Saturday, April 21, 2007

Run The Race....

I've spent the day today at my oldest son's track meet... 8 colleges, and a perfect day!

He's done well today - I am proud of him... for the results? Well, yeah - I'm a dad! :) But more importantly for the discipline demonstrated in his life.

So many illustrations from the Word come from track events... and I am reminded again that "no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but afterwards it yields a harvest of righteousness to those who will be trained by it."

The joy in the race, the thrill of a pesonal best, a win in a heat, friendships won along the way - not to even mention the great physical and mental condition - all are unavailable apart from discipline.

How thankful I am for a Heavenly Father who loves me enough to put me through training, difficulties and trials! What an encouragement for me to learn well now, and to increasingly "run the race with endurance."

BTW, all that aside, I'm glad I don't have to race my son anymore!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Psalm 138:2 (Part 9) - WHO Do We Think That WE Are?

“I bow down towards your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness, for you exalted above all things your name and your word.” Psalm 138:2 (ESV)

Churches today are increasingly building… bigger buildings, infrastructures, staffs, programs, media … expanding, growing, blah, blah, blah. We seem increasingly to draw our identity from this growth. I’m not against building and growth, but at least some (maybe a lot) of the growth in church structure results from the desire for influence and control by “leaders,” with the result of leaving “the sheep without a shepherd.” Shiloh Guy’s comment to the last post cut to the heart of the issue about the difference between “shepherding” and “leadership” (and if you haven’t read that yet, stop and do it now!)

We’re not to be cheerleaders or fundraisers for the professionals… the job of ministry - and the responsibility - is ours, and can not be taken away by others. And that leads me to today's point:

Who do we think that WE are?

Do we see ourselves as having responsibility for doing the work of the church, or are we comfortable with delegating it off to a local church staff?

I'm not so sure as a movement that we think very clearly about this. In a self-indulged, consumer-mindset, entertainment and luxury-driven American culture, it’s not fair to blame leaders exclusively for their view of the laity in today’s evangelical church. Maybe they take charge because we want them - or anyone - to meet the needs... anyone but us. Let me illustrate it this way…

  1. There are a growing number of homeless people in my community. I see them daily, and am burdened for their condition and spiritual state.
  2. I see problems in the lives of my acquaintances, coworkers, friends, even my family. I long to see them experience all that God has for them.
  3. I know literally hundreds of people who don't know Jesus. They are all on their way to an eternity in hell. I long to see them hear the Gospel, and come to faith.
All too often, my not-so-subconscious response to each of these is that “SOMEONE ought to be doing something about this problem.”

Who? Well, THEM… the church. Here are some questions I've heard (and asked):

"Why don’t they open their doors to the poor and homeless, use largely empty facilities during the week to warm people (especially in these awful Chicago winters!)?"
"Why doesn’t the church create a program for [this needy group]?"

"Will the church’s Christian education department provide a solid foundation to my kids in the faith?"

"What is our youth ministry going to do about the problems with our kids these days?"

Good questions - you can probably think of some more. But maybe the more important question is this:

"What am I going to do about the problem… Right here, right now... could this issue/problem be MY responsibility to address?"

Should we just wait for the church (or someone else) to come up with a plan, or should we be seeking God for wisdom and His power to meet the need ourselves?

The truth is that it is easy to delegate “ministry” to the local church. Let them do something about the problem – whatever the problem is. But who is ultimately responsible for:

  • Understanding what the Bible says, what the Lord has revealed that He requires of us, and discerning whether the teaching that we hear should be followed or disregarded?
  • Caring for widows, single parents and their children, the homeless?
  • Addressing problems in your community – like the homeless, the mentally disabled, the people without family or social support networks?
  • Helping with problems in families – for example, aging parents or troubled adolescents?
  • Issues with your own family or kids?
  • Reaching our family, friends and community with the good news of the Gospel?
  • Being our "brother's keeper"??


“The church” is US – you and me. We are INDIVIDUALLY RESPONSIBLE to God. Too often though, we expect “the church” (or the government, or some other undefined “them”) to do what is our job in the first place!

We’re Americans… we outsource EVERYTHING. We have “people” who do whatever we don’t want to do for us because our time is too valuable (check out this service - there's big "business" in doing other people's "dirty work"). But no matter what our society does, or how much more comfortable it would be, we can not delegate our thinking, our responsibility or our obedience away to others.

Maybe your pastor would be great in delivering a message to your spouse, child or friend. Perhaps there are others more skilled who, with better resources and more time, could “do the job.” But maybe you would do well to deliver the message yourself. Is it possible that it isn’t done because we don’t do it?

