Growing A Church Is Bad For Your Soul

There are many things that we know are bad for us. Candy eats away at our teeth. Bacon clogs our heart (allegedly). Texting while driving takes lives. Smoking gives us cancer and/or lung disease. Isolation brings depression or at least deep loneliness. Anger breads bitterness which births cynicism, hard heartedness, and just plain old meanness. Some things in life should be avoided because no matter how they taste or feel they are just bad for us.

There are many spiritual practices and positions that are similarly bad for us. The avoidance of corporate worship, a rejection of accountability, the judging of others behavior and intentions, the willingness to live disobediently are all things that Christians know are bad for us and should be corrected immediately if we want to have healthy spiritual lives and relationships. Some things just don’t mix and anytime we have more of our own self, our own freedoms, our own flaws mixed with the work that God is trying to do in us we will find self inflicted wounds and perhaps fatal tendencies in our formation. The good things that God gives us often come into conflict with the bad feelings, choices, and habits that we are desperate to maintain our freedom over and that is bad for the Christian soul.

Pastors are no exception to this truth. In fact, we may even be in more danger as we are fatigued by the weight and worry of a church culture that is less and less interested in being a Christian community and much more fascinated in being a Christian club or take out service. We are all in need of salvation and not just from our sins, but from our sinfulness, our selfishness, our self reliance, and our searching for a God that we can make in our own image. Pastors that follow the pattern of cultural trends will discover sooner or later that they are neck deep in the soup that brings sickness to our souls.

It is no secret that the church is in trouble in America. Much of the responsibility could be credited to the misunderstanding and mistakes made by pastors in leading the church and forming disciples. Those two are not the same thing, but that should be aligned or at the very least headed in the same direction. Too often they are not. While there are many reasons that the church is the way it is, it seems that the American church has done a particularly good job of messing up what God began birthing as a beautiful creation. Instead of making disciples and building beautiful community we have been busy enlarging, expanding, and exponentially obsessing on getting bigger, more powerful, financially stable/secure, and way too often chasing relevance as if it was a core value for the New Testament church. Leadership training is more common in churches than spiritual formation. It is easier to convince someone to be a better leader than it is to suggest to them that they should go deeper into discipleship. So pastors pick the more popular and profitable route or message.

This. Must. Change.

Church growth is not only not good. It is bad. Please read that again so that it sinks in on every level. The effects of professional ministers offering professional goods and services in the pursuit of making the gospel popular at all costs has made the church weak, confused, and sick. The prognosis is not only negative, but it is terminal unless we are delivered from our empty philosophy and mistaken identity.

The key to moving away from a church growth mindset and practices is not a change in strategy, but spirit. It does not require a new method, but a new master. To achieve freedom from the weight of promising big things we need a vision from producing small circles of disciples and quality leaders. If pastors are to be saved from the ministry of the American ideal it will necessitate an act of God that is greater than the activity of being professional competent or charismatically capable.

Pastors be warned what I am suggesting is not easy and will not work like an overnight charm. You can not blink your eyes and be transformed from your old habits of multiplying, maximizing, merging, mastering, and making up success stories to alleviate denominational loss and augment the need to be personally glorified or respected. It will be a process. It will be a slow, painful, lonely process, but along the way you will be affirmed in your spirit and you might find pilgrims that are on the same journey you are on.

Many churches will not like what you are saying/doing. It goes agains the grain of there investment over the last 40 years. You may not be voted out, but they may vote to personally leave or they may stay and offer the most apathetic involvement you or they can imagine. Don’t give up and don’t lose heart. Keep at the task of forming disciples and creating a community of faith, hope, and love. Preach the gospel rather than pragmatic principles and let the Holy Spirit show them the “how to’s” of living the Christian life.

God expects you to walk in the righteous way rather than the relevant way. No matter what a book or a Bishop says to you as a pastor the primary leading of a pastor is in the way that Jesus is headed. Anywhere he goes or anything he says is relevant. The world then fits into his agenda. Jesus may have gone to the people and shared in the culture, but it is a mistake to say or think that he acclimated to the Roman way or even the way of popular Judaism. The only relevancy test that we have as pastors and as congregants is based in forsaking this world and following him.

Denominations aren’t likely to lead this change, but they might follow. They also might not. You may not get support from anyone in your tribe that would think what you preach or propose makes sense. Your work might produce the kind of results that gets conference leaders to visit you with questions and concerns. Don’t panic. If pastoral work is to be fruitful it will not be from the hormones of fool proof ideas for breaking the 200 barrier. It will be the product of a long obedience in the direction of God’s leading you to form disciples and call those disciples into ministry.

