Category Archives: Leadership

Church Leaders and Spiritual Responsibility

When talking of church leadership, the discussion of “spiritual authority” usually comes to mind. It’s the question of what leadership roles does the church have and what authority do those roles have.

Despite the overemphasis on leadership in some Christian circles and the emerging pushback, there is validity to the discussion of spiritually authority and church leadership. We are told in Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them…” The text never specifies who these leaders are, just that the church must “obey” them and “submit” to them. This assumes a high degree of authority without saying a word about how the leaders exercise this authority. So how is such authority exercised by leaders of the church? Such a question is important but it gains even more importance whenever we think of stories where leaders have acted with unhealthy authority, causing great harm.

Jesus Shaped Leadership…

As one who believes that we must read all scripture in light of Jesus, the self-sacrificial servant lifestyle of Jesus is the first hint at how leaders must exercise authority. Jesus was bold and decisive, unwilling to compromise his convictions, but he was also a servant who never forced anyone to act against their own free will. In fact, he even washed the feet of the one who betrayed him and those who deserted him when he was arrested and crucified.

In Matthew 20:20-28 there’s a story about the mother of James and John asking Jesus if her sons could sit at his right hand. Apparently, these two courageous boys put their mommy up to this because Jesus responded to them, telling them that they were clueless about what they were asking and then asking them if they could drink the same cup as Jesus. But this upset the other ten disciples who became angry, so Jesus responds in vv. 25-28:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The key words in this text are “not so” and “just as,” which specifies how Jesus his disciples to exercise spiritual authority.* Instead of a top-down dictating authority, Jesus insists that spiritual authority must come from the act of becoming a servant.

Spiritual Authority Responsibility?

The life of Jesus and his teaching about becoming a servant should then form the basis for how the leaders mentioned in Hebrews 13 are to exercise authority. That is because within the kingdom of God, all church leaders are followers of Jesus first. The authority of church leaders comes from service, not demand. Consequently, because of some top-down understandings of authority present in our own culture, I think we may be better off talking about spiritual responsibility instead of spiritual authority.

In this regards, the church has leaders with certain responsibility which the church must recognize. In exercising responsibility, the leaders are guiding the church towards greater participation in the mission of God. Yet because leadership responsibility is exercised from the role of a servant — as followers of Jesus — church leaders go first where they want to lead others. Put another way, such servant leaders will never ask others to do what they themselves are unwilling to do.

One Caveat…

I might be wrong on some of what I’m saying or over-simplifying the issue a bit, as I’m more so just thinking out loud as I work through my own questions about church leadership. However, over my lifetime I have known of stories involving both elders and ministers who did much harm. Yet I’ve never heard of leaders doing harm among a church because they were trying to lead like Jesus, as self-sacrificial servants.

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* This insight comes from, Randy Willingham, a church consultant and ministry professor at Harding University.

Church, Change, and Renewal: Addressing the Problems

There are always problems within the church because the church is people. The problems create conflict and that is neither right or wrong, it’s just reality. Two or more people can’t participate in community with each other without encountering conflict. The question is how will the said conflict be handled, for that will determine whether the conflict becomes a good thing or bad thing… healthy or unhealthy conflict.

Churches pursuing missional renewal will encounter conflict as they try to move forward, changing what appears as wrong and pursuing what is right. I believe part of the trick is understanding that churches form as organizations. While churches generally begin in an organic manner, such as people just coming together for dinner and Bible study in someone’s house, as churches begin to grow they must organize with leadership, structure, and practices. Hence, churches become an organization. We even see this formation from organic to organization within the early book of Acts as this community has been formed organically by the Holy Spirit. The organic church takes on certain practices, including meeting the daily needs of others, but eventually more leadership is necessary so that the church may adequately continue the practice of meeting daily needs with food (cf. Acts 6:1-6), becoming an organization.

