How to awaken a sleeping church. 20 suggestions.

“Awake thou that sleepest and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light” (Ephesians 5:14).

A pastor I know has a problem.  It’s not unlike that experienced by a large group of his peers, I imagine.

He has deacons who are undisciplined, church members who do not take care of the hurting in their midst, and in general, a congregation of unmotivated people.  When he preaches evangelism or discipleship or ministry in their community, the way they sit and stare makes him wonder if the language he’s using might be a foreign tongue to them.

Sound like your church?  Sounds like some I’ve pastored and a whole lot I’ve known.

The pastor of that unresponsive bunch asked for my advice.  Had I written anything on how to revive a comatose church?  Does our website have any help for him?

I asked him to give me a day or two to reflect on the subject and seek the Lord’s guidance.  (More and more, I keep thinking: This is an uphill task, wakening a sleeping church.  If it were easy, every pastor would do it and no church would be stagnant or declining. )

Here are my suggestions on how to transform a collection of comatose do-nothing members into a thriving, caring, loving church of the Lord Jesus Christ. And, since every church is both similar and different, we will use a lot of generalities and broad-sweeping statements.  Pastors should take anything that fits their situation and skip the rest.

One.  The bad news: You will encounter this same problem to one degree or another in every church you serve.  No church is without the sleeping, the dormant, the complacent.  It’s the human thing. In high school physics we learned that a body at rest prefers to remain at rest, while one on the move wants to keep traveling.  So, the question is how to arouse the church that seems cemented to the floor, how to get it up and going.

Continue reading

In the world, tribulation. But from within the church? Oh my.

“In the world you will have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

We were expecting hostility from the world.  But certainly not from the Lord’s people.

Church is where we get blindsided.

The Lord wanted His people to know what to expect.  The road ahead would be rough.  They should prepare for turbulence.

The Lord would not be bringing His children around the storms but through them.  We will not miss out on the tempest, but will ride it out with Jesus in our boat, at times standing at the helm and at other times, seemingly asleep and unconcerned.

The lengthy passage of Matthew 10:16ff is the holy grail on this subject, as the Lord instructs His children on what lies ahead and what to expect.  His disciples should expect to encounter opposition, persecution, slander, defamation, and for some, even death.  So, when it comes–as it does daily to millions of His children throughout the world–no one can say they weren’t warned.

But what about the church?  Should we expect opposition and persecution there also?

Jesus said, “They will scourge you in their synagogues” (10:17), and that’s where the faithful were meeting to worship.

He said members of our own households–parents, siblings, offspring–would lead the opposition at times. They will “cause them to be put to death” (10:21).

He doesn’t specifically say “the church,” but surely all of the above includes it.  And that’s where the typical believer runs into a buzzsaw.

Church is where we get blindsided.

We knew opposition would come from the world.  Scripture makes this plain.  But in the church?

Continue reading

10 ways to know you rule your own spirit

“He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city” (Proverbs 16:32).  And on the other hand, “Whoever has no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls” (Proverbs 25:28). 

Self-control is a mighty good thing to have.  And as rare as Spanish doubloons in the Sunday offering plate.

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).  So, the much-desired quality of self-control is found among the nine traits making up the “fruit of the Spirit,” which is also a pretty solid description of Christlikeness.

The ability to master one’s own spirit is not as recognizable as its opposite, the failure or inability to control one’s inner self.  That trait–a spirit out of control–is quickly on full display whenever its owner is offended, attacked, questioned, called to account for something he/she has done, or otherwise challenged. The uncontrolled spirit has no defenses against temptation, no muscles for hard tasks, and no patience with difficult people.  “Love one’s enemies”? (Luke 6:27) The uncontrolled spirit has difficulty loving its own friends and thus nothing in reserve for its opponents.

The angry motorist determined to set another driver straight cannot control his own spirit.  The disgruntled employee who returns with a gun to settle accounts cannot control his own spirit.  The gossip who simply cannot resist the urge to pass along the juicy morsel about someone cannot control their spirit.

