My Worst Mistake As a Minister

All ministers make mistakes and I want to tell you about what I believe is the biggest mistake I have made as a minister. When I say “mistake,” I mean the sort of things we do because we didn’t know any better which are done out of naïvety as well as a lack of experience and wisdom. In other words, I’m not talking about sin per se, although my biggest mistake did come with a lot of hubris and pride. So it does involve some sins of the heart and that is why I’m so thankful for the grace of God that forgives sin and lets one learn from the mistakes of the past.

Churches and Ministers

So let’s talk about churches and ministers. Churches call upon a minister to serve with them as a pastor (that’s the typical function whether or not the minister is referred to as a “pastor”). Besides preaching and teaching, the church anticipates growing and engaging in ministry among their community and beyond because they have a minister.

Ministers know this, as I certainly did and still do. I’ve read plenty of books on all things ministry and church growth. In 2007 when I graduated from seminary with my Master of Divinity, the word missional was just beginning to appear on the horizon. The emerging church, which now seems more like just a new approach to the church growth movement, was all the rages. I had read books like The Purpose Driven ChurchBuilding A Contagious Church, and Church For The Unchurched along with many other books, articles, and even blogs. The books all detailed the strategies of some of the biggest growing churches in America.

What I came away with was the idea that I had to have the vision for where the church needs to go, how the church can grow evangelistically and engage in ministry among its community. After all, I’m the minister with the theological education who has read the literature on church ministry (note the hubris and pride!). It didn’t dawn on me, and it probably wouldn’t have mattered at the time, that most of these “high-profile” churches were planted by their current pastor, who had a blank slate to cast a vision and that the church I was called to serve was an existing congregation with an existing culture.

And so here is my biggest mistake: I came to serve in a church with my vision of how the church should be and where it should go.

That was a mistake and a big one. When a minister serves a church that has already existed for a number of years, that church already has a culture. More importantly, God has already been at work in that church. Regardless of whatever problems the church has (as many churches do), God has been at work among those Christians forming them and gifting them for participation in his mission. Failure to see this and respect this has disaster written all over it.

A Change in Leadership

What has changed for me as a minister? I still believe the minister should have a vision for what God is calling churches to become. However, ministers need to hold that vision with humility and openness because they certainly are not the only ones in a church that God has imparted a vision for the church upon. So instead of coming in to serve by casting a very top-down vision and expecting the church to jump on board with that, the minister needs to come in first listening and learning.

As a leader, not the leader but a leader, the minister needs to hold out a vision of Jesus. That is, the minister needs to share with the church how Jesus expects his followers to join him in participating in the mission of God. This is done through preaching and teaching in both formal and informal settings, such as during the Sunday worship gathering or while sipping some great Brazilian or Ugandan brew at a local coffee house. But… Just as the minister holds this vision of Jesus before the church, the minister must also be listening and learning from the church to know where God has led them thus far and how God has gifted them for ministry. Then, and only then, is the minister able to help the church begin discerning where God is trying to lead them for the future. Once the church, together with the minister and other leaders (e.g., shepherds), have spent time discerning how God has gifted them and where seems to be leading them, then the church can begin assess and implementing whatever changes seem necessary.

For example, one of the challenges many churches face is that they are saddled with too many programs that have become more of a tiresome burden. So in order to move forward in following Jesus, a church may need to let go of something in order to do something. It’s like the first disciples who had to let go of their fishing nets in order to follow Jesus and become the fishers of people Jesus was preparing them to be (cf. Matt 4:20). A church, through discernment, may sense that God is leading them to engage in acts of mercy by using their building to be one of several neighborhood churches who feed the homeless one night per week. So maybe instead of participating in a weekly traditional small-group meeting every week, the small-groups take turns once a month serving meals to the homeless instead of just gathering for some Bible-study. But the church will only know this as the minister, along with other leaders, and the church are discerning together how God has gifted them and where God is leading them.

My Last Thought

The top-down approach may work but in my experience, it causes more problems than it solves. More importantly, the top-down approach is borrowed from the world of corporate America rather than from Jesus. Jesus calls his followers to be servants like him and if a minister wants the church to learn how to follow Jesus more deeply and passionately, it begins with the minister exemplifying the servant-leader approach of Jesus to the church.

