Three Cartoons about Stewardship

“We need your help,” the caller said. “Our church is having a financial crisis.”

As a veteran pastor, I’ve heard that a few times and said it more than once. In the caller’s case, his church is relocating and trying to find millions of dollars, they have a pretty hefty ongoing budget, and his church gives generously to missions.

“How can I help?”

The answer was surprising.

“We would like a cartoon on the subject.”

“What do you want it to say?”

“Something about giving to the Lord over the summer.”

I said I would see what I could do.

The result turned out better than I expected. What we ended up with a couple of days later–I have a day job so it’s not like I could drop everything to get to this–was three cartoons.

We e-mailed the toons to the church administrator who had asked for them, alongwith a couple of suggestions.

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Christian Fellowship III: The Greatest Church Growth Principle

Forget the gimmicks. What builds great churches, the kind that endure and influence the world for Jesus Christ and leave a lasting impression on their generation, is fellowship. The living work of the Holy Spirit within the lives of the members–bonding them with one another in worship, energizing their labors together, deepening their love for each other–authentic Christian fellowship makes the difference.

Being non-observant, we pastors tend to see Christian fellowship as the product of a great church. We bring in a super pastor with excellent preaching skills, work up a powerful and balanced program of ministries for all age groups, erect an impressive building on the ideal location with lots of parking and plenty of publicity–and bingo! The community comes to see, many stay to join, and because you’re doing some things right, the fellowship in the congregation–that is, the spirit, the joy, the love–prospers. And you think that fellowship resulted from the great building with good location, your powerful preaching and the attractive programs. That’s how we think.

Being impatient, we pastors prefer to skip the preliminaries such as building a great fellowship among the members and go straight to the gimmicks. Here’s a program that worked for a California church, a plan that built a mega-church in Georgia, a book that promises to put your church on the map if you follow its principles. Two years later, with an exhausted congregation, a busted bank account, and a pastor who has used up all his credits with the leadership, we have little to show for our efforts.

One wonders how long it will be before pastors and other church members figure out that the church-growth method the Lord has ordained calls on us first of all to build up the inner life of the congregation and make it healthy. A healthy church will reach into its community, will send out missionaries, will grow and do so without the aid of gimmicks and trick programs. But before we initiate programs to reach into the town, mobilize missionaries, and grow, before any of that, we need to work on the foundation.

Build the fellowship.

Now, all we need here is twelve easy steps to do that and we would have the latest gimmick for church growth. Doubtless, I would also have a best-seller on my hands.

Alas, it doesn’t work that way.

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Anyone Seen Courage Lately?

First, the Scott McClellan book.

Am I the only person on the planet who has never, ever thought the press secretary–any of them–had the first inkling of what he was talking about? Listen to these guys at their daily press briefings. They hem and haw, fill the air with words of little or no meaning, promise to “get back to you on that,” and justify whatever it was the administration has just done, no matter how asinine.

I think of Ron Zeigler, Nixon’s mouthpiece. Was there ever a worse press secretary? Then, run through the dozen others to hold the position since. You might come up with two or three who seemed to have had some integrity of his own, who brought credibility to the position–Tony Snow comes to mind–but they didn’t hold the job long.

The other thing I wonder is didn’t they know when they took the job the nature of the beast was that they were hired as window dressing, sent to prettify what the president does?

I wonder if there has ever been a press secretary who stood up to the president and threatened to “go out there and tell the truth,” instead of meekly caving in to the occupier of the Oval Office.

And the book. Which I haven’t read and don’t intend to.

There is no way on earth to know whether McClellan is lying now to sell a book or was lying back then to keep his job. Why is the administration surprised by what he has written? Did he not have the integrity to tell them of his concerns, of his disagreements, of his plans at any point in the past? Did they not know this man?

I realize the loyalty bit can be overdone. The mafia don stresses loyalty to his henchmen, the heads of Enron and World.com no doubt emphasized loyalty to their underlings, and a dictator makes a big deal of loyalty to his party hacks. But that does not negate the importance of the genuine article.

