Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Back to Life

Take a look at the previous blog.  It's dated March 15, 2012, and is titled "Teetering Between Life and Death."  It's a startling look at the fact that 1,000 Southern Baptist Churches closed every year.  I list four reasons that churches die:  1) Failure to Re-Dream; 2) Clinging to the Comfortable; 3) Choosing Religious Tradition over Biblical Community; and 4) Creating a "Church Culture" rather than Developing Disciples. 

There is no denying the reality.  Thousands of churches are plateaued or declining, on the downside of the life cycle.  Oft times, a few will recognize that there is a problem, but far too often, we look for answers in the wrong places.  Let me give you some examples:

         * We need pastoral change!  It is inevitable that churches and pastors will need to separate from time to time.  Ideally, it should be a mutual agreement based on the leadership of the Holy Spirit.  But far too often, it occurs because of control issues.  Seeking a pastoral change, by the congregation or the pastor, doesn't have to be the initial step. 
         * We need a Youth Worker!  That might be true, but it will not result in the kind of changes that are necessary for sustained spiritual and numerical growth.  The fact is that anything "new" will spark enthusiasm temporarily.  But when the new wears off, the result is often the 'same old same old' or worse.
         *  We need to change our style!  Moving a traditional church to a blended or contemporary style of worship is one of the most difficult tasks that any leadership team will ever undertake.  Occasionally it will work.  More often, it can leave bodies in the wake, metaphorically speaking.  If the truth is told, God does not speak in any particular environment or through any particular style.  In fact, He speaks and acts where and when HE chooses regardless of location or style.
        *  We need to build a Family Life Center (Gym, larger fellowship hall, etc)!  Ditto the above.  He speaks and acts WHERE and when He chooses.  New buildings, especially if they incur debt, do not necessarily guarantee numerical growth, much less spiritual growth. 

So what are the answers?  How do we change direction?  How do we revive those teetering between life and death?  Here are some clues based on 2 Chronicles 7:14:
1)  Humility -  We must come a point of utter, desperate dependence on God.  Part of our tendency to cling to comfort is manifested in our planning and budgeting.  When we attempt only what we know we can cover with personnel and pay for with money in hand, we don't need God.  We pride ourselves in our buildings, our accomplishments, our giving to missions while the communities around us hurtle towards hell.  We do what we want to do to convince ourselves that we've done our part.  No sacrifice, no surrender, no selflessly.  Church becomes about us and ours when it should be about God and those He sent His Son to save.  God forgive our arrogance, spiritually, culturally, and nationally.       James 4:6; Matthew 23:12
2)  Prayer - Those who utterly depend on God will spend much time praying.  Those who act as if they don't need God will use prayer as a cursory identifier of their faith.  Let's face it.  Many of us have been involved in churches, classes, and mission groups where prayer was tacked on at the beginning and end of meetings to validate those meetings.  The fact that we "pray" makes us different from civic clubs and fraternal/benevolent organizations.  Yet, what often happens between those prayers does not positively reflect the God of the universe.  And quite often those prayers seem canned and rapid-fire.  God forgive our prayerlessness.  We seem to have forgotten how to fall on our faces and worship you.  We've reduced prayer to a recitation of our needs and wants when it should be a battle zone where we wrestle with spiritual forces of darkness for the souls of our neighbors, family members, and friends.   2 Chronicles 7:15; Ephesians 6:18; I Thessalonians 5:17
3)  Submission - This is another way of saying "seek (God's) face."  There is a statement that I have heard far too often from the lips of folks who were supposed to be mature followers of Christ.  In talking about their church, their pastor, and/or their worship experience, I've heard far too many say something like this:  "I don't get anything out of it."  How selfish can a person be?  It's not about you!  Worship is about God!  The American Church culture has become as consumer-oriented as the culture at-large.  We go to church for what we can get out of it rather than to meet and experience the God of the universe.  Realize this!  Even if your grandfather gave the property, the church is not "yours."  The church belongs to God.  It has been bought and paid for by the precious blood of Christ and you are simply a part of it.  Whenever we meet, whether for worship or work, revival or rehearsal, meals or meetings, we should be living out this truth:  Let what we say and do here bring glory to God our Father and point others to Jesus as the way of salvation.    James 4:10
4)  Turn - The Greek equivalent of this word is "metanoia" which simply means turn or change direction.  It's been said that to continue doing the same thing while expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.  Well, it might not define insanity, but it can define death.  Paul told the Corinthian disciples, "If any person is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away, and look, new things have come."  2 Corinthians 5:17  As human beings, we are in a constant state of change.  Appearance, preferences, passions.  None of us is the same person we were a year ago or 10 years ago.  The only time we really stop experiencing change is when we die.  That's one reason medical science is now encouraging senior adults to work, exercise, read, study, and engage in challenging new activities.  It keeps us young and energized.  Don't be afraid of change when God's in the changing business, you might miss out a blessing or two.     Acts 3:19