The Tulsa Workshop… In the Rearview Mirror.

My son and I traveled to Tulsa, Oklahoma for the Tulsa Workshop last week. This was my first time attending this conference and overall it was a great experience. The theme was “Speak Life,” so here are my thoughts…

  • Traveling with Jared was a great thing to do. As his father, just listening to the different things he comes up with to talk about is priceless. But more importantly, the relationship we are building is so important and priceless too.
  • There’s a Facebook group (which shall remain nameless here) that I belong too that consists of different ministers and church leaders. It was nice getting to meet so many of these men and women, whom I interact with on Facebook, face to face.
  • The speakers and teachers such as John Alan Turner, Rick Atchley, Don McLaughlin, Robert Prater, Terry Rush, Patrick Mead, Josh Graves, Dr. Kent Brantley and Brandon Hatmaker were great but the two that spoke to me…
  • John Alan Turner spoke on failure and the grace of God, mentioning his own failed church plant. He reminded us that “God sees, knows, and wants to heal you from all the hurt and pain… Everything broken gets fixed.” As a minister who just helped close a church, I so needed to hear that word. Thanks John!
  • Dr. Kent Brantley. Really, I need not say anything. His story is compelling but also a great reminded of what following Jesus means. It’s risky and it always calls us to service of others, even at times suffering for the sake of others. Thanks Dr. Brantley for your faithful witness!
  • My son and I were shown first-class hospitality by Robert Prater, his wife Maggie, and their children. Thanks for twisting my arm and forcing me to eat BBQ!
  • Robert preaches for the Crosstown Church of Christ and took me by their church building. It’s situated in the middle of Tulsa among a neighborhood that has gone through a lot of social change over the years. So much potential for kingdom work their and Robert has the passion for that kind of work. Lord, bring gospel fruit from the gospel seeds this church is planting.
  • I took some time out to meet with the elders of a church in Oklahoma about their search for a new minister. Perhaps a move to Oklahoma is on the horizon… perhaps, but it’s too early to know for sure. In the meantime, if you know of a church looking for a minister where I might be a good fit then let me know.
  • There was one class where the speaker seemed (in my opinion) to use a lot of guilt and fear to motivate people for evangelism. I don’t understand this. Using guilt and fear might motivate people but it will only last as long as there is someone to keep heaping on the guilt and fear. And that never produces maturity. A better, more healthy way, of motivating people for evangelism seems to happen by inviting people into the compelling story of the gospel in such a way that they want to participate in it and share it.
  • Pie night at the dinner… a chocolate peanut-butter pie. Enough said there!
  • My son was asking me about what “grace” is. So we had a good conversation about grace. He understands as a young seven-year old boy does. His response, “I just want to follow the Lord, Jesus Christ.”
  • That’s what I want to do as well. Sometimes we do that well and sometimes we don’t.
  • Traveling back, we spent the night in St. Louis and then had breakfast with Bob Clark, who preaches for the Lafayette Church of Christ where my son and I stopped our travels to worship with other Christians. Mike Brown led the church in worship and Bob preached through Mark 10. As for me, I left with an overwhelming reminder that the Lord’s mercy is upon me and leading me to live as a merciful servant just like him. That’s also why I need to take time out from traveling on the road and gather with the church. To God be the glory!
  • Nearly 3,000 mils of driving latter and fifteen hours spent driving on Sunday, I am still physically exhausted. But I am glad I went.
  • To God be the glory!

Did you go to the Tulsa Workshop? If so, share some of your experiences.

Ministry and Envy

Everyone wants to be appreciated for the good they do and at some level, everyone needs to feel appreciated. That includes pastors too. Although the ultimate reward for all Christian service comes from God, its hard for anyone to keep giving their best when their best seems to go unnoticed or is continuously met with criticism.

However, in ministry the need for appreciation can also develop into an unhealthy envy. The need for appreciation morphs into the need for recognition.  This is a problem that most pastors, including myself, have struggled with from time to time.