The challenge is that at some point in a churches history, something about the way the church is organized becomes the problem. Maybe the church has lapsed into an unhealthy practice for dealing with conflict, lost a shared vision of who it’s called to be, etc… Whatever the case may be, this is where problems that have been simple aches and pains to the body increasingly become like catastrophic illness. However, adding to the problem is a failure to recognize the issue as an organizational problem and instead blame certain individuals or a small group within the organization (cf. Andy Stanley, et al., Seven Practices of Effective Ministry, p. 58). By pointing the finger at people rather than the way the church participates in life together as an organization, the real problem — which is likely organizational — is ignored. When this happens, I doubt very much that the church will find the renewal it hopes for.

As the church pursues renewal, perhaps the best course of action is to slow the process down. The faster the pace, the more anxiety there is and the greater chance of people pointing fingers at each other instead discerning together. In doing so, there are several things I believe are also necessary:

  1. Have Conversations: For smaller churches, pulling chairs up in a circle and having a dialogical conversation is probably the best format. In larger churches where more organization is still necessary, having something like a town-hall meeting with an open mic for anyone to ask questions or make comments. In either case, some moderation will likely be necessary.
  2. Remain Patient: If you’re like me, you want every problem solved yesterday. The only problem is that God doesn’t operate according to our time schedules. Finding renewal is a process, not a single event and as someone told me the other day, churches must be willing to engage in the process as long as it is necessary.
  3. Offer Grace: As churches pursue renewal, there is anxiety and in such a context, people are bound to say and do things that are wrong. Most likely, they’re not trying to be malicious. So if necessary, speak to them about whatever matter it is but be willing to forgive just as Christ has forgiven you. Besides forgiving each other, believe the best about each other rather than assuming the worst. Without grace, the process of renewal will become ugly and will likely fail.

The Minister, The Church, and Change…

In my previous post, I discussed the problem with trying to make what I call “cosmetic change” before “character change” among declining churches. It’s easier for the church to focus on external issues, seeking cosmetic changes such different worship styles, adding small groups, and so on rather than focusing on the internal character of the church. It’s easier because neither individuals nor organizations want to critically look in the mirror, so to speak,  focusing on the character of who they fundamentally are and what them needs to change.

Enter the minister, the one tasked with leading the church towards missional renewal. Similar to Timothy and Titus, who both were carrying on where Paul left of, leading the churches in Ephesus and Crete towards their intended purpose, the minister’s role here is equipping the church to live on mission with God. However, this task can be quite the challenge, especially when it involves helping a church that has been in decline towards renewal. The first part of the challenge is keeping the conversation focused the character issues such as the vision and purpose the church will live out of.

Yet keeping the conversation focused on the character issues often results in a second challenge. Describing what he calls the “chronically anxious family” as wanting the quick fix solution as a technique for reversing the problem rather focusing on the underlying symptoms of the problem which has to do with themselves, Friedman goes on to say:

“What chronically anxious families require, of course, is a leader who does not give in to their demands. Should such a leader somehow arise, these families will be relentless in undercutting his or her resolve, and outside the family circle they will continually try to adapt other systems and professional to their needs” (A Failure of Nerve, p. 87).

In other words, the minister should fully expect resistance and even possible rejection. In my own church tribe, the later is usually when the minister is encouraged (“told”) to find another church to serve with.

There’s the story in 1 Samuel 8 when Israel demands a king. This bothered Samuel, who took his trouble to the Lord in prayer. Apparently, Samuel felt as though Israel was rejecting his leadership but God spoke up and said, “…it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king” (v. 7). And so it is with churches. The resistance to change, which is often channeled towards the minister is not, in the end, a decision about the minister but one about God and his mission.

At the end of the day, the minister must simply decide to be faithful to the calling!

Change Among the Declining Church

There are plenty of churches that find themselves in various stages of decline, finding themselves increasingly frustrated, and desiring missional renewal. Therefore something must change! But what?