Is it possible that God does not need to use your local church to accomplish the ministry needs that you see in your own sphere of influence? Are we (you and me) willing to seek the Lord and His power to work through US… even if no one else comes along to help us?

So here is my question again: Who do we think that we are?

Are we consumers of Christian services, existing to provide direction to the professionals that we hire, and consumers of weekly religious entertainment and inspiration, or are we personally and individually responsible for being Jesus to those around us? Are we supporters of the body of Christ, or are WE (you and me) His hands and His feet?

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Who has the primary human responsibility for leading your friends, co-workers and acquaintances to Jesus – you, or somebody else?
  • Who should meet the needs of the poor around you – you, or somebody else?
  • Who has the daily, primary responsibility for leading your children to Christ, and leading them to spiritual maturity thereafter – you, or your church youth group?
  • Who has the responsibility to teach spiritual truth and doctrine (the whole counsel of God) to your family – you, or your pastor?
  • Who has the responsibility to “study to show” themselves approved – each one of us, or the professionals at our local church?

OK, I can hear the objection already: “I don’t have the resources to meet the needs around me!” But consider these words of our Lord…

When confronted by a circumstance of a demon-possessed son were beyond the resources of his grieving father, Jesus said that “… All things are possible for one who believes.” (Mark 9:23)

After confronting a rich man about his need to give up his wealth to follow Him, Jesus noted the difficulty … the impossibility of rich people entering the Kingdom. Jesus’ disciples were stunned by Jesus’ words and their implications, because the cost was too high and the message too stringent. (By the way, that was just then – it isn’t any easier for we rich Americans today, and Jesus’ call is a far cry from today’s typical “come to Jesus to ‘get’” kind of evangelistic appeal!) But Jesus said “…With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27)

Are you short on knowledge about how to address a need? Jesus said that “…the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” (John 14:26)

If God has called us to accomplish something, will He leave us to fail? “He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:23)

I’ve said this before (quoting my Dad), but the world doesn’t need more people who “believe in Jesus”. George Barna will tell you that most Americans do that. Hey, the demons do too… and they tremble. We need more people who BELIEVE Jesus - and are ready to do His work His way under His direction, and in His power. We are to be people who are willing to seek to meet needs that we are TOTALLY UNQUALIFIED to address – based on our reliance on the sufficiency of the power of the Father in Jesus Christ through His Spirit. We need to put to death the self-centered, consumer/supervisor mindset that many of us bring to “church”.

As I said before, we – each one of us, you and me – are all called to be the body of Christ. WE are called to be salt and light. WE are “the church.” When we say “why don’t THEY do something about [fill in your issue],” we are “they.” And when we cede the work of “the church” to the paid staff at our local assembly and view ourselves as – at best - supervisors of those who do the real ministry or consumers of Christian/religious local programming once a week, we miss the point. We don’t supervise the ministers, WE ARE THE MINISTERS.

OK to be fair, I understand that I’m leaving out one major point: God has not called each one of us individually to meet all of these needs. He has ordained the existence of a corporate assembly… The Church, and our local assemblies are to be functioning as His local body. And that leads us to the logical conclusion of this series in the next post.

But before we go there, consider this thought:

Our total and unconditional commitment, dedication and passion for following Jesus – are non-negotiables. Until those things exist in your life, you may attend a church, you may be well-regarded there, but you are not part of The Church. Remember, it was Jesus who said that "...Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 7:21).

My old friend Shiloh challenged me once, a long time ago, to read 1st John every day for a month, and look for the "tests" - the indications that I really had been converted. It's a challenge that I've repeated many times over the years, to some hopeful profit for my soul. And one test in particular has been ringing in my mind as I've thought about this topic:

"By this we may be sure that we are in Him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which He walked." (1 John 2:5-6)

So before we discuss who we are “corporately,” let’s first settle the question personally: When we find ourselves seeing needs and asking “what THEY are going to do about it” rather than primarily asking the Lord what we should be doing, WHO we are… is wrong.

Next time: Who do WE want to be?

Monday, April 09, 2007

Psalm 138:2 (Part 8) - “WHO” - Are We Wrong?

“I bow down towards your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness, for you exalted above all things your name and your word.” Psalm 138:2 (ESV)

At the beginning of this year, I began asking myself whether we really exalt God’s Name and His Word above all things? Assuming first that this is without dispute our calling, I’ve come to believe even more strongly that the evangelical movement – all too frequently – does not do so. My observation is that we as evangelicals tend to focus on the wrong things (“WHAT” is wrong) and tolerate doing even the right things the wrong way (“HOW” is wrong). My last comments on this subject (at least in this train of posts) relate to one other area in which we may sadly miss the mark – and it’s the most fundamental point, relating to the roles and responsibilities of the individual in the body of Christ. Said simply, WHO we are… is sometimes wrong, too.