The vision that God gives to us is not a body that grows bigger and bigger. It is a vision of a church that grows deeper in discipleship and broader in mission. That is a vision that is good for the soul because it leads us to measure our ministry in lives formed in Christ rather than parking spots or programs launched.  A church may very well grow to become a large body of believers, but it is not a healthy church if disciples are not being formed and sent. Any obsession that a pastor has over their work should focus on a passion for being faithful to the gospel and spilled out in Christian service to others.

Growing a church is bad for your soul or at least it can be. Any good doctor of the church would remember often that maybe growing the church isn’t the job of the pastor. That’s the job of the Spirit. Perhaps the reason that growing a church can be bad for the soul is because that is not what God intended us to do. It just might be that the the sooner we get away from thinking we are called to grow a church and get to the work of telling our people not to dream of such things, the easier it will be for us to get to the work God has called us to. That kind of work is forever good for the soul.

 

What Would He Say Today?

king-family
Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, Coretta, and the kids.

So many of the people who have a profound effect on us lived well before we did. People who lived through great challenge and turmoil, but somehow made it through. People who faced tremendous opposition, but somehow kept their cool and control of their words. People who walked a path with little company while calling others to follow or join them. The names of those women and men are too many to list, but today I am thinking about one of them – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

His words, his movement, his life has made a tremendous difference in the lives of Americans now for more than 50 years. While he did not see all that he dreamed of, much of his dream has been recognized with voting rights, improved working conditions, mainstream acceptance in leadership, and an improved equality of life for minorities across the country. This is not to say that has all been accomplished and finished. Nor is it to say that all of the progress has been easy or even willingly achieved. Much has been done, but much is left to be completed. Only God knows when all things will be put to right in our country. Dr. King and the leaders of his movement are details of the American story that we can not live without a high degree of thanksgiving for what their life’s work made possible. He (and they) made us better as a people. Thank you Martin. Thank you Medger Evers. Thank you Ralph Abernathy. Thank you John Lewis. Thank you Rosa Parks. Thank you Corretta Scott King. Thanks to so many others who led in the most difficult of days.

While my life started after his ended I am thankful that his spirited platform is being honored and revisited. Churches all over the country will be remembering Dr. King today with special services. Cities will be having parades in his memory and Universities will have seminars or symposiums. Many government offices and public schools will be closed in recognition of his leadership. All well intentioned efforts to connect a historical figure with a modern need and problem. I can’t help, but see the irony that in the same week that we honor someone for a peaceful movement and reconciliation we will inaugurate someone whose platform either ignored or denied any such vision. No doubt many will see one as a shyster and one as a hero. One will be thought of as a quick tempered, big mouth that divides and conquers while the other is seen as a deeply profound speaker of faith, hope, and love. Sadly that opinion will likely flip flop depending on the political agenda of the evaluator.

I am choosing to remember today what Dr King said to us all – not to some, not to those he liked or approved of, not to those who bought into his agenda. These words aren’t the gospel, but they are good words for how people interested in the gospel applies politics and personal choice to how they live their life, raise their kids, and run their business. They are words that could possibly help us in a week like this not lose hope because the words of the righteous are a fountain of life (Proverbs 10:11).

 
If you will protest courageously, and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written in future generations, the historians will have to pause and say, “There lived a great people—a black people—who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.” 

*  From an address given in Montgomery, Ala., Dec. 31, 1955

“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

* From “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”

* Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, Dec. 10, 1964

“Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.”

* The Measure of a Man, 1958

“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

*From Strength to Love, 1963

What would he say today? He would say the same things. He would not vary or wane with his words or agenda. He would bet big on love and on God’s sovereignty. He would deny the power of people or words that divide and destroy. He would ask the privileged to not consider themselves, but to cast a look at those in need and those without. He would warn us against the lies of men who tell us that others are lying to us or misleading us while they move the pawns behind the scene. He would not bully others, but he would befriend the alien and the stranger. He would not urge the public to trust him, but He would call us all to trust in God who is at work in all things.

