Category Archives: Leadership

The Mission of God and Church Growth

Among churches that have recently experienced decline there is an expected anxiousness about the loss of members and the future of the church.* This anxiousness often causes a shift in focus from the mission of God to growth, resulting in churches attempting nearly every new faddish idea that comes along in hopes of reversing the decline. These attempts are fear driven, rather than faith, attempts at self-preservation that only destabilize the health of the church further as every new attempt doesn’t work like it is at that other growing church. All the while, it didn’t work because it didn’t organically emerge from the discernment of where and how God is leading the church. In order for the church to pursue the mission of God, which will bear fruit, this cycle of anxious response must be let go of.

Churches seeking renewal must learn to act in faith, rather than anxious fear. That comes about through discernment of God’s missional calling. As God is sought through prayer, through scripture, and through the community of believers, churches begin to hear where the Spirit is leading them, what that looks like, and what must change about them in order to follow Jesus on mission with God. Then these churches must obey and act upon that leading of the Spirit. When this happens the church changes because the believers who make up that church change as they are being spiritually transformed for renewal in God’s mission. This will impact every aspect of the churches life, from how it worships, to how it fellowships with one another, to how it ministers among it’s community — especially the broken, hurting, and suffering — and to its children whom the church is called to raise as faithful followers of Jesus.

These are churches where faith in Jesus Christ is living and active, as opposed to churches whose only faith is the nostalgic longing for the “good old days.” These are the churches where increase comes because that mustard seed faith is growing spiritually into a gigantic tree. These are the kind of churches, I believe, that God wants to place those who are seeking him among because these are the kind of churches that will nurture the new emerging faith of these seekers with grace and truth, making disciples of Jesus.

So when it comes to numerical growth, it will happen but not by focusing on church growth which is our way of trying to bring about the increase ourselves. Numerical growth will happen when the church trusts in God and learns to live on mission with God through renewal as it discerns the will of God. Along this journey, there will be strategic decisions and actions to make but what those decisions are will be revealed through discernment. In the mean time, keep the focus on God and his mission and growth will come as God gives the increase.

And this − the opportunity to help a church walk on mission with God − is what excites me about serving as a minister of the gospel!

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* This short essay was originally written for a church I am discerning with about serving as a minister with. I have slightly modified what I wrote into this present post.

Thank You All!

The following is the article “Thank You All” that I wrote for the latest and final edition of the Connecting Newsletter, a bi-monthly production of the Columbia Church of Christ (Connecting Newsletter 29, 2014). The article reflects upon our decision as a church to close and the future in light of the gospel story. At some later point I plan to write about the decision and process of closing a Church of Christ as I think this is a decision that more Churches of Christ will face in the coming years but for now…

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Church Logo

For most people, the holidays are a joyous occasion. With Christmas, we have the pleasure of gathering with our family and friends to celebrate life and we are also reminded of the birth of Jesus which is the dawning of hope for the world. Following Christmas, we celebrate New Year’s Day, saying goodbye to the past year while also anticipating with excitement what is to come in the new year. All that is to say that the end is never the end but a new beginning.

An End

As you may already know, the Columbia Church of Christ has made the difficult decisions to close. The following announcement has been posted to our website:

Thank you for your interest in the Columbia Church of Christ. After a year of discerning the direction God has for us as Christians, we have come to the conclusion that he is leading us to merge with other churches where we can continue serving him and his mission. Therefore as a church, the Columbia Church of Christ will close at the end of January 2015. Until then we will continue meeting every Sunday at 10:30 for worship in the Stone House (8775 Cloudleap Ct., Columbia, MD 21045). On Sunday, January 25, 2015 we will have a final celebrative worship gathering as a praise to God for the way he has worked through our church over many years.

Along with that closure comes the end of the Connecting Newsletter which has been produced for twenty-nine years now. So this article marks the final entry into the final newsletter as we enter into the final month for the Columbia Church of Christ.

While there is sadness that comes with this decision, there is reasons for giving thanks. I am thankful for the legacy of this church and I am equally proud to have served as one of her ministers. This congregation has been “a family of grace in Columbia” where the hurting and the struggling have experienced the hope of Christ. This church was also one of the first Churches of Christ to break with tradition regarding the role of women which has help pave the way for a growing number of other Churches of Christ to do the same. This church has been a generous supporter of global missions and local ministries offering help to people in need. So while closure is near, there is good to celebrate.