The tempting answer is better programs, a different worship style, and so on. These are what I described in another post as cosmetic changes, which are different from character changes. The difference is important because, as I use this illustration often, you can put lipstick and make-up on a pig but at the end of the day, it’s still a pig. That is to say, making cosmetic changes alone to a church only results in the same church with some new lipstick and make-up.

The Problem with the Church…

In my experience, the problem with church decline is a character problem rather than cosmetic problem. The character problem stems from a web of issues involving leadership, unhealthy conflict, lack of vision and purpose, and members who want a church to attend rather than making a commitment to be the church. Such problems create anxiety among the church as an organization. The desire for missional renewal among the declining church then becomes the question of whether or not the church wants to address character change.

According to Edwin Friedman, in his book A Failure of Nerve, the answer is “No!” Instead of focusing on the underlying fundamental problems, anxious family systems would rather pursue quick fix solutions (p. 84-85). While Friedman is not talking about churches in particular, the problem he recognizes applies to churches just as much as it applies to families, governments, and other organizations. For churches in decline, it’s easier to blame something else and try to fix it with cosmetic changes than to say that the problem is “us” and address the character change.

Addressing The Church Problem…

Churches seeking missional renewal must focus on their own character? Does the church own a vision and purpose rooted in the mission of God that they are committed to pursuing? In other words, can the church as a whole (not just the minister, elders, and deacons) identify themselves by saying “This is who we are and this is what we are seeking to accomplish by the grace and power of God”?

This is the missional question of identity and purpose and it is the character change that churches must first address. Only when the church is able to answer this missional question of character change can it then begin to make cosmetic changes that may work. There isn’t any guarantee that such cosmetic changes will work but I am convinced that they are futile without a character change resulting in an owned vision and purpose for which the church as a whole is committed to.

Combative Emails: How Do We Respond?

Last Sunday you preached a real challenging message, taught a Bible class that really challenged a long-held traditional belief on a particular passage, made an announcement that is not appreciated by everyone, etc… Now you open your church email account and in your inbox is one of those emails. You know the kind of email I’m talking about… The email comes from a church member who means well but nevertheless is chocked full of emotion and criticism, correcting your wrong interpretation of scripture with enough proof-texts to create a topical index of the Bible.  I call them combative emails because they’re usually the critical kind of emails that are screaming for a combative response.

Don’t!

Let me say that again: Don’t!

Sympathetically, I don’t envy you one bit. I’ve received my share of combative emails during my ministry. It’s easy and very tempting to fire back a response, defending your message and correcting this person’s take on things. That’s a natural reaction because for many people, including myself, our response when challenged is to go on defense. But I have learned that this is normally a poor-defensive strategy and one that is likely only to create further problems. So what should the response be?

There are several things to consider before making any kind of response:

  • Wait awhile! The first and most important thing you can do is wait. Give yourself some time to think and reflect on what the person is and is not saying. This way you avoid making a reply that is emotionally reactive and likely only to make matters worse.
  • Let it go! Not every battle is worth fighting. This is true of any relationship, like our marriages and it is certainly true for ministry as well. Some issues are not worth the time it takes to discuss them and sometimes, the battle is not worth the price it will cost in the end. Furthermore, there’s not much wisdom in discussing a matter with someone if that person has proven themselves to be unreasonable and close-minded.
  • Tell ‘em thanks! In most cases, the writer of an email like this would at least like to know that you received the email and read it. So a short and simple reply telling the person “Thanks!” will help a lot. You might even suggests that after having some time to think about their concerns more, that perhaps they would like to get together and talk over some coffee or lunch. In all likelihood, the person who sent you the email just wanted to be heard and this will oblige him or her while defusing something that could become very disastrous. And use discretion about any further engagement by emails.
  • Talk face to face! There are occasions where things are said and done that must be addressed. Whether it’s a misunderstanding, an accusation, or else, if it is possible then the best way to handle the matter is to arrange a time to sit down and talk face to face. Generally, I think it’s ok to arrange such a meeting by email or phone but that is it. Save the discussion for some conversation over a good cup of coffee or a warm bowl of soup. In this way, by seeing each others face, you remind each other that this is a conversation between two Christians and that allows you to speak in ways that builds each other up.

