Monday, February 24, 2014

Lessons Learned in the Small Church

I recently spoke with a member of a pastoral search committee in the Midwest. No, I wasn’t looking for a job, I was acting as a sounding board for a friend. He expressed his search teams mounting frustration with resumes from student pastors and children’s pastors. According to him, it seemed that “no one with pastoral experience was applying.” He did not make that comment to denigrate ministry to students or children. What he meant was that he was receiving few resumes from men who had served as “senior pastors” in churches his size (300-400) or smaller. This concerned him greatly and it concerns me, too.

The concern is not because student or children’s ministry is not important. Indeed it is. Both of those roles have a set of unique challenges that require a call from God and a love of those you are serving. But, it seems there is an increasing number of individuals in ministry who are not interested in pasturing the “small church.” By “small church” I mean those with attendance of 125 or less, in (often) rural locations, and (sometimes) “run” by a handful of folks (usually related). Rather than embrace that kind of mission field, many today would rather opt to plant a church or go the student / children’s ministry route until they can move into a mid-sized church. Unfortunately, in so doing, these would-be pastors miss out on lessons that one uniquely learns in the small church. I’ve noted a few such lessons from my own experience to challenge you to consider starting small.

1. You learn to serve.
The first church I ever served on a full-time basis was rural; very rural. Our community has far more animals than people. We had no main street. No post office. One gas station where an attendant still pumped the gas for you. The church had about 80 people in it that first Sunday. Most of them were related. I’ll never forget the first question from the chairman of deacons during my interview with them: “Do you have a problem cutting the grass?” You read that right, cutting the grass was a part of my formal job description at senior pastor of the church.

Initially I bristled at such a suggestion. But, I learned a lot on that lawn mower. One of the first things I learned was that I needed a bigger lawn mower! Beyond that, I learned that being a pastor means being a servant first. Funny thing about servants, they do not get to pick only the jobs they like, their masters do. As servants of Christ, serving the church, we need to learn that pastoral ministry often involves tasks that we didn’t learn about in seminary or bible college.

2. You learn leadership is about relationships.
Leadership is not about your position or your title. In the small church that is painfully obvious. I recall a deacon’s meeting in which I floated an idea. I cast the vision for the idea and gave the biblical reasons for it. The deacons were on board. I presented the idea at the church business meeting and was shot down. One of the members did not like the proposal. Rather than the deacons backing me up, they shrunk back. They did not want to “cross” their friend.

I do not blame those deacons. It was my own leadership immaturity that led to the problem. I didn’t understand the role of relationships for leadership, so I assumed that if those in positions of leadership made a proposal that would be sufficient. I’m glad I learned that lesson in a small church on a minor issue rather than cause a major upheaval in a larger context over a more serious matter.

3. You learn you are replaceable.
Shortly into my tenure in that first church I went to a Vacation Bible School training event. I went with the lady who had been the VBS Director the previous year, but now that I was there, it was my job. She agreed to accompany me to the training to introduce me to the other folks in our local association. The lesson I learned, however, had nothing to do with VBS. It was an offhand remark she made as we traveled back home from the meeting.

Someone in the vehicle had remarked how the church was affected by the previous pastor’s ministry and how he would be missed. My VBS hostess replied by stating, “pastors come and go, but the church stays the same.” While I did not tease a more precise meaning out of her – I was too stunned to do so – I have come to understand what she meant. She meant that pastors are stewards of the church for a time and then pass it along to others. She meant that the church does not rise and fall with you, pastor, but – if I may insert a theological meaning to her words – with Christ. She meant that I was replaceable. And, indeed, I was eventually replaced. I moved to a new place of ministry and the church called another pastor. In the 18 years since leaving there, they have called three pastors. Not a bad average for a small, rural church.

4. You learn the rhythms of ministry.
My next place of ministry was a bit larger, but not by much. When I arrived the church had about 95 people in attendance. It was a small, county seat church in a small town. It was there that I how to flow with the rhythms of ministry. By that I mean I learned how to balance my schedule to ensure that my highest priorities were met first. As a pastor, my conviction is that my highest ministry priority is studying the Word and preparing to proclaim it. But, there are many other tasks that must be undertaken as well.

I am thankful that I had a smaller context in which to learn how to manage my schedule. After all, if you do not set your schedule, other people (or other circumstances) will. If I had jumped immediately into a larger church – complete with larger budgets, personnel issues, etc – I suspect it would have been more challenging to learn how to get in the flow of the rhythms of ministry.