A New Beginning

Although the closing of the Columbia Church of Christ marks an end, it is not the end. Rather, we are entering into a new beginning. According to the gospel of Jesus Christ, “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor 15:54). Therefore there is never an end but always a new beginning which we anticipate.

While the Columbia Church of Christ is closing as an organization, the kingdom of God is not losing anyone. God is leading us forth into other local churches where we can continue serving as disciples of Christ using the gifts that we have received from the Spirit. The earliest Christian community, which resided in Jerusalem, was eventually scattered through persecution (Acts 8:1). At the time, it may have seemed like the end but it wasn’t. God was at work and through the faith of these Christians, the body of Christ continued growing as a movement that is now a global witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. While we cannot know the particulars of the future, we know that we will continue living as participants in this mission of God.

A Word of Thanks

To all of you, who have continued supporting and praying for the Columbia Church of Christ, thank you! Words will never fully express our appreciation for you but they must do for now. May God bless you as he blesses each and every one of us… “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace” (Num 6:24-26)!

When Preaching Fails

One of the books I’m reading for my upcoming class is a book that my teachers, David E. Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, wrote titled Prodigal Christianity. One of the stories they tell in the book is about watching this street preacher stand for the truth (as he understand it) with boldness as he preaches, only to be rejected by the people he is preaching at. So the authors make this very good point:

“We acknowledge the need for grounding in truth, but when we are too quick to make bold pronouncements, we compromise our ability to witness because we have not truly entered into the cultural world to be with people: to listen to, seek God with, an learn from those with to whom we are witnessing” (p. 53).

Thanks to another preacher, John Dobbs, here’s a video of some other preacher that helps illustrate their point:

Similar to Fitch and Holsclaw, my friend Fred Liggen says that leadership requires listening, learning, and loving. He’s right. They’re right. Before were can lead others some place, which is what preaching seeks to do, we must listen to them, learn from them, and love them.

For Ministers: Serving With An Assumption of Grace

Every Christian is a human, including elders and ministers. All are redeemed but all are still being refined and made into the image of Christ.

With that being said, let’s acknowledge that there are some very bad elders just as there are some very bad ministers. I’m talking about people who are very unethical and even malicious in their treatment of others. However, in my experience, this is the exception rather than the norm.

In fact, in my experience, most church leaders mean well and intend to do well. However, like everyone else, every church leader has faults and weaknesses too. That includes me too. Realizing this has become very freeing because it has allowed me to forgive and move on. I’ve learned to minister with an assumption of grace towards others, including other church leaders. That is, I don’t expect other church leaders (e.g., elders) to be Jesus, I expect them to be themselves and I have already forgiven them for that. I hope they will forgive me for being myself too.

This is freeing as it allows me, as a minister and church leader, to serve my church with grace because I know that I am in as much need of grace as they are. Yes… our churches will disappoint us from time to time. But as difficult as the disappoint will be at times, learning to minister with an assumption of grace will allow us to serve with joy even in the difficult moments.

May the grace of God in Christ and in the power of the Spirit be upon us all!

Ministry Leadership: Blood, Sweat, and Tears

You’ve heard it said that leadership is influence and the ability to influence. There’s a lot of truth to that, especially when you serve among a church or any other organization where leaders are dependent upon volunteers. That begs the question of how a person acquires this ability to influence others?

There are likely a variety of factors that contribute to a person gains the ability to influence. Position, charisma, and expertise come to mind. In ministry, if one has good experience and a solid theological education to go along with a very engaging personality that exudes with vision and decisiveness then that minister likely some ability for influence. But don’t be fooled! Relying solely on position, charisma, and expertise has limitations that will become apparent sooner than later (as almost every President discovers). Also, reliance upon position, charisma, and expertise can easily become repressive, requiring more manipulation than influence, creating a toxic culture.

Another asset in gaining the ability to influence is character. People are willing to listen and follow a person who consistently demonstrates a virtuous life. This includes the way any would be leader treats other people, including his/her own family. For ministers, especially those who regularly preach and teach, character also includes demonstrating trustworthiness with scripture . . . showing people that you will preach and teach healthy doctrine. So character is very important and it is also important to remember that leaders can spend years growing a healthy tree and cut that tree down with one very unwise move (be thankful for the mercy that God often shows towards are mistakes that have not undone us!).