Yesterday Rich Little wrote a blog piece titled 5 Difficult Questions Pastors Must Ask and the first question was “Do I feel competitive with my peers?” Yes, I have at times. I’m sure other ministers have and do as well. This especially seems to be the case when our pees are recognized and we’re not… or at least not the way we think we should be recognized.

You see the problem. It’s the problem of envy, a sin of the heart that is often coupled with a lot of pride and sense of entitlement.

Saul, the King of Israel, struggled with envy too. After David had won the battle against the Philistines we are told in 1 Samuel 18:7 that women throughout different towns were singing “Saul has struck down his thousands, but David his tens of thousands.” Then in the very next verse we read that this “made Saul very angry.” And if you read the rest of the story, Saul attempts to kill David several times.

Attempted murder. That’s the result of Saul’s envious heart. It might be easy to ignore this as a warning since most of us would never even contemplate committing murder. However, when our hearts are consumed with envy, we become dissatisfied and frustrated with the ministry God has called us to because we want what our peers have. Maybe that frustration gets taken out on the family at home, whether that means becoming a workaholic who neglects our family because we’re trying to chase something we think we don’t have or just turning our anger into physical and emotional abuse. Or maybe that sense of entitlement turns into other unethical practices, such as buying one’s way onto the New York Times Bestsellers book list, to provide for ourselves what we think we don’t have. Or maybe we take our dissatisfaction out on the church we serve, berating them with “bold preaching” for not being the church that our envious imagination says we should be pastoring.

The best antidote for envy is prayer! Pray with thanksgiving for the way God has gifted us for ministry and with thanksgiving for the ministry God has called us to, whether that is with a large church or small church… a church in the city or a church in the country. Pray also for the people we serve in ministry. Doing so keeps the focus where it belongs, on God and others rather than ourselves.

And if you’re reading this and you’re not a pastor, then send your pastor a card telling them how much you appreciate their ministry. Believe me, such words of encouragement are precious and your pastor will appreciate it more than you realize.

Reading Scripture: Christianity and Church Community

One of the challenges that Christians face in North America is the individualism that we filter the Christian faith through. We do this because we are culturally conditioned as residents within North America which is shaped predominately by Western thought that is individualistic. That’s very different from Eastern societies, including those of the Bible, which are community-oriented in thought.

As an individualistic society, the most important person is the self, whose identity is always distinguished from the others. What matters is that we are true to ourselves and that we be ourselves because it is the self that is ultimately sovereign. That is different from the community-oriented life where family and tribe are more valuable than the self, so that the welfare of the family and tribe are more important than individual expression.

In their book Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes, authors E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien write…

If we’re not careful, our individualistic assumptions about church can lead us to think of the church as something like a health club. We’re members because we believe in the mission statement and want to be a part of the action. As long as the church provides the services I want, I’ll stick around. But when I no longer approve of the vision, or am no longer “being fed,” I’m out the door. This is not biblical Christianity. (p. 107).

No it’s not! The question then is how else might we handle different issues of conflict and disagreement so that we’re not bolting for the nearest door overtime we don’t get our way like something?

Well, w need to get over ourselves! What I mean is that as long as our concern is individualistic, not only is that being self-centered but it is very unlike Christ whom we confess as Lord… whose example we are to take up, which is exactly what Paul instructs in Philippians 2:5-8.

Perhaps it is time we ask God in prayer to retrain us to read scripture with a concern for the community above our individual selves.

Whose Side Are You Standing On?

Last Tuesday, March 3rd, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in the United States speaking to Congress. Predictably, his appearance and speech was a political moment that showed the great polarization between Democrats and Republicans. Not surprisingly, his address was lauded with both support and scorn by Christians. Those who favor the right, the conservatism of Republicans, expressed their approval for the Prime Minister while those who favor the left, the liberalism of Democrats, criticized the Prime Minister’s appearance. And not surprisingly, though disappointing, many of these voices lending support or scorn were the voices of Christians… people who belong to the Kingdom of God.

This all seemed like a primer for what’s to come as America gears up for another major election, including the election of a new President. Many Christians will take to social-media as a vehicle for expressing their views, most of which will sound unabashedly either Democrat or Republican. So let me be clear: Christians, we have a problem!

