February 12, 2014
For years I read every church growth book on the market. I hung on the testimony “experts” shared. I rode the waves of the church-building trends. I wanted my church to grow; to be relevent; to be on the cutting edge (as much as allowed within my congregational setting, anyway); and to attract others. Eventually, however, I learned that while all of this could produce activity, it was not always healthy activity. What was good for that happening church in the metropolis, was not necessarily good for my church.
Churches come in all shapes, sizes, and traditions. Before importing the latest and greatest from a successfully growing church, we all need to thoughtfully consider if it really fits into our church context. Some things may; some things may not. The key to me is in understanding our own church–and working within it to bring about congregational health–just as we are. I wholeheartedly believe that regardless of worship style, church tradition, location, etc., every church can be healthy and productive in the Lord. Here are five suggestions on how to be a healthy church–just as you are; right where you are:
- Be Real. This is foundational. Churches that demonstrate a genuine faith struggle attract fellow strugglers. This is the opposite of Christianity as performance. This is church–not about how proud we are to be church; how exceptional our preacher is; how cutting-edge our worship is; how amazing our building and campus is; it is about real folks who have found forgiveness and fulfillment in Christ. It is about demonstrating and celebrating the real difference Christ has made in our lives. It is about being true to him, his will and who we are in him. No pretense; no put-on. Jesus is our identity. He is the reason why we worship. It is not trying to be something we are not. If we can learn to become genuinely transparent with our faith at our church–our church will be healthy and being healthy, ready to be used by God in fantastic ways.
- Be Welcoming. Truthfully, many churches are not that welcoming. They think they are, but in practice they are not very sensitive to the experience of guests. To be welcoming means to be intentional about it. It is more than just a friendly mindset, it is an intentional atmosphere created within a church to make every guest’s experience as pleasant and encouraging as possible. All churches have people who visit. What is the reception they receive? Are they greeted? Are they assisted in finding their way around? Is there informational material to share with them? Is that material updated? Are church members interacting with the guests? Why is this so key to being a healthy church? Not only does it greatly assist guests–ensuring a great church experience for them and an incentive to return; it creates an outward focus for the church. Unhealthy churches have an inward focus. Healthy churches seek ways to serve others. Being a welcoming church is where an outward focus can start.
- Be Your Best. This point really speaks to worship and worship styles. Perhaps nothing has harmed churches more over the last few decades than worship wars–people feuding within churches as to which worship style will be practiced. None of that has been very healthy. What is healthy is when we simply do our best (within our worship context) to worship God “in spirit and truth.” We put our entire heart and soul into our Sunday gathering. We do not hold back in our devotion and praise to God. Certainly, we use gifted people to lead and assist us, but it is also our best God desires. We can have the latest technology; the most gifted leading us; the most contemporary song selection and still not have healthy worship. Healthy worship is when we are all engaged–offering the best of ourselves to God as we worship. When we do, it will be a tremendous witness to our faith and relationship to God–a witness other’s will notice and from which they will gain strength. Healthy churches do not get lost in an over-focus on the latest worship bells and whistles–they engage the heart of the worshipper to bring out the very best we have to offer.
- Be Grace-Filled. Healthy churches realize that there are none perfect (“not even one”- Romans 3:10) and operate in God’s spirit of grace. Forgiveness is fundamental among healthy churches. Healthy churches welcome everyone to journey as fellow grace travellers. Healthy churches are not judgmental nor self-righteous. Healthy churches offer a safe place of refuge for all who are weary in the world. God’s grace oozes from healthy churches.
- Be Flexible. This may be the most difficult! Not speaking of any type of Biblical or value compromise here, just the ability to adjust to changing culture. Think Paul here–becoming “all things to all people” in order to spread the gospel to as “many as possible” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). Healthy churches do not get stuck in the rut of tradition to the point that they fail to live in the present. The church is called out to minister in our time and place. Healthy churches have enough flexibility to adapt to their changing communities and offer a compelling contemporary message about the old rugged cross.
How all of this will look– lived out in churches is as different as the churches themselves. It is not presented as some exhaustive check-list–just what I have observed over the years within healthy churches.
January 21, 2014
One of the my earliest sermons was entitled, “Forsake Not the Assembly.” It was based upon the “go-to” verse on this topic–Hebrews 10:25. Since then, I have spent a considerable amount of energy trying to urge; convince; beg; encourage; and challenge folks to grasp the eternal significance of gathering weekly with the church.
I will give it another shot. Here are five compelling reasons why you should worship with the church every Sunday.