There Is No Time Like the Present

past-relationships

 

You may or may not be aware that the 80’s hit show “Full House” has recently been rebooted by a streaming service as “Fuller House” featuring most of the original cast. Many girls (and probably boys, too) of the 80’s generation are designating this “must see TV”. So much so that a second season has been purchased already and John Stamos has ordered extra hair gel. Even my daughter – born in 2002 – loves the show and often greets me with the familiar line from the show: “how rude!” I, however, am standing strong and refusing to invest my precious time into leftover lines and warmed up scenarios that appeal to my childhood years.  🙂

It seems that nostalgia always has a piece of our hearts. Another big piece of our hearts belongs to “tomorrowland”, “what’s next” or “one of these days.” We are a people who live in the middle. Our reality is somewhere between “what was” and “what will be.” But whatever happened to “what is?”

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matthew 6:34 – ESV)

“Also, do not live in the regrets, disappointments, defeats, devastation of your past. Today needs your attention more than yesterday or else tomorrow will be a repeat of your pitiful past.” (Matthew 6:34, part B, The GDB2 Version)

If yesterday is full of nostalgia (or regret) and tomorrow is full of possibility (or anxiety) for you, I encourage you to focus and face today with all of your faith. Live for today like tomorrow is not coming and as if yesterday never happened. Live for right now because later on will be drastically different if you are handcuffed with the past or future. Live for your current reality because the one you think you want or wish you had probably isn’t as shiny as you dream it will be. Live for the “right now you”, because the “old school you” wasn’t as good (or as bad) as you remember.

So how do we “do right now” the best we can?

Breathe – take long, deep breaths that remind you that you are in fact alive and you have a life worth living. Freezing up and closing off from the world brings rigor mortis to the soul.

Bathe – immerse your mind in thoughts and prayers that are good, acceptable, pure, and healthy for you. Leave the trash of this world outside of your heart and mind.

Bend – reach out to other souls in ways that you never have. Find true friends for the journey of life. You need them and they need you. Let their wisdom and experience help shape your view of the world, but choose those kind of friends wisely.

Bow – humble yourself before God. Don’t fit Him into your life. Fit your life into His kingdom. Be thankful that God creates us to live and walk through life with Him. He will do the heavy work. We need only to let him.

Become – make your greatest quest in life less about experience and more about encounters that shape us for the long term. Forget about what you have seen or heard and press into The One you know. Exchange your identity for the one he created you to have.

Bless – give your best work to making other people feel special and feel served. Be a blessing that people can’t explain but are deeply grateful for. Put away your need to save yourself for tomorrow so you can expend yourself on others today.

While we may think often about yesterday and tomorrow may distract us for a moment, today is the day that we have. So let’s get stuck in today together making the world a better place and sipping the full life that God offers us freely. Stuck right in the middle of “what we wish for” and “what we long for” gets us to “what we are really needed for.” Make today the best day that can possibly be by thinking, praying, acting, and trusting in what God is doing in and through you. Relish the gift that today is for you and for those in your circle of care.

See What You Want To See

glory of god

Sometimes in life we see the things that we are looking for and miss seeing the things that we aren’t expecting. We become small minded and limited in our creativity when we are looking for something in particular instead of searching for everything in general. Whatever is on our minds or in our hearts becomes the obsession that are eyes are peeled to find. Humans have the special ability to focus on the desires we crave while ignoring the beauty that is all around us. And we miss so much because of it.

We look for the easy route instead of the road less chosen. We search for the perfect house for our family instead of the special home to share life together with them. We see the bad in others before we see the good. We live defeated in our weaknesses rather than celebrating our strengths. We fret about what is missing instead of what has been gained. We hope for the best, but expect the worse in ourselves, our work place, our government, and even our churches. We miss so much because we are looking in the wrong place or for the wrong thing.

It’s not just our problem currently. It is a man/woman problem for many generations. And it isn’t just about missing things in everyday life or in everyday choices. Our ability to see what we are looking for and miss the things that are unexpected gifts often occurs in our encounters with God. God shows up and we are looking elsewhere.

When Solomon brought the ark into the Temple built for the Lord to dwell something amazing happens. A grand parade led by the elders processed into Jerusalem, everyone offered sacrifices (according to their practice) like never before. The cherubim spread out their wings for the ark to rest on and not be profaned. The two tablets of Moses rested in the most holy of places it had ever resided among the people of Israel. And a great cloud descended and the glory of the Lord filled the house. And King Solomon, man did he wax poetic in telling what he had done and what his doings now meant to Israel and to God. Then the King prayed one heck of a prayer and really got Israel fired up over how he had fixed things proper for God. Israel now would be special because they had kept God first and put His holy things in a most holy place.