Gospel of Reconciliation

When the Apostle Paul was writing to the Corinthian church to defend the legitimacy of the ministry he and Timothy are engaged in, he described the work as the ministry of reconciliation. Paul said that it was “…God who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and who has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18). In a world divided between Jews and Gentiles, fueled by years of animosity, Paul was called to proclaim the death and resurrection of Christ which was the climatic event bringing an end to the division by creating one new creation in Christ. In fact, much of Paul’s writing in the New Testament is dedicated to bringing out the implications of this reconciliation.

One of the implications for reconciliation is that those who are reconciled to God also become agents of reconciliation. After discussing how in Christ the wall of division between Jews and Gentiles has been destroyed, creating one new people known as the church, Ephesians makes clear that this “wisdom of God” is now being made known “through the church” (Eph 3:10). The church is able to participate in this mission of God because the Holy Spirit empowers it to live as a proleptic reality. That is, the Holy Spirit enables the church to live among the present as a witness of what the future is.

This is how the eschatology of the gospel works. The future of history, God’s future, has entered into the present through Christ and now his church who continues the ministry of Christ. This means the church is called to live as the tangible reality of what reconciliation looks like among a dying world that only knows division.

There’s just one problem: The majority of Christians in America seem to have forgotten this gospel of reconciliation. Or worse, they just don’t care. What makes me think this, you ask? Because too many Christians are more worried about upholding the present day divisions that having nothing to do with the gospel by aligning themselves with the American right and left… Republican and Democrat politics.

Swallowed Up Into the Division

One of the books I am currently reading is Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace. The author, who as a native Croation, lived through the wars in the former Yugoslavia, knows something about division and explains the real consequence of aligning with one side or the other…

The stronger the conflict, the more the rich texture of the social world disappears and the stark exclusionary polarity emerges around which all thought and practice aligns itself. No other choice seems available, no neutrality possible, and therefore no innocence sustainable. If one does not exit that whole social world, one gets sucked into its horrid polarity. Tragically enough, over time the polarity has a macabre way of mutating into its very opposite − into “both us and them” that unities the divided parties in a perverse common of mutual hate and mourning over the dead (p. 99).

Volf explains how people, by failing to remove themselves from the division, become swallowed up into the division, taking up the cause of one side or the other so that it becomes about “us” (whatever side we align ourselves with) against “them.”

Here in American, that polarity is the politics of the conservative vs. the liberal, typically known as Democrat vs. Republican. The problem for Christianity is that is aligning ourselves with either side, we become that side and lose the ability to participate in the gospel of reconciliation. Note what I did not say: I did not say that by aligning ourselves with one side or the other will prevent us from proclaiming “Jesus saves,” teaching a bible class at church, helping with our church’s VBS, or many of the other good Christian things we do. But let’s be clear, we can do all that and still fail to join in the gospel of reconciliation because this ministry is about living among the present old world of human kingdoms as a witness of the new in-breaking future world of God’s kingdom. And we can’t embody the new when we’re still enjoined with the old!

So, someone might ask, are you saying that Christians cannot vote? Nope! I’ve not said that once and to think that this is the issue is to miss the issue. Most Christians are way past voting. We’ve gone from being just voters to people who are involved in waging a social-media war for one side or the other, as if whatever side we are fighting for is the good news that give life to this dying world. Except, if we really believe the Bible, then we must admit that this is wrong and that the only way we can participating in bringing good news to America and the rest of the world is by aligning ourselves exclusively with Jesus’s cause… not Jesus’ cause and America’s cause but Jesus’s cause alone!

One Question

Let me finish by asking a question. But first, a quick story.

When I was a child at church camp, we would sing a song during devotionals called Standing On The Lord’s Side. The song went something like this…

Leader: “Tell me, whose side are you standing on?”
Church: “I’m standing on the Lord’s side.”
Leader: “I said, whose side are you standing on?”
Church: “Standing on the Lord’s side.
I stand, I stand, I stand… standing on the Lord’s side.

So it seems time for us to ask, whose side are we standing on? The American Right and Left or the Lord’s Side?