There are many other lessons that I learned in those small churches. These are but a sample. My point here is to encourage men who feel called to the pastoral ministry to not despise the day of small beginnings (to paraphrase Zech 4:10). Serve the Lord in small places and he will teach you incredible lessons. Love the people in those small churches and you’ll learn even more. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Deciding What is Really Important in Theology

Theology is one of those mysterious, challenging, and often difficult to understand topics in the church. It is a topic that has the potential to inflame passions and divide believers, often creating more heat than light. At the same time, it is a vital and crucial subject. Theology proper is, after all, what one believes about God. From that flows general theology, which is all the rest of what we believe related to who God is and what he has revealed about the world, mankind, Jesus Christ, and the future, to name just a few.

Because theology is so important, many of us take it very seriously. The fact of our seriousness about theology – even to the point of inflamed passions and divided believers – is not always a bad thing. It is, after all, good and right to determine, with conviction, what the Bible teaches and commit ourselves to it. Contrary to the old World Council of Churches dictum that “doctrine divides, service unites” the problem is not with doctrine, per se.

The truth is that doctrine does define. It defines who we are and establishes a framework for ministry in the world. But our problem is not with doctrine. It seems to me that our problem is with thinking that every doctrine is equally worth fighting over. In fact, I used to be just that way. I thought that doctrine had to be a seamlessly integrated system, with no room for divergence. When I found someone who disagreed with me over an area of doctrine, I would argue at length to convince them of how wrong they were.

That all changed when I read a piece by Dr. Al Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Mohler’s piece described doing “theological triage;” a process by which Christians could determine which doctrines were indispensable as opposed to those in which honest disagreement was within the bounds of orthodoxy. I learned a lot by reading about that concept, specifically the fact that I had argued about way too much doctrine in my life. (You can read Dr. Mohler's piece here. He also wrote on the subject in A Theology for the Church, ed. by Dr. Danny Akin.)

For those who have never read about theological triage, I will do my best to represent the idea here. I do not pretend to have developed this idea, nor do I represent myself as describing Dr. Mohler’s position, although I will use his terms. The examples I will use are my own (to the best of my memory) and can best be described as my “takeaways” from reading and reflecting on the issue over the last few years.

Theological triage is an attempt to assign levels of seriousness to theological concepts; similar to the way in which medical triage assigns levels of seriousness (or, urgency) to medical conditions. A hangnail is not as serious as a heart attack. The hiccups are not a stroke. However, our tendency is to treat all theological issues (or at least our favorite doctrines) as if they are equally non-negotiable.

Using theological triage one can divide beliefs into three categories: dogma, doctrine, and debatable. Dogma describes those beliefs which define Christianity apart from other religions. They are the beliefs that, if absent, Christianity ceases to be Christianity. I would place the doctrine of God – including belief in the Trinity – at the forefront of dogma. Also included would be the full humanity and deity of Jesus Christ, the inspiration, inerrancy, and authority of Scripture, and justification by faith alone. If any of those core beliefs are missing your doctrine is not consistent with historic, orthodox Christianity. In fact, it is not Christianity.

The second category is doctrine. I realize that is a little confusing since the overarching term for all these beliefs could be called doctrine. Here I mean doctrine that is unique in defining Christians from one another. Dogma distinguishes Christian as opposed to non-Christian beliefs. Doctrine distinguishes Baptist from Presbyterian or Methodist beliefs. Committed Christians who agree at the level of dogma can (and often do) disagree on this level of beliefs. Issues such as infant baptism, women serving as pastors, and church polity are examples at this level.

The final category can be called debatable. Debatable means exactly what you think: these are issues that Christians disagree on, and often do so in the same congregation. The debatable category is different from the doctrine category in that disagreement on these issues can happen within a congregation. I think, for example, of eschatological issues (i.e. the end times). Within the same congregation amillenialists, dispensational premillenialists, historic premillenialists and even postmillennialists can worship, serve, engage in missions and evangelism, all while disagreeing over the specifics of Jesus’ return. The details of soteriology (i.e. Calvinist vs. Arminian), type of worship, Charismatic gifts, and the like are issues that disagreement does not need to destroy fellowship.

