?  Are bathrooms and sanctuary accessible to those with disabilities or the elderly?
  5. Carefully consider how you greet your guests.  The majority of churches I visit have a couple of men handing out bulletins at the door of the sanctuary.  While this is always a nice thing to do, IT ISN’T ENOUGH! I have been shocked at the number of men who have handed me a bulletin without looking me in the eye and giving a simple “welcome, glad to have you.”  Greeters are not the same as ushers. (Go back and read that last statement again for clarity).  Greeters must GREET.  The most effective churches have a mix of demographics that make up their greeter ministry.  Men, women, teens and even children can take part in this important ministry.  Greeters should always hold out a friendly hand and share their name as they ask the name of the one they are shaking hands.  Name tags are critically important as well.  In the 1980’s Walmart began monopolizing the shopping store market with a similar approach.  If it works at Walmart, I am pretty sure it will work at your church!  (Blue vests are optional).  Place greeters in the parking lot and every entrance so guests are welcomed more than once.  Remember, guests will likely not leave complaining that too many people said, “Welcome, we are glad you’re here.” Questions to consider: Do greeters do more than just hand out a bulletin?  Are greeters intentionally warm and welcoming to those who come to your campus?  Does the first touch come before the guests or members enter the facility?

What are you waiting for?  Walk through these questions as a “guest” of your church.  Take a notebook, pen  and a copy of this article and evaluate how “guest ready” your church is for Sunday.  The guests are coming, are you prepared?  Remember, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spiritual Warfare and Ministry

Over my 25 plus years in ministry there has been one consistent theme, intense spiritual warfare.  And yes I mean, INTENSE.  Every person born of the Spirit will experience spiritual warfare, but I think it is safe to say that those serving in ministry will receive the fiercest of the enemy’s might.  If Satan can cause a Christian to stumble, there is cause for him to celebrate.   If he can cause a pastor or minister to stumble, then he can bring division to an entire body of believers.  Make no mistake about it, that is his ultimate victory.  When a pastor loses a spiritual battle all the demons of hell rise in triumphant exuberance.  It is hell’s aim to keep the church of Jesus Christ distracted and divided and if he can use a church leader to accomplish his will, that is even greater.   Brothers and sisters in ministry, we must understand the power against us and daily put on the “whole armor of God that we may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” (Ephesians 6:11).  There have been times in my ministry  where the spiritual oppression was so great I didn’t feel I could stand under it.   This article is in response to a dear pastor friend who encouraged me to write about this subject.

A few observations from many years on the “front lines” of spiritual warfare:

