Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Myopia and inertia: deadly maladies that destroy churches

In his book, The Breakthrough Company: How Everyday Companies Become Extraordinary Performers, Keith McFarland, identifies myopia and inertia as two diseases that lead to stagnation, decline and death in an organization. Churches are not immune to these diseases.

Myopia causes a church to look only to itself and fail to see both the needs and the resources around them. A myopic church is more concerned with the present than the future. This disease will lead a church to separate itself from the Kingdom of God.

Inertia paralyzes a church even when they know what to do. Even when denominational consultants point the way out of decline the church suffering from inertia refuses to act. They won’t apply for available grants nor take advantage of mission teams or interns. Every idea seems impossible.

When these two maladies combine, the church will change in negative ways.

Churches that are can see opportunities, locate resources and act quickly will create positive change. They will make things happen instead of sitting around wondering why things happen to them.

Opportunities abound for urban churches to partner with other churches and parachurch groups to expand their ministry. Grants are also available from a variety sources to fund projects of all sizes.

A church that wants to impact its community with the gospel needs to open its eyes and act.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Reaching for the future

Declining churches need to rediscover the hope that the founders had when they first established the church. When a group of people gather to form a church they are willing to take risks to make it happen. They take out loans, give sacrificially and make big plans for the future. In some cases members take small personal loans to cover initial expenses.

In the early years of the church everything will be new, many things will be innovative and a spirit of hope in the future drives growth. New churches account for more baptisms per member than established churches.

At some point the new church becomes an established church and goes into preservation mode. Fear of losing what one has replaces hope in what God will bring. The new way of thinking leads to a plateau in growth and, eventually a decline.

Fewer members means fewer dollars. The church begins to start saving money just in case. Eventually the church will disband and turn over its assets to the local association (if it is Baptist). The assets will include a surprising amount of money in the bank and a valuable piece of real estate.

People like me will wonder why it never occurred to them to use the money in the bank to fund an innovative ministry or hire some staff. Why didn’t they sell the building and start over?

Churches go through a bell curve of growth, a long plateau, and inevitable decline. The decline begins when the church starts trying to conserve its gains. Leaders are now more concerned about keeping the people inside happy than reaching the people outside.

One church in Chicago continues to grow by thinking ahead. After 10 years of meeting in rented spaces, they built their first building. Some thought it too big but they soon filled it. Most churches would stop here but this church decided to fund three satellite campuses within a few years. Critics believed that they over-reached but, again, they continued to grow. Two more satellite campuses were established before the 10th anniversary of their building’s completion.

Declining churches can turn things around when they recapture the desire to stretch beyond their own capacity and trust God for the results. Declining churches can turn things around when they realize that the worst thing that can happen is they close their doors a few years earlier than expected. On the other hand, God’s blessings could result in a revival.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

It’s Time for Hope

During the darkest days of exile and defeat, God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah, “For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jer. 29:11).

It is hard to find hope today. People have lost faith in the government, in the church and maybe, even, in God. Global warming, terrorism, and financial crises dominate the news. Church leaders seem to spend more time attacking each other than being a blessing. Not all the troubles are national. We suffer physical pain, emotional turmoil and spiritual struggles.

Despite all this and BECAUSE of it, IT IS TIME FOR HOPE.

Biblical and historical revivals have come during times of turmoil and despair. The Great Awakening and Second Great Awakening came to America during times of moral decay and political turmoil. They left hundreds of new churches in their wake. More localized revivals have occurred that have resulted in establishing institutions and movements that have spread the gospel in new areas and in new ways.

Revivals eventually begin to wane but they leave a new high-water mark for the Kingdom. God is building His Kingdom but 2000 years later some still doubt its existence. God’s Kingdom didn’t seem impressive at first because it was often hidden and unseen. His kingdom dwells in hearts rather than the halls of government. For two thousand years this unstoppable kingdom force has been on the move.

The tiny mustard seed has mushroomed and multiplied across the world. An escaped slave named Patrick returns to his captors and establishes the church in Ireland. A shoemaker named William Carey goes to India and translates the Bible into the indigenous languages and establishes the church there. John Wesley preached in the streets of London and sparked a revival that spilled into America.

Even so, the forces of darkness continue to terrorize us. Our most ancient Christian churches in Palestine, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt are persecuted by the non-Christian majority. Our historic inner-city churches are closing, Innocent people still starve to death, and children still die in wars. Marriages still fall apart, and churches still split. Injustice still plagues us, greed and lust still devour us, and lost people still die and spent eternity apart from God.

Biblical hope reminds us that none of these dark forces will have the last word. This hope kept Paul preaching the gospel while sitting on death row.

Our hope greater than the world we live in. We live in hope as an ever-present reality in our lives. A selfless hope that knows, “All things work together for good to those who love the Lord.” (Ro 8:28)

Sermon Audio

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Calling or Career?

The Religion News Service recently reported an over abundance of Protestant clergy in America. This takes me back to my own seminary days when nearly two decades ago guest lecturer, Ray Bakke, unveiled two alarming facts.

First, the number of churches in America was not keeping up with population growth. We were, instead, losing ground.

Second, there is not enough money available to pay for all the new seminary graduates to have jobs.

The result, he reported, would be that 50% of my graduating class would no longer be in ministry five years into the future. Bakke told us that if we want to impact America and the world for Christ, many of us would have to become bivocational.

I don’t believe that many people go to seminary in order to become bivocational ministers. For some ministry is a career choice. You go to dental school to be a dentist and seminary to be a pastor. They don’t envision bivocational work in a struggling rural or inner-city church. They say no to bivocational church planting.

