Aiming for the Bullseye

22 June 2021

I talked in a previous post about the tendency to weasel-word our mission statements so we can pretend that whatever happened is what we were aiming for all along.  There’s a second issue also in play in our evangelical culture of ineffectiveness.  When we do aim for something definite, we often aim for the wrong thing.  Often a good and glorious thing — but God didn’t tell us to aim for it.

For example, we focus on planting churches, but where does the Bible ever tell us to plant churches?  It doesn’t.  The closest we get is Paul’s instruction to Titus to appoint elders in all the churches — which is not church planting; it’s organizing the churches that are already there.  Jesus said He would build the church: “On this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”  What He told us to do is make disciples: “Go and make disciples of all the nations….”

The evangelical church in America is pretty good at building churches, but has forgotten how to make disciples.  In fact, we’ve gotten so bad at disciple-making that at least one major ministry operation I’m aware of gets paid handsomely to travel around the country and teach churches how to do it effectively.  They’re pretty good at it, too.  I’m glad they do what they do, but I can’t overemphasize the absurdity of the situation.  A church that doesn’t know how to make disciples is like a library where the staff can’t read or an army where the soldiers don’t know how to shoot.  It’s crazy — this is the primary mission Jesus gave us.

What are these pastors and their flocks doing, if they’re not occupied with making disciples?  They’re building churches.  When we focus on building churches, we tend to get preoccupied with marketing, building programs, group dynamics, corporate papers, committees, and all the appurtenances of 21st-century organizational structure.  In the process, we lose sight of the priority of making disciples, and we end up not making very many…if any. 

There’s a very compelling built-in motivation to focus on building the church organization rather than on making disciples.  Building an organization is a process we understand and have some control over.  Send out x number of mailers to get y number of responses, do demographic surveys, run some focus groups, meet the felt needs of the community, buy some radio spots, etc.  There are definite action steps to take, and far more often than not, they work.  The hard part is getting the money to do what needs to be done.  

Making disciples is a lot cheaper, but it’s a slippery, messy process.  We have to trust God to operate in other people’s lives, and we have to be willing to accommodate what He is doing rather than try to program it to our convenience.  Disciple-making doesn’t work in semesters, or 10-week series.  It doesn’t confine itself to Wednesday nights from 7 to 8:30.  It’s about inconvenient phone calls, spur-of-the-moment painful conversations, dropping everything to attend to a crisis. It requires being present, involving people in your life, getting elbow-deep in theirs.  It doesn’t just end at a pre-defined point; disciple-making creates relationships (and obligations) that last for years.  

Churches are a good and glorious thing.  If we focus on making disciples, we will eventually have churches — Jesus said He would build His church, did He not?  But we have to trust Jesus to do it His way while we do what He told us to focus on.  That’s really uncomfortable for us.  

There are a lot of other areas where similar loss of proper focus has occurred.  The “worship wars” of the 80s and 90s were about whether we ought to sing the old hymns or the newer spiritual songs.  Paul says twice (Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16) that we should do both — and sing psalms, too.  We focus on social justice programs for third-world coffee farmers and Albanian victims of human trafficking because Jesus said we should love our neighbors — but we don’t even know our literal neighbors’ names, much less tangibly love them.  I could go on, but you get the idea.

But if we focus on the things God told us to, and those things are messy and impossible to program or control…then what do we do?  What does that look like?  Stay tuned….

*****

Prayer Exercise

“God, what are my real priorities, the things I really focus on?  Not just the things I would say on paper, but what I really do?”

Take some time to list them out.

“Father, is there something You want to adjust in my priorities?  What is it?”

Wait in silence and see what God will say to you.  


A Pauline Thicket of Prepositions

15 June 2021

A few years ago, I was talking with a good friend who has been deeply involved in church ministries for years.  She’s a psychotherapist, and part of her professional responsibility is to manage a crisis response team at work (24-hour hotline, that sort of thing.)  Her church recently set out to start a Christian crisis response team, and naturally they asked her to serve on the team that was setting it up.

So they get the team together — a rep from the pastoral staff, people from the congregation with expertise, and a consultant who helps churches do this kind of thing.  One of the first orders of business (after sorting out the snack schedule, of course) was a mission statement.  

The conversation was productive.  The team didn’t just want to pass out band-aids to people with problems.  Any crisis hotline does that — what difference would it make that this was a Christian hotline?  They concluded that in addition to connecting people to the resources they need, they wanted to help people meet God in the midst of the crisis.  Not hand out holy-sounding platitudes, not “evangelize” them, just introduce them to God, for real. So far so good, right?

So someone came out with a mission statement that started off “To redemptively shepherd people in crisis…” and then continued into a string of prepositional phrases and gerunds worthy of the book of Romans.