God, you are welcome. Signed, Israel and King Solomon. (See 1 Kings 8 below.)

In case you missed it in the previous full paragraph I would like to point out that as awesome as this special service of temple dedication was, missed in the grandeur of the King and the sacrifices of the priests was a great cloud and the glory of God filling things up. Read the fine print. It is there. God came down and Israel was looking at how great they were rather than how awesome it is to see God in His fullness in your midst. Everyone was seeing what they wanted to see in the form of a new temple, a great religious celebration, and a king that spoke words that aligned the nation with God. Good news and a very good show.

But they looked past the greatest detail of the story being told. God was there. He was not far off in the past or in the future. God – the one of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – was very much present and showing off for this special occasion. Nothing they were doing was wrong or even unnecessary, but in their religious fervor the most important detail plays second or third fiddle in the story. They were too busy getting their worship on to notice what God was up to in the moment. That is the worst of possible outcomes when singing, praying, preaching at or about God.

To be clear, we are always in the presence of God. Never are we absent from Him. He is all things “omni.” But there are moments – sacred moments- when God shows Himself in an almost overwhelming way to us. Maybe it is in a worship service, maybe a wedding/funeral, maybe on a walk through the forest, maybe on a flight to Timbuktu, but it happens and we never forget it. What we are doing is always the secondary detail of what He is doing.

Listen close. In those moments that God shows off in such a way – shut up and get very still. It is not about the experience or the memory being made. It is about taking notice of the God of all time – the Alpha and Omega – coming close enough for us to almost see and certainly near enough for us to feel. Don’t mess up the moment with unnecessary words or thoughts reminding Him of how faithful or good you have been. Be still, be quiet, be changed forever.

Today when you roll into your church for the worship service make sure you are looking for the glory of God. If you aren’t looking for it you certainly won’t see it. You might walk in and out of the sanctuary happy your songs were sung and upset the sermon was too long, but ready to get to Luby’s for lunch. That will be time wasted. So much more is happening when we worship. Don’t miss it by looking for the wrong things or remembering the minor points. Don’t tell God how great you are or how awesome your church is. He already knows and couldn’t be more impressed.  🙂

The glory of God is filling this earthly temple and we all need to see that personally so that our lives are changed forever and our faith is full of the beauty of almighty God. Encountering God in His glory is the only worthy moment worth remembering.  See for yourself today. If that’s the kind of thing you long to see.

For Proper 16 – August 23, 2015 – Sunday————————————–
Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the ancestral houses of the Israelites, before King Solomon in Jerusalem, to bring up the ark of the covenant of the Lord out of the city of David, which is Zion. 2All the people of Israel assembled to King Solomon at the festival in the month Ethanim, which is the seventh month. 3And all the elders of Israel came, and the priests carried the ark. 4So they brought up the ark of the Lord, the tent of meeting, and all the holy vessels that were in the tent; the priests and the Levites brought them up. 5King Solomon and all the congregation of Israel, who had assembled before him, were with him before the ark, sacrificing so many sheep and oxen that they could not be counted or numbered. 6Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the Lord to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim. 7For the cherubim spread out their wings over the place of the ark, so that the cherubim made a covering above the ark and its poles. 8The poles were so long that the ends of the poles were seen from the holy place in front of the inner sanctuary; but they could not be seen from outside; they are there to this day. 9There was nothing in the ark except the two tablets of stone that Moses had placed there at Horeb, where the Lord made a covenant with the Israelites, when they came out of the land of Egypt. 10And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, 11so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.

12Then Solomon said, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. 13I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.” 14Then the king turned around and blessed all the assembly of Israel, while all the assembly of Israel stood. 15He said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who with his hand has fulfilled what he promised with his mouth to my father David, saying, 16‘Since the day that I brought my people Israel out of Egypt, I have not chosen a city from any of the tribes of Israel in which to build a house, that my name might be there; but I chose David to be over my people Israel.’ 17My father David had it in mind to build a house for the name of the Lord, the God of Israel. 18But the Lord said to my father David, ‘You did well to consider building a house for my name; 19nevertheless you shall not build the house, but your son who shall be born to you shall build the house for my name.’ 20Now the Lord has upheld the promise that he made; for I have risen in the place of my father David; I sit on the throne of Israel, as the Lord promised, and have built the house for the name of the Lord, the God of Israel. 21There I have provided a place for the ark, in which is the covenant of the Lord that he made with our ancestors when he brought them out of the land of Egypt.”        (1 Kings 8)