A church staff member exercises loyalty when he stands up to the pastor in private to resist a wrong direction the minister is taking or a faulty doctrine he is promoting. If it costs him his job, then he is free to tell others what happened. He leaves with his integrity intact and the higher good being served.

If he keeps quiet to hold his job, then you have found the price he places on his own soul.

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What to Keep, What to Free

My mom, soon to hit 92 years, says in old age you forget what you ought to remember and recall what you ought to turn loose of.

Remembering has always been a problem for God’s people. “When you come into the Promised Land,” Moses warned the children of Israel, “and move into houses you did not build, take over crops you did not plant, and eat victuals you did not grow, then beware lest you forget the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 6:12)

The theme of half the sermons from Old Testament prophets was the same: “Remember, O Israel.” A classmate of mine at the seminary wrote his doctoral paper on the Hebrew word “Zakar,” “remember.”

But there is a lot to be said for forgetting, too. Much in our lives does not need to be retained.

Now comes the story of 42-year-old Jill Price, a California woman who remembers everything. Not that she wants to. Ever since she was 8 years old, beginning in 1974, her mind appears to have switched on some feature the rest of us do not have and wouldn’t want in a thousand years. From 1980 forward, she has “near perfect” recall on everything.

By “everything,” we mean what she had for dinner, what she watched on television, the news that night, the temperature, conversations, everything.

Jill Price’s story is told in a new book–Newsweek of May 19, 2008, calls it “the weirdest book of the year”–by the title “The Woman Who Can’t Forget.”

A professor of neurobiology at the University of California, Irvine, James L. McGaugh, has studied Jill Price for five years, giving her every kind of scientific test imaginable, and coined the name for her condition: “hyperthymestic syndrome.” It means her memory is over-developed. Which is like saying the Eiffel Tower is tall. Is it ever!

Over these years, Professor McGaugh has found two other persons afflicted with the same inability to turn loose of yesterday. One of them, Brad Williams, 51, a radio announcer, remembers everything back to age 4, and like the other two, is a compulsive collector of memorabilia (beanie babies, “Flintstone” junk, etc).

Jill Price admits she was a pain to grow up with. “I was always correcting my parents about things they claimed I had said, or that they had said to me, which, as you can imagine, didn’t go over very well.”

Newsweek reporter Jerry Adler writes, “But the sobering thing about Price’s book is how banal most of her memories are. The days go by, lunch follows breakfast, 10th grade turns inexorably into 11th and a lot of the time, as McGaugh says, you just hang out.”

My hunch is not a single soul reading this has given thanks lately for the ability to forget. I know I haven’t. But I will from now on.

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For Storytelling Preachers and Those Who Appreciate Them

Austin Tucker ran into some guys at a prayer breakfast who didn’t care for their storytelling pastor. “He doesn’t preach the Bible enough,” said one. “I want preaching, not stories.”

Austin, ever the teacher, pointed out to them that in the ministry of Jesus, the one thing that stood out above everything else in his sermons was His use of parables. “Jesus was the quintessential storyteller.”

He says at least one of the men began to rethink the issue.

“The Preacher as Storyteller” is the title of Austin Tucker’s latest book. Several months ago, he sent an early draft this way for me to read. I was most impressed. It’s not necessary to have heard me preach to know how much I value a well-placed story in the sermon. Instead of just bragging on the practice and inserting some of his own tales–which is probably how I would have approached the subject–Austin really opens up the subject and deals with it from all sides.

Prediction here: seminaries are going to use this as a text, and the next generation of preachers is going to be greatly indebted to this dear brother.

Years ago, when Austin Tucker was a seminary student, he wrote the pre-eminent Bible teaching pastor of that generation, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones of London’s Westminster Chapel, asking for his opinion on sermon illustrations. “He responded graciously with a note about his ‘strong views on the subject.’ He reminded me that he had always been a critic of a man like W. E. Sangster, who used to carry a little notebook in his pocket to take down any stories he heard and who had a ‘card-index of illustrations appropriate to various subjects.’ Lloyd-Jones said, ‘I always described that as the prostitution of preaching!'”