“Hang on,” my friend said.  “If what we want to do is connect people in crisis with the resources they need and help them meet God in their crisis, then why don’t we just say that? ‘Our mission is to connect people in crisis with the resources they need and help them meet God in their crisis.’”

Well, if you’ve been around churches much, you already know what happened after the hemming and hawing died down. Further chattering ensued, and in the end they adopted a mission statement: “To redemptively shepherd people in crisis…” plus a Pauline thicket of prepositions.

As my friend was telling me the story, somewhat baffled by it all, it suddenly hit me: I know why we do this!

It’s about accountability.  Say the ministry adopted my friend’s suggested mission statement: “Our mission is to connect people in crisis with the resources they need and help them meet God in their crisis.”  Say I take the Tuesday night shift. How would they check to see if I was fulfilling the mission? 

My friend: Jack, I understand you recently called our crisis line and talked to Tim.
Jack: Yeah.
My friend: So, did Tim connect you to the resources you needed?
Jack: Uh, I dunno.  I guess not.
My friend: Tim didn’t connect you to any resources?
Jack: No.
My friend: Did Tim help you to hear from God?
Jack: No.
My friend (turning to me): Tim, what did you do for an hour?

But if I’m working under that “redemptively shepherding” monstrosity of a mission statement, I can let Jack cry into the phone for an hour, do nothing that actually helps him, and still make it sound awesome.  “Mindful of the biblical command to ‘weep with those who weep,’ I provided Jack with a sympathetic ear and built rapport that would allow me to speak into Jack’s life.  I feel Jack is very close to recognizing his true need for a savior.”  Notice I didn’t say that I did speak into Jack’s life, just that I might be able to.

(Now, I recognize that from time to time a particular person in a particular moment needs something that’s off-mission for the ministry, and God will use that ministry to meet the need anyway.  Wise leaders recognize that when it happens and don’t choose that moment to get cranky about the mission statement.  But we’re talking about the overall mission of the ministry here.)

Moral of the story?  Not only do we have a culture of ineffectiveness, at some level, we know it.  So we avoid spelling out what we’re going to do in ways that would expose how little fruit we really see.

Why is that?

****

Prayer Exercise

Ask God to show you if there are areas of your life where you are afraid to ask Him to do specific things — things where it would be obvious if He showed up or not.  Wait in silence and see what He will show you.  

Don’t be concerned if nothing comes to mind; just remain attentive over the next few days and see what comes up.

If God does bring an area to your attention, pray, “God I confess that I am afraid to ask You to show up and act in definite ways in this area of my life.  Please give me the wisdom to know what to ask for, and the courage to keep asking.”  

Then keep praying for wisdom in that area until God shows you what to ask for.  When that happens, keep praying for it.


A Prescription for Free Grace Theology

8 June 2021

Any theology can become a dead ideology instead of a living knowledge of God. For some people, Free Grace theology has become that, and you can see it in their lack of love. But the problem is not universal, and I see that as a promising sign; therein lies my basic prescription. The Free Grace movement must internalize the truth of 1 Corinthians 13: without love, it is nothing. When it begins to genuinely love God and its brothers first, with everything else a distant second priority, then we’ll see real growth.

Where love revives the movement, we’ll see a shift toward service and mission. Many Free Grace people are admirably engaged in evangelism, missions, and discipleship already. What is lacking is for the Free Grace movement as a movement to become outward-facing. As the movement is able to receive and embody life from God, it will serve the broader Church beyond its borders, and in the process, it will recover a robust practice and doctrine of Church unity.

I have written much about unity elsewhere, so I won’t repeat it all here. I will just say that we should love one another and get along together for the sake of our mutual friend Jesus. In my experience, that leads to doing as much as we can in partnership with as many of Christ’s people as we can, across all the denominational boundaries. When God’s people obey in this way, we find that all the scattered branches of the Church have something to offer us, and we to them…and we’ll get a chance to both give and receive. (And you don’t need to be in a Free Grace church to do this, either.)

I expect this proposal to be met with skepticism, if not scorn. I am sure a multitude of theologians can advance armies of reasons why it can’t work. I am willing to hear the counter-arguments, but at the end of the day, I will answer them all with a Chinese proverb: “The man who says it can’t be done should not interrupt the man doing it.” I am already living the proposal I am making here. It can be done, and productively, too: I am far more productive for the cause of Christ now than I ever was in my sectarian days.


Dust and Breath: A Sermon

20 April 2021

Being who and what we are, how do we live together? I had a chance to preach on that subject this week.


Like Begets Like

20 March 2021

When a human man and a human woman make a baby, what kind of baby do they make?

A human baby.

Frogs make more frogs, fish make more fish, and dragonflies make more dragonflies. Like begets like; you reproduce what you are.