If . . . My people who are called by My Name will humble themselves, pray and seek my face, and turn from their evil ways, THEN I will hear from heaven, forgive their sins, and heal their land.

The answer to the death rattle in so many churches today is not necessarily new staff, new style, or new buildings.  It's new hearts, humble and submissive before almighty God, prayerful in seeking to know and do His will, and turning away from the things that displease Him.  The answer is you and me doing our parts to come before Him with clean hands and a pure heart and making ourselves available for His use. 

Check out these passages:  2 Chronicles 7:13-15; Nehemiah 1:4-11;  Psalm 51:17; Psalm 25:9; Jeremiah 32:38-39;  Ezekiel 36:26; Matthew 5:8;  Matthew 6:21; John 7:38


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Teetering Between Life and Death

The last full week of January, 1977, was one of the toughest weeks of my life.  My father, who was two months shy of his 60th birthday, had suffered a heart attack on January 5.  He spent the last 22 days of his life in Tuomey Hospital in Sumter.  20 of those days were spent in the ICU.  Those units were different 35 years ago.  The waiting area was right outside and sometimes, he would be the only cardiac patient there.  In the waiting area, you could hear the telemetry alarm and then the "Doctor Rush ICU" on the intercom.  Usually, when that happened, we knew that the staff was battling for my father's life.  On January 27, I was entering the hospital when I heard the "Doctor Rush" alarm.  I raced up the stairs and found my mother in tears.  She knew this was the last stand and sure enough, 10 minutes later, the doctor came out and told us the battle was over. He had put on a valiant fight, but it was too little too late.  He had battled a few culprits that ultimately led to his death.  He was 'borderline' diabetic.  His cholesterol was questionable.  He liked fried foods and beer.  He didn't exercise.  And he came from a family line that was fraught with males who "dropped dead." (I use that term because that was what the doctor listed on my paternal grandfather's death certificate.)  SO, if ever there was a family that needed to do things differently not only to survive, but to thrive, the Brown family was it. 

My friend, Ron Barker, tells me that 1,000 Southern Baptist Churches die every year.  The tragedy is that most of these church deaths could be avoided IF the leadership (particularly LAY leaders) in these churches recognized the danger signs and took some preemptive action to get healthy and stay healthy.
What are some of the danger signs that indicate declining health and potential death?

1) Clinging to the Comfortable -  We have become accustomed to comfort in our churches and resist the adventurous work of the Holy Spirit.  We cling to homes that are more house than we need, we cling to cars that are far more expensive than we need, we cling to status symbols, to church buildings, to racial/cultural stereotypes to the point that we make Nehustans of them.  (This was the bronze serpent used at God's instruction by Moses to save the Israelites from the fiery serpents.  Numbers 21:5-9 and 2 Kings 18:4)  Our comfort has become our idol.

2) Creating a "Church Culture" rather than Developing Disciples - Jesus' Great Commission to ALL who would follow Him is to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you . . ."  Matthew 28:19-20.  We've attained excellence at indoctrinating people into a church culture that is  self-protective and self-serving more often than risking all to share the gospel.  If Jesus had approached the cross with the same fortitude that most of our churches approach the Great Commission, he would have retreated into the wilderness like a spiritual "Robin Hood and hoped for a good outcome."  If being the church means anything, it means going out, telling The Truth, baptizing new believers, teaching them biblical principles, and deploying them as missionaries.

3)  Exacting Religious Traditions rather then Enhancing Biblical Community - Very few churches that I know have written core values, but all of them have core values.  These unwritten and often unbiblical core values often create conflict and, in staff to congregation relationships, can create suspicion and ill-feelings.  Many years ago, in the first church I pastored, there was a large family Bible on the pulpit that made it difficult to place and follow my 5.5x8.5 manuscript.  One Sunday morning, I simply moved the Bible and placed on a platform chair.  There was a called deacons' meeting afterward and I was told that no one heard anything I said after that because "everyone" was upset with my actions.  It was an unwritten core value and my ignorance was no excuse.  That was my first strike.  If that happens to pastors, imagine what it's like for someone who is not familiar with church culture and religious traditions.  From meeting times to music to what most consider "missions," we've let our preference for traditions overpower our responsibility to be a biblical community.