The list is endless.  And so depressing.

So, let’s take the positive approach! Here, straight out of the wonderful book of Proverbs, are ten traits of the person in control of his/her own spirit.

One.  You can take chastening from the Lord and appreciate discipline when you have it coming.

Continue reading

Encouragement for the young struggling pastor

It is good for a man to bear the yoke in his youth (Lamentations 3:27).

Dear Young Pastor:

I hear you’re having a tough time of it.

Good. Glad to hear it.

As I got it, a group in the church doesn’t care for your leadership. They find fault with your sermons. They probably don’t like the color of your tie (or worse, the fact that you don’t wear one).

What makes their opposition dire is that they are the leaders of the church. Not a good thing.

Unity is always better than division.

You came close to resigning, I’m told. You probably felt, “If I don’t have the support of these elected leaders of the church, then I’ll not be able to do anything here.”

You actually wrote out a resignation, perhaps to see what it would feel like.

It felt wrong. You knew you were displeasing the One who sent you there in the first place.

So, you chose to hang in there and try to give leadership to a church that is not sure it wants any.

Welcome to the ministry.

When Holy Scripture says, It is good for a man to bear the yoke in his youth, that’s Bible talk for something like, “You may as well learn from the git-go what you’ve gotten yourself into.”

I saw this sign in front of a church: “Hang out with Jesus; He hung out for you.”

You have chosen to “hang in there with Jesus.”

In some respects–not in major, literal ways, but somewhat–it feels like a cross where you are suspended.

Continue reading

The pastor who teaches the congregation to pray

Now, it came to pass, as He was praying in a certain place, when He ceased, that one of His disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray as John also taught the disciples.’  (Luke 11:1)

The Lord’s people want to pray.

Most of the Lord’s people want to learn to pray.

You are the one to teach them effective praying, pastor.

You do know how, don’t you?

Granted, none of us do it very well. Even the great Apostle Paul said, “We do not know how to pray as we should” (Romans 8:26).  So, we are not saying any of us do it as well as we should, only that we know enough to be able to help others.

Here are some thoughts on the subject….

One. Model good praying for your congregation, pastor. “Being examples to the flock” (I Peter 5:3).

Two. Pray faithfully in the privacy of your home/office/car without ever telling anyone.  Let this be between you and the Lord.  Anything less turns us into hypocrites.  Telling people to do what we are not doing is never good.

Three. But in worship services, understand that people will be learning from you how to pray. They’re listening, and they are learning.

Four. Therefore, give advance thought to your public prayers.  Work on praying better and more effectively.

Five.  Always be aware that people are not only praying with you, but listening to how you pray so they will know how to do it better.  Even if they are not aware of it, they will be copying some of the things you do.

Six. . Teach them these things about public prayer:

Continue reading

What those in the flesh resent

“For the mind set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not subject itself to the things of God, for it is not even able to do so” (Romans 8:7).

It’s not just that believers and unbelievers think in different ways.  Rather, it’s that spiritually-minded Christians and carnally-minded church members (let’s assume they are believers, but it’s hard to know) also act and value in opposite ways.

Let the church take notice.

In an article on sacrificial giving, I made a statement that attracted drew a lot of attention: Those who are in the flesh resent being told they are in the flesh.

More than one reader reacted to that in anger.  (Thus proving the point, some might conclude.)

God’s shepherds (i.e., pastors of all varieties) can appreciate the strong division Scripture makes between being spiritually minded and carnally minded.  The Lord’s Word does not allow a blurring of that line, but draws a stark contrast between the two.  “The mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6).

The reality of the dichotomy, the reasons for it, and the results that follow are vastly different. (No, that is not a sermon outline, although it might work. One hopes, however, that every preacher knows “alliteration doth not a sermon make.”)

Two passages of Scripture deal with this division, the opposing operations of “the mind set on the spirit” and “the mind set on the flesh.”  Romans 8 (here) and also First Corinthians chapters 2 and 3.

