Five Reasons Why Churches Won’t Grow

September 19, 2017

dying church

Although never voiced I have discovered that there is usually a degree of internal institutional opposition when it comes to church growth. It is not just that churches don’t grow; often it is they won’t grow. Here are five reasons why:

  • Lack of intentionality. For a church to grow it must plan to grow. It must be purposeful in evangelism. It must expect growth along with anticipating how to manage it. A church that grows is intentional about sharing God’s message; intentional about being hospitable to guests; intentional about assimilating new members in a healthy fashion; intentional about building meaningful relationships. They intentionally plant, water and are ready when God gives the increase.
  • Maxed out leadership. This includes maxed out vision for the church body and maxed out ability to manage the church body. A church will grow only as far as its leadership envisions and leads. When a leadership settles for status quo so does the church. Growing churches have leaders who walk by faith, not sight; who raise up new leaders to share in and expand their vision while escaping burnout; and who create an atmosphere for growth.
  • Apathy. Often churches are inwardly focused—more concerned and urgent about members needs then about outreach. This challenges every church. But beware! Apathy may be comfortable, but apathy dooms churches.
  • Fear. Fear is apathy’s partner. Fear presents all sorts of barriers (both real and imagined) to growth. Fear paralyzes leadership. Fear stymies vision, innovation, boldness and outreach. According to the Bible it is a spirit foreign to God.
  • Tradition. Tradition can be healthy. Some ritual is God-ordained–an essential and extremely meaningful part of our church life. Tradition helps define us as a community of faith, but frequently tradition can also be limiting to growth. Because we have never done it that way before does not necessarily mean it cannot be done that way. If tradition or traditional thinking is limiting a church’s ability to evangelize, then there should be a reevaluation of that tradition and thinking.

Avoid these not-so fab five at all costs! They are preventing churches everywhere from realizing the potential God sees within them for outreach and growth. Haven’t we let them stop us long enough?

(Bible verses referenced include 1 Corinthians 3:7; 11:23-26; 2 Corinthians 5:7 & 2 Timothy 1:7)

 

 

 

 

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Revolutionizing Race Relationships

September 18, 2017

The Kingdom Revolution #2

You are all sons of God though faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. –Galatians 3:26-28

Jew-Gentile Relationship

The first century Roman world was in some ways remarkably tolerant concerning race and even religion. According to the Caesar as long as subservient conquered people would pay homage to the Roman gods along with the Emperor and obey Roman rule they were pretty much left alone to pursue their native culture and religion. If a nation refused to do so, then such tolerance ended. Jews in Palestine were such a people. Israel was a hotbed of rebellion. This ultimately led in 70 A.D. to the complete and utter desolation of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple—the Jewish cultural and religious center.

At the core of the Jewish rebellion was a desire to be free to pursue their own interests as a nation including the practicing of their religion. Embedded within this core was a prejudicial attitude toward non-Jews. The Jewish historian Josephus noted that the Jews “did not come into contact with other people because of their separateness” (Antiq. 13:245-247; Apion, 2.210). This separateness evolved out of certain requirements of the Law. Because of their dietary requirements, ceremonial cleansing, and other such practices, most Jews viewed non-Jews as unclean. The physical mark of circumcision also separated the Jews from the rest of the population. This led to elitism and an entrenched prejudice toward non-Jewish people. As expected a pushback to this occurred from among non-Jews. In general the Jew-Gentile relationship in the first century was not a healthy one.