The same is true in education. When I was learning to be a school bus driver, all my instructors were school bus drivers. When I went to massage therapy school, all my teachers without exception were massage therapists.

Makes sense, right?

So if you want to be a professor, it makes all the sense in the world to spend years of your life with professors. How else would you learn to be one? It takes a group of academics to make an academic; how else would you get one?

But if you want to be a practitioner, you need to spend time with practitioners. Nothing is sillier than thinking you can spend three to four years in classrooms with professional academics and emerge a fully-formed ministry practitioner. In what other context would you accept such a ludicrous idea?


Washed

9 March 2021

I had occasion to finally summarize my research and teaching on baptism over the past decade or so. Here it is.


No Jobs; Plenty of Work

2 March 2021

When the farmers settled the Great Plains, they were often farming a homestead many miles from the nearest town. Establishing a farm like that, there is never a shortage of work to be done. With winter coming fast, you don’t have a lot of time to build, so you probably throw up the smallest shed you can get away with and spend the first winter sharing it with the animals. Speaking of animals: they need daily care, and there’s new ground to break, weeds to pull from the garden, equipment to fix, and on and on — an endless amount of work.

Work that nobody pays you for.

If you do your work hard, quickly, and well, you will survive the winter so you can expand it all next spring. If you’re industrious and the harvests are decent, by the time a few cycles have gone by, you’ll have a house, established fields and garden plots, a barn for the animals, and so on — a thriving homestead. Maybe you’ll have a little spare time and garden space to raise tobacco or some such for a cash crop. Or set up a still to turn your leftover grain into whiskey you can sell.

But you still won’t have a job. Nobody pays you to work the homestead. You have the fruits of your labors. Either that’s enough, or it’s not.

That’s the kind of ministry to which many of us are called. The harvest is plentiful, but nobody’s gonna hire you to bring it in. Either you will do it anyway because Jesus said you should, or you won’t.

There may be times you’re able to make a paycheck doing ministry work, or people give you gifts that enable you to devote more time and attention to the work. There’s nothing wrong with that; Paul did it at times and so have I. But Paul’s decisions about where to minister don’t seem to have ever been determined — or even influenced — by the availability of paying ministry gigs. He cheerfully went places where he had to support himself to do the work, and so have I.

And so should you.


Serving the Corporation

23 February 2021

I went through a period of about a year and a half where my floridly bivocational work situation necessitated missing church some Sundays, and visiting a handful of different congregations on the weeks I could attend church. I had deep, regular accountability with multiple different believers and close friends during that time (as I still do), and I made worship a priority even on the weeks that I wasn’t able to get to a service. But one of the things I remember most from that time is the look of concern on pastors’ (and other church people’s) faces when they asked where I went to church and I explained that I didn’t go to the same church every single week.

Here’s how the conversation would go down: they would launch into an explanation of how important it is for a believer to have accountability and regular fellowship. I would explain that I met weekly with two different small groups of men who kept me accountable, and spend time in the homes of three Christian families for regular fellowship. They would express  relief that I wasn’t totally neglecting fellowship and accountability, but usually still have some reservations. Didn’t smell right somehow. 

It’s laughable, if you think about it. How many Christians do you know that have two accountability groups and close relationships with three families? I was enjoying some of the best fellowship and accountability of my whole life, and somehow it didn’t meet expectations!

Now we all know that if I’d just said, “I go to XYZ Bible Church,” the follow-up questions would have been different. They’d have asked things like “How do you like it there?” or “What kind of music is the worship?” There would have been no follow-up scrutiny of whether I was getting real fellowship and accountability at XYZ Bible Church; the bare fact of my church attendance would be satisfactory. But why is that? Don’t we all know people who are regular church attenders who aren’t plugged into any kind of meaningful fellowship or accountability? In fact, don’t we all know people who, despite regular church attendance, struggle to “get plugged in” at their church? We all know that church attendance doesn’t actually solve the fellowship and accountability problems, yet we act as if it does.

Here’s a useful tool for thinking about life: anytime there’s a visible gap between our behavior and what we say that we care about, that’s something worth paying attention to.  In this case, our words say we care about fellowship and accountability, but our actions say we care about regular attendance at the same building. What’s up with that?

As we’ve been discussing, the Body and the corporation are two separate things. On the available evidence, it wasn’t my lack of body life that made people nervous. I demonstrably had more body life than many of the people I was talking to. No, they were nervous that I didn’t belong to one particular corporation.

Now, I can’t see anybody’s heart, but I have a nasty suspicion that the real source of the nervousness here is the demonstration that the status quo isn’t inevitable. Very few people are cynical enough to try to drag me to their church specifically so they can collect my tithe money (especially considering the small size of my tithe!) However, the vast majority of pastors are committed to — and reliant on — a corporate structure that depends on congregants devoting their tithe money and volunteer hours to one specific corporation. That’s how their salaries get paid.