These I have learned the hard way… And I’m still learning.

There is one more suggestion I have and it has to do with fostering immaturity. I have found that these combative emails of reflect immaturity on the part of the sender, especially when the emails are accusatory and are full of incoherent arguments that proof-text the Bible at will. It’s unfortunate that such immaturity exists among Christians but the greater tragedy is to foster such immaturity by resorting to the same tactics in response. My suggestion is don’t! By doing so, you are simply telling the other person that it’s ok to act this way and it will not serve any purpose except to create more problems… including a giant headache. There have been a couple of occasions, where I refused to even respond and acknowledge my receiving of an email, choosing instead to go directly to that person. If they can’t handle that then there isn’t any conversation to have on the matter they want to address.

So what suggestions do you have for responding to people who send combative emails?

Ministry, Burden, and Calling

There are two images of ministry that are very different. There’s the glamorized image which is projected in many books. You know the ones… great stories of fast-growing churches and high profile pastors, innovative visions and the ten key moves that every other minister needs to take his or her church to the next level. Then there’s the other image that seldom gets spoken of, or at least it’s not featured on the shelf in that Christian bookstore.

Before I say a word about this other image, let me say that I’m happy for those ministry stories that become best-selling books. That’s because behind all those stories has been a lot of hard work and difficult leadership that led to the accomplishments that we read about in those books. Nevertheless, this image of ministry is not the norm. The other image of ministry that seldom gets spoken is one of ups and downs, celebration and struggle.

Reality check #1: Most churches in America are less than one-hundred members. Think about that for a moment. Those who are called to lead churches as ministers/pastors will most likely serve in one of these small churches.

Reality check #2: There is a reason why churches are less than one-hundred members. Whether the church has never grown beyond the one-hundred mark or it once was above that mark but has since declined, there is a reason for this. Usually that reason isn’t pretty but it’s part of the church’s story and therefore will be part of the ministry experience.

These are the churches that many seminarians will be called to serve among. Besides preaching and teaching, there are many other great aspects of this ministry that include baptisms, weddings, child births, ministry projects, helping broken marriages heal, being in the hospital room with families during very difficult times, and so on. But in between all these great moments are some very difficult moments too. Serving and leading among churches with such a variegated history of good and not so good times, will keep you up at night on more than a few occasions. Sometimes doing what is right means doing the difficult things and doing so knowing that may disappoint some people — people you have grown to love and care about. This is the burden of ministry, the heartache that stays with you. It’s the burden that you will keep rehearsing in your head, the burden you will bear whether or not it’s your burden to bear.

The bottom line is that ministry is very enjoyable, it isn’t always fun. And for those who think that church planting is easier… Think again! For every successful church plant, there are plenty of other churches that never last beyond five years after being planted. That’s quite a burden to ponder for the planters of those church.

So what is it that keeps one going through the tough seasons of ministry?

I believe it is the sense of calling. Ministry isn’t just a job, it’s a life . . . and it’s a life  that comes with a calling from God. For those who receive the call, the response is to go in faith as God sends and trust that God will provide. Along the way there will be plenty of times when ministry is exciting. Like most adventures, it’s easy to go at it when the good times are rolling. But when they’re not… Remember the calling!

Discernment for Dying Churches

We love to talk about life but death is another matter. When it comes to churches, this aversion to talking about death is much greater. I have encountered many small struggling churches that are living in maintenance mode, unsure of how or even if they even have the capacity to become a church moving forward on mission with God. But few of the churches want to consider that it might be time for their church to die.