My experience has been that the fiercest debates rage over issues at this third level. That is incredibly sad. It need not be that way. Rather than divide over honestly debatable issues, believers need to accept one another with love and understanding and agree to disagree over such issues. I am learning to do that more and more each day. Every time I learn something that helps me know Jesus better from someone who does not dot all their “i’s” or cross all their “t’s” exactly the way I do. I pray that God would grant us greater courage to hold matters of dogma with unwavering conviction, matters of doctrine with great commitment, and matters that are debatable with tremendous charity. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Why I Quit Bashing the Church

It has, apparently, become fashionable these days to consider the church unfashionable. Perhaps “unfashionable” is not the right word. But, I am not sure what is. Unnecessary? Out of date? Optional? I read Donald Miller’s revelation that he does not consider church attendance all that important. After all, he reasoned, Jesus is not limited to the church alone. Besides, Miller confessed he doesn't get a lot out of the services. And, according to Miller, he is not alone. There are a number of cool and hip “Christian leaders” who have concluded they no longer need the church.

I do not intend to debate Donald Miller on this issue here. Indeed, I do not know Donald Miller and have never read a word he wrote – outside of his “I don’t need the church” blog. Frankly, I have never bought into the whole “Blue Like Jazz” thing. I put it in the same category as the writings of Rob Bell and other “cooler-than-you-are-because-I-ask-questions-instead-of-give-answers” types. But, I digress.

I've had my fair share of bad experiences in a church. I've been part of nearly every kind of church you can imagine. I was once a part of a church that was so legalistic that I listened to REM’s “Losing My Religion” after church every Sunday. Literally. Of course, the pastor didn't know….if he had I would've been in big trouble. Later, I was part of a small country church where the biggest issue was whether the pastor would cut the grass at the church. No joke. And, then, I was once part of a church that was really modern and contemporary, but lacked the spiritual discernment to distinguish between Joyce Meyer and Kay Arthur. Seriously.  In all of those experiences I had moments in which I made pointed and sharp criticisms of the church. But, that has changed. In light of Miller’s recent blog, and having reflected on it for the better part of a week, I thought I would share three reasons why I decided to quit bashing the church.

Jesus Died for the Church
The first reason I have quit bashing the church is because Jesus died for the church. That sounds so “churchy,” but it is true. In Acts 20:28 Paul reminds the leaders of the church at Ephesus: “Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.” Those six words stop me cold when I start to get critical of the church. Because what I am criticizing is the very thing that Jesus bought with his own blood. His blood. It is because of his blood that lost and sinful people can repent, experience forgiveness, be born again and, yes, made part of the church.

The church cost Jesus everything. Without Jesus giving his life, the church would not exist. While that does not mean the church is beyond correction or reproof, it does seem to me that it should be beyond my petty criticisms about the length of a sermon or whether the music was inspiring. When I critique the church because I “don’t get anything out of it,” perhaps I have forgotten what Jesus put into it: his blood. So, then, it occurs to me that maybe the church isn't all about me. Maybe the point of gathering isn't to impress me with musical skill or oratory magic. Maybe the point of gathering is to worship the One who gave it all so that I might live. And, you know, remarkably, as soon as I get my eyes off of myself and onto Christ, the church becomes far more important and my petty, narcissistic criticisms melt away.

The Church is Jesus’ Bride
If the fact that Jesus died for the Church is not sufficient to give you pause for criticism, perhaps the fact that the church is Jesus’ bride will. Can you imagine pulling your friend aside and telling him (or her), “You know, I really like you and value our friendship deeply. But, I can’t stand your spouse. In fact, I have no use for him (or her). He (or she) is really obnoxious, awkward, and annoying. Frankly, I don’t get much from my relationship with him (or her). But, I don’t want this to change our friendship.”

I don’t know, but my guess would be that friendship would not last long. I cannot imagine having a deep friendship with anyone who thought badly about my wife. I don’t mean that they have to think she is awesome. But, if they dislike her…well, I don’t have much of a place in my life for a relationship with someone who despises the one person I love most deeply. While I recognize the use of “bride of Christ” is an analogy in the Bible, and all analogies have limitations, I don’t think it too much to assume that the idea of love is present. I have no doubt that Jesus loves the church more deeply than I love my wife. If I won’t have a deep friendship with someone who despises my wife, why do we think Jesus will be nonchalant toward those who despise his bride?