This is evident in Christ’s ministry. As he expanded the idea of God’s kingdom, he often prodded at the Jewish elitism identifying non-Jews as the heroes of stories (the Good Samaritan for example). He continually challenged the status quo. He wanted them to see the revolutionary nature of the kingdom of God. It was no longer just a Jewish domain nor was it ever designed to remain so. Then the apostle Paul—more than anyone else as he carried out his “ministry of reconciliation” among non-Jewish people—dealt with the struggle of Jew/Gentile racism within the church. One commentator writes of this:

From the Jews, whose view of Gentiles was filtered by Levitical prescriptions for ethnic purity, came accusations that Paul’s Gentile inclusiveness had polluted God’s covenant to His people. After all, the majority of Gentiles led unceremoniously unclean lives and held Judaism’s mores in contempt. From the Gentiles, whose view of the Jews was marked a by derogatory racial superiority, there arose a sense that Paul was futilely pandering to his kinsmen. After all, the Jews rejected their Messiah, seemingly forgoing God’s favor on them. For Paul to conjoin Jews and Gentiles together as the co-recipients of the gospel’s salvific power was to offer a gospel liable to shame from both ethnic groups.*

Fruther commentary:

The greatest threat to the Christian faith in the first century was racism. Jews and Gentiles detested each other. Both Jews and Gentiles perpetrated stereotypes. Both made false assumptions about the other. Both Jews and Gentiles thought the best way to live was at an advantageous distance from the other.*

Into all of this Paul speaks the words of Galatians 3:26-28 and it was totally revolutionary, radical and scandalous. It spoke to the very way people for generations had been identifying themselves—and proudly so–by their race, heritage and culture.

Galatia

The situation among the churches in Galatia was fairly typical of the racial dynamic of the day. Many Jews within the Galatian churches refused to accept non-Jews unless they also embraced certain Jewish traditions and customs. Paul refused this—calling their teaching “another gospel.” It was all about identity and there was just one identity that mattered—that of being in Christ. It superseded all others. In him there is neither Jew nor Greek. Within the kingdom of God our very identities are transformed. Our race takes a back seat to our faith. This was the revolutionary message to the Galatian churches then and remains so.

In Christ Race is Revolutionized

Jesus, through his death and resurrection, dramatically ripped apart the barriers of hostility that divide races (Ephesians 2:14). He is the God of both the Jew and non-Jew (Romans 3:29-30). He is the God of both black and white and every nation and tongue. It is in him and through his power that prejudice is overcome and a new revolutionary way of thinking about race and identity is lived out.

  • Redefine our Primary Identity. No longer are we to identify ourselves first as Jew/Gentile or back/white, etc. Our clothing has changed! We wear Christ as our primary identity. Even further our primary citizenship is no longer within the nation we reside. Instead it is in the kingdom of God. When we put on Christ in baptism—everything changes including the way we view ourselves. We identity first with him and his kingdom. Our priorities are revolutionized. We discover a new way of viewing other people. We are adopted into a family with a different set of values.
  • Racism is replaced with acceptance (Romans 15:7). We learn to accept each other in Christ Jesus. We are set free from suspicion and separation. It is Christ who binds us together in his grace. What brings us together in him becomes more valuable than what separated us before him. Instead of making worldly assumptions about one another based upon race or other factors, we are moved with the compassion of Jesus to accept and embrace one another based upon the fact that he saved us all with the same sacrifice. No one is superior to any other. Paul stated it clearly—all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Who are we to consider ourselves better than anyone else (Romans 2:1-2)?
  • Relationships are revolutionized. They are, in fact, redeemed in Jesus. The old way of thinking is revolutionized. In God’s kingdom relationships are based upon God’s grace. In Christ we are made to be one people—not many. Race is secondary. Christ is primary. Since he destroyed all the barriers of separation, we are now set free to embrace, accept and love each other in a way that can be found no where else—a revolution of relationships that mark us as citizens of God’s kingdom.

What emerges from this is a true post-racial community. (It is not a community free of the reality of race. Nowhere does God ask us to ignore our racial heritage and culture. Paul allowed Jewish Christians to continue to practice circumcision, dietary customs and keep Jewish holy days—as long as it never superseded their kingdom identity or they attempted to enforce them upon non-Jewish Christians). It is a community that simply refuses to allow race to be the dividing line; to create hostility and separation; or to undermine the unity of God’s kingdom. It acknowledges that racism is sin in any and every form. It strives to present the kingdom alternative—the revolutionary idea that race is not primary, but Christ is. It is the revolutionary nature of the kingdom—a place that looks like this:

After this I looked and saw a multitude too large to count, from every nation and tribe and people and tongue, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb! –Revelation 7:9-10

Want to revolutionize race relations in our world? The only way is Jesus. The only place is in his kingdom.