Lloyd-Jones has company in his dislike for sermon illustrations and stories. John MacArthur is quoted as saying, “I am not into storytelling…. Stories tend to shut down the level of intensity that I prefer people to maintain.”

But on the other hand.

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Christian Fellowship II (Where Everybody Knows Your Name)

Recently, in the article “Why We Came Today,” I shared on the subject of Fellowship inside the congregation, suggesting it draws 90 percent of first-time visitors to your church. They’re looking to worship God, yes, and they want to learn the Bible and have a safe place for their children to grow, all of that. But if you stripped away all the other considerations, all the secondary concerns, what you would be left with is that most are looking for friends, people who are genuine and Christlike and loving, the kind of family they would choose for themselves.

They’re looking for fellowship.

1) They probably have never articulated it in so many words. They’re likely to say, “We’re looking for a church home.” And how will you know when you find it? “It’s something you just know in your heart. It’s like being in love. You can’t explain it, but you know it when it hits you.”

How many churches have you visited before ours? “This one is the fourth.” Or fifth or tenth.

And you’ve not found what you were looking for? “Some were unfriendly. In two, no one spoke to us. And not a single one has contacted us since. That shows they don’t want us, and if they don’t want us, we certainly don’t want them.”

Is that too harsh a judgement? “Maybe for you.”

They’re looking for fellowship.

2) The members of your church do not know that’s what the newcomers are looking for. Consequently, in our desire to woo them in, we provide all the wrong programs.

They want ministries and activities for their kids, so we hire a college boy to come in and get them going. They want children’s programs, so we provide them. They want a nursery for their little ones and a gymnasium for the family. They want a great music program and impressive sermons.

We buy robes and organs and drums and carpets and cushions. We do all these things and still they do not come. And we get angry at them. “The people today just aren’t spiritual like they used to be.”

One pastor told me, “If we could just get carpets on the floor, I know the community would come.” He did, but they didn’t.

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Memorial Day Weekend

Drove to North Alabama on Friday, attended the every-two-year-cousins-reunion on Saturday, preached at New Prospect Baptist Church in Jasper on Sunday, and drove home on Monday. How did your weekend go?

Our “cousins” reunion never really took off until we decided to bite the bullet on the Saturday before Memorial Day in 1994 and stage the event at the old home place, 5 miles out in the country from Nauvoo, Alabama. Until then, we had moved around–one year at a park in Birmingham, another year at a cousin’s lake place out from Jasper, that sort of thing–but with varying degrees of success. The year we held it at the old home place, it felt so right, everyone agreed this is the way, and here is the place.

Reunions are easy for the family members who live “away,” such as I do. Our family has a rule that out-of-staters don’t have to bring anything but themselves, in appreciation for their long drive and the high cost of gasoline. So, thanks to the hard work of the locals, we distance-cousins walk in and it’s all laid out there: a long table loaded with eats, coolers filled with iced-down-drinks, and the night’s bonfire ready for a match, circled by folding chairs from the church 3 miles down the road.

We call it a “cousins” reunion. One hundred and five years ago John Wesley “Virge” Kilgore and wife Sarah Noles Kilgore moved to this section of land. He laid off the buildings and erected them with his bare hands. The house still stands, where all his nine children were born. Across the yard lies the blacksmith shop. A little further down stands the barn. The newest building, constructed for his 1948 Packard, is the little garage.

Grandpa died in 1949 and Granny passed on in 1963. No one has lived here since. But everything still stands.

“All the buildings are unpainted. Wonder why that is?” someone said. My mother, born inside that house on July 14, 1916, said, “I don’t know. But what color would you call the house now?” After several suggestions, she decided, “Motor oil.” She was right.

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Trying to Do Better

Recently, I wrote here about the wonders of the internet. But there’s a downside too, and I had a reminder this week.

Wednesday morning, on my drive into the office, I found a message on the cell phone that had been left the night before. A man who left no number where I could return his call said, “Take my name off your website and quit writing about me. You are ruining my life.” Everytime a prospective employer googled his name, he said, it came up on my website where I had written some slanderous thing about him. “I want it stopped.”

I felt like replying, “How can I be writing about you when I don’t even know who you are?” But without a number, I couldn’t return his call.