Just by living as I was, I showed that a believer doesn’t have to be the property of one specific corporation. If believers no longer regard a corporation as a one-stop-shop, if we rely instead on the organic body around us, without regard to which corporation a particular person might belong to…that could be a game-changer. Such a network of believers is not a threat to any one specific church, but it’s a profound threat to the entire system.

Maybe that’s a good thing. 


Killing Vision

16 February 2021

We’ve done a couple of posts on the troubled relationship between the church body and the church corporation. The first one focused on the fact that these are two separate entities with conflicting needs. Another post addressed how to manage the two sets of needs properly.

In this post, I want to spotlight another area of conflict between the corporation and the body: vision. Inconvenient as it is for the corporation to expend its resources on the things most necessary for spiritual growth, it is even less convenient to empower the rank and file to hear and respond to God’s leading in their own lives.

They have a way of getting involved in their neighbors’ lives, their local elementary school, all kinds of things that take their time, effort, and money away from the corporation’s vision. And they make mistakes — mistakes a slick ecclesiastical professional wouldn’t make. Better they stuck to proper channels and put their effort into fulfilling the institution’s Five Year Plan.

If you’re gonna have a vision-directed institution in the manner of such churches, the very first order of business, oddly, is to kill off the vision in the congregation. Such an institution enlists its people in the vision cast by the corporate leadership, and crowds out opportunities for its people to hear God leading them, and respond to the opportunities He is giving them in their own lives. To be fair, not every church does this. But many do it half-consciously, and some churches are deliberately, ruthlessly effective at it. I’ve heard pastors bragging about it. I’ve heard conference speakers bragging about it to a roomful of pastors. (Not, happily, anyone in my city!)

But no. You can’t schedule a revival. The Holy Spirit doesn’t have a booking agent you can call. The Wind that is the Spirit of God blows where He wills. He is gloriously, thoroughly untamed. He certainly does plan…but He doesn’t do your plan.

The best churches I know find ways to notice what God is doing among their people, and support it. In small fellowships like they had in NT times, that’s easy to do — you can’t not notice what God is doing in a group that size. In bigger, corporate-model churches, that’s harder to do, but by no means impossible. The really tough problem is that it’s harder to want to do.


Why Character Matters

2 February 2021

I have seen more than one ministry implode. Beyond the obvious scandalous causes (pastor sleeps with counselee, treasurer runs off with the money), there are some less-discussed, but very common, patterns.

I’ve seen relational problems build up over time: petty power plays, minor wrongs never confessed, refusal to forgive, personal jealousies, frustrated ambitions, etc. Then one day, people begin seeking occasions for accusation and conflict rather than reconciliation. Out of nowhere, there’s a long string of “offenses” and “concerns,” often never raised before, that preclude discussion and demand immediate action. (Either the “offended” party leaves in a huff, or arranges the ouster of the “offender.” Either way, it doesn’t generally end well.)

I have made the mistake of recruiting someone for his evident skills, and not looking closely enough into the character underneath. Those skills that I thought were so valuable, such a good complement to my areas of weakness, were turned against me and people I cared about, to devastating effect.

From a distance, you can’t necessarily tell these things are happening. A lot of these cases get disguised as a doctrinal disagreement, a difference in philosophy of ministry, or just papered over with a simple “we feel the Lord is leading us in a different direction.” Everybody buys it, partly because they respect their leaders, and partly because it would be too uncomfortable to call BS on the easy explanation and find out what actually happened. But I’ve been in the ministry world my whole life, and I’ve had ringside seats for a bunch of these messes.

Very often, at the root of it all is a simple lack of character, a preference for taking the easy way out rather than doing the hard work of keeping short accounts, a desire to hide rather than live in the revealing light of openness to God and each other. Anyone who’s been in ministry for a while has had similar experiences.

Godly character–a cultivated habit of openness, and willingness to do the hard thing rather than take the easy way out–is the foundation for everything else. Skills and gifting are important, but without the character to support them, they’re a house built on the sand. In ministry, we’re in the trouble business; there’s always another storm around the corner.

That kind of character is impossible without the Spirit. It’s easy enough to be loving and inviting if you never say hard things, and it’s easy enough to say hard things if you’re not loving and inviting. To do both, and expose your own flaws in the process–that takes the Spirit of God, drawing you into the life-sharing dance of the Trinity. Which, in the process, brings you into step with all your other brothers and sisters who are also in the dance.

There is no crucible for building those habits like the one Jesus used: immersion in ministry, bringing the good news of God’s Kingdom everywhere you go…and debriefing along the way. We should do more of it.