 

Both quotes are taken from article entitled. “The Gospel, Unashamed: Race Relations in Rome, Part 2 on the Downline Ministry Blogpost of July 17, 2016. 


The Kingdom of God is Revolutionary

September 11, 2017

The following is the introductory lesson for my fall class series at Levy–The Kingdom Revolution. More to follow. 

We may not really think about the kingdom in revolutionary terms, but it is so. It was as Jesus began more fully introducing the kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount and then as he lived it out within the context of his ministry. It was as he died on the cross only to be resurrected three days later. It was when the first Christians changed an empire by faithfully living out the kingdom in taking Good News throughout the world. It remains so today—even if we do not fully understand or embrace it.

At the dawn of the in-breaking of the kingdom—before Jesus gathered a crowd around him on the Sea of Galilee to proclaim blessings and reimagine narrowly interpreted Scripture—God’s message to people had become muted, corrupted and reshaped into a stale repetition of ordinances and rabbinical traditions, which were mostly disconnected to the practical needs of daily life. Yes, there was an expectation of a Messiah and the coming of the kingdom, but no one ever expected the Messiah and kingdom that actually came. The Jews certainly did desire a revolution, but nothing like the one that really happened.

In some ways this mirrors our experiences today. As Christianity has become institutionalized we run similar risks of muting the revolutionary nature of the kingdom lest it upset the institution itself. We welcome the Messiah and the idea of kingdom, but too often attempt to micromanage both. Revolutions are not micromanaged however. They turn worlds upside down and change everything.

Everything Changed

One way to measure a revolution is the reaction to it from those whom it threatens the most. In terms of the kingdom of Christ this became obvious as entrenched religious leaders opposed Jesus. They saw him—and rightly so—as a threat to their orthodoxy. They recognized how his revolutionary teaching would change everything. What they failed to recognize was how this was God’s will and always had been.

To paraphrase Jesus, if they had really known the law and the prophets they would have seen the revolution coming. But they were blinded by tradition, self-interests, power and pride. As everything changed around them, they stubbornly opposed it, while ultimately moving to stop it. They failed, of course. After all, who can stand in the way of God?

The revolution was his idea—his plan to send his only Son to change everything. As respected author and theologian N.T. Wright explains:

The New Testament insists in book after book, that when Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross, something happened as a result of which the world is a different place. And the early Christians insisted that when people are caught up in the meaning of the cross, they become part of this difference.”  (from The Day the Revolution Began, pg. 39)

How the world is this different place is what we will examine in this study. Hopefully it can encourage us to be or continue to be a part of the difference—kingdom revolutionaries if you will.

Three Texts

In this study we will focus on three primary biblical texts. The first will be Galatians 3:26-28. Here Paul captures how everything changes once we clothe ourselves with Christ in baptism. Our identities undergo a revolution. The old ways of identifying ourselves give way to a kingdom redefinition. In the context of the writing it was revolutionary. It remains so in our context.

The second text is 1 Corinthians 6:1-11. In addressing a context specific problem among some in the Corinthian church, Paul shares some revolutionary kingdom ideas about relationships, personal rights and use of recourses. It is the kingdom teaching of Jesus lived out in the real world, but it is not easy. Revolutions rarely are.

The last text is Romans 12-15:7. This longer context again speaks to the personal transformation process that comes with the kingdom revolution. Here Paul revolutionizes such values as love, zeal, integrity, and other personal behavior. The fact is for the revolution to actually to make a difference it has to start within. Why else would Jesus state that the kingdom is within us (Luke 17:21).

