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Measuring Success

Measuring Success

It seems to me that one of the most serious difficulties we have in the church today is the way we measure success. We are driven by numbers and money. It’s easy, of course, to justify this. After all, if you don’t have money, you generally can’t help people. I am reminded of Chapter 3 of Acts, in which Peter (with John) says, “Silver and gold I have none,” yet look what they did.

Still, the temptation is great to judge the success of a meeting by the attendance, and the success of a church by its budget. I’d add that I don’t suggest we think the other way either. Just because a church is prosperous does not mean its ministry and mission is in trouble. It’s just that I don’t see the numbers and the money as God’s measure.

With that in mind I was struck by two verses in Chapter 8. Stephen has just been killed, and Luke tells us that Saul continues to persecute the church. Everyone except the apostles is scattered across the countryside of Judea and Samaria (v. 1).

By our standards, this is a bad thing. All this talent is leaving the big church, the one with the resources to carry out the mission! Stephen is dead, and Philip is about to head out. “Everyone” doubtless includes many more. The church is being drained.

If this was an American church, the next question would be how we would pay the bills for the facility. I recall one church that had a serious scattering of membership, and that became a serious problem. You have to sell some buildings or some land, and that can be difficult. Members don’t like the feel of selling off the property and there’s always a question of whether you’ll get enough for it. Besides, selling stuff and downsizing is a sign of defeat!

We’d doubtless feel the same way about persecution. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not a fan of persecution. I really don’t want to be persecuted. But if I can put it bluntly, I doubt God really cares what I want.

In this case, something great happens. “As they were scattered, they went about proclaiming the Word …” (8:4). In the movement of the story of the early church as told in Acts we’re in that transition as we move from Judea to Samaria and from there to the whole world. The failure of the church as the members scatter is the success of God’s plan.

I’m thinking we need to spend our time finding God’s plan and measuring our success by how much we’re on that. As I read scripture, I’m suspecting that plan may be different from ours. Let God speak and move in our generation.

 

Seven Marks of a New Testament Church – Sacrificial Living

Seven Marks of a New Testament Church – Sacrificial Living

nt church books

… salvation of necessity leads to service. (Seven Marks of a New Testament Church, p. 43)

This is the final post of my series on this book, and I’d like to make an observation about the entire enterprise. I’ve become increasingly convinced of two things during this study. First, there is no single form of church organization or structure mandated by the New Testament. Second, there are quite a few principles that should be applied in any church structure that we may choose to use.

Those may sound like they are at least in tension, but I think any tension is both appropriate and quite possibly intentional on the part of New Testament writers. I also do think that one’s organizational structure can either aid in applying Christ-like principles to one’s church structure or they can hinder us from doing so. Unfortunately, we can turn the best organizational plan into something dangerously hierarchical and lacking in accountability.

The determining factor in how our churches will function is whether we are prepared to actually be the body of Christ, living under one Spirit (1 Corinthians 12). Unfortunately, many have seen the test of the church as being the power of the miraculous signs that are displayed, when the real message of that chapter (really 1 Corinthians 12-14) is that the test of the miraculous signs is the one Spirit.

This final chapter of Seven Marks is critical for this reason. It says that we really mean it. Now we can’t neglect the other elements, but the final demonstration is going to be involved in sacrificial living. Note that the title is not “sacrificial giving.” We can give sacrificially without accomplishing anything for the kingdom. When we are emotionally persuaded to give large amounts of money for an unneeded or ostentatious facility or program, we can give sacrificially, while still failing to live sacrificially.

What does it mean to live sacrificially? I must, of course, recommend reading this entire chapter. But let me suggest that for the Christian, this means putting everything we have and everything we are in God’s hands. It’s not a percentage of giving. It’s not a percentage of our time for worship. It’s a complete commitment of ourselves to being the body of Christ, to act as citizens of God’s kingdom while we are aliens here. (Mixing metaphors is fun!)

