When a pastor is called to an ignorant church

“But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (II Peter 3:18).

“By this time you ought to be teachers, but you need someone to teach you again the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and have come to need milk and not solid food” (Hebrews 5:12).

The pastor had been called from his rural church to another part of the country. He was excited about the new challenge, as he well should have been. In a parting comment to a friend, he assessed the state of spirituality of the church members he was leaving behind:

“There is enough ignorance in this county to ignorantize the whole country.”

What happens when a pastor gets called to a church like that? A church where the members and leaders alike do not know the Word of God and have no idea of how things should be done (what Paul called “how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God”–I Timothy 3:15), or why it all matters.

A church that exists to condemn sin and sinners, that knows only slivers of Scripture, that sees ministers as slaves of the whims of the congregation, and that is ready to reject as a liberal any minister who wants the church to feed the hungry in the community, take a stand for justice, or invite in the minority neighbors–the ignorance takes all kinds of forms.

We wish we could say such congregations are few and rare, but they aren’t.  Veteran preachers have stories of those churches, tales of run-ins with those leaders, and scars from the battles they have waged to set matters right.

–One pastor told the group of ministers meeting in his fellowship hall, “This building is actually owned by a member of the KKK. We rent it from him.”  The rest of us were naive and thought the Ku Klux Klan had died out ages ago. Here they were living among us in our own southern town.

–One lady visible in church leadership told her pastor, “I don’t know what the Bible says but I know what I believe.”

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The number one failure of 90 percent of pastors

The four-year-old who says, “I can do it by myself” has a lot in common with many a pastor.

Pastors are notorious for their lone ranger approach to ministry. I call that the number one failure of 90 percent of pastors. They prefer to go it alone.

Even Jesus needed a buddy. “He came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, ‘So, you men could not keep watch with me for one hour?’” (Matthew 26:40)

Sometimes it helps to have someone nearby, praying, loving, caring, even hurting with you.

The word paracletos from John 16:7 is translated “Comforter” and “Helper” in most Bible versions. The literal meaning is “one called alongside,” the usual idea being that the Holy Spirit is our Comforting Companion, a true Friend in need. And each time that word is found in the New Testament–John 14:16,20; 15:26; 16:7; and I John 2:1–it always refers to the Lord.

However, here’s something important.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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I prayed for my preaching–and got answers I did not expect

(This is a reprint of an article I wrote for Leadership magazine sometime around 2001. It was later picked up and included in “The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching,” edited by Haddon Robinson and Craig Larson, published by Zondervan, 2005. In conversations with pastor friends, I’ve learned that many never saw the article and some have asked where they could get a copy. Please feel free to copy and pass along to other servants of the Lord.)

I had been preaching for more than two decades, and I should have been at the top of my game. The church I served ran up to 1,500 on Sunday mornings, and the live telecast of our services covered a fair portion of several states. Most of my colleagues thought I had it made, and if invitations to speak in other churches were any sign, they thought I could preach.

But I didn’t think that.

My confidence was taking a beating as some of the leaders let me know repeatedly that my pulpit work was not up to their standards. Previous pastors carried the reputation of pulpit masters, something I never claimed for myself. To make matters worse, we had numerous vacancies on staff and my sermon preparation was suffering because of a heavy load of pastoral ministry. But you do what you have to do. Most days, my goal was to keep my head above water. Every day without drowning became a good day.

That’s when I got serious about praying for my preaching. Each night I walked a four-mile route through my neighborhood and talked to the Father. My petitions dealt with the usual stuff–family needs, people I was concerned about, and the church. Gradually, one prayer began to recur in my nightly pleadings.

“Lord,” I prayed, “make me a preacher.” Asking this felt so right I never paused to analyze it. I prayed it again and again, over and over, for weeks.

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To the shepherd of a stagnant flock

How many churches have stopped growing in this country, in your denomination, of your church-type, in your town? It depends on who you ask.

Go on line and you’ll soon have statistics coming out your ears on this subject.

In our denomination–the Southern Baptist Convention–the most significant number, one that seems to have held steady for over three decades, is that some 70 percent of our churches are either in decline or have plateaued.

Plateau. Funny word to use for a church. One wonders how that came to be. Why didn’t they say “mesa,” “plain,” “delta” (ask anyone who lives in the Mississippi Delta–flat, flat, flat!), or even “flatline.”

Of course, in the emergency room, to “flatline” is to be dead. No one (to my knowledge) is saying a non-growing church is dead, just that some things are not right.

Healthy churches grow. Non-growing churches are not healthy, at least in some significant ways.

If it’s true that 7 out of 10 pastors in our family of churches lead congregations either in decline or in stagnation, this is a situation that ought to be addressed.

To my knowledge, everyone is addressing it. Everyone has an opinion.

My single contribution to this discussion is directed toward the shepherd of a stagnant flock: “If your church has plateaued, make sure you haven’t.”

To pastors of churches that either refuse to grow or are in decline, we offer these ten (hopefully) encouraging words….

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Redundancy: Locking in your church members

A rope of three strands is not easily broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:12)

The last church I pastored had gone through a massive breakdown when the new pastor quickly announced a moral indiscretion in his background. Two groups exiting the church began new congregations, a third bunch spread into the community and joined other churches, a fourth group went home and haven’t been to church since, and, a year after the pastor was dealt with, I became the pastor of those who remained.

That’s not a church split; explosion is more like it.

In analyzing the reasons for a great church’s near-complete self-destruction, one thing became clear: the members were united by one thing only, the pulpit. And when the pulpit failed, they abandoned ship because there was nothing tying them to that location.

The line from Ecclesiastes assuring us that “a threefold cord is not quickly broken” gives us a clue on locking in our members so that a failure of one “cord” will not break the rope and destroy the whole system.

It’s all about redundancy–safeguarding the membership of the church in multiple ways.

Redundancy means building in numerous systems as backup to each other. If the power goes off, a generator kicks in. If the generator fails, something else takes over. And so forth.

God has built in a redundancy to the Christian life. To make sure His children are cared for and taught, He gives us the Holy Spirit to indwell us, His promises to inspire us, His Word to teach us, and His people (the church) to nurture us. He overshadows us, undergirds us, seals us, indwells us, goes before us as our Leader, and comes behind as our Rear Guard.

Using that as our model, we should do all in our power to seal in our members in order to keep the church strong, our ministries going forward, the name of Christ honored, and each believer faithful.

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Oh servant of God, what were you thinking?

“…they exchanged the truth of God for a lie…” (Romans 1:25).

A pastor with a fine church, great respect, challenging opportunities, and a good income does the strangest thing. He arrives home from the monthly meeting of a denominational board and turns in his expenses (air fare, hotel, taxi, meals) to the church bookkeeper. She writes a check to repay him.

Eventually, it comes out that the denominational agency was also reimbursing him. He has been charging both the church and the agency for his expenses.

For a few thousand dollars a year, the man of God was willing to risk everything. (He was dismissed, as he should have been.)

What was he thinking?

A pastor with a great church and incredible potential discovers he can pull down an additional $20,000 a year by taking several groups to the Holy Land.  All his congregation sees is that their pastor keeps pushing these trips as a way to deepen their commitment and broaden their vision. They are not told that the travel company is paying him a commission.  When the membership finds it out, most are unhappy.  Nothing illegal was going on; this is accepted business practice. The problem was the pastor’s moonlighting and using his position of influence to pad his income on the side, without informing his leadership.

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