The Revolution Personified

It is no mistake that these three texts were written by the apostle Paul. His story, perhaps, like none other most clearly represents the degree of change that accompanies the kingdom revolution. Here was a man whose life so completely transformed that it barely resembled what it once had been.

Here was a Pharisee of the Pharisees; a man who completely embodied Judaism; passionate to the point of persecuting; until he met Jesus and was totally transformed. Here is how he stated it:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).

Stop and read that again. “I no longer live.” Everything changed! He joined the revolution.

He did so because he became aware—as must everyone who joins the revolution—that what the kingdom offers is of far greater value than anything else anywhere else. This awareness would later lead him to say things like this:

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:7-8).

Is Paul an outlier? Was this just a special dispensation asked of a man who would be an apostle—or are we all called to this? The answer to that reveals much about us. Is it truly a revolution within that changes everything or is it something less? If it is something less then can it really be a revolution? If it is not a revolution then what will really change? It is my guess that Saul of Tarsus had these questions to wrestle with once. Now it is our turn.


Money and Me

July 12, 2017

Worried About Money

So I am enjoying a kind of preaching sabbatical due to different circumstances intersecting (regular Sunday off, preaching intern, mission trip), which provides me a rare opportunity to plan my next sermons over a longer period. All year my preaching focus has been themed around “seeking first the kingdom of God”–obviously from Christ’s incredible Sermon on the Mount. During the summer I have narrowed that focus to what I call “kingdom values.” Next up my plan leads me to address the use of and attitudes toward money in the kingdom (so Levy be warned!) It will not be a “sermon on giving” (or as the classic Marvin Phillip’s line goes–a “sermon on the amount”), but rather what Christ taught about money and possessions along with how they are best used in his kingdom.

As I have been reading and ruminating over this, it has caused within me a growing tension. It has resulted in me coming face-to-face with and acknowledging my own weaknesses and failings in this regard.

It can be rather convenient for preachers to pick out our texts, work our sermon plans, and have a go at the church without ever allowing the message to become deeply personal. After all, we have to move from one sermon to the next fairly quickly. Sermons are our products. We have to produce one weekly, which often does not allow time for self-reflection. Due to the accidental sabbatical I am enjoying self-reflection opportunities right now–and it is working me over.

I admit to always having a struggle with money. I grew up with very little of it and have never managed to accumulate a great deal of it. Overspending, though, has never been much of a problem. I hate debt even though I have never been totally free from it. I don’t sense within me the love of money that is rooted in all kinds of evil. I don’t have any great internal problems or hesitancy with contributing.

It is just this–I worry too much about it.

Interestingly enough this has only increased within me as I have gotten older. It has compounded due to having younger children. I now find myself on occasion being fearful about the future–will I have enough to help them through college? What will happen if I am not able to keep working? Are we sure we have enough money to cover all our responsibilities? Some of this may seem like typical concerns. Some of it quite honestly is just an irrational lack of faith. But it is the tune Satan keeps playing for me in the recesses of my mind.

Let me make this clear however–it does not come from a kingdom perspective at all.

In fact, Christ teaches exactly the opposite. Don’t worry. Seek first the kingdom and God will provide. Prioritize your money and resources from a kingdom perspective and be set free from our consumer driven social conditioning. I know this. My wife, Terri, reminds me of this quite frequently. God has always had our back, so why worry now? But I still do. Therefore the tension mounting within me.

I confess this here for a few reasons. First, confession really is a balm for the soul. It puts your struggle out there, forcing you to deal with it differently than if it is kept hidden. Second, preaching about money sometimes can be a tricky proposition. I want Levy to know that I am first preaching to myself. That my agenda is not just to challenge others to live out the kingdom values, but also to embrace them more fully myself. And third–to seek prayers from others on behalf of my struggle.

I must overcome Satan’s song with the beautiful words of Jesus:

So do not worry, saying “What shall we eat?” or”What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. –Matthew 6:32-34

Money and me have always had a complicated relationship. More than anything I want that relationship to be better defined and prioritized God’s way. I want to be set free of the tyranny of worry and fear.