Beyond position, charisma, and expertise, and beyond character is one other attribute that will allow those whom God has called to serve in ministry to gain the ability to influence. This attribute is what I’ll call blood, sweat, and tears. The church is a community of Christians and as such, Christians are to bear the burdens of each other (cf. Gal 6:2). Whether it is sitting in the hospital visiting room with a family whose child has just been air-lifted to the trauma center, helping a family move from one house to another, or something as seemingly mundane as just picking up the telephone to call and say “Hi!”, you are engaging and sharing in real life with the people of the church . . . sometimes helping them bear a real heavy burden. That is, you’re showing your willingness to bleed, sweat, and shed tears with them.

When a leader is willing to share blood, sweat, and tears with the people, then they earn the currency to influence. This is, I believe, an important yet somewhat underrated aspect of leadership that is seen in everyone from Jesus and the Apostle Paul to more contemporary leaders such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Teresa. So also should it be among ministers, elders, and other church leaders. So if your a minister or serving in some other capacity of church leadership, let me encourage you to look for opportunities where you can share some blood, sweat, and tears with your church!

Church Renewal: Give Up The Old Wineskins

Last year the Christian Chronicle, a monthly newspaper for the Churches of Christ, ran an article on the Bar Church of Abilene, Texas that the Southern Hills Church of Christ helped plant. The Bar Church is a community of Christians that originally gathered inside a local bar for worship, fellowship, etc… in order to reach people who will likely never step foot inside the gatherings of a traditional church. As expected, news of a church plant meeting in a local tavern drew both praise and criticism. Without knowing any more details than what has been reported, I am one who applauds such effort and I want to briefly focus on the criticism as a way of discussing a larger issue with the gospel and the mission of God.

One critic said in response to the news of a church meeting in a bar, “Jesus might have gone to Matthew’s house, but he did not teach his disciples to go to places of public intoxication…” Not surprisingly, I actually disagree because Jesus himself, according to the Gospel of Luke, even acknowledged eating and drinking with these sinner’s and tax-collectors to the point that he gained the reputation of being a drunkard and glutton (cf. Lk 7:34). I suppose we could say that Jesus was only going into places of private intoxication (insert snarky face here) but the point is that Jesus not only sought out the “sinners” but was also teaching his disciples to do so as well. Yet the critics, who all likely come from a church fellowship that is declining, resort to the box they have the gospel contained within to rationalize their complaint. And this is a problem…

Listen to Jesus

According to the Gospel of Mark, the first parable that Jesus teaches occurs in chapter two:

No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and the tear becomes worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the skins will be destroyed. Instead new wine is poured into new wineskins (vv. 21-22).

This parable occurs within a series of five stories in which the authority of Jesus is challenged (Mk 2:1-3:6). The problem with Jesus is that he does not live according to the expectations of the Jewish lawyers and Pharisees.

The Pharisees themselves meant well. Like Jesus, they wanted to see the kingdom of God at hand too. But unlike Jesus, they believed that the kingdom of God would only come when all of Israel returned to a strict observation of the Torah, especially the laws pertaining to the Sabbath and those that separated the clean from the unclean. For Jesus, however, the kingdom of God is already at hand (Mk. 1:15), so the efforts of the Pharisees are futile. Instead they, like us all, need to follow along with Jesus and learn how to participate in this kingdom, which involves something as simple as eating when you’re hungry rather than fasting or something more radical like wining and dining with the “sinners and tax-collectors.”

The kingdom of God looks like a reality where sinners are welcomed with hospitality, where those who suffer find healing, where showing mercy trumps the sacrifice of Sabbath keeping, and so forth. This is the kind of life Jesus calls us to follow him, learning how to participate as disciples. Yet Jesus is clear: As long as we continue trying to fit this way of life into our old paradigms (theological, ecclesiological, etc…), it will not work! That is why Jesus tells us the parable of sewing a new patch on an old garment and pouring new wine into old wineskins. We need new wineskins for new wine! We need new a new paradigm for this gospel of the kingdom of God that Jesus preaches and calls follow him in living as his disciples!

