Friday, July 31, 2009

Focusing on Urban Ministry

I’m changing the emphasis of my blog to focus on what has been at the heart of my ministry over the years. I came to faith in Christ in an inner-city church on the edge of the Overtown neighborhood in Miami. It was a church in a transitioning community whose membership was dwindling.

The church was not going to make it on its own so the members partnered with others to expand its ministry. A Haitian mission was started, summer groups led VBS, and a weekday ESL program was led by members of a more affluent church. The church experienced revival. The VBS led to a children’s Sunday school, the church became a first pastorate for ministry students and, in time, the Haitian mission became strong and took over the building.

The call of the city was strong. While serving a rural church for a few years, I would return with mission teams in the summer to help in the renewal process of my home church in Miami.

Then I went to New Orleans for seminary and planted two churches in the inner city. I was energized by my colleagues who worked in so many different aspects of the complex urban ministry milieu. I also met Ray Bakke, who opened my eyes to the importance of reaching the cities first. My church, just outside the French Quarter, became a learning lab for my fellow seminary students and I to practice what we learned in the classroom.

Upon graduation I did a tour as a Navy chaplain but the city never left my blood. I settled in the Chicago area for 17 years where I planted two churches and helped sponsor others of many different styles and language groups.

I now find myself in San Antonio, enjoying a new city and the challenge of helping a 100 year old church catch a second wind and reach out to this community and people that Jesus loves so much.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

There's Always Enough Money

I don’t know who said it first but it’s worth repeating: “There’s always enough money to do God’s work.” I believe (strongly) that the offerings of God’s people ought to be the primary source of support for ministry. However, that does not shut the door to other ways of raising money. Churches have developed some very creative ways of supplementing their income to fund ministries.

1. The one most often used is the fundraiser. The church sells something (food, candy, calendars, cookbooks, etc.) It is usually an item people would not ordinarily buy.

2. Cost recovery for special events is also common. This includes selling tickets to a concert or training event (or love offering), fees for daycare, payment for meals, etc. This means that only the people using the service pay for it.

3. Some share space (rent, lease, split costs) with another organization. This could be another church, a school, or a non-profit group. The idea is to use the building at times when it sits empty. This is particularly commendable when the other organization is doing work that the church finds valuable and it introduces a source of income outside the church membership.

4. Running a business such as a daycare, bookstore, thrift shop or cafeteria is done by churches who want to use the proceeds to fund caring ministries such as a food pantry. This offers a service people are looking for, is a source of income outside the church membership, and can provide jobs in the community.

5. Some churches actually operate businesses such as moving companies and janitorial services that provide jobs for people who transitioning from addictions and/or homelessness. These businesses fund the treatment and housing of the people being served while training them in job skills.

6. Another source of income is grant money from government, religious and non-religious organizations. These grants can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars to do tasks for which the church is called.

I am sure that there are other means of raising funds for ministry along with variations on those mentioned above. I do not want to get into a theology of fundraising. That’s for another time. I’m just saying that it’s rarely money that limits ministry; it is lack of leadership and vision

Friday, July 24, 2009

Are denominations a thing of the past?

There are some today who say we are in a post-denominational age. This is partly because contemporary church goers will easily and frequently cross denominational lines and, also because churches are shopping for services rather than automatically opting for denominational resources.

To me, this is more an era of open competition rather than a post denomination age. Competition does, however, result in some institutions closing. In an age when denominations must compete with parachurch ministries, megachurches and businesses that provide services to churches, denominations must implement the best business practices and treat churches like customers or fade away.

First, they must respond quickly to queries from churches. A church may have called several providers for a particular need.

Second, they must provide services and materials that meet the needs of the church. Too much time has been spent in the past developing programs at the denominational headquarters and then trying to sell them to the churches.

Third, they must cultivate relationships with churches in order to understand the changing needs of real-world ministry. This is probably the most important practice that can lead to a true partnership in ministry.

Gone are the days (if they ever existed) when a denominational worker could act like a stereotypical bureaucrat, put in minimal effort and expect to be employed. The bar has been raised.

The good news for denominations is that they have some advantages. They already have relationships with congregations and often get first dibs on filling a need. The bad news is that other providers are quickly closing the gap.

It’s not too late. I am happy to say that I have received good service from denominational workers and appreciate the opportunity to partner.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Cast your nets on the other side

Peter and some other disciples were fishing one day but were having no luck. Jesus comes to them and says, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some (John 21:6a).”

I don’t know what Peter thought but I would suppose I would be thinking things like:
“I’ve been fishing here for years. I know what to do.
“I’ve already tried that side. It didn’t work.”
“I’ve always thrown my net on the left side of the boat.”

The disciples may have been skeptical but they were obedient and cast the net as Jesus said. The result was phenomenal: “they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish (John 21:6b).”