 

 


Why So Isolating?

June 19, 2017

iso cell phone

I was reminded again recently while grocery shopping with my wife in our local ubiquitous gigantic one-size-fits-all store about how things have changed within my lifetime. As a child I have fond memories of walking the few blocks from my house to our neighborhood grocery market—Lucky Food Store in Greenville, MS. It was small but adequate. Folks frequenting this store knew each other. I could go there unaccompanied at a young age, browse for comic books on the rack while feeling safe and at home. It was a community of sorts.

I felt none of that familiarity in Wal-Mart. No knock on them—it is just the way of things now. It also made me contemplate what is next. Soon it appears the need to shop in the big stores will transition out. On the horizon is online grocery shopping. Need milk and bread? Just order it up on the website and have a drone deliver it to your door. Convenient for sure, but healthy? Maybe not.

What is getting squeezed out in our technology is contact with people, relationship and community. In all of the convenience we are increasingly isolating ourselves.

Everyone seems to have their own personal screen. Just look around the next time you are in a public space. You probably will notice more folks looking down at their phone than interacting with each other. This occurs in homes as well. Vanishing are our dinner times together or even shared TV watching. We are segregating by our own streaming preferences—just me and my screen.

And when was the last time you enjoyed a nice telephone chat with a friend? We text, message, tweet, and maybe still email. They all serve a purpose. Social media is here to stay, but no amount of proficiency with or time spent on social media replaces the benefits of personal contact.

Then there is this. It seems that even the old standby business lunch is fading and being replaced by people eating alone at their desks.

So why my lament about all of this?

God created us not to be isolated, but for community and he created a community for us that we call church. From the beginning God said, “It is not good for man to be alone.”

Our trending isolationism is not healthy emotionally, physically or spiritually. God’s community was designed for personal relationship, hospitality and fellowship. Those cannot be experienced through a screen.

Sure it gets messy sometimes (just read any of Paul’s New Testament letters), but it is worth the struggle. The community and connectivity we enjoy in Christ is but only a glimpse of the fully realized and shared kingdom of heaven that is to come.

This post is not meant to be a deep study of the dangers of our increasing trend for isolation or a detailed discussion of the need for community together as believers.

Certainly it is a lament—loneliness is more common than we imagine—but it is also meant to hopefully spur us to rethink our own tendency to isolate—if we do.

So, invite someone to lunch. Demonstrate hospitality in your home. Put the screen down and engage someone the next time you are in a public area. Enjoy a meal together with your family. Call someone on the phone just to chat. Start up a conversation with a fellow shopper in the big box superstore. Go to church—regularly. Meet someone new there. Hug an old friend. Celebrate God’s community. Discover the blessings within it.

It is not good for us to always be alone.


The Kingdom Difference

June 14, 2017

kingdomofgod

Recently while on vacation I met up with a good friend for lunch. As usual our discussion was wide ranging. Part of the conversation concerned how my 2017 preaching theme of seeking first God’s kingdom was transforming me—as well as my understanding of God’s kingdom—in profound and unexpected ways. The next day my friend texted me stating that he would enjoy a further conversation about this, specifically how this was personally affecting me.

I’ve ruminated over this a great deal in the few weeks since. Surprisingly I find it somewhat difficult to articulate it adequately. I have twice posted since about the impact the kingdom is making. It remains a journey for me—a process to grasp just how deep and wide the challenges of the kingdom are. Some of them I do not like. They make me uncomfortable and expose too many of my weaknesses.