The career minded who do get hired will probably be marked by their upward mobility and keen sense of entitlement. They will plan their ministry around their time off and vacations and rarely will they schedule meetings in the evening.

True calling involves sacrifice. There are many bivocational pastors out there who don’t get days off. Their vacation time is used for VBS or mission trips. They pastor churches or serve on staff with little recognition except from God and the ones they serve. Other pastors who receive full-time support serve long hours ministering to people in need. They serve alongside lay members who have already put in a full day’s work and now are volunteering a couple of hours to Kingdom work.

I have been told that a minister can work hard or hardly work and the church would not be able to tell the difference. I’m not sure how true that statement is but I know you can tell by the results. Even if the results of neglect or diligence are delayed (they often are) the truth will come out in the end. Even if it doesn’t, God is watching.

A minister need not be unemployed while looking for a paid staff position. There is plenty of ministry to do; if one is called.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

It’s Time to Rediscover the Baptist Heritage and Renew our Witness

At 40 million, Baptists are the second largest denomination in the US. The first, Roman Catholics number 50 million and Methodists come in a distant third at 14 million.

Baptists also represent a great deal of diversity. Baptists represent the largest African American denomination and the largest Protestant Hispanic denomination. There are also Baptist churches for almost every ethnicity and language group in America.

Politically, Baptists are found on the far left, far right and everywhere in between. Both Martin Luther King, Jr. and segregationist Governor of Georgia, Lester Maddox, were Baptist. Some Baptists pioneered the Social Gospel Movement and others preached against it.

It has often been said, “Where there are two Baptists, there are three opinions.”

When the vast majority of Baptist denominational groups met for an historic meeting in Atlanta, the largest of the groups refused to attend.

There are a several Baptist beliefs that define the denomination. These include the Lordship of Christ, the authority of the Bible, religious freedom, the autonomy of the local church, the priesthood of every believer and believer’s baptism.

While Baptists may differ on how to apply the Bible to life we do agree that we should. Perhaps it’s time that being a Baptist becomes more important than being a Republican or a Democrat. Perhaps it’s time to focus on commonalities instead of differences. Perhaps it’s time that Baptists focus more on the gospel and less on what other churches do. Perhaps it’s time to rediscover the Baptist heritage and renew our witness.

Sermon Audio

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Baptist Church to Host Grand Ole Opry

Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville will be hosting the Grand Ole Opry on May 14. The usual venue was closed because of recent flooding putting the weekly country music stage concert at risk of cancellation. Broadcast by WSM radio since 1925, this Nashville icon is the longest running radio program in history.

Ed Stetzer, interim pastor of Two Rivers, believes this to be an opportunity for his church to help Nashville recover from the natural disaster that damaged the city. The church is doing many other things to aid in the disaster recovery but this level of cooperation is unique and marks the church as a member of the community.

Churches need not wait for disasters to be a blessing to the community. One urban church I know hosted a hero’s breakfast for city police, fire and EMT workers. A small town church started a community library. When churches become community centers for things that are not directly religious they develop into valued partners in the community development process.

There are, of course, limits to what a church can do and still maintain its witness. On the night they will be at Two Rivers Baptist Church, the Opry will feature Charlie Daniels, who is an active Christian and has assured that the show will be appropriate for a church venue.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

It's Time to do justice and love mercy

He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.  Micah 6:8

Over 200 years ago Christians in England began the fight to abolish slavery. It was proposed and supported and by a small number of determined Christian’s. It was a complicated and unpopular battle because 80% of Great Britain's foreign income came from slave-grown products. Abolishing slavery would affect plantation owners, textile factories, and retail shops. Tax revenues would fall and many other industries would be impacted.

Against the odds slavery was abolished in the British Empire and, later, in the US. The abolition of slavery was an act of justice and mercy.

God calls his people to bring justice to a fallen world, tempered by mercy. This combination is possible through the power of the Holy Spirit for those who walk humbly with God.

We need to be just on a personal level. God requires that we do what is right and fair with other people. There is an old saying, “honesty is the best policy.” But for the Christian, that slogan should be, “honesty is the ONLY policy.”

We need to bring Godly justice to our world. God demands it (Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 27:19; Psalms 106:3; Proverbs 28:5; Isaiah 42:1)

History bears witness. From the abolition of slavery to the civil rights movement, Christians have been on the front lines of social justice. Christians have championed child labor laws, supported food distribution to the poor, prison reform, cleaned up slums.

The need is still great. There are an estimated 27 million slaves in the world today; half of them are children. Nearly 50,000 people are trafficked in the US each year. There are countries today where women and children are treated as the property of men in their family. They can be married off, beaten, disfigured and killed. There are countries where becoming a Christian is punishable by death. In America hunger, poverty and abortion are still major sources of suffering.

Food pantries and other relief ministries are not enough. We must work against the principalities and powers that are behind the suffering of so many human beings.

Our sense of justice must be tempered by mercy. Some people love justice instead of mercy. Jonah did not want to preach repentance to the Ninevites. The Pharisees preferred that people suffer rather than have Jesus heal on the Sabbath. Killing abortion providers is a merciless act.

Jesus gives us good examples of mercy trumping justice. Along with Sabbath healings, we have the stories of the prodigal son’s hearty welcome and the forgiveness offered the woman caught in adultery. The Bible gives us wiggle room in individual cases where mercy serves the kingdom better than justice. Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

Walking humbly with God helps us to keep the perspective required to do justice and love mercy. It helps us remember that our number one priority as a church is making disciples. It prompts us to tend to our own spiritual growth.

Sermon Audio