4) Failure to Re-Dream - Sometimes when I visit churches, I feel like I'm walking into the movie "Pleasantville." Everything should be in black and white because so much of what is being done hearkens back 30, 40, even 50 years.  One church I visited in the late 1990s even had their classrooms labeled as beginners, primaries, juniors and intermediates.  For those of you who are Southern Baptist, you know how dated that is.  To me, it clearly illustrated that most of these churches were trying to continue pursuing a dream (vision) that had died long ago.  How can we who serve a forward-looking God constantly be looking back at the way things were?  We need to be in the here and now because this is where God has placed us.  Churches need to re-dream often, at least every five years or so.  As rapidly as our culture changes, the dream/vision should probably be revisited every 2-3 years, because when we get stuck in the past, we cannot effectively connect with and win the present culture.

This is not an exhaustive list.  It's just a few of the fried foods, sugars, and hydrogenated fats that we continue to ingest.  And guess what??  It's killing 1000 churches a year. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A Safe Place

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 has been a favorite passage of mine for many years.  It addresses the importance of relationships, both personal and with God.  For those of us who are median and older adults, many, if not most, of the virtues and securities that were the norm in our childhoods have become extinct.  Integrity, loyalty, and personal responsibility are among those virtues that have become so rare.  Job security, financial security, domestic security, and even social security are all at a much higher risk today.  Our culture is becoming a culture of chaos, brokenness, and suspicion. 

Yet, the fact is that we really need each other.  People need people.  It's the way God created us.  "Two are better than one . . ." says the scripture passage.  Perhaps a more important truth to grasp is that people need God and others.  This triangular relationship is that " . . .cord of three strands not easily broken" that the author of Ecclesiastes references in verse 12.  Now I understand more clearly a shocking statement made by an Arizona pastor who said, "A person who has God alone does not have enough."  Indeed, though Adam walked with God face to face in the Garden of Eden, God found that environment and the relationship incomplete.  In fact, God Himself said, in Genesis 2:28, "It is not good for man to be alone."

So, He created two great institutions for meeting that need.  Those institutions are the Family and the Church, in that order.  These are the safety nets that He has woven for times of uncertainty and insecurity.  They are to be the places where virtues and values can be taught and modeled.  They are the places where hope, help, and acceptance are always readily available.  They are the places where love should be unconditional, loyalty unwavering, and personal worth consistently affirmed.  These are to be the safe places for ourselves and our children amidst the cultural storms assailing us.  

Men, fight valiantly against the torrent of enemies that will assault your marriage and family.  Be a godly husband and father.  Women, nurture your family and model the grace and love of Christ for them.  Kids, honor your parents because God demands it.  Let God be that third cord in those relationships because He is the One that will hold things together.  Worship and serve as a family, because the old cliche still holds true . . . "The family that prays together stays together."   

Is your home a "safe place?"  How about your church??  And what are YOU doing to assure that they are?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Barrenness of a Busy Life

"Beware the barrenness of a busy life."  -- Aristotle 
        "He who is too busy doing good finds no time to be good."  -- RabindranathTagore

Entering the village of Bethany, Jesus had no where to go for respite.  But a woman who apparently had the gift of hospitality invited Him to her home.  She lived there with her sister, Mary, and brother, Lazarus.  Over the years, they, along with their sister, Martha, would become "extended family" to Jesus.  But on this particular day, His stop at their home generated a little conflict.  You see, Martha, with that gift of hospitality, was an obsessive hostess.  She wanted everything to be perfect -- the cleaning, the food preparation, the "many tasks" mentioned in Luke 10:40.  Mary, on the other hand, was so captivated by Jesus that she simply sat at His feet hanging on to every word He spoke.  Martha didn't like what she saw, so she shifted her focus from her busy-ness to Mary and complained to Jesus.  "Lord, don't You care that my sister has left me to serve alone?  Tell her to give me a hand." But Jesus would have no part of it.  He said, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but one thing is necessary.  Mary has made the right choice, and it will not be taken away from her."  The whole story is found in Luke 10:38-42.

