Preachers, Numbers, and Church GrowthFriday, January 11, 2019
I’ve known and appreciated Terry Francis for a number of years now, but his recent series of posts on preachers and churches may well prove to be more valuable to the Lord’s work than anything else he’s done. In them, Terry has confronted some hard truths about elders, about churches, and, yes, about preachers.
In his most recent post, he highlighted the propensity of the latter to get trapped in a Rick Warren church-growth mindset, with a resultant focus on numbers and neglect of brethren. Ouch. Caught me right between the eyes with that one, Terry. Like him, I can look back with sorrow at times in my work when I cared more about number of baptisms per year than I did about fostering relationships with those who were already members of the congregation.
Don’t get me wrong. Saving souls is wonderful, but so too is dwelling with other Christians in unity and peace. We must do the first, but emphasizing the first at the expense of the second is a perversion of Scripture.
I think this is another one of the areas in which the church has taken its lead from wider American society. Society teaches us that the preacher is an employee and the church leadership is his employer. So too, society teaches us that if you want to evaluate the usefulness of your employee, you need data. You need metrics, even if useful metrics really don’t exist. Another one of those American illusions is that only the measurable is important.
According to this way of thinking, the preacher’s job is to keep the church in the black. As long as the attendance and contribution keep rising, all is well. If either starts declining, hmmm. It might be time to “look for a new direction”.
Preachers, at least the ones who think they can “grow the church”, like this metrical method too. It gives them job security (they think), and it gives them justification to become puffed up and proud. How dare any member get crossways with them??? They’re growing the church!
As Terry points out, this is a dangerous delusion. When it comes to the Lord’s work, no man can give the increase. Both preachers and churches must acknowledge this. The data that offer the appearance of objectivity end up distorting the truth instead, either about our preachers or about ourselves.
If we want to test the quality of a man’s work, we have to use Scriptures, not spreadsheets. Three whole books of the Bible are devoted to a discussion of the work of the evangelist, and there is much other material besides. The word reveals quite clearly what questions we ought to be asking.
Among them are these: Does a man work hard? Does he accurately handle the word of truth? Is his conduct an example for other believers? Does he preach the word, in season and out of season? Is he humble and patient in his dealings with others, especially when they’re wrong? Above all, does he love the Lord his God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength?
These things cannot be measured, but their value is immeasurable. A man who is and does these things, regardless of the number on the attendance board, has won the approval of God. Preachers need to rest themselves in this truth; church leaders need to honor it.
If, conversely, numbers begin to matter to us more than godliness, surely ungodliness will not be far behind.
Are Christians Getting Churched Out?Thursday, January 10, 2019
Last week, my friend and brother Kent Berman shared some of his spiritual reflections on Facebook. He observed that the crush of worship services and church activities on Sunday, and indeed through the rest of the week, left him and his family feeling rushed and stressed out. He suggested that many churches would be better off in thinning out their calendars, leaving more time for Christians to spend on prayer, Bible study, family activity, and getting to know their neighbors.
I thought this was an intriguing idea, and I both partially agreed and partially disagreed with it. On the “agreement” side, I think it’s easy for American churches to follow the pattern of American culture, which tends toward stress and excess. To the American mind, the answer to every problem is a program. Young people leaving the church? More youth devotions! Christians with marriage problems? Let’s have a series of studies!
I don’t mean to suggest that any of these things, or other things like them, are ungodly. Individually, they may even be wise. In the aggregate, however, they result in a calendar so cluttered with worship services and small-group activities and special events that you basically have to be the preacher to show up to all of them. When many Christians are already leading lives that are overheating with stress, this may well push them to apathy rather than spiritual excellence.
It’s good, then, for church leaders to reflect long and hard before throwing a program at the problem. That extra teen devo may well be coming out of the few hours a week that teens have to spend with their families, and time with parents is (or at least ought to be) more spiritually influential than anything the devo leader might say. If parents aren’t spending significant time on spiritual interaction with their kids, well, we’ve found the real problem, haven’t we? No program can overcome that.
Fundamentally, though, the reason why Christian families are stressed out and don’t have time for spiritual growth and each other isn’t the church. It’s the culture. Three assemblies and a small-group meeting aren’t going to stress you out if you aren’t doing anything else with your week (which is why retired Christians show up to things like that and gripe about how younger Christians aren’t). However, if both husband and wife are working 50 hours a week to make the payments on a 3000-square-foot house, two late-model SUV’s, and $10K in credit-card debt, then yeah, those extra five hours will push you over the edge. In fact, you may already be over the edge because of little Johnny and Jane and their 50 million extracurricular activities that you have to take them to or be a Bad Parent.
It’s good to question whether the church is trying to do too much. It’s better to question whether in our personal lives, we are trying to do too much. In many cases, we have drunk too deeply of our society’s assumptions about prosperity and success, and they’re causing us to wreck our lives. We careen through life screaming at our loved ones, and we blame the church and its five-hours-a-week drain on our time because those materialistic assumptions are too deeply ingrained to question.
