What Small Churches Do Best

Have you ever learned a lesson early in life, promptly proceeded to forget it, and then had it driven home to you years later?

Here’s what happened this weekend….

I was preaching at the Delacroix-Hope Baptist Church downriver from New Orleans in the community known as St. Bernard in the parish of the same name. Before Katrina, nearly 5 years ago, this church was actually located on Delacroix Island, a fishing village. The hurricane ruined the community and the church building disappeared. So, when the people regathered, they started meeting in a little Presbyterian church that was eventually donated to them. Their pastor for the past ten years or so, James “Boogie” Melerine, a native of the island community, has just retired and they’ve asked me to preach last Sunday and next.

There might have been sixty people in attendance. When the children left for their own service just prior to the sermon–I always hate that; they’re my favorite group!–I was left with 35 or 40 adults. The song service was fine, but nothing indicated this was going to be an unusual hour for all of us.

Then we came to the time of the public invitation.

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The Two Relationships Upon Which the Christian Faith Depends

They came to Jesus with two things on their minds. They sincerely wanted to know how He would answer their question; if in the process they could trip Him up, so much the better.

“Lord, which is the Greatest Commandment?”

Jesus replied, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, mind, and strength.” He was quoting from Deuteronomy 6:5, a verse known, loved, and memorized by every faithful Jew.

“Good answer,” the questioner said, and began walking away.

“And the second one is a lot like it,” Jesus called after him.

Second one? Did anyone hear us asking the Lord what was the second greatest commandment? I didn’t, did you?

What’s going on here?

As the man turned back to the Lord, Jesus said, “The second commandment is: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” A far less familiar verse taken from Leviticus 19:18.

With this word, the Lord Jesus sent a message down through the centuries to His people of every generation: God will not allow us to turn the Christian faith into a vertical, me-and-Jesus-only kind of thing.

My relationship with Jesus Christ provides salvation. My relationship with other people proves my salvation.

Vertical, horizontal. The sign of the cross, the perfect symbol of the Christian faith.

The dual relationship which Jesus commands is taught all through Scripture.

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The Worst Part of Being a Pastor

“What’s the worst thing about being a pastor?” she asked. “What is your worst nightmare?”

She and I were Facebooking back and forth about the ministry when she threw this one in my direction.

She gave me her own ideas. “People writing nasty letters complaining? giving you advice? criticizing what you wear?”

I laughed and thought, “Oh, if it were that simple. No one enjoys getting anonymous mail trying to undermine your confidence in whatever you’re doing, but sooner or later most of us find ways of dealing with that.”

“It’s worse than that,” I typed. Then I paused to reflect.

Hers was such a simple question, one would think I had a stock answer which had been delivered again and again. But I don’t remember ever being asked it before.

Now, I have been asked plenty of times variations of “What’s the best thing about pastoring?” My answer to that is not far different from the response most other pastors would give: the sense of serving God, the joy of making a difference in people’s lives for Jesus’ sake, that sort of thing.

You knock yourself out during the week counseling the troubled, ministering in hospitals, visiting in their homes, conducting funerals and weddings, all while you are working on the sermons for Sunday, meeting with staff members planning upcoming events, and handling a thousand administrative details. Then, you stand at the pulpit twice on the Lord’s Day and give your best. And you see doubters begin believing, the fearful becoming courageous, the lost getting up and coming home to the Father, people saying God has led them to join with your flock, and broken homes restored –it doesn’t get any better than that.

You are in your glory.

Worst nightmare? Thankfully, I don’t have those. But I suppose my friend was asking for the scariest scenarios, the most frightening circumstance for a pastor. I have an opinion on that.

Here’s my response.

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Real Beauty (I Peter 3:1-7)

I have the strangest thing to tell you.

Yesterday, as I write, I spent four hours sketching employees for an accounting firm at which a good friend is a partner. I’m a cartoonist and enjoy doing quick sketches of people. So my friend Larry asks me to come out each year on April 15–D-Day for his profession–and to draw their office force. It’s a little thank-you for their hard work during the tax season and a celebration for its end.

I’m not sure how many people I drew, but let’s say seventy-five. Most were women, probably one out of five was a man. They ranged in age from the early 20s into middle-age. And every one was great looking.

I’m tempted to say each one was beautiful. And in a way, that’s true. But it’s probably closer to the mark to say that there was a beauty about each person.

The person plops down in the chair opposite you, looks you square in the eye and flashes a great smile. I say, “Okay. Now, hold that for one minute!” Some do it more effortlessly than others. But no matter who they are, when they turn loose with that great smile, you see how really attractive they are. It’s at that moment I send up a prayer, “Lord, help me to capture some of what I’m seeing in them.”