Christianity is not something you tack on to the rest of who you are. Yes, I belong to the ___ club, I’m part of the ____ political party, and as for religion, I’m a Christian. No! Being a Christian is not like a club or political party membership. It defines who you are.

Bruce Epperly, in Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel, p. 46 puts it this way:

As Acts 2 proclaims that the first Christians “devoted themselves to the Apostles teaching, to the community, to shared meals, and to prayers …. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” They did not separate economics from theology or spirituality. Within the body of Christ, unity of spirit leads to the quest for physical well-being. While there may have been inequalities in income and property, there was no destitution or neglect. Everyone had enough of the Earth’s bounty to have the energy and inspiration to share the good news of God’s life-transforming Shalom. Putting God first lead Jesus’ first followers to generosity and sacrificial living in which the neighbor’s need outweighed property rights and personal comfort.

Ruth Fletcher expresses the vision and the goal well in her book Thrive: Spiritual Habits of Transforming Congregations, p. 48:

Those first followers gathered around Jesus’ table in order to be shaped by the values embedded in the story of God’s New Creation. They came together to be equipped with the tools and the courage necessary to make God’s intentions real. Although not large in number, the small bands that followed Jesus began to affect the whole fabric of the culture around them. They were like grains of mustard seed springing up like bushes everywhere. They were like leaven affecting the whole loaf, like salt flavoring the whole pot of soup. They were like light shining from a lamp stand showing what God had in mind for the world.

Today we look to large church programs with the goal of bringing people into the church. Might we not accomplish more if we became those grains of mustard seed in order to impact the world around us. In order to do that we have to be willing to live sacrificially, not as a momentary impulse, but as a lifestyle.

One last thing I’d like to note about this series is that, while I’ve followed Dave Black’s outline from Seven Marks, I’ve been able to find very similar notes from my other two authors. These three authors come from different denominations and different tradition streams, yet they find many similar principles for how we should live as the church.

There are many things we can argue about, but I perhaps we can agree that we should be living as a community, caring for one another, and carrying out our witness through caring for the entire world.


Let the Children Interrupt

Let the Children Interrupt

Children under a tree
From OpenClipart.org

This past Sunday the lesson was from Luke 18:15-17, Jesus blessing the children. Saturday evening, as I was thinking about this, a local church was promoting their variety of children’s programs and how that showed their care for the children. I know it’s probably unkind of me, but I was not impressed.

Yes, having children’s programs is better than ignoring the children. Having something for the children to do while their parents carry out the activities of the older folks is better than doing nothing. When we were overseas, my mother was often asked to donate to church building projects. She would always ask to see the plans. Frequently those plans would involve a church sanctuary and no educational rooms at all. She’d ask where was the space for the children’s programs, and was told they could meet under the trees until the church had the money to build their facilities. She’d suggest instead that the adults meet under the trees and that the space be given to the children.

Yes, it’s good to provide for the children. But the interesting thing that Jesus did is this: He let the children interrupt the activities of the adults. He didn’t appoint a “children’s apostle” or create a children’s “blessing room” where appropriately gifted leaders could work with the children. No! He invited them to where he was, right to the center.

I think we are too concerned with having our busy routine interrupted. Perhaps if we let the children get involved some of the super-sacred elements of the order of service might be skipped. Perhaps some of the adults would have to listen to something simple and repetitive.

Those with special gifts for teaching and for connecting with children and young people are to be treasured and  their talents used in ministry. But children need to spend time with the adults as they learn, and not always be separated out into age segregated groups where six-year-olds learn from six-year-olds and teens learn from teens. Church should be a place where they can practice and learn. I’m in favor of having children and teens give testimonies, speak, and even present the message. Where better to learn than in their own community? Of course, all these activities should be done with the help of people of experience who can mentor and guide without controlling and suffocating.

I was visiting a small house church overseas and was asked to present a children’s story and also the message for the adults. I hadn’t tried a children’s story in many years. But I gave it a try. For the adults message I had carefully taken a passage and prepared an expository message. It was really pretty good since I say so myself! [Yeah, right.] I was uncomfortable with the children’s story. After I had presented both, and was chatting with my translator immediately after our time together, I noticed the head elder copying my illustration from the blackboard (yes, the old-fashioned slate kind). Then he asked me a few questions through the translator, all about the children’s message.