I’m all for churches being respectful of their members’ busy schedules. However, if our lives are crazy and out-of-control, we need to be honest about where the problem really lies.
Four Characters in ProverbsWednesday, January 09, 2019
Much of the book of Proverbs is made up of one-shot epigrams without any obvious connection to their context. However, the first portion of the book isn’t like that. Instead, it’s dominated by four imaginary characters, all of whom make speeches that frame the rest of the book. Each one of them personifies some kind of wise or foolish behavior. In the order in which we encounter them, they are:
The Wise Father. Whether or not we have earthly fathers who said and did foolish things, the father in Proverbs does not. Instead, he embodies the wisdom that comes from experience. In his time, he’s seen it all. He’s watched as other young men have gone down inviting paths that ended in disaster. He doesn’t want his son (the reader of Proverbs) to meet the same wretched fate, so he’s instructing him in both wise and unwise choices.
In Proverbs, listen to Dad. He’s right, though the wisdom of his advice may not be obvious. Even if you don’t get it, do what he says. In time, you’ll look back and be glad you did.
The Evil Companions. In Proverbs 1, Dad’s first warning is about some wicked friends who have a speech of their own to make. They want the son to come with them and become a highway robber. They’ll waylay passersby, kill them, and take their stuff. Everybody will be rich!
Don’t listen to these guys, the father says. You might think you’ll end up rich, but really you’ll end up dead.
There is more literal value in this advice than we might think. A young man I once taught in Bible class is currently up on charges for robbery and murder. However, for most of us, other applications are more relevant. First, we have to beware of peer pressure. If we run with the wrong crowd, they will lead us to do the wrong thing.
Second, we must watch out for all the ways that the love of money can distort our conduct. In God’s eyes, Bernard Madoff isn’t any better than Jesse James. If we seek dishonest gain, sooner or later, it will wreck us.
Lady Wisdom. She has the next speaking part in Proverbs 1, and is neither more nor less than a feminine personification of wisdom and its consequences. If you listen to Lady Wisdom, she is very generous. She will see to it that you are rewarded with wealth and honor.
On the other hand, if you ignore her, she turns into a hag. She will watch as you ruin yourself, and she will laugh at you the whole way down. How many of us have known the sting of looking back, seeing what we should have done, and regretting that we did not do it?
The Woman of Folly. Though the woman of folly (my mother would have denied that she was a lady) doesn’t get a speaking part until Proverbs 7, we’re warned about her from Proverbs 2 on. She is the stereotypical seductress: eager to get her hands on naïve young men and destroy them.
From her, all of us, whether male, female, old, or young, have much to learn. She represents the attractions and dangers of sexual sin. The woman of folly lurks in schools and workplaces, at parties, and even on the Internet. Whether we give our bodies to her or merely our hearts, the consequences will be brutal.
Finding God in the New YearMonday, January 07, 2019
Even though I still have to think to make sure that I don’t write “2018” at the top of my sermon notes, 2019 is officially upon us. There’s really nothing that makes January 1, 2019 any different from December 31, 2018, it’s still a time that many of us use to take stock and consider the year ahead.
Of course, pondering the future is an activity as old as mankind, and we certainly see it in the Scriptures. For instance, in 2 Timothy 3, Paul tells Timothy what the future will hold for him and what he should do about it. Because the wisdom of God is timeless, these same things apply to us today. Let’s consider Paul’s words, then, to learn how we can find God in the new year.
In this text, Paul first warns against WORLDLINESS IN THE CHURCH. Look here at 2 Timothy 3:1-5. Much of this text is taken up with a horrendous catalogue of sins, but of it all, the part that most concerns me is v. 5. There, Paul notes that the people who will practice these things have the appearance of godliness but have forsaken its power. In other words, all of these awful sins will be committed by people who outwardly look like Christians!
Brethren, this is the future that the devil wants for every one of us, and we can rest assured that he will spend 2019 working as hard as he can to make sure that this is where we end up. He wants us to be people who show up for church on Sunday morning but have lives that are every bit as rotten and corrupt as the people around us. One Christian like that does more harm to the cause of Christ than a hundred atheists!
This year, before we gossip, before we look at porn, before we nurture hatred in our hearts, let’s remember the devil’s goal. Let’s resolve that whatever else happens, we’re not going to let him put us in this category. We can’t control the choices that the world makes, but we can and must control ourselves.
Next, Paul predicts WORLDLINESS IN CHURCH LEADERS. Let’s keep going in 2 Timothy 3:6-9. There are two main problems that the apostle identifies in this text, and the first has a very modern ring to it. It is the problem of leaders in the church using their position to sexually abuse and exploit others.
All of us are familiar with the child-molestation scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church for decades. However, in recent years, similar problems with the abuse of girls and women have emerged among some evangelical churches. Those things are bad enough, but it’s even worse when churches cover up sexual misconduct by their leaders.