Now, we know the spiritually-minded are redeemed Christ-followers. They are saved. But are the carnally-minded saved?  Answer: They may be either. Unsaved people are, of course, “in the flesh” since they have not been “born of the Spirit.”  However, immature believers may look and act, walk and think, “in the flesh” also, thus confusing the issue.  This is one reason we preachers must be careful in assuming everyone who does not act like Christ is lost and needs to “get saved.” They could simply be immature, untaught, and in need of a friend in Christ.

Our primary concern here is with church members who are carnal.  They may look just like lost people, but based on First Corinthians 3:1-4, we conclude they are immature believers who are not walking or thinking “in the Spirit.”

Continue reading

10 signs your church is unhealthy

Recently, when an online magazine sent me an article on “5 signs you’re part of an unhealthy church,” I opened it eagerly. This subject is dear to my heart.

I am passionate about strong, healthy churches.

The writer’s five signs were good, as far as they went. No argument. I did not leave a comment one way or the other in response.

What I felt, however, is that my experience seems to be of another nature from the writer’s.

First, from that article here are “5 signs you are part of an unhealthy church”–

1) Leadership has no clear vision.

2) Leadership can never be challenged.

3) You are comfortable but never challenged.

4) Members are content with being pew warmers.

5) Outreach is never planned or preached.

All of these are true. But there is so much more.

Here, then, is my version of “10 signs (evidences, indications) that the church to which you belong is unhealthy”–

1. Prayer, if offered at all, is a formality, an afterthought, a burden.

While spending a long weekend at a pastors/wives retreat in Italy, I was struck by something. By the time I rose to speak, the service–by then a half-hour long–had experienced at least five prayers. The worship leader had followed a couple of songs with prayer, the presiding leader had prayed, and at least two more people with roles in the service had prayed. Each prayer had been spontaneous, heartfelt, and a joy. I knew then we were in for a rich time of Christian fellowship.

On the other hand, it pains me to remember the Sunday morning worship services where I was the guest preacher and noticed that by the time I stood to preach, not a single prayer–not one!–had been offered.

There is no more accurate indicator of a Christian’s spirituality or a church’s health than the vitality of our prayers.

Continue reading

Experts: Read/listen, then decide for yourself

What started this for me was a fascination with the fourth of Jesus’ seven parables found in Matthew 13. As I often do when faced with a long drive from a meeting back home, I picked a scripture that intrigued me in order to consider it from every angle.

This may be the most neglected parable from all those taught by Jesus, methinks.

The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened. (Matthew 13:33)

I had been working on a message on how Christians hide themselves inside their church buildings when the Lord wants us permeating the community with the gospel. This parable seemed a natural.

I had been interpreting it with an emphasis on “a woman took and hid” the leaven in the dough. She had some leaven and wondered where to hide it. “I know,” she thought. “I’ll hide it in this dough.” But a few hours later or the next morning, the world knew where she had stashed it. The power of the leaven to affect everything around it changed the dough and thus gave the presence of the leaven away.

That speaks to Christians wanting to remain secret disciples of Jesus. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: Secret discipleship is a contradiction in terms. Either the secrecy will kill the discipleship or the discipleship will kill the secrecy.

Then, I called a friend on the phone. Mike knows his Greek. I wanted to know what the Greek New Testament could contribute to my understanding of that fourth parable.

“The word in the Greek is ‘hid,’ all right,” said Pastor Mike. “But the commentary I checked said we should not make too much of the fact that she hid the leaven. She just put it inside the dough. The emphasis is not on her hiding it but on the way the leaven influences everything it touches.”

Well, all right, I thought, reluctantly. I had thought I was on to something with the emphasis on the “hid” word.

Then, next morning, with my office next door to the church library, I started pulling out commentaries.

Not a good thing.

Continue reading

What I hate most about my preaching

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

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

No one is suggesting 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. (One of the worst things we preachers do is to 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.

What I hate most about my preaching is when I intrude too much into the message.

Continue reading

What’s the worst part of pastoring?

“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.

Continue reading