I’d love them to see how they really look, to know something of the beauty they possess. So few do. They look in mirrors and see what their minds tell them they’re seeing. Often it’s not close to reality. They compare themselves with airbrushed-celebrities and surgically-enhanced beauties and give themselves failing grades.

It’s enough to make a Creator groan.

Do preachers know anything about beauty? Are we entitled to our thoughts on this subject?

The Apostle Peter thought so. His message in our text is as clear as anything you will find anywhere on the subject of real beauty.

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Unless My Church is Unified, Nothing of Lasting Value Gets Done

The more I work with people, minister in churches, and observe the Christian community, the more convinced I am that unity is the rarest bird on the planet.

Disunity is the norm.

Unity is the plan of the Lord for His people, the essential to getting anything important done, and the last prayer on Jesus’ lips in the Upper Room.

I once created a furor in a deacons meeting with the revolutionary suggestion that after they voted to put a matter before the congregation, all the deacons should support it, no matter how they voted earlier. For some, you would have thought I was suggesting they give up their citizenship.

“I am an American citizen. I have my rights. And one of those rights is to speak up and voice my convictions.” I can hear him now.

“You’re asking us to compromise? Never.”

I tried to explain, “We’re not talking about your rights; we’re talking about your responsibility as leaders of this church. There has to be a reason you’re trying to hash these matters out in here before taking it to the church.”

The day we began electing mature deacons the church began to have unity.

Leaders are to desire and pray for and model and protect the unity of the church.

Paul said to the Ephesian leaders, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).

We have to work for it. Unity within a body of a hundred people is not normal or natural, must be sought for, and can be a fleeting thing. Unity is fragile.

In a class of seminary students, I wrote on the board one word: “Different.”

I said, “You would think that a congregation made up of disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ would automatically be of one mind. Instead, conflict seems to be the norm. The main reason seems to be that the people in the pews are all so different.”

“My question for you is: how are they different?” I began writing as they suggested ways in which the church members differ from one another.

Different sexes, generations, races, ages, views, experiences, theology, politics, background, education, socio-economic levels, likes, dislikes, goals, preferences, tastes, intellects, Bible knowledge, holiness, prejudices, fears, appearances, height, weight, body chemistry, values.

We could have done that all day.

Unity in a congregation of Christians is a miracle as surely as any healing or resurrection of the dead.

Unity among a people so diverse has to be a God thing.

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What I Hate About My Preaching

No one enjoys second-guessing himself, what Warren Wiersbe calls “doing an autopsy on oneself.”

It’s possible to work ourselves into the psych ward or even an early grave by analyzing every single thing we do and questioning the motive behind every word.

No one is advocating that.

And yet, there is much to be said for looking back at what we did and learning from our mistakes and failures and omissions.

That’s what this is all about.

It’s best done in solitary. (The worst thing we preachers do is ask our wives, “How did I do?” Poor woman. She’s in a no-win situation. Leave her out of it.)

A recording of our preaching helps. (But we have to promise to stay awake during the playback.)

That said, I’ll get to the point of this article.

What I hate most about my preaching is the tendency to intrude too much into the sermon.

I hate realizing that in a sermon I was trying to co-star with Jesus when the Holy Spirit called me to be a member of the supporting cast.

I did it yesterday.

At a funeral of a dear friend who was a longtime deacon in a former pastorate, I filled the message time with too much of me.

Now, I adore his family and, if I’m any judge, the feeling is mutual. So, feeling at home and among friends, I shared their grief at our loved one’s death and rejoiced in their confidence that he is with the Lord.

Instead of delivering a formal message that had been well thought out in advance, I shared memories of my friend and insights from Scripture that say so much about death and eternal life.

Nothing of this was wrong or out of place. If there is one thing I believe strongly, it’s in the integrity of the Lord Jesus Christ and His assurances for life eternal.

But the sermon was just “too much Joe.”

I can hear my voice now. “Let me share this verse with you that means so much to me. Honestly, I’ve never heard another preacher use it.” Then, trying to be cutesy, I said, “Psalm 17:15 is my own discovery. In the future, when you read it, think of it as ‘Joe’s verse.'”

Where did that come from? Groan.

I talked about my dad and his death and how our family copes with missing him.

That was unnecessary. It wasn’t offensive to them, but in retrospect seems to have been out of place.

I made a couple of half-hearted attempts at humor. Now, no one is against healthy laughter in a funeral service and I hope that when one is held in my honor, there will be plenty of it. But the preacher doesn’t need to try to force the humor. Let it come naturally.

My prayer today has been that the fifty or sixty in the congregation did not notice the ever-present reference to I, me, and mine. And, if they did, that they did not mind, or have forgotten it altogether.

It might even be that I’m the only person at that funeral who was bothered by that aspect of the message. I certainly hope so.

No preacher wants to be a distraction. We all want our messages to point people to the Savior and strengthen their faith in the promises of God.