Think with me about this from three directions - I'll highlight each one with a question. You be the judge, but I think that in many instances, the answers to these questions indicate that “WHO we are” may very well be wrong.

Here's today's question: WHO does “The church” Think That We Are?

One of the sad trends I’ve observed lately revolves around the role of the individual in today’s organized church. I’ve struggled with how to discuss this shift in thinking, so I’ll illustrate it through personal example.

My father-in-law served as a pastor of a number of churches during his ministry life. Typically, his churches were small (at least by today’s “mega-church” standards), and his staff was similarly small. My wife and I were married later in his ministry, so I didn’t have the advantage of watching him during the majority of his time in service. But during many long afternoons shared in front of the Cubs game while our wives were shopping, he shared with me his passion for his churches, and his philosophy of ministry.

The local church existed, he would say, to glorify God by equipping the people to do the work of ministry. His focus, as a result, was on the clear proclamation of the Word of God, and the practical teaching of Word to God’s people. He loved to tell me about what the people were doing in obedience to the Word. He loved the people… and he spent his time and energy serving them and equipping them to be the body of Christ in their community. In his world, church leadership existed to serve the people in the congregation, who in turn were responsible for reaching their world as the Body of Christ.

If I had to sum up his view of his role in ministry in just one word, it would be this: Shepherd.

Today, the philosophy seems very different in many places, and the view that my father-in-law held about the individual in his congregation is increasingly viewed as “small church” thinking. Church leaders today are visionary, planning programs and ministries to do the work of the body of Christ, and the people in attendance at the local church are to get on board with that program. Church growth has become a major data input in determining the spiritual health of a local church. As a result, programming is aimed towards getting people into the fellowship and helping them become at least preliminarily assimilated. Preaching priorities also recognize the reality of a “largely new” congregation, and while of course the Word is still preached, the focus of preaching is far more likely to be aimed at those who are outside of the faith or at the entry level of discipleship.

Even more fundamentally, programming for a church becomes less about equipping and more about doing. At first blush, that sounds right, but what I really mean is this: Increasingly, churches are expected to program “ministry” and to provide paid staff for that programming. And the “work of the church” becomes increasingly mixed with the work of the church staff. Rather than primarily doing the ministry, congregants are expected to support the ministry being done by the staff.

I read a blog recently from a church in another area of the country, and a statement illustrated this point. The writer said that his church’s pastor was God’s “man for the area” and that the people in the church needed to get behind him and “serve Pastor [X]”. I don’t know the church or the man, but the sentiment highlighted to me the shift in thinking that I’ve seen over my years in local church participation. Based on my limited observation of churches and trends (Christianity Today, for example), I question whether what I’m observing is something others are increasingly seeing. Whether it’s a trend or not, it seems clear to me that pastors in this environment do not have the luxury of shepherding… that has become the role of others on staff or in lay leadership.

If I had to sum up the most important role in the view of many in ministry positions today with one word, it would be this: Leader.

So back to the question I raised above – who does “the church” think we are (or what does church leadership see as the role of the individual in the ministry of the local church)? In answering the question I’ve raised above, my father-in-law would have said that the role of the individual is to do the ministry of the church, and his role was to equip and support them in doing so - as a shepherd. I suspect that many in the evangelical church today would find my father-in-law’s answer to be quaint, and perhaps a little naive. I think today, many in evangelical churches would say that it is the role of the pastor and his staff to establish ministries and to do the ministry, and the role of individuals is to follow well and support the staff - in their role as leaders.

Here's one free observation… Shepherding is always leadership, but leadership is not always shepherding. And the church today suffers from the lack of shepherds, and an overabundance of leaders.

Is it possible that in all of the effort to lead people, we've lost the emphasis on really loving them?

I believe that the focus in churches on "building up" (growing to maturity the people God has entrusted to our care in a local body) has become sidetracked and replaced in priority by the process of "building out" (growing the number of people under our influence). And the emphasis on reaching new people has too often had the unwanted side-effect of missing many of the people who are already there. The desire to reach new people has come with an increasing impatience for those who have been in the body. And where does this lead to in the long run?