Becoming Responsible For Our Faith

Few Christians, if any, move into to a new town and just decide to join the church that meets closest to their house, like the church around the corner. There’s a lot that goes into deciding what church we’ll join. We want to know what the church believes, what their mission is, what sort of values do they embody, if there are any major troubling issues, if this is the sort of community we want are children to be a part of, and on and on go the number of questions we want to know.

That’s all fine. I get it because I have those questions too. In fact, those are some of the questions I ask of churches seeking a new minister to serve with. However, somewhere in time, we started concerning ourselves with other questions too that have to do usually with just a couple hours on Sunday… worship and preaching. We know the concerns in the way people judge evaluate whatever church they just visited… One person wants contemporary worship, while the other prefers the liturgy. Someone else can’t stand all those old hymns, while another person thinks the contemporary praise choruses are just a bit too shallow for their liking. Then comes the preaching issues… the sermon is too long, too short, lacking humor, not serious enough, too theological, too shallow, and on and on it goes.

From A Consumer Faith to a Dead Faith…

Somewhere in time our worship preferences became the standard by which we decided whether we liked a church or not, whether we would join that church or not. Somewhere in time the consumerism of American culture became a value among Christians and we started shopping for churches like we shop for everything else. Don’t believe me? Go visit any bookstore and look at the Bible section. Besides having to decide which English translation we prefer reading from, we now have specialty Bible’s marketed to almost every niche imaginable all to satisfy our consumeristic value.

Back to worship and church. We evaluate worship and the church based upon our consumer driven desires. Are we getting fed? Does the service inspire us? Are we happy? Somehow, church and worship became about us? But here’s the problem: When church and worship becomes about us, we develop an appetite that will never be satisfied! It becomes like an addiction and we need that bigger emotional high or that next powerful sermon to get our fix. The only problem is that as time goes by, it gets harder and harder to keep getting our fix. That’s usually when we bolt for another church because the church we’re at doesn’t get us high enough anymore. If we’re lucky enough, perhaps we can find a good sermon podcast or catch some cool church streaming their worship live but eventually that well runs dry too.

Before we know it, our faith has become dependent upon the church and its Sunday worship gathering. When the can’t deliver the goods, our faith begins to sail like a lead balloon. Eventually we come to the point where there isn’t any church with enough juice to fill up our faith and so we are left with a dead faith.

Maybe out of fear of God’s judgment, we keep showing up and going through the motions. Or maybe we show up because we have friends. But regardless, our faith…

What faith?

From Consumers of God to Worshipers of God…

But it doesn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t. It never was meant to be this way either. There are numerous passages throughout scripture that suggest we have a part in maintaining our faith that we must take responsibility for. This isn’t to suggest that we earn our salvation, that we make up our own faith, or that our faith is dependent upon us. It’s like food and eating. We’re dependent upon God for blessing the tree with fruit but if we’re going to reap the blessing of that fruit, then we need to go pick some fruit off the tree and eat it. If we can’t do that, then hunger is what we get.

“How can a young person maintain a pure life? By guarding it according to your instructions! …In my heart I store up your words, so I might not sin against you.” – Psalm 119:9, 11

“Be devoted to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving.” – Colossians 4:2

“But you, dear friends, by building yourselves up in your most holy faith by praying in the Holy Spirit, maintain yourselves in the love of God, while anticipating the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that brings eternal life.” – Jude 20-21

The best way for us to take responsibility for our own faith is to devote ourselves daily to the scriptures and to prayer. Such discipline is not always easy to maintain because there is so much in life competing for our time and attention these days. There are numerous daily Bible reading plans available on the internet. Some are free and some will cost a few dollars but as long as we can afford five dollar coffee drinks at Starbucks, we can afford to spend a few dollars on a Bible reading plan. So Pick one! After your reading spend a few minutes praying about it. Pick a couple of other times slots throughout the day for prayer and do that every day so that you can develop a rhythm.

By taking responsibility for our own faith through daily attention to scripture and prayer, not only will we discover our own faith coming alive but our experience during worship will change for the better too. Whether we’re in a high church, low church, traditional church, or contemporary church, we’ll come full of the Spirit. We may come with great joy or great sadness on our hearts, depending on what is happening in our own lives, but we’ll come with a genuinly Spirit-filled faith in Jesus Christ ready to truly worship God with our church.