I don’t think it should be like this. Though I realize that death is never a pleasant subject, it is a fact of life. However, for Christians, death is never the end. We believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and therefore we believe that God raises new life out of death. God does so whenever a person is baptized into Christ where they are crucified with Christ — buried into death with Christ — and then raised into new life with Christ (cf. Rom 6:3-4). And God can do so even when a particular church decides that it is time to close (death).

The local church always exists to serve a purpose within the mission of God. One church may serve to minister among an emerging inner-city Latino neighborhood while another may serve exist to serve near a university among  college age young adults. Each church, with its purpose for existence, is valid and necessary but neither church is bigger than the mission of God that has been revealed in Christ and is now being lived out in the universal body of Christ. Over time and for various reasons, the purpose which the local church served within the mission of God no longer exists. Maybe its a church that once grew though a great Sunday School outreach program in a neighborhood of young families but now has discovered that as the neighborhood has changed with the young families being replaced by Asian immagrants who do not speak English as their primary language, their purpose is has run its course. Or maybe the church once grew because it was a safe community for people who were trying to discover the grace of God but as more and more other local churches discovered the grace of God, their purpose has been fulfilled.

Without finding a new purpose for existence, one that participates in the mission of God, the church begins to decline as it shifts into maintenance mode. Sadly, many churches linger in such mode until they are forced to close because their are few members left, financial resources have disappeared, etc… Sometimes, if not many times, this is very taxing and detrimental to the spiritual health of the members in this church. But what if the church decided that it was time to close the church for good, effectually letting the church die (rather than trying to keep it on life support)?

I think there are at least several good results that could come from a church deciding to close for good. First, the members could then become a part of another church where they continue growing in faith as they serve with this church using their spiritual gifts. In such a case, God is breathing new life into their own souls as well as the new church they are joining. Also, the remaining assets of the church that closed could be contributed to other churches or para-church ministries that are serving a needed purpose within God’s mission. Second, the members could call a missionary/evangelist leader to plant a new church with a new purpose. The members may even choose to be a part of this new church (but they must let it be a new church and not just a reinvention of the old church). In this scenario, where one church is closing, another is being planted… where one church has died, another one has been born.

So what should be done? This is where discernment is necessary. The declining and dying church must come together in prayer and in conversation in order to listen to what God is trying to say about the way forward. The church I serve in as a minister is starting to have such conversations right now. This isn’t the sort of ministry I ever envisioned myself helping a church work through but it is a necessary one. I’m convinced that many other churches need to discern the same question as well and that’s why I’m writing this blog post.

Here is a prayer that I wrote for our church which we prayed together yesterday. The prayer is structured around the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus teaches us to pray in Matthew 6:9-13 and it is a prayer as we move forward trying to discern the will of God:

Our Father in heaven, you are holy, the one true living God. There is no one like you, who loves us beyond our ability to fully understand.

We desire for your kingdom to come, for your will to be done here on earth as it is in heaven. And as we discern together the future, we want to discern your will so that it can be done in us and by us.

We ask for you to provide all our needs, our daily bread, with full trust that you will do that just as you always have in the past. Should we relaunch, we know that you will provide the way. Should we close and scatter, we know that you will provide the way.

Whatever the course is, we know that we are mortals and that we have and will continue to make mistakes, so we ask for your forgiveness as we forgive each other of our mistakes, short-comings, and sins. Whatever grievances we hold toward each other and toward past decisions made in this church, we release.

We know that our enemy, Satan, will try to distract us and steer us from your will, so we pray for your deliverance from Satan influence, that we may be filled with the power of the Spirit to hear your will and obey your will.

The kingdom belongs to you, our God. You reign through you Son, Jesus, who was crucified, who has been raised from death and has ascended to the throne. Through him alone, we ascribe to you the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen!

In The Age of Celebrity Pastors: What Motivates Our Ministry?