  1. Spiritual warfare precedes spiritual victories.  The last week of July 2016 was especially difficult for me.  Each day of that week it felt as if a cloud of discouragement hung over my head.  Nothing went as planned, I was continually frustrated by work, family, ministry and life in general.  I couldn’t point to one particular thing that caused my downward spiral.  It just seemed that Satan had intensified his attacks on my spiritual life, work life and family life.  One night after working late, I sat in my truck with my head hung low, downtrodden with a load of care.  Through much prayer I was able to overcome the attacks, but it wasn’t without intense spiritual battle.  Was it a coincidence that the following week I was scheduled to preach a series of revival meetings?  Probably not.  That revival week was marked by a special anointing of God’s power.  The church was packed, decisions were made and the altar was full each night.  Satan had tried to discourage the preacher, but the Power of God in the preacher eventually won.  Is it also a coincidence that the meanest church member usually spouts venom to the preacher on his way to the pulpit?  Is it a coincidence that our greatest ministry victories are sometimes preceded by difficulties?  Even Jesus spent 4o days in the wilderness with Satan before beginning his ministry.  In the garden, Jesus experienced a night of intense spiritual battle preceding the atonement.  Be prepared!  Satan will do his best to usurp the plans of God being carried out through you.
  2. Spiritual warfare is Satan’s greatest compliment. He is not oppressing those who do nothing great for the Kingdom.  He would rather them continue in their spiritual malaise than awaken them to the spiritual realities around them.  The Devil doesn’t persecute those who aren’t making a Kingdom difference. So if you find yourself under the weight of spiritual persecution it is likely because you are being used of the Lord and making a difference.  Only those on the battlefield will experience warfare.  If you never find yourself battling the enemy it may be time to take deep introspection at where you are in your spiritual walk.  In Jesus’s upper room discourse he spent time preparing his disciples for the upcoming battles.  “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace.  In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33.  By “world” he meant the people of the world and also the power of his world.  In Him, the battles would be won because he overcame the world.  If you find yourself in the midst of a spiritual battle today, I have good news.  You may be on the verge of great ministry victories!  Fight through it!
  3. Victory is yours!  You are fighting a defeated opponent!  Three words from the mouth of Christ cemented our victory.  When he exclaimed “It is Finished“, the enemies fate was eternally sealed.  “Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” Romans 8:37.   “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Romans 8:31.  However,  that doesn’t mean that Satan is giving up.  Quite the contrary, he is fighting more and more intensively against us as the day of the Lord draws near.  Take up your sword (Bible),  get the battle plan (Study), stay in communication with your commander (Prayer) and stand in the victory that has already been provided for you.  John wrote of the believer’s victory over Satan, “Then I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, “Now salvation, and strength, and the Kingdom of our God, and the power of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren, who accused them before our God day and night, has been cast down.  And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony…” Revelation 12:10-11.  As you battle the enemy,  remember that you are covered by the blood of Calvary and living within you is the Spirit of God.  You have within your very soul the most powerful force in the universe.  Victory is yours my friend!

The next time you feel exhausted by the battles of ministry, remember that you have two unseen forces battling to define your ministry as a success or failure.  It is Satan’s goal each day to oppress you, tempt you, trip you and disqualify you.  However, There is also an army of angels around you and the Spirit of the Lord fighting for you.  If you will see spiritual warfare for what it is, you will be able to stand during the day of trial.  Ministers, grab the sword and stand in victory, we have battles to win today.

Is There Still a Need for Denominations?

 

Much has been written on this subject in the last ten years likely due to the fact that this question is being asked more and more by the “don’t label me” Millennial generation and post-modern thought. As a life-long Southern Baptist,  I have enjoyed the benefits my denomination offers such as educational opportunities, resources and networking with other like-minded believers.  I recognize that I write with a bias as a former state convention pastor’s conference president, trustee and employee of a Baptist entity.  The religious landscape of America is changing dramatically and rapidly.  Not only are we moving into a post-denominational mindset, but I would argue a post-Christian mindset with the consistent rise of “nones” (22%) in relation to religious affiliation.  The latest Pew Research reveals interesting statistics in relation to denominationalism in America.  Of the 70% of Americans who identify as Christians,  a little over 6% belong to a non-denominational church. While that number doesn’t blow you over it does represent a growing trend and, I believe, it will continue to gain momentum.  In 1955 only one in 25 churchgoing Americans tended to change denominations over a lifetime. In 1985, one in three did so. In this current decade, that number has risen to more than one in two, or about 60%. (Dr. David Dockery, The Changing Face of Denominationalism) I have noticed (at least in my state) an increase in non-denominational involvement.  One such non-denominational church is Church of the Highlands here in Alabama. The church is growing and expanding all over our state and, best I can tell, doing good things.  Recently a friend  emailed me asking for help in finding another place of service due to the fact that a non-denominational church placed a campus near his ministry and he had lost so many members that his position was no longer financially sustainable.  While Non-denominational churches still represent a small percentage of the Christian faith, there is little doubt of the growth of this movement and its future impact of traditional denominations.

Even among Baptist circles there are a few churches who have dropped the “Baptist” from their church signs. They may still identify as Baptists and give to Baptist causes but they have chosen to not highlight their Baptist identity.  When you ask the church leaders why that decision was made you find it to be a part of a strategy to broaden their reach to younger people who don’t visit churches based on denominational affiliation.  (I may write another article about that strategy at some point soon.)