Old Wineskins Will Not Do

I began this blog post with story of a Church of Christ that planting a very non-traditional seed of the gospel by helping plant a new church meeting in a bar. It’s but one example of what it might look like for a church to the new wine of the gospel into new wineskins. Just one example. It is by no means a suggestion that this is what every church needs to do. I believe way too much in the need for local contextualization of the gospel to even begin suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach. What I’m concerned about is those who want to cling to their old wineskins while criticizing any attempt at pouring new wine into new wineskins.

Any one familiar with the Churches of Christ can see the decline. Most churches, including the Columbia Church of Christ with whom I serve as a minister, are less than one-hundred members and declining. The culture around us is rapidly changing and learning how to navigate the waters in this ever changing climate has been… Well, as far as I can tell, were not sure how to do that.

In such uncertain circumstances, there are more questions than answers which that creates a lot of stress and anxiety. “How do we move forward in all this mess?” is the question that gets asked. Yet our human nature is to take the path of least resistance and that usually means reverts back to what we already know… the so-called tried and true approach. I think this is why Michael Shank’s book Muscle and A Shovel has become so popular. Because despite it’s sectarian approach that promotes a gospel focused on the “true church,” a form of legalism that many in the Churches of Christ seemed to have let go of, it offers an approach that is very familiar (if you read the book then make sure you also read this very well-written and critical review of the book by John Mark Hicks). But Jesus is clear: As long as we continue trying to fit this way of life into our old paradigms (theological, ecclesiological, etc…), it will not work!

Then What Do We Do?

Learning to follow Jesus together begins with hearing afresh our Lord’s first commandment: “Repent and believe the gospel! (Mk 1:15). We have to change our expectations of how we expect to see the kingdom of God at hand. Seeing God’s kingdom at hand does not happen by trying to restore the first-century church pattern from proof-texting the New Testament. The way forward is found in embracing the values and practices of Jesus as our own, within our own local contexts. That requires much discernment.

In order to discern, churches and especially the leadership of the church must learn how to listen together for the leading of God. You might consider reading Pursuing God’s Will Together by Ruth Haley Barton as a resource in learning how to listen as a church. Only as we listen and discern together will we discover the new wineskins necessary for the new wine of the gospel. Also, you might consider contacting Mission Alive, an organization that helps equip church planters and churches seeking renewal to live as “kingdom communities on mission with God.”

What If Our Churches…?

Maybe it’s time to admit that we’re broken! As Christians, we live in a culture that appears increasingly secular and uninterested in the gospel our churches have to offer… and maybe we just don’t have as much of that gospel to offer as we would like to believe.

Yesterday I posted an article titled Reasons Why Your Church Isn’t… It was a response to an article titled Why Church Members Don’t Invite Others to Church in which the Christians involved in the study seemed to cast blame on their church as to why they’re not participating. My post was intended to counter that blame because it is easy for Christians who are not involved in the ministry of their church to just place the blame on their church, when in fact they are part of the problem.

But the truth is that yesterday’s post does little to nothing in terms of offering a better way forward. So it’s time to shift the conversation back to Jesus.

A Different Way!

Do we know how to follow Jesus? Learning to follow Jesus is where we need to begin. After all, it is the invitation Jesus extends us. After commanding us to “repent and believe the gospel,” he invites us to embrace the challenge of being his disciple saying, “Follow me…” (Mk. 1:14, 17).

Now we can point the blame at each other for the problems facing our churches. Church leaders, like myself, can say it’s the fault of members who want to just sit in worship as consumers attempting to feed an appetite that will never be satisfied. Likewise, church members can blame the leadership for the lack of vision and courage as they keep trying to pour new wine into old wineskins in order to avoid upsetting the status quo too much. Ministers can blame the elders, who blame the deacons, who blame the ministers… and round and round we go.

But really, what good is blaming one another doing? I don’t recall reading any “one another” passages in the Bible that says we should blame one another.

Perhaps what we need is to take a step or two back and ask ourselves what does it mean to follow Jesus? What would it look like if we followed Jesus together? What would it look like if we change our expectations (repent) of what the entire church stuff is supposed to be and live with anticipation (believe) of seeing God at work (the kingdom of God at hand) as we follow Jesus together? What kind of activities would we then do together? What sort of things would we need to let go of in order to follow Jesus again?