The Church is Jesus’ Body
A final reason I decided to quit bashing the church is that the church is Jesus’ body. Let’s shift the analogy from above. As my wife and I have aged, our bodies have changed a bit. We don’t metabolize food quite like they used to. Ok, to be honest, mine doesn't. Hers is just fine. But, for the sake of thinking about this issue, let’s imagine that you get dressed for an evening out and you ask your spouse, “how do I look?” Imagine that they respond by saying, “Well, not bad, considering the shape you are in. I mean, you've really let yourself go and I am embarrassed by how you look.” I’m guessing that night is over!

In the NT, the church is called the “body of Christ.” We enjoy that analogy when we are talking about being Jesus’ hands and feet. But, we seem to forget the church is his body when we start complaining. It seems we have no reservations about telling Jesus just how flabby and out of shape his body is.

None of this is intended to suggest the church is perfect. It is not. It is filled with sinful people who are saved by God’s grace. We are in constant need of forgiveness and restoration to fellowship. But, the church is also a miracle of God’s grace. It brings together diverse people to live in community. It is the place where lions and lambs lie down together. The church provides us something bigger than ourselves that we are a part of. It provides us a constant reminder that life is not about us, but about serving the God who loves us and is everything for us in Christ. Considering the grace of God and the sacrifice of Christ, I believe I will think carefully before I relegate the church to the realm of the “unnecessary.”

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Deja Vu All Over Again

Yogi Berra was one of the greatest catchers in major league baseball. Berra spent nearly his entire career with the New York Yankees. He is one of only four players to be named the Most Valuable Player of the American League three times and is one of seven managers to lead both American and National League teams to the World Series. But, Berra is probably best known for his Yogiisms; pithy comments and witticisms that often seem paradoxical or contradictory. 

On of my favorite Yogiisms is: "It's déjà vu all over again." Berra explained that this quote originated when he witnessed Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris repeatedly hit back-to-back home runs in the Yankees' seasons in the early 1960s. Recently, that particular Yogiism came to mind for a far less celebratory reason. I was having a conversation with a pastor. Actually, a former pastor. He had recently experienced a forced termination. 

The sad reality is that forced terminations are not all that unique. It is estimated that one in four ministers will be fired (or, forced to resign) at some point in their ministry. If you are currently serving in a church, don’t think you are exempt. One in three ministers are serving in churches that have forced a minister to leave. Maybe you are in one of the other two. Maybe not. 

If you have faced a forced termination (or know someone who has), the following suggestions are designed to help you walk through this valley constructively.  

Don’t hold onto the anger. 
You’ve poured your heart and soul into a people who (it seems) have trampled on both. You will be mad. ‘Mad’ may be an understatement. You will be angry. Deal with it, but do not hold on to it. Do not bury it. Buried anger will explode at the worst possible time. And, most likely, it will be directed at the wrong people. Unresolved anger will hurt you and deeply affect your family. Your wife (and/or your children) will follow your lead. 

Don’t stop loving people. 
People will hurt you. No doubt about it. In every church I have ever served I have experienced a key leader (and friend) who decided to leave the church. Each time I was hurt. Each time I wrestled with whether to withdraw from relationships. To stop caring. To stop exposing myself to the potential for such hurt. But, you cannot serve the Lord if you do not love his people. Even when they bitterly disappoint you. 

Don’t quit. 
No one likes to be hurt. After a forced resignation it can be very tempting to decide it is just not worth it. Very few careers are like the ministry. In very few careers does a person perpetually expose themselves to the highs and lows of life on a weekly (if not daily) basis. In very few careers are you called upon to love people who despitefully use you (to quote Jesus). The temptation is to throw in the towel. Don’t. You are valuable to God’s kingdom. God has invested gifts in you that He is refining for the sake of His kingdom. While this church may not have recognized those gifts, it does not mean they are not there. In fact, it may be this experience will prepare you for the place of your greatest usefulness. 

These three not only apply in the case of forced terminations, but, if you are a leader in the local church, they apply in several ministry situations. It seems to me they apply when key people leave the church. When that happens it is easy to get angry or withdraw or second guess God’s call on your life. It applies when key volunteers decide to step down. Leaders can be greatly shaken when people abdicate their responsibilities, while the leader remains to make sure ministry moves forward. Any time one of these circumstances arise, it can be déjà vu all over again.