American society has become saturated with smart phones, tablets, year-round sports, longer academic years, and longer work weeks.  It's a culture of busy-ness.  From hurried children to harried pastors, people move from one appointment to the next in an effort to find a niche, strengthen self-esteem, or build a legacy.  Even among Christians, the combination of church, community, occupational, and family responsibilities can become burdensom.  In the process of fulfilling one's obligations, one's focus can become a bit skewed.  That happens when our busy-ness precludes time alone with God.  Over the course of time, the empty spirit finds little joy in the activities that have become what Jesus called "many things."  They are distractions that keep us from the "one thing (that) is necessary."  Far too often, we immerse ourselves in doing what we think is good while neglecting the one thing that Jesus said was an absolute necessity for purposeful, abundant, life --- to sit at His feet and drink in His presence.

Martha did nothing wrong.  In fact, all the things she was doing were good.  But what Mary was doing was best and necessary and Jesus commended her for it.  Don't settle for good when Jesus wants you to experience His best.  Don't become distracted by so many things that you neglect the ONE thing that Jesus said is necessary.  If we desire to do what Christ wants us to do, our first priority must be to become what Christ wants us to be.  Our greatest responsibility as disciples is to become more like Jesus and the way that happens is by spending time at His feet.  Empty gas tanks mean the vehicle doesn't run. Empty water bottles provide no relief from thirst. And empty spirits go through the motions, but never really experience the abundant life that Jesus promises.

The only way to refill and refuel is time spent at the Master's feet.  I want to challenge you!  For the next 30 days, carve out 15 minutes each day to read your Bible and spend some time praying.  Use a Bible translation that is easy to understand.  HCSB, TEV, NLT come to mind (if you're buying, just ask for them by initials).  Use a commentary if you have one, but only as an illustrative companion.  It is God's word and your prayers that will open your mind and heart to all that Christ desires to do in you, for you, and through you.  Take the challenge  . . .  15 minutes a day with Jesus.  Perhaps, by the end of this 30 day period, your thirst for time with Him will be as strong as that of Mary.  Then you will discover, as she did, that He will never disappoint you. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Let's Get the Party Started

I love Luke 15!  It's a wonderful chapter of grace, mercy, and unconditional love.  It starts by telling us that all sorts of  "undesirable" and "unsavory" characters were getting close enough to hear the stories that Jesus told.  His demeanor and attitude was so welcoming that the religious elites complained about His willingness to "welcome . . . and eat with sinners."  Knowing what they were thinking and saying, Jesus responded by telling them some stories.  He told of a shephered who left 99 sheep in an open field while he searched for and found a lone, lost sheep.  He told them of a woman who had 10 silver coins.  But when she lost one, she "tossed the house" until she found it.  Finally, he told them the story of the prodigal son, the loving Father, and the narcissistic older brother.  You know the type.  "It's all about me!!!" 

Far too often, when we read, study, or preach this chapter, we tend to glance over the first two stories and zero in on the Prodigal.  I think many of us can identify with him.  But I want you to focus on those first two stories for a few moments.   In Luke 15:7 and Luke 15:10, we get a little glimpse of heaven.  Jesus said, after the story of the lost/found sheep and the party thrown by the shepherd, "I tell you, in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven or one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who don't need repentance."  How great is that???   Jesus Himself tells us that the residents of heaven are more concerned over the salvation of ONE lost soul than a church filled with religious people. 

Then in story of the lost coin, after the party thrown by the woman, Jesus siad, "I tell you, in the same way, there is joy in the presence of God's angels over one sinner who repents."  "Joy in the presence  of God's angels . . ."?   What that means to me is that GOD is doing the rejoicing.  Just like the loving Father in the story of the prodigal. 

So where am I going with this??  It's pretty simple.  Far too many of our churches have become respites for the religious.  We've become the 99, who raise a veil of religious tradition and cultural expection to keep out those who don't measure up.  We take possession of the church that rightfully belongs to Christ and restructure it as a bunker to hide from the world.  And in doing that, we've become the 99.

I think a cryptic principle in these stories is that God expects His Church to be party planners.   In everything we do, every dime we spend, every event we plan, we should be asking "What will this do to inspire joy in heaven?"   So that's my prayer for my church, for you church, and for every church that claims to be the Body of Christ.  "Lord, help us to be faithful party planners.  Help us to do the things that keep the streets of heaven filled with dancing and singing and joy.  Help us to redirecct of our focus from the "99" to the ONEs who are lost."