For one thing, individuals - people (individual members of the church), who were previously celebrated in life, loved and cared for in difficulty, visited in sickness, and mourned corporately in death, become increasingly… well, fungible, or replaceable. The focus becomes slanted towards winning over the new people as opposed to growing a group of people to maturity. Relationship maintenance -which by its nature is difficult and time consuming - becomes secondary, and as a result, people are leaving the backdoor of churches unpursued, and the relentless pursuit of new people makes them feel unimportant and unwanted... left at best to hope that things may be different in the next church they attend.

John Armstrong noted in an insightful post the decline of “pastoral leadership” in evangelical churches. Here's one thought from that article:

"The church in North America, generally speaking, has all but lost the older pattern of biblical shepherding. Seminaries don't teach it, and haven't taught it for decades. We generally seek catalytic change agents to lead our congregations, not shepherds who will care for sheep, or who at least make certain they are cared for by a team that knows how to do this ministry well.

We have plainly bought into the modern CEO model of leadership more than the humble disciple of Jesus model, which is relationally-based. This is so obvious that I would be surprised if anyone would challenge it. What people will challenge is the idea that this change is an entirely negative one..."
(Read Article Here)

This is a very important observation, and I’d commend John’s article (and its discussion about the decline of the ministry of shepherding) to your attention. In the spirit of seeking to accomplish something great for God, must our focus always be on the numeric growth? Or is it possible that, by seeking to go deeper - even at the expense of growth in numbers, we might actually accomplish more than we even currently imagine?

I suspect that there are many reasons for the decline in shepherding. Just as one example, the emphasis on growth and size of many local churches seems to both define the view of the spiritual condition and health of the local body, while at the same time contributing to the difficulty in shepherding the people there! The bigger the congregation, the more programs it can offer, the bigger its resource base - and the harder it is for pastors and elders to actually connect with, love and care for the people in the congregation. Increasing, individual events and issues can not be brought to the body for attention - even prayer - simply because of the logistical difficulty of doing so for so many people. Maintaining consistency in teaching and care is harder to accomplish. And too often, these logistic difficulties press leaders to reward those who "go along" and minimize, ignore or even avoid those people who are "higher maintenance" people. Even though the Good Shepherd left the 99 to pursue the 1, the temptation today increasingly is to let the one go for the benefit of the 99.

It is striking to me that Jesus, when confronted with the opportunity to grow his number of followers, consistently thinned the crowds. While he dealt with the many, he invested in the few. When the masses were clamoring for Him, He told a hard truth, stressed the cost and didn't seem overly concerned when people left... His life was poured into a few. And the intimacy in relationship led to men who were dramatically changed.

Today's church system seems almost at the opposite end of the spectrum. And the wider our influence spreads, the thinner our depth seems to be when tested. (We'll talk more about that in response to the third question.)

This problem is exacerbated by the leadership structure in many churches… even those which claim to be “elder led” leadership structures. In many churches, the leadership structure most closely resembles an American corporation, with a CEO and a Board of Directors. The CEO, as the head of management, is expected to be the “visionary leader” who sets direction for the enterprise. The role of the Directors is to provide support and resources for the CEO, as well as some level of accountability – but they are not “management.” So the CEO sets a direction, the Directors rally around it and the organization pursues it. Sadly, this model is increasingly prevalent in today’s evangelical churches.

What are men typically asked to do in a local church... and what makes them "good" congregants? Well, they need to show up (at worship services, business meetings - maybe men's ministry), they need to give, and they need to follow - and help out when asked. I've heard men say that there is no place in the local body for them to serve - and that is a tragedy, and a failure in the body - and a problem in the church's focus. Because the "church" is really the people in it - more so than the leaders who direct it. But today's model focuses more on the role and responsibility of "leaders" than it does in focusing on the role and responsibility of the individuals to actually do (and lead!) the "ministry" of the church.

There are many problems with today's model, not the least of which is that the plurality of leadership in the local fellowship is clearly taught in the New Testament. More importantly, when one man sets direction without the passionate participation by the spiritual leadership of the church, the prospects for error greatly increase. Vision is not one man’s idea of what God wants from the local fellowship; it is God’s direction, discernable by the whole of the leadership structure and implemented in a manner that is concerned for the well being of the flock under their care. Leadership structures that, as a practical matter, delegate the “vision” responsibility to the pastor alone do their pastor and their congregation a great disservice, and they abdicate their primary responsibility to be leaders, not merely cheerleaders for “management.”

We – each one of us, you and me – are all called to be the body of Christ. We are called to be salt and light. And we are “the church.” That is not a role that can be assumed by others - it's our responsibility... yours and mine. And when we as individuals are viewed by leaders as tools to support the real ministry conducted by the professionals - and are not viewed primarily as "the ministers" ourselves, WHO WE ARE – is wrong.

Next time: WHO do we think that WE are?