There are more than 12 million people who belong to non-denominational churches in America with over 35,000 congregations in existence.  Last year Thom Rainer released his findings on why people are leaving denominations to join non affiliated churches.  The results can be found here.  One of the reasons people listed for leaving their denomination was simply, “They could see no perceived benefit for belonging to a denomination.”  Looking over Dr. Rainer’s list of responses from a Twitter poll, I see superficial and misinformed responses on denominational life.  It is true that most traditional denominational bodies are on the decline and have been for over a decade now. However, (some may call it Utopian thinking) I have a strong belief that denominationalism in America is not dead.  Some traditional groups have ventured off into liberalism where the message has been so watered down that it is hardly recognizable.  This is why many denominations have declined, but the ones who remain true to the Gospel, strong in their convictions and intentional in their mission will make a come back.

Contrary to the responses from Rainer’s poll, I see several “perceived benefits from denominational life.  Here are a few: 

  1. Denominations keep us anchored in doctrinal statements and Christian orthodoxy. In short, denominational statements of belief places fences around doctrine and keep believers focused on a coherent system of beliefs. Denominations are formed with clear doctrinal guidelines.  The Baptist Faith and Message is the doctrinal (not creedal) beliefs on my denomination. Created in 1925 it was based on previous “Baptist statements” of doctrinal orthodoxy and has seen minor adjustments since its creation.  While there is some doctrinal disagreement in the SBC pertaining to certain statements in this document, the BF&M gives SBC members guidelines on our generally accepted beliefs.  This helps to safeguard our churches from falling victim to outlandish heresies and practices.  Some non-denominational churches are vague on their doctrinal stances regarding historical Christian doctrines and the membership they attract becomes a mix of eclectic beliefs with little uniformity of doctrine.  There doctrinal beliefs (if stated) usually reflect the orthodoxy of the founding pastor.  However, when there is a change in leadership those foundational doctrines are subject to change based on the preferences of the next leader.  Even if the church has adopted certain core beliefs, they are likely much more fluid during leadership changes in comparison to denominational churches who are generally anchored in doctrine.
  2. Many denominations have a cooperative streamlined approach for missional support. If doctrine is the anchor that holds our feet to the ground, then our missional togetherness becomes the bridge that allows us to take our deeply held convictions to a lost world. I  believe the Cooperative Program of the SBC is the best example of this.  It is a system of focused missional giving and sending. One church can’t reach a nation, but one church partnering with many others can accomplish wide-spread gospel globalization much more effectively than a non-denominational church.  Any system that brings together like-minded missions giving and support has the potential of changing the world for Christ. Denominations have a long history of effective cooperation in this regard.
  3. Denominations encourage interaction and intentional networking between churches. If we don’t have some type of intentional glue that holds churches together then all churches would work independently and historically that has not been the best system for Kingdom work.  Denominations provide a dedicated platform for cooperation and collaboration between congregations.  Christians have always been more effective when they work together.  In 2 Corinthians 8 Paul describes how the churches of Macedonia had joined together to provide for other churches in their time of need.  Paul could not have traveled as he did without the support of many collaborative churches working together to assist him financially.
  4. Denominations encourage fellowship among like-minded people. Generally people are naturally geared toward certain affinity groups.  If I were to put 500 random people in a large room for a certain length of time you would eventually see groups begin to form.  Conversations would flow naturally as people mingle to find others with similar tastes, likes and ideology.  If you don’t believe me stop by your local high school lunchroom. If we were to do away with every denomination, eventually they would organically re-organize based on doctrinal, ecclesiastical and polity affinity. There are countless historical examples of the truth of this statement.  The East-West split of early Catholicism, the protestant reformation and the Great Awakenings of the 1700’s-1800’s in America all reveal sociological shifting of certain affinities into groups or denominations.  This is more than just history, this represents basic human action.

Yes, contrary to some people’s thought I am crazy enough to believe in the future of denominations and especially my own. Denominations must continue to be culturally relevant, consistently resourceful, but most of all intentionally missional with the good news of Jesus Christ.