Is Christianity in America worshiping an idol known as the “celebrity pastor?” Are we who serve as ministers and pastors of churches cultivating this idolatry ourselves…for ourselves?

The last couple of weeks has seen a lot of blogs, Facebook remarks, and so on talking about the allegations that Pastor Mark Driscoll committed plagerism. In the midst of this chatter comes two post that I believe point to a deeper problem with the “celebrity pastor” status among Christianity. First up is a post on Christianity Today’s website titled The Real Problem with Mark Driscoll’s ‘Citation Errors’ in which Andy Crouch says:

Mark Driscoll is a human being, created in the image of God, with great gifts, real limits, and very likely a genuine calling to ministry. But “Pastor Mark Driscoll,” the author of “literally thousands of pages of content a year,” the purveyor of hundreds of hours of preaching, is in grave danger of becoming a false image. No human being could do what “Pastor Mark Driscoll” does—the celebrity is actually a complex creation of a whole community of people who sustain the illusion of an impossibly productive, knowledgeable, omnicompetent superhuman.

The real danger here is not plagiarism—it is idolatry.

In his blog post The Lesson of Driscoll’s Plagiarism: A Rant On Rejecting Celebrity Leadership, David Fitch describes the problem as an “ideology at work” saying,

[Mark Driscoll's] clear avoidance of one of the most basic practices of the Christian life and the continuing charades surrounding him, the publishers and the lawyers to avoid dealing with the lies, illustrate how far the Driscoll’s book and leadership has been removed above the actual practice of on-the-ground Christian life in the form of a celebrity pastor, and has become a product to be sold, an image to be upheld. This is not Christianity, this is ideology…

Both are right. It’s ideology and idolatry.

Before We Blame…

However the problem isn’t Mark Driscoll’s alone. In fact, the problem isn’t just with the celebrity pastors, whoever they are. I believe the problem is largely our problem! That is, the problem is owned by the broad movement known as evangelical Christianity (Emmergents, Missional, Reformed, Neo-Reformed, Anabaptists, Restorationist, Charismatic-Pentcostals, etc… Did I get them all?).

With the idea that there is an idolatry of “celebrity pastor” taking place, I believe that we could substitute any number other celebrity Pastors/ministers (though not all) for Driscoll and still have the same point. In evangelical Christianity, where the value of consumerism has increasingly become the driving force of the church, the celebrity status is created by Christians turning to the pastor who is able to provide the goods that they — with their consumer appetites — so desire.  It’s sort of a catch 22. That’s why so many fans Christians increasingly seem to mimic with uncritical reflection the celebrity pastor machine they flock too and then, if the local church doesn’t become an extension of the brand/goods offered by this machine, the flock leave to find a church that does.

So My Fellow Preachers…

But my concern isn’t with these celebrity pastor’s. It’s with me and everyone one of my friends and colleagues who minister with churches. We all have been gifted and blessed greatly by God to preach, teach, and lead God’s people. Technology and social-media has created great mechanism for us to use our gifts to serve God and people using our gifts in some new and wonderful ways. So we upload our sermons as MP3 files, share teachings on a blog (like I’m doing now), promote an e-book or book that’s been published by a reputable publishing company, etc…

I understand and I do some it myself. But when does promotion become self-promotion? In a conversation with a few other friends and fellow ministers, the question was asked “at what point does a pastor become a ‘celebrity pastor’?” That’s another way of asking how do we known when we are engaging in the task of building our own celebrity pastor machine…an idolatry and ideology at work?This is a difficult question and one that can ultimately only be answered by every minister, for it’s too difficult to judge someone else’s motives. However, I will say two things:

  1. If we’re aware of this concern then we probably have little to worry about. From one minister to other ministers, I’m more concerned when we stop asking ourselves the critical self-examining questions either because we unintentionally fail to do so or because we think such questions don’t apply to us anymore.
  2. If and when we do become engaged in the ideology and idolatry of establishing our own celebrity pastor status (whether on a large or small scale), it will eventually show itself in our behaviors and actions. For such hubris easily becomes narcism where we think we are no longer accountable to the moral and ethical standards that everyone else is bound by. If and when that happens, it tends to work itself out in some very visible and palpable failures.