The children’s story had caught his attention and had met a need in the church. It was clear from our conversation that he was fine with my expository preaching. It just hadn’t connected. The children’s message had.

Is it possible there isn’t such a difference between our needs as older members and those of the children and young people in our churches?

Link: Local Church Pastors

Link: Local Church Pastors

Since I’ve been talking about churches and leadership, I thought it would be useful to point to this article on UMC.org: Local church pastors on the rise. As usual, I think we’re behind. My personal belief is that the whole system of education we’re using, including degrees is well past its prime. If we made use of all the resources available, there would be no reason we couldn’t make better opportunities available for local church pastors to improve their skills.

But my experience with local church pastors suggests two things: 1) For every local church pastor who has a weakness, there’s very likely an elder who also has a problem, and 2) Local church pastors also have skills in ministry that many of your full elders do not.

I’m just not that enamored of the wonders of seminary education. But it’s not the education we need to get rid of. What we need to do is restructure the means and time when education is delivered, received and applied.

So Why Don’t We Do Something about It?

So Why Don’t We Do Something about It?

I’ve been exchanging thoughts with Dave Black about the pastoral role and biblical languages, including textual criticism. One of my difficulties here is that I am more likely dealing with people on a day to day basis who are not well acquainted with their English Bibles, and thus it’s a bit harder to talk about whether they should know textual criticism. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t, necessarily. It just means the goal is further away!

But in some comments today I think Dave got right to the heart of the issue. Then another Energion author, Allan R. Bevere, linked to a post by Thom Rainer titled Seven Myths about a Pastor’s Workweek. That reminded me of a short story I wrote some time ago titled Our Pastor is Lazy.

It seems to me that we all know that “pastor” as a “job” is crazy. It isn’t working. We’re wearing out our pastors and we’re not accomplishing the work of the gospel. I find remarkably little disagreement with that.

So my question is this: Why don’t we do something about it?

When Fear Drives

When Fear Drives

Recently the topic of risk and danger has come up in several discussions of Christian Ministry. Shauna Hyde, who I interviewed along with Chris Surber, has spent the night in tent town with homeless folks and earned the informal title “vicar of tent town.” People have told her she’s crazy. But she manages to live the gospel and build relationships that wouldn’t happen any other way.

Chris Surber, involved in the same interview, is headed to Haiti with his young children. There are folks who claim he is crazy for doing so. He describes some of the comments in his forthcoming book Rendering unto Caesar.

Back in the days when I had a newspaper route (annoying work, but it happened at night, which was convenient), I would regularly stop to help people in the “bad” neighborhood in which I worked. I recall one Sunday morning when I stopped and just kept my headlights on a man who was changing his tire. He was very grateful. When I mentioned this in my Sunday School class it derailed the discussion as people informed me how I shouldn’t risk my life in this way.

Such, I think, would have been the Sunday morning conversation had the Good Samaritan been a Sunday School teacher and reported on his stop on the road to Jericho. His stop, I think, was much more dangerous than my sitting in my car with the headlights on.

In an interview regarding hospitality, the subject of danger came up again. Chris Freet has written a book titled A New Look at Hospitality as a Key to Missions. As soon as we began to discuss hospitality, we had to discuss danger. Strangers actually invited into our home? Perhaps we need to rethink this and use some central location with proper regard for security. After all, in the 21st century we have sexual predators and various violent types among the broad category of people classified as “strangers.”

I have to ask myself whether the 20th or the 21st century is more packed with dangerous people than any previous period in history. I really doubt it. As Christians we claim to be followers of Jesus. It was not entirely safe to do these things when Jesus commanded them. We can’t claim that additional dangers in the 21st century have rendered these commands null and void.