I Went To Church And…

Ok, I’m not really a fan of saying “I went to church” or “I am going to church” since the church is a people and not a building or worship event. Nevertheless, that’s how our society speaks of gather for worship with a Christian church.

Most church communities have some sort of centralized gathering where people come together for worship and fellowship that includes singing, praying, reading scripture, preaching, and participation in the Lord’s Supper. Maybe these churches do a few other things together like Bible-class time or a meal but regardless, this is a very typical feature of church. Yet in recent years it seems like this tradition, especially of the contemporary style, has taken its share of criticism from both Christians and non-Christians (see, for example here and here). But yesterday, I went to church with my family and enjoyed it. So did my family.

A Little Context…

I am a minister of the gospel… a preacher or pastor, as some call me. I really don’t put a lot of stock in titles, as I am just trying to follow Jesus whom I believe is Lord. For the last three and a half years I served with the Columbia Church of Christ until the church decided it was time to close at the end of January 2015. I still believe I am called to serve as a minister of the gospel and so I am searching, waiting, and listening for the church God wants me to serve with next. But in the meantime, what do I do?

The first two Sunday’s in February I was doing some guest-preaching in a couple of different churches in the area. Then there were two different snow storms each of the next two weekends resulting in every area church canceling their services because of the weather and road conditions. So each of those two Sunday’s were spent at home with the family (no complaints).

Although I have daily disciplines such as regular prayer time and daily Bible reading to help maintain my own faith and don’t expect the worship gathering to sustain my faith, it felt odd to sit at home on Sunday and not be at church. Then came yesterday. I wasn’t expected to be preaching anywhere or doing anything else as a minister and I certainly didn’t have to get out of bed, should I have chosen to sleep in which I’ll admit was a tempting idea. So came the moment that I had to answer for: Do I go to church only because I’m the preacher or do I go because, for all of the criticisms I might raise, I really believe in and value gathering with other believers for worship and fellowship?

Into The Holy of Holies

So as I have said, I went to church. I went with my wife and children. We visited the Countryside Fellowship Church in Savage, Maryland where a few of the people from the Columbia Church of Christ are now visiting. I also happen to know the pastor of that church, so there was that connection too.

The atmosphere was relaxed, somewhat contemporary but it didn’t seem like the church was trying to keep up with the latest trendy fads in worship. The members were friendly and hospitable without pushing themselves upon us. The worship began with a reading from the Psalms and a call to worship. After singing several songs, the pastor preached on Revelation 3:1-6 (Jesus’ message to the Church of Sardis) and then we shared in the Lord’s Supper together before singing one final song. In so many ways the gathering was typical and normal with nothing spectacular except for the presence of the true living God. It was just church.

Yet it was nice, for a change, to sing, pray, read scripture, encounter the preached word of God, and share in the Lord’s Supper not as the preacher but just as a worshiper. It was nice to be reminded through song, prayer, scripture, word, and the Lord’s Supper that even though I am not righteous on my own accord, I belong to God and live in the glorious presence of God because of the blood of Jesus Christ by which I am made righteous. That message was especially pointed as we sang the song by Kutless Take Me In (To The Holy of Holies).

I Went To Church And…

I know that there are churches where worship is a lifeless endeavor of just going through the motions of a dead faith. Likewise, I know that there are other churches where worship has become such a professionally manufactured endeavor that the work of the Spirit seems stifled by a shallow faith. But as I reflect on going to church, I am reminded that when we come ready to give our heart to God we receive… not some superficial emotion that is meant as a mask to whatever junk we are dealing with. I’m still struggling with the worry of my family and I living in limbo as we await the next church I’ll serve with.

What I received was joy, the kind that Paul spoke of in Philippians 1 where he was content with whatever happens because of his solidarity with Christ. I received this gift of joy not because I deserve it or could obtain it as though it is a commodity. I received it simply because I showed up at church desiring to worship the God who, by his grace and mercy, has made me alive in Christ and given me his Spirit as the assurance of this life.

So yeah, yesterday I went to church and I am glad I did.