So as this fiasco plays itself out, I hope the rest of us who are called to preach, teach, and lead God’s people can take some time for self-examination. What is motivating our ministry? Is it the mission of God or…?

Jonah and the Church: Will There Be Any Change?

God is not in the business of keeping churches afloat. I know that might be hard to understand for some but it’s the truth. God is in the business of redeeming his fallen creation in Christ. That’s the mission of God and his desire is for churches to join him as participants in this mission. Sadly though, there are some churches who would unknowingly rather die than do just that.

The Business of God Is…

In the fourth chapter of Jonah, this prophet of God is quite angry. He’s angry because after preaching against the city of Nineveh, the people repented of their wicked ways and in response, the Lord showed mercy rather than exercising his promised wrath. In fact, Jonah is so angry that he wishes for death (vv. 1, 4). 

The Lord confronts Jonah and in doing so he also provides a plant that will grow and then wither. This angers Jonah all the more. So in v. 9 the Lord confronts Jonah, asking him if he has any right to be so concerned for the plant. In the same verse, Jonah defends his right to be concerned with the withered plant and then says, “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.” 

Little does Jonah know but he has just indicted himself and justified the Lord’s concern for Nineveh. For if Jonah believes he is within his right to be concerned over a plant, then surely God is within his right to be concerned about the people of Nineveh. Here is how God expresses this verdict in vv. 10-11:

Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

This is the main point of this story told in this Old Testament writing: The business of God is his concern for people “who do not know their right hand from their left.” This is the business of God, his mission, and it’s aimed at such people as these. So now you understand what the concern of God is. But is this the concern of your church?

An Opportunity for Change!

The irony here is that even though the main point of Jonah is expressed in vv. 10-11, this isn’t the lesson most children learn from Jonah children in their Sunday School classes. Maybe that’s why talk about change is so contentious in some churches.

Jonah is concerned with his own interests and that’s why he is so angry (vv. 1, 4, 9). God, however, isn’t concerned with the interests of Jonah. It’s an opportunity for Jonah to repent (=change) and take up the concern of God. However, the story of Jonah never says whether or not the prophet does this. What the end of Jonah leaves is an open question. It’s a question for your church! My church too! Will the church take up the concern of God, participating on mission with God?

That’s a big question awaiting an answer. In many churches, it’s going to requires change—probably a lot of change—if the question is answered with a “yes!” But such talk about change seems so contentious in many churches, evoking anger and other testy emotions (remember why Jonah was so angry!). I’ve been around long enough to know that most of these reactions are fueled by a concern for the church (that’s often code for someone’s personal preferences for their church). Yet such a response really shows how badly the mission of God is misunderstood in some churches. God is concerned with the people who cannot tell their right hand form the left, not with our preferences on what we want our church to look like. So perhaps the real question awaiting an answer is: Would the church rather die over an aversion to change or would the church rather learn again what it is to live as participants in the mission of God?

Ask The Right Question First!

This shouldn’t come as a surprise but North American culture has and continues to undergo major shifts. The questions people once asked have been replaced with different questions, different problems, different paradigms, etc… You might have also noticed that people are not necessarily as interested in knocking down the doors of where your church gathers! Churches can complain about these culture shifts but that won’t change anything… except maybe sink the church into further isolation until it dies. So instead of complaining, it’s time to start having a serious conversation about what it means to live as participants in the mission of God. 

However, the issue isn’t simply a matter of new and improved pragmatics. I’m all for practical thinking but efforts to remain practical shouldn’t become utilitarianism as though the goal is simply to draw people in. Churches must still live as faithful witnesses of Jesus Christ and therefore must first exist as a living expression of Jesus Christ. This will always attract some and be detractive to others. Understanding this witness requires a deeper missiology and ecclesiology. Having said, at the end of the day, taking up this challenge will still require change. 