- Church is a big deal to God. How big? Christ started and endorsed the church–Matthew 16:18; His sacrifice purchased the church and made it whole–Acts 20:28; Ephesians 5:25-27. He married it. The church is the bride of Christ–Revelation 19:7-9; 21:2,9. The idea that we can have Christ without the church is unthinkable to God. From heaven’s perspective there is no “take it or leave it” option when it comes to the church. God is all in on the church. Jesus gave all to the church.
- Worship matters. What goes on in church is also a big deal. When we gather with the Spirit of God in our midst, events of eternal importance occur. Communion takes us to the cross and beyond. It anchors our gathering with reflection, thanksgiving, and anticipation. Our singing is designed to encourage, teach, and build up each other. Our prayers are like sweet incense to God. Biblical teaching expands our understanding of God and his will for us. The sweet fellowship we enjoy strengthens and refreshes. None of this is accidental. It is thoroughly God-designed–just for us. Why deny ourselves this incredible blessing?
- Church is a redemptive community. It is usually at this point in this discussion when all the church warts are pointed out. Yes, it is true. The church is made up of all sorts of less-than-perfect people. Folks in the church do dumb things and often fail to model Christ consistently. It is also a fact that our exercise of worship can occasionally seem repetitive and less-than-inspirational. We are after all, human. But we are not what makes the church such a compelling place. It is Christ and his redemptive work within us. The apostle Paul recalled the sorry former state of some who made up the Corinthian church. But that was before Jesus. He tells them, “Since then, you’ve been cleaned up and given a frest start by Jesus, our Master, our Messiah and by God present in us, the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:11 MSG). This is the church–full of a bunch of sinners given another chance by Jesus. The church celebrates; reflects; and embodies his redemptive work. When we can focus on that–on him; our attitude about church and our experience in church will likely change.
- We need you. You have a place in this redemptive community. God has arranged it (1 Corinthians 12:18). You belong. You fit. We need your giftedness; your heart (especially if it is broken); your presence. Your background does not matter. Without you here, we are not complete. Please do not ever believe otherwise–we need you.
- God loves you. Ultimately this is what it is all about. Earlier, I referenced Ephesians 5:25-27. It is a beautiful text on many different levels: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” The church is about the love of God working in you to bring about transformation; to bring about God’s eternal will for you to enjoy a relationship with him forever.
To the skeptics; to the burned out; to the suspicious; to the bruised; to the turned-off; to the struggling; to the disappointed; to the disillusioned; to those who no longer believe; to those who doubt; to the tired: to the former faithful; to anyone who has given up on or never were interested: give church a chance. Come and worship with us Sunday. It will be far from a perfect experience. But that is why we are here. We need redemption. We need Jesus. And yes, we need you.
January 15, 2014
- It is easier to criticize than to praise. It requires much less effort to point out what is wrong, than to celebrate what is right. A church may be engaged in all kinds of encouraging, life-changing ministry, but it is the flaws that seem to get most of the focus. And there are flaws and always will be. Which means…
- The church is an easy target. Yep, we have hypocrites, liars, the immoral, the insensitve, the intolerant, and the self-righteous. Often we seem out-of-touch and archaic. Name it (and the critics do) because we got it. Never mind that we also have the faithful, the loving, the pure, the servant-hearted: you know, folks trying to model Jesus. Forget the fact that by its very nature the church welcomes all of the above to enter into a transformative relationship with Christ. Ignore the reality that we are and will contiune to be (until Christ returns) a work in progress– never claiming perfection. Our mistakes just make too big a target for many to see beyond.
- Misery sells. Good news creates much less buzz than bad. The media has grasped this for decades. Church bashing simply has broader appeal than church praising. It has become a cottage industry.
- Everyone is an expert. Just ask and you will discover that almost everyone has an opinion (usually a strong one) about the church. These opinons usually contain criticism complete with a “how to fix it” plan. Very few experts see themselves as part of the problem, however.
- It is self-serving. For many church bashing serves to create justification for their own choices. “The church is bad therefore I will not support it” or “The church is bad and I need to change it” or “The church is bad therefore I will oppose it”- is the idea. Obviously, this is not true about criticism across the board, Also, it must be acknowleged that some have suffered genuially terrible experiences in churches, which has created difficult personal spiritual struggles. But for many criticizing the church simply serves their own purposes.
There is a difference, of course, between healthy criticsim which seeks to instruct and improve. I see the apostle Paul engaged in this kind of criticism as he dealt with the first century churches. He pointed out their flaws; their sins, but always with the goal of correcting them in the most productive way in Jesus. He never engaged in bashing. His was redemptive criticism. Some, who survey the church today and offer a critique do so in the same spirit and for the same purpose. We need that. It is healthy.