But I am going to take a shot at it and attempt to explain what I am learning. To me the kingdom of God:

  • Is not about me. I really enjoy things being about me. I like to get my way. I dislike having to compromise. I generally believe that I have the best ideas and typically have a strong desire for events to turn out in my favor. But unfortunately this is not a kingdom focus—actually it is far from it. Read again the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)— Christ’s first public teaching about the kingdom and its values—and you will see it threaded throughout. Then later (Matthew 16:24-26) he makes it even clearer. There just is no self-focus in the kingdom and I haven’t figured out how to get around it—even though a large part of me wants to do so.
  • Is about submission. Here we go again. The kingdom is about me submitting my will to the Father’s. Christ himself emphasized this (in John’s gospel) and modeled it perfectly—in a way I cannot even imagine. In order to fully embrace God’s kingdom and thrive within it I have to give up. Period. My old self will has to die and be buried according to Paul in Romans 6:3-4. Out of that submission God will raise me up anew and begin his process of reshaping me for the kingdom. Nowhere, however, is there ever a claim that this would be easy. Worthwhile—definitely, but easy, no. I typically like easy.
  • Is others oriented. I guess at this point, this could go unsaid. I posted about the “least of these” kingdom focus earlier. They are the others.
  • Upends conventional wisdom. Starting with the idea of submitting and giving up, but going deeper. The poor, the mournful, the pure, the merciful, and even the persecuted—they are the blessed ones. Enemies? They are not to be hated and destroyed but to be loved (when was the last time I prayed for or had a loving spirit toward a terrorist? Yea. Tough.). Being first is not what matters—being last does. Have a lot of money, land and stuff? Maybe the best use of it is not to invest it to gain more stuff, but to diverse yourself of it and give it away (like many did in Acts). Someone strikes you, don’t strike back, but rather turn the other cheek. Put your swords away. Go the second mile. Those are the actions reflective of God’s kingdom. Its values indeed come from another place (John 18:36). All of this creates big-time tension within me. Can I–coming from the place of conventional wisdom–really put into practice these unconventional teachings?
  • Is all about trust. And this is where the true test for me comes. I can know all of the above in an academic, skim-the-Bible-kind of way, but do I trust God enough to personalize them and go all in? The trust-building promises are all there. Seek first and God’s got your back–no need to worry. Humble yourself and God will elevate you in his way. Give of yourselves and God will give back many times over in various ways. Be last and then become first in the kingdom. To actualize this I really have to let go of the control of my life and hand it over to God. Can I see past the short-term to grasp the endgame of God? Short-term none of this has any appeal to me. Long term? I must trust God explicitly. It is the only way to see the value of what he is asking. It is the only way to really make the kingdom become present and alive within me (Luke 17:20-21). This, as they say, has rocked my world.

This is where I am—venturing out in baby steps toward greater trust and in so doing finding God changing me; learning to view people, possessions, and priorities differently; all while being constantly confronted by the kingdom. Sometimes I manage to be selfless through it all, but sometimes I don’t. I suppose that why it is called seeking–it remains a process.

In the end it is all about God’s will. That is the kingdom difference. I find myself praying more like Jesus:

Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.


Props to Harding University

June 12, 2017

 

Harding-University

Harding University, in Searcy, Arkansas, is a liberal arts college affiliated with the Churches of Christ. It’s scenic campus sits not that far from the Levy church’s campus in North Little Rock, AR. As a result of this fortunate geography we are quite often the happy recipients of Harding’s products–both their graduates who move into our area and their professors who occasionally speak here.

So I give props to the university for their good work in emphasizing Christ in their educational process. We have different generations of Harding graduates at Levy and all bless our church. Within our leadership–among our shepherds and staff–we have Harding graduates. We get to enjoy a wonderful stream of young people fresh from the campus. They bring energy, vision, and faith, which in turn, continually creates a fresh, rejuvenating spirit within our congregation.

My personal experience at Harding was through their Master of Ministry program. That was a tremendous growth period for me, but I have never been a resident student there. Our current preaching intern and several of our youth and children’s ministry interns are from Harding also. I am impressed by them all. And while I realize that there is no perfect school (and also acknowledge that Levy is blessed by those from other fine Christian schools and other universities)–Harding has indeed been a notable blessing to the Levy church over the years.

So thanks to everyone who keeps the Harding tradition going! May God continue to bless the university! At Levy we look forward to future Harding graduates potentially coming our way.