The caveat is that the church must ask the right question first. The conversation about change must begin with the question of how might the church participate in the mission of God as a people bearing the name of Jesus Christ? If the primary concern is the question of what is best for the church rather than how might the church participate in the mission of God, then you have already started down the wrong path. It’s not that the church is unimportant; it’s just a matter of where the concern is and whether the primary concern is aligned with the concern of God. Besides, any church that is living as participants in the mission of God will be ok anyways.

Leading Churches: Credibility Matters!

“Do first and ask for apologies later,” said someone. Have you ever heard that line? I have. On several occasions as a matter of fact. In fact, I’ve even used it myself and sometimes it’s true… though only sometimes. However, those “sometimes” are very few and far in-between. In fact, I can think of many ways in which this is just unwise advise.

Leaders Don’t Have a Blank Check!

All leader’s make mistakes because every leader is human and as I said, sometimes you must simple do and be ready to apologize if necessary. However, the truth is that this “do first and ask for an apology later” does not come with a blank check. It comes with a very small credit line and once that credit line is crossed, you lose credibility as a leader.

The obvious way leaders lose credibility is moral failure. I can think of several prominent cities where the mayor or mayoral candidate lost credibility. The latest example involves the unfolding scandal that Mayor Rob Ford of Toronto is facing. But. . . And this is important, moral failures are not the only way to lose credibility. Leaders can lose credibility by the decisions they make that end up failing at a great cost.

Let me share two examples involving U.S. Presidents losing credibility because of the decisions they made. The first example involves former President George W. Bush and his decision regarding the war in Iraq. This was a war waged under the pretense that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction ready to use. However, as the war dragged on, costing lives and money without ever finding these weapons, many Americans came to judge the war as mistake and lost confidence in Bush’s ability to lead the nation. Fast forward to 2013 and President Obama’s handling the launch of the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as “Obamacare.” Like it or not, it is a controversial policy which means it already comes with challenge. However, with the recent problems regarding the healthcare website, the President’s credibility is now in question. Time will tell whether he gains back some of the credibility he appears to have lost but there is still a lesson to learn here.

The truth is, poor decisions will cost a leader his or her credibility. Even though that seems pretty obvious, it’s never so obvious for the leader.

Follow Me Into Unchartered Waters!

Any ways, I don’t care about presidential politics and I’m not interested in debating the politics of President Bush and President Obama. What I do care about is leading churches to live on mission with God and the challenge of leadership this requires. In many ways, we are living on the frontier of a new era… postmodernism, post-christendom, secularization, globalization, and so on. The challenges are great and are requiring us to rethink how we do ministry, how live within the community, and what it means to participate in the mission of God.

In leading churches to live on mission with God, what is needed good conversational partners. Theological education is very important, seminars and conferences are nice, and reading books is even nicer. Good conversational partners who understand the task at hand and are able to help think through challenging issues… priceless!

Besides having other ministers and friends outside the church we serve in as conversational partners, there is a need for a team of conversational partners within the church. For larger churches, such partners might be other ministry staff. However, if you serve a small church, as I do, where you are thee singular minister, then such conversation partners must come from other church members. These are members who, having shown through commitment and character, that they can help listen for God’s leading, reflect on what God might be saying, and discern what God wants the church to do next. Having such a team just might help avoid some of the unwise decision making that will cost a minister his or her credibility.

Some might ask how much the competency of these conversation partners matter. That’s a good question but not one that I worry as much about because I see it also as an opportunity to teach about missional living and missional church.

What I do know is that good decisions are rarely, if ever, made by one person thinking alone. So find some conversational partners because the way forward is in many ways unchartered waters and as always, credibility is the currency to lead the church into these waters.