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Faith’s Casserole

There are those who are said to be “filled with faith,” but I’m not one of them. I’m guessing you’re not either.

In Scripture, Stephen is given this accolade in Acts 6:5, as was Barnabas in Acts 11:24. If anyone else qualified, I can’t find them this morning.

Most of us are mixtures of faith and something else. Like the fellow who admitted to Jesus, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

For some of us, the blend is faith and unbelief.

For others, it’s faith and ignorance which co-exist and battle for supremacy in our minds and hearts.

Then there’s faith and doubt, which is a tad different from unbelief. Unbelief is negative whereas doubt can be a healthy expression of a reasonable mind that requires just a little more evidence.

Faith and fear appear to be opposites that occupy space in the minds and hearts of some of us at the same time. Jesus said to one group, “Why did you fear? Where is your faith?”

Faith and sight is another set of odd companions. Faith covers what we cannot see but which we believe, while sight has to do with knowledge from what we see and can verify. Astronomer Carl Sagan wrestled with questions of God in his lifetime. Someone asked his wife, “Doesn’t he want to believe?” She answered, “No. Carl wants to know.” (See Romans 8:24.)

Faith and presumption are a twosome forming a bad marriage in some. Faith hears the promises of God and goes forward; presumption goes where the Lord never sent, claims what He never instructed, and expects what He never promised. Pity the preacher who can’t distinguish the two; pity more the people who sit under his ministry.

And then there are some of us, Lord help us, who are a confusing blend of faith mixed with unbelief, ignorance, doubt, fear, sight and presumption.

Sometimes that’s me. I suspect it was my dad.

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Mentoring: A Great Idea I’d Never Heard Of

My pastor, Mike Miller, tells of the time he was about to go into a church business meeting where the natives were restless. The inmates were about to riot. Members of the flock were ready to fleece the shepherd.

And a lot of metaphors like that.

It was going to be bad.

Five minutes before the meeting, Mike picked up the phone and called his former pastor in Texas for a word of counsel. As he tells it, Mike was loaded for bear that night and ready to wage war.

His pastor heard him out, then said, “Mike, I want you to go in there and stand before those people and tell them how much you love them.”

Mike said, “But you don’t understand.” And he went through the situation again.

The pastor said, “Mike, stand before them and tell them how much you love them.”

As Mike stammered, the pastor said, “Let me lead us in prayer.” He prayed that Mike would stand before those people and tell them how much he loved them.

A minute later, Mike walked into the sanctuary, looked out at his congregation, and began, “Folks, regardless what happens tonight, I want you to know that I love you very much.”

Nothing happened. Nada. Zip.

The meeting was uneventful, no one had a contrary word, and they got out on time.

Mike Miller believes in the concept of mentoring.

Today, at the start of the masters’ level seminary class Dr. Loretta Rivers and I team-teach, I spent a good half-hour or more trying to convince the 22 students on the importance of putting themselves into a mentoring relationship. At the conclusion, Dr. Rivers said, “I’d like to ask a question. How many of you have a mentor?”

Over half the class raised their hands.

I was stunned. Not what I had expected.

In planning this lesson and delivering it, I had fallen into a time-worn trap of teachers and pastors through the ages: projected my own experience onto the audience. I assumed they were as reluctant as I would have been to put themselves in a mentoring relationship.

They’re not. They’re wiser than I ever was.

Mentoring is all through Scripture. Elijah mentored Elisha. The Lord Jesus mentored the 12 apostles. Barnabas mentored Saul. After he became Paul and took the lead in the relationship, the two friends split and mentored others: Paul took Silas and Timothy; Barnabas took John Mark.

According to Wikipedia, in Greek mythology Mentor was an old teacher asked by Odysseus to look after his son Telemachus while he, Odysseus, went off to the Trojan War. The old gentleman contributed his name to the process whereby an older, more experienced person guides and shapes a younger one.

The nomenclature varies and is probably irrelevant: mentor and mentee, teacher and pupil, master and apprentice, senior and junior. One is the role model, the other the imitator or learner.

Sure wish I’d had one early in my ministry….

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When Caught In a Maelstrom (I Peter 2:21-25) (Part II)

Have you ever seen a firestorm? The flames are shooting skyward to unbelievable heights. As the air heats and rushes upward, cool air rushes in at the lower level to fill the vacuum created. Now, you have winds blowing toward the fire and winds inside the inferno shooting upward.

Get out of its way.

The word “maelstrom” comes to mind here. It’s a Dutch word that literally means a “grinding stream.” (I keep wanting the “strom” to mean “storm,” but Webster says it’s “stream.”) Think of a whirlpool that is sucking everything into its vortex.

Think: church fight.

Ever been in one? If you have, you’ll never want to be in another. Once is enough forever.