That must never happen here. I hope and pray that this never becomes an issue, but if it does, all credible accusations of criminal sexual activity by church leaders here must be reported to the authorities. In that event, we can’t worry about the damage reporting it will do to the reputation of the church. It would be far better for this congregation to close its doors forever than to be engaged in sheltering evil.
As Paul observes, part of the problem is that those who prey on the weak and vulnerable will also end up abandoning the truth. You can’t let Satan have that much real estate in your heart and remain useful for preaching Christ or serving Christ or shepherding others in Christ. Leaders, we have a job to do. Let’s pursue godliness so we can do it.
In contrast to this, Paul urges Timothy to FOLLOW HIM. He explains what this means in 2 Timothy 3:10-13. He first of all notes that Timothy has been doing this, but that what Timothy has seen from Paul doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence. Yes, Paul’s life has shown faith, patience, love, and steadfastness, but the result of this for Paul has been persecution and suffering. Not much of a recommendation!
However, as Paul notes, this is to be expected. Persecution is for everybody who is trying to live godly in Christ Jesus. In fact, as other parts of the Scriptures observe, pushback from others is an important sign that we’re on the right track.
This certainly can be about people giving us grief because of our faith in Christ, but I think the applications are broader than that. We can’t expect doing the right thing to result in earthly blessing. Let’s say that Brother Joe Bob has a rotten marriage. He decides that he wants to make his marriage better, so he dedicates himself to loving his wife, Emma Sue, as Christ loved the church. However, his better behavior does not guarantee her better behavior. She may well continue being a hag.
Nonetheless, doing the right thing, even to the point of suffering, does guarantee that God will be with us as He was with Paul, and that’s what truly matters. The wicked can go on fooling themselves right on into destruction, but only the righteous will please their Creator.
All right. If we want a bright future, we have to continue to follow God, but how do we do that? Paul tells Timothy and us both to look to THE SACRED WRITINGS. Let’s finish up our reading with 2 Timothy 3:14-17. In this text, there are two things that we must appreciate. The first is the extent of what Paul is talking about. Notice that Paul tells Timothy that these are the sacred writings that he has known from childhood. That can’t be the New Testament. It has to be the Old Testament.
Sometimes, I’ll hear Christians grump and complain about studying the Old Testament. “Why bother with this stuff?” they grumble. “Everything we need is in the New Testament anyway!” Well, Paul tells us otherwise. Timothy needed, and we need, the Old Testament to make us wise for salvation too.
Second, let’s pay attention to Paul’s words about all Scripture, which of course includes both testaments. He tells us that the Scriptures are both inspired and adequate. They come from God, and in them, we have everything we need to know to equip us to serve Him. If it isn’t in the Bible, we don’t need it.
However, if we don’t know the word and incorporate it into our hearts and our lives, it won’t do us any good. Last week, Shawn urged us to make sure that we read our Bibles every day. Let me echo his words. Let me make you a promise.
Even though every chapter in this year’s reading is in the Old Testament, if you will dedicate yourself to doing every reading, by the end of this year, it will change your life. If it doesn’t, I will give you your money back! Seriously, though, the word of God is powerful and active. It is certain to transform us if only we will let it.
Mourning with HopeFriday, January 04, 2019
‘Tis the season for funerals. Over the past few weeks, my family and I have been to three visitations/funerals: two for relatives of Jackson Heights members, one for the infant daughter of some friends of ours. The two men who died were not Christians; our friends are Christians, very much so.
The differences between the first two and the last one were striking. What, after all, does one say at the funeral of an irreligious man? You look backward. You have to. You talk about what a good friend and coworker he was. You talk about the memories his children have of him. The songs you play are half religious (like that country & western song about going to heaven and petting a lion, which I had never heard before moving to Tennessee and now have heard quite a bit), half not. Then the funeral is over, and you are left with your memories. That’s it.
It’s different if you’re a Christian. Admittedly, these were folks we knew better than we knew the others, but we talked to them for nearly an hour. We certainly talked about memories, but we also talked about meaning. We grappled, as Christians do, with understanding the work of God in a fallen world. We talked about what it means to be a person of faith in a time of despair.
We talked too about their daughter in the present tense. From her perspective, now is much better than a month ago was. We anticipated a tomorrow that would be better for all of us, not least because we will see her again. We will.
Between these two spiritual landscapes, a great chasm is fixed. Mourning with hope is no fun. I’ve grieved for my parents and my daughter that way. However, it is infinitely preferable to mourning without hope. It is much better to grapple with the meaning of tragedy than to be forced to admit that tragedy has no more meaning than anything else.
I know that my friends will grieve incessantly for months and periodically for as long as they live. Some wounds do not completely heal this side of Jordan, and we should not expect them to (or worse, expect the wounds of others to). Our society’s discomfort with sorrow is part and parcel of its refusal to confront the grim realities of life under the sun. We know better, and we should be wiser than that.
Neither, though, should we deny or disparage the comfort that we have been given. Christians are blessed with many gifts. The right to mourn with hope is one of the most precious.