Ministry is like that. When we are obedient to Jesus’ teachings the results are greater than we can imagine. Sometimes that means doing something different and sometimes it means doing it again. There was a church in an association up north that had a very large building in a downtown area. The neighborhood was growing but the church was declining. They concluded that the people in this urban area could not be reached so they moved to the edge of town where there was new growth.

They sold the building to another church. That church exploded with growth. They partnered with other groups to develop ministries that impacted the neighborhood. They preached the gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ. They worshiped as if they were glad to be alive in Christ and hope filled that building for the first time in many years.

People from the community joined the church because they got to know the people. People from the surrounding suburbs joined the church because they wanted to be a part of God’s work in transforming lives. People from other churches volunteered in the various ministries and contributed money to the work. They outgrew the large building and went to multiple services while purchasing other properties adjacent to the church. Their catch was bigger than their net!

The church that originally occupied the building struggled to connect with the community where they had relocated. They were still casting the net where they wanted. We need to drop the net on the side of the boat that Jesus tells us to.


When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch."Simon answered, "Master, we've worked hard all night and haven't caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets."
When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.
When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus' knees and said, "Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!" For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon's partners.
Then Jesus said to Simon, "Don't be afraid; from now on you will catch men." So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.
- Luke 5:4-11 (NIV)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Preaching to itchy ears

“For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”
2 Timothy 4:3 (NIV)

A man was once complaining to me about preachers he called “ear-ticklers.” He specified a couple of popular radio preachers whom he believed were afraid to offend their listeners. He was oblivious to the irony of the fact that they offended him.

There were certain sins that were particularly offensive to him and he liked to hear preachers let those people have it. He did not consider that he was having his own ears tickled.

He was like the Sunday school teacher who, after teaching a lesson about the Pharisee and the tax collector, prayed, “Lord, we thank you that we are not like the Pharisee.”

As sermon listeners we can become blinded to our own self righteous. If we are not challenged by the preacher, maybe our ears are being tickled. Or, maybe, we’re not listening.

There was a preacher who targeted all his sermons at one very self-righteous man. Each Sunday the man would shake the preachers hand and say, “You sure let them have it today.”

The preacher was at a loss as to how to get through to the man. He had done everything but call him by name. One Sunday, a terrible storm kept everyone away, except this man who had never missed church a day in his life. The preacher had him!

He rebuked and admonished working up a sweat as the thunder punctuated his sentences and the gloom added to the drama. The man sat there in rapt attention nodding in agreement. At the end he shook the preachers hand and said, “Best sermon ever. I wished they would have been here to hear it.”

Pray for your preacher to bring the Word of God and sound doctrine. Listen, God may be speaking to you. Act when the Spirit stirs you.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Who do you hate?

I read a blog written by a seminary student that lamented the ill treatment she received at the hands of her old denomination and contrasted it with the love and support of her new denominational family. The blog was mostly positive except for an unnecessary jab at a political group that was holding a rally nearby. The attack was unkind and personal and really soured my mood.

How can people, who claim to be loving and accepting, say hateful things about individuals and groups? I suppose that, for some, diversity is a good thing in moderation. It is especially troubling for me to hear these personal attacks coming from people who claim to be Christians. The Bible has something to say about this.

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. James 3:9-12

I’m not talking about fits of anger or response to hurts feelings. These are areas where all of us need to cultivate discipline. I am quick to forgive such utterances when a person is overwhelmed by emotion.

I am most distressed by cold-blooded attacks against public figures and leaders that are delivered without a second thought. These happen in the presence of other like-minded Christians who tend to nod or smile in agreement.

Jesus said, “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44 NIV).”

I wonder if that included Republicans and Democrats. Is it possible that some Christians don’t believe it includes Presidents of the USA? What about gays and people who oppose same sex marriage?

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Sucker punches disguised as questions

Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes

Proverbs 26:4-5

I have been told that there are no stupid questions but I have learned that there are trick questions. Jesus was asked trick questions by people who wanted to trap him into making a controversial statement about such things as taxes (Matthew 22:15-22). Some questions were silly arguments about wives in heaven (Matthew 22:25) or what kind of divorce is permitted (Matthew 19:1-10).

Jesus refused to be pulled into a trap. He declined to answer the questions directly and instead elevated the conversation to matters of greater importance or exposed the petitioner’s hidden motives.

Wise Christ-followers need to use discernment when answering unexpected questions. A sincere question seeks knowledge. If your answer leads to an argument, you stepped into a trap. Such questions are unkind and rude to say the least. Their purpose is to make the other person look silly, stupid or wrong.

I have learned to step away from such traps and let the trickster have the last word. It is of no value to me nor will it advance the Kingdom to enter into foolish controversies (Titus 3:9).

So, do you answer a fool or not?

Like Jesus, we can ask questions of our own to clarify or steer the conversation to higher ground. There are no stupid questions from a sincere speaker but the argumentative, self-satisfied fool with all the answers ought not to be answered “or you will be like him yourself.”