Then, I hit the wrong number on the phone. Instead of saving the message, I deleted it. And promptly forgot his name. This was not going well.

Later, I called the phone company to see if there is any way to retrieve a deleted phone message. Not after that transaction has been closed; the message is gone forever.

Thursday morning, I called Marty, my son who is a genius about a lot of things, especially involving the internet. Could he find the article in question? I told him what I remembered about the man’s name.

An hour later, Marty e-mailed. “I found it.” The article had been posted on this website on October 13, 2006. I had referred to a newspaper item in which this guy–no way am I printing his name!–was arrested for molesting his juvenile sister, and the article dealt with a judge lowering his bail so that he walked free. That’s all it was, except that in the comments which followed, some over several months time, I was lambasted by friends of the accused for slandering him. If they had left contact information, I would probably have said, “Take it up with the editor. I was just quoting the paper.”

But still, it’s no big deal to remove his name from that article.

Anyway, we took it off. Marty says it takes Google a week or so to drop the link to our website, but he’ll see if they can speed it up.

A sobering thought: type a guy’s name on your website and the world’s most popular search machine directs everyone there to see what you wrote on him.

Taking gossip to new heights. Taking slander to new lows. The power of the printed word at warp speed.

Okay, change the subject. The most bizarre accident occurred in New Orleans this week.

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Christian Fellowship I: Why We Came Today

Veteran pastor Bob Anderson tells this one on himself. A Sunday School class was having a backyard cookout and they wanted the preacher there. However, Pastor Bob had an earlier engagement–a wedding, a committee meeting, something–and would be late in arriving. Finally, he finished whatever he was doing and drove across Baton Rouge to the cookout.

He found the neighborhood, then located the street. He knew the couple hosting the cookout and was fairly certain he knew which house they lived in. Fairly certain.

Since everyone would be in the back yard, Bob did not bother to knock, but opened the front door and let himself in. He made his way through the foyer and living area and walked into the kitchen where an unfamiliar woman stood at the sink. He stared at her and she at him. Through the window behind her, Bob could see there was no one in the back yard. He was in the wrong house. This was not good.

What do you say in a moment like this? Nothing has prepared you for such a moment, and the words erupt from your throat in a kind of spasm. Pastor Bob Anderson blurted out, “I’ve come for fellowship!”

He told this story in chapel at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary one day maybe three years ago. When the laughter subsided, he told the students, “You will be interested in knowing that that lady and her family started coming to my church and became wonderful members.” A tribute to the woman’s courage and to the pastor’s recovery, if you ask me.

I’ve come for fellowship.

We might as well write that out and hang it around the necks of every visitor to your church next Sunday. No matter all the reasons they think brought them there, the people who enter your worship center have come for fellowship, believe me.

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Leadership Lesson No.55–“Vision: Don’t Leave Home Without It”

If you plan to lead, it might be a good idea to know where you’re going. The folks coming along behind you would like to know where you plan to take them. That concept, that goal, that’s your vision. Your vision is the answer to the question: when you get where you are going, what will it look like?

“Some men see things as they are and ask why; I see things that never were and ask why not.”

That memorable line, often attributed to Robert F. Kennedy, actually belongs to the playwright, George Bernard Shaw from his “Back to Methuselah.” The mixup resulted from Senator Ted Kennedy’s quoting it about Robert at his funeral in 1968.

It’s a great line. It’s reminiscent of something from the famous 11th chapter of Hebrews. “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.” (11:3)

There is among us a breed of humanity who see things no one else sees, who hear music unheard by the human ear, who know things not revealed in the physical world. These are people of a faith-vision.

The writer of Hebrews gives numerous instances of people with faith-vision which enabled them to see what God wanted them to do, where He wanted them to go, how He wished them to live. By faith, Abraham went out “not knowing where he was going.” (11:8) “By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land…for he was looking for a city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” (11:9-10)

“All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance….” (11:13)

“By faith (Moses) left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king, for he endured, as seeing Him who is unseen.” (11:27)

People of faith see things otherwise unseen. Faith vision.

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