My parents were always hospitable. Many, many times we had guests at the dinner table. You could not visit my parents’ church without receiving an invitation to lunch afterward. My parents would never have considered allowing you to leave unfed. They just never did it. We did this when we were overseas as well. We took people into our home. It was something I felt was normal. How likely are you to get invited out to lunch in a 21st century American church?

And it was not without risk. Once when my parents sheltered a woman and her child in our home the result was that we had to flee as angry people approached intending to kill us. This was eventually settled and we returned to our homes, but there was certainly risk.

We have story after story of missionaries risking their lives and the lives of their children. I was allowed to go on mission trips into the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico when I was eight and nine years old. We’d travel through the mountains, accept the hospitality of the villagers, and conduct clinics. (My father was an MD and my mother an RN.) My task was to carry out the garbage, get supplies and deliver them where needed and to carry messages. Was there risk? Of course there was! What would happen if one of us was injured in these isolated areas? After all, the reason we were there was because medical help was not readily available.

1893729222My mother tells a story about me. It embarrasses me a bit. Don’t think that I was some sort of extraordinarily spiritual child. What I’m interested in here is her actions. This is extracted from her book Directed Paths, pp. 51-52.

Even a child is known by his doings, whether his work be pure, and whether it be right.

Proverbs 20:11

While we were in the Chiapas mountains, a measles epidemic broke out in the nearby village of Rincon. Many were dying. They sent to our clinic for help. Although nurses and helpers were in short supply, we sent as many as we could to give penicillin and help with treatments. Our older children, Betty Rae and Robert had returned to the states for school. Patty, who was twelve at the time, went to Rincon every day to help.   She wanted to be a nurse and this was a great experience for her. The need was so great, the nurses taught her to give shots and helped her to learn how to do treatments. At the time, Henry was only eight but he begged for permission to go help. I knew he could be useful in helping to carry food, water and run errands, but he had never had the measles.

He kept saying, “Mama, please let me go. Patty is helping and I want to help, too.”

“But, Henry, Patty has had the measles. You haven’t. I don’t want my little boy to die.” I told him.

His answer stunned me, “Jesus gave His life for me, and why shouldn’t I give my life for the Chamulas?”

I had no answer to that. The next day, Henry went with the group. He was a great help. He also got the measles which made him extremely ill. We thought he truly was going to give his life for the Chamulas. We provided nursing care, treatments and penicillin, but Jesus did the healing. Henry made it and the glory goes to God.

I believe that many 21st century folks would be horrified by her actions, because I see them react with horror at so much less risky actions. It’s possible some would consider this child abuse. We admire the courage of missionaries at a distance, but are otherwise somewhere between concerned and horrified. I’ve heard the same responses to the idea of people going to help with the Ebola outbreak. Close everything off. Don’t let there be any risk.

Can followers of Jesus say that? I think not! I think the same force of the love of God that had Jesus reaching out, touching, and healing the lepers should drive Christians. The fact of risk is not a reason to quit carrying out the gospel commission nor is it a reason to quit actively loving and helping our neighbors. And it is no reason to allow ourselves to be shut down.

What is right remains just as right under threat of death as it ever is when we’re in complete safety. I know it’s a great deal easier to say that than it is to put it into practice. I don’t proclaim myself a paragon of virtue. I can name so many people who have done or are doing bolder things than I have even considered.

But the call remains the same as it was when Christians faced the lions. Will the American church be driven by fear or by the gospel commission?

One Reason Christian Leaders Fall – Overload

One Reason Christian Leaders Fall – Overload

There have been any number of Christian leaders who have fallen recently, and while the publicity makes it appear that there are more and more, I suspect this isn’t anything new.

One major reason for a failure in leadership is that we put too much trust in people. We give a pastor a great deal of authority, we give him a job that is impossible for any one person to do, and then we’re surprised when failure occurs. I think the pattern of Christian leadership is not supposed to put that much pressure or authority on any single person.

I believe that reasonable responsibility, reasonable trust, and a reasonable job load would be a good starting point to helping Christian leaders keep their balance.