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

A Call for Renewal

In the Hemingway novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Anselmo suggests that "we do not have God here anymore, neither His Son, nor the Holy Ghost."  That's a scary thought!  Yet, in 2011, it might be more prophetic of our churches than our secular society.  All around us there is evidence of a growing spiritual emptiness among people.  73% of 20-somethings define themselves as "spiritual" and express a desire to know more about God, yet this is a group which has abandoned our churches in large numbers.  The number of people over 30 who consider themselves "spiritual" is around 62%.  Yet, most of our traditional churches are growing "grayer" by the year.  The evidence for a large group of "seekers" is there, yet Christian churches continue to lose nearly 10,000 members a day.  And believe it or not, we live in the middle of the only inhabited continent not experiencing a riotous outpouring of God's Spirit.  With our resources, technology, and manpower, what's the problem?  Let me offer some possibilities.

First, our traditional churches have a tendency to promote programs more than prayer.  No great movement of God ever started with a program.  In most of our churches, it's not uncommon for more people to show up for a potentially contentious business meeting than for an authentic prayer meeting.  In most of our church meetings, prayer is a necessary addendum tacked on at the beginning and the end.  I don't want leave the impression that I think all programs are unimportant.  But I do want to leave the impression that the first and foremost thing that any Christian or group of Christians can do is to earnestly, fervently, and frequently pray.  Studies have indicated that the fastest growing churches in this country place a great emphasis on prayer ministry.  Every great historical spiritual awakening was preceded by the fervent prayers of godly people who expected God's intervention.      2 Chronicles 7:14 says, "If My people who are called by My Name will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways . . ."

Second is our tendency to magnify maintenance over ministry.  This problem manifests itself in two scenarios.  The first involves those folks who want to maintain things just as they have been for generations.  They don't really want to reach out to newcomers because they fear the potential changes that will come with church growth.   The second involves those who believe that doing God's work consist primarily of maintenance of buildings, grounds, and money.  I have a firm conviction about keeping church facilities beautiful as a testimony of offering our best to God.  But those facilities and resources must be accessible to the lost, lonely, and hurting hordes around us.  Church facilities are largely wasted space because most are used 6-8 hours a week and sit idle and empty for the other 160 hours.  We can become overly protective of the buildings and financial resources that God gives us while allowing the needs of children, youth, and adults to go unmet.  The New Testament teaches clearly that every professing Christian is a called to minister to others.  See James 1:22; I Peter 2:9; I Peter 3:15; Romans 12:6

Third is our tendency to claim comfort over conviction.  I remember a Sunday School teacher in a church I pastored.  He and his wife had no children.  Both were retired military and worked civil service jobs.  They were good folks and faithful stewards, BUT he had a bit of wrinkly in his theology.  He honestly believed that material blessing was evidence of God's pleasure.  Not unlike the "health and wealth" philosophy espoused by so many television evangelists.  But if you study the scriptures with an open mind and heart, you'll realize that obedience to God does not always bring comfort.  Jesus Himself owned nothing but the clothing on His back.  Though He was sinless, gentle, and loving, people hated Him and ultimately crucified Him.  Hebrews 11 provides a litany lists of those whose faith and service brought them pain and suffering.  The writer of Hebrews tells us that "Some faced jeers and flogging while others were chained and put into prison.  They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they were put to death by the sword.  They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute,  persecuted, and mistreated --- the world was not worthy of them."  In every nation experiencing genuine revival today, scores of Christians are persecuted, imprisoned, and killed each day because they cling to their convictions in Christ rather than the desire for comfort and complacency.  Perhaps we've become a little too comfortable!

So what can we do to turn things around?   First, realize that God is always at work around us and join Him in that work.  Second, instead of making plans and praying for God's blessing, let prayer be the starting point.  Prayer should be the priority in finding and following God's will.  Pray and ask God to show you where He is working and what He is doing and then join Him.  Third, remember that people are always a priority for God.  At the Judgement Seat of Christ, the beauty of our buildings and the size of our bank accounts will not be a positive issue.  Jesus will more concerned with how we dealt with people.  Open your hearts, open your buildings, open your checkbooks to serve others in Jesus' Name.  Finally, run the race with conviction.  Hebrews 12:3 says to "consider Him Who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart."  It's a marathon.  But in the end, when we cross that finish line, we'll have the joy of hearing Him say, "Well done, good and faithful servants! Enter into the joy of your Lord."    The embers of revival are glowing.  Will you do your part to fan the flame??