What we do not need is the type of critcism reflective in my five reasons. It is counterproductive and damaging.
November 21, 2013
By now, I am confident that most of you have heard all about our postmodern culture and its impact on how people process information.
So I ask, what do you get when you cross a postmodernist with the mafia? You get an offer you cannot understand! Yea, go ahead and groan.
Yet, the challenge of sharing Jesus; of dialoging his message; of effectively bringing him into a conversation remains ever present in a culture influenced by postmodernism. What is the best way to do it? Here are five approaches:
- The silent treatment. Not an approach really. We just say nothing. Maybe it is out of the intimidation factor. Maybe we are unsure what to say. Maybe we never feel compelled to include Jesus in the dialog. This may be a safe and totally non-confrontative approach, but it accomplishes nothing in terms of sharing the kingdom alternatives of Christ.
- I miss Mayberry. We can go all nostalgic in our approach and talk about the good ole days when people respected truth and reason and chide folks now-a-days for their wishy-washy ways, but this approach isn’t going to help anyone.
- It says what it means and it means what it says. We are talking about dialog here and that approach ends it before starts. There is not much traction at all to this approach anymore.
- I’m okay; your’e okay. This allows for too much. Christ’s teaching are very distinctive. He calls us to discipleship– to model the values of his kingdom. It is an enlightening and transformational process. Therefore, it will at times also be confrontational.
- “Speaking the truth in love”- Ephesians 4:15. I call this the Jesus model. It is dialog without divisive debate. It is compassion without compromise. It is saturated with his “grace and truth” (John 1:14). It is not judgmental, but does invite self-evaluation. It does not hesitate to engage, but never dominates or intimidates. Neither is it intimidated by opposition. It is verified by the transparency of faith lived out. It is not easy, but it is the best way to dialog about Jesus–to share his wonderful words of life to an increasingly skeptical audience.
There is an additional component to add when dialoging about Jesus.
Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. – James 1:19
November 8, 2013
First up, just so you know–I am no expert on this topic.
I am, however, blessed by being surrounded by folks who are on the front lines of urban outreach.
My church has a dedicated group of men and women who give so much of themselves in serving the urban neighborhoods which surround our campus. River City Ministry is not far away. They do an incredible job in the inner city of North Little Rock, Arkansas–as does the Silver City church. I praise God for them all. Their vision and passion is unstoppable. I hang out on the edges of these ministries. Occasionally I assist them in small ways, but mostly I observe their tremendous work. And here are some of those observations:
- The poor will always be with us. Well obviously, this is not an original observation (Matthew 26:11). The plight of poverty will never totally be solved. We can move away from it. We can pretend it does not exist. We can insulate ourselves from it, but it remains. What also remains is our divinely mandated call to respond to it. If we truly want our churches to look like Christ, then embedded in our outreach must be the preaching of the good news to the poor (Matthew 11:5) as well as the feeding of the hungry, the clothing of the naked, and the care of the needy (Matthew 25:31-46). If we are the hands and feet of Jesus this is among what those hands and feet will be doing.
- There are no quick fixes. This is a long-haul ministry. It is hard work. It is full of disappointments. No way to sugar coat it with pithy platitudes. Helping people who struggle with not only poverty, but with its underlying causes takes lasting commitment and a huge servant’s heart.
- It goes beyond handouts. Handouts are immediate needs-based responses that sometimes are absolutely necessary, but healthy urban ministry approaches have a larger vision. The goal is to attack poverty by helping those in it, begin moving beyond it. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways centered in relationship building. but is a crucial component of urban outreach. Two books detail a vision for this– When Helping Hurts and Toxic Charity. If you are considering become involved in urban ministry, I suggest you check those two books out.
- Be careful of burnout. In such a ministry that demands so much, burnout can beckon. Those on the front lines of urban ministry need our prayers, support, help, and encouragement.
- It is a transformative ministry. Earlier I mentioned disappointments, but there are also triumphs. Lives are changed–sometimes dramatically. Not just talking about finding homes or jobs, but finding Christ and being totally transformed by his grace. This is at the heart of urban ministry. Christ does change everything! This can be true of churches also. Stagnant, self-absorbed churches can be transformed into vibrant, others-minded servant churches through the difference making of urban ministry.
It is easy to become hardened and cynical toward poverty and those in it. Try seeing them as Jesus does. This is the vision that drives urban ministry.
I thank God for those with this vision.