There is only one who enjoys a knock-down drag-out among the people of God and he is the original fallen angel himself, the great dragon, the accuser of the brethren, Lucifer, the father of lies and the sire of everything unholy.

I have never personally been a warrior in a church fight. However, I know far more than I would like about them. As pastor I have a) observed neighboring churches waging war among themselves, b) dealt with the aftermath of fights in churches I pastored, and c) heard countless horror stories from the walking wounded who had come through the religious wars.

Before dealing with the scriptural instructions on what our response should be to these battles of the faithful, let me issue the one overwhelming principle which should guide all of us:

Walk away from it.

No issue is worth tearing up a church.

Even if truth is at stake–and it always is, if we are to believe the parties involved–and even if the eternal destinies of people hang in the balance, the way to resolve a conflict is not by tearing a church asunder.

A famous line from the Vietnam War era, uttered by those who wanted to stop that no-win conflict and pull our soldiers out, asked, “What if they gave a war and no one came?”

If no one will fight, there’s no battle.

It’s a great idea.

You will want to drop back and read I Peter 2:21-25 (we included it in the previous article). Now, ask yourself one question: “Can anyone looking at how Jesus endured the cross think for a moment that He wants us to take up arms against our brother or sister in the congregation?”

But, pastor, you don’t understand! We’re in the right here. The other side has done wrong. They’re unbiblical, ungodly, immature, headstrong, stiff-necked, and on top of that, they’re taunting us. We can’t let this go unaddressed.

You are a fool if you believe that.

All the right is on one side and all the offenses on the other. Give me a break. It’s not true of your marriage, not true in the Second World War, not true in our present struggle against radical Islamic terrorism, and not true in your church fight.

That is not to say–let me rush to make this clear or some will read no further!–that each side has as much claim to right and truth and justice as the other.

Rather, no one in a church fight ever thinks of himself or herself as the aggressor, but always the aggrieved.

So, in a church conflict–and that’s our subject here–do not buy the lie that your side has all truth and the others are a bunch of evil-doers who want only to run roughshod over the lovers of all that is good and holy.

If you forget for a moment that you are a sinner saved by grace and deserve to spend eternity in hell, you are a goner. You get pulled into the maelstrom and caught up in the firestorm that is consuming your church’s peace, destroying its unity and killing its missionary heart.

According to Scripture, here is what we should do….

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Christianity’s Achilles’ Heel? (I Peter 2:21-25)

If you like your religious faith shallow and thought-out for you without you being required to use your brain for any aspect–in other words, you require a manmade religion–you’re not going to hang around in church long.

The Christian faith is a lot of things, but shallow and neatly systematic it is not. Rather, it’s historical and complex and true. It is true-to-life. And it has been revealed to us in such a way that we are required to put our thinking caps on and engage the brain in order to appreciate what we have been given and how it all fits together.

Take suffering, for example.

A recent critic of the Christian faith–these Christopher Hitchens and Bishop James Pikes have always been with us, so don’t let the latest “smarter than God” genius upset you–says the fatal flaw to our theology is suffering. We’re told that the Bible does not adequately answer the question of suffering and pain in the world.

You read that and shake your head. Scores of books from Christian writers pour off the press every year dealing with just that subject, particularly after disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis.

But even if we ignore those books, we’re faced by the fact that the Bible deals with suffering from one end to the other. It’s almost correct to say that human suffering is “the” constant theme of the Bible, it’s so prevalent throughout.

The history of Jews is a story of suffering. The Book of Job is devoted entirely to this subject. The sermons of Jesus are saturated with examples and instructions concerning suffering. His very life and death illustrate the subject better than any textbook. That’s why, when comforting the Lord’s harassed people, Peter thought of just that.

The Apostle Peter writes to suffering believers,

“For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps,

“Who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth,

“And while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously;

“And He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you have been healed;

“For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.” (I Peter 2:21-25)

If we had nothing else in the Bible on the subject of suffering than this single passage, we could conclude several things:

–suffering is the lot of God’s Best in this world

–there is a right way and a wrong way to bear up in suffering

–we are to emulate Jesus. One of the many reasons Jesus was allowed to suffer in this world was to provide us with a pattern, an example. Here’s how it’s done.

–God always has His purposes for the suffering of His beloved.

–Our task when suffering is to commit ourselves to Him, trusting that He will “judge righteously.”

C. S. Lewis called it “pain.” The Scripture generally calls it “suffering” or “tribulation.” We experience it as “conflict.”

It’s no fun, I’ll tell you that.

But when done right, our suffering/pain/conflict can produce marvelous results. “Fixing our eyes on Jesus….who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame….” (Hebrews 12:2) See that? There was joy on the other side of the cross. To get there, He “endured.”

I’ve made a little list of what believers may expect regarding pain and suffering and conflict in this life. See what you think.

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