When a leader should submit. And when to insist.

We were sitting in the second pew to the far left.  I leaned over to my teenage grandson and whispered, “I remember when Brother Ken brought the drum set into the church. Some almost died. Now look.”

On the platform was the usual dozen or so musicians–pianist, keyboard, several guitars, two or three drummers, one violin, a couple of horns, and this time, for a special emphasis, a mandolin and banjo.  The music was amazing.

I found myself wondering,  “What if we had given in to the critics? What if Dr. Ken Gabrielse and I had feared the criticism and buckled?”

There are times when church leaders need to pay attention to the criticism, and times to ignore it.

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To the pastor of a stagnant congregation

How many churches have stopped growing in this country, in your denomination, of your church-type, in your county or parish or town?

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.”

In the emergency room, of course,  to “flatline” is to be dead. No one, to my knowledge, is saying a non-growing church is dead, only 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 serve congregations that are either in decline or in stagnation, this is a situation that ought to be addressed.

Everyone is addressing it. Everyone has an opinion.

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When they say “somebody” ought to do something, they’re calling your number

“Somebody ought to do something!”

I was second in line at the traffic light. My lane and the one to my right were all turning left onto Dauphin Street in Mobile. The third lane was turning right.

Nobody was moving.

We sat through three sequences of lights. Meanwhile, the line of cars behind us grew longer and longer.

Clearly, the light was malfunctioning, but only on our side. Traffic from the other directions was receiving the correct sequence of lights. Our light stayed red.

I was traveling back to New Orleans from a revival in Selma, Alabama, and had stopped for a late-morning breakfast at a restaurant in Mobile.  After a fairly demanding week with 1500 miles of driving, I was actually relaxed and willing to sit there in the traffic without getting impatient.

But not all day.

Finally, I had had enough. The light was not working and the cars in front of me were showing no inclination to move.

So, I got out of my car.

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Three difficult church situations and what to do about them

I am not a professional counselor, not an official adviser of churches or denominations or pastors as such, and not acclaimed as an expert on problem-solving or conflict management. What I am is a veteran  preacher–now retired– and a writer who sometimes gets asked, “What is your take on this? What do you recommend we do about that?”

Out of that experience, and spurred on by two recent situations–one by phone last night and the other from an email this morning–here are three “case studies” or problem scenarios that occur with alarming frequency in our churches. And my suggestions on what the leadership should do in handling them.

As always, I do not claim to have the last word on any of this. But if it turns out this is the first word, something that gets readers to thinking deeply and acting courageously, it will have been worth the effort.

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The mentality that will kill your church

Jesus said to His disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.  Pray therefore the Lord of the harvest that He would send forth laborers into the harvest.’  And the disciples said, ‘Why? What do we get out of it, Lord?’”   (Most of that is Matthew 9:37-38 but with a small insertion by moi to make the point.)

“Behold,” Jesus said, “I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves…. But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to the courts, and scourge you in their synagogues, and you shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles.”  And the disciples said, “Enough of the negative stuff, Lord! Let’s get to the part where you reward us.”  (Matthew 10:16ff with my insertion.  The promise of rewards comes in the last verse of the chapter.)

Jesus told the disciples of John the Baptist, “Go and report what you hear and see:  the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear.  The dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”  And the Lord’s disciples said, “Okay, enough about these losers, already.  Tell us about the blessings you have for us.  Who gets to sit on your right and who on your left?” (Matthew 11:3ff, with my tongue-in-cheek foolishness.)

I was reading a church’s minutes from a century earlier. In a business meeting, the clerk read  a request for ten dollars from a church start-up in Texas. This was back when ten dollars was two hundred. After voting to send the money, the secretary noted in the minutes, “This spirit of generosity was put to the test when someone pointed out the church fellowship hall needed renovating.”  As I recall, they ended up spending $2,000 on that project.

“What’s in it for us? ” is the prevailing principle of decision-making for too many churches.  Denominational leaders and professional fund-raisers admit  that to be successful in their promotions, they have to convince churches that this project will reap great rewards for them personally.  It’s not enough to do something for the kingdom.

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Sometimes the opposition of the world works for the best

“And they went and made the sepulcher sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch.” (Matthew 27:66)

For good reason, God’s people learn to rejoice in adversity and to thrive under persecution.

Fire burns brighter under pressure.  Ask any ninth grade physics student.

Sometimes those intent on stamping out Christianity end up assisting it.

Scripture teaches  that the opponents of the Lord remembered that He had predicted He would rise from the dead. (Matthew 27:62-63)  It appears the wrong guys were taking literally the things Jesus had said! The poor disciples, forgetting the Lord’s promises, were mired down in their sadness and grief, all  of it the direct result of not understanding and believing Jesus’ promises..

When the opponents of the Lord went to such lengths to secure His tomb, they inadvertently provided additional evidence for His bodily resurrection.  Note their three actions: they made the grave secure, they put a Roman guard in place, and they set a seal on the stone.

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How the large church can help the small church, whether it wants help or not

We then who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak, and not to please ourselves.  — Romans 15:1  (Those of us who are strong and able in the faith need to step in and lend a hand to those who falter, and not just do what is most convenient for us. Strength is for service, not status. –From The Message, a paraphrase)

I wrote on Facebook something like this:

Sometimes one of our churches is bigger than all the others in their town or county combined.  When that happens, the church leadership has to make a decision.  One, they can say, “We don’t need you small churches.  We’re number one.”  Or, two, they can turn around and help the smaller churches.  One of these choices is Christlike and the other carnal.

The comments came in, in a predictable manner, opting for the obvious second choice.  Someone said, ” Yes, but sometimes the small churches do not want your help and resist any attempt to encourage them.”  True enough.

So, the question is what to do when a large church is willing to assist and encourage the smaller churches but are rebuffed in the attempt? Are there ways for them to show Christlike care and compassion even when the smaller churches are not receptive?

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Church boss Diotrephes is alive and well

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us.  Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words.  And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to do so, putting them out of the church.  III John 9-10.

In his book of 1,502 stories and illustrations (The Tale of the Tardy Oxcart), Chuck Swindoll has this:

A. T. Robertson, a fine, reliable Baptist scholar of years ago, taught for many years at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.  When he began to write on books of the Bible, he chose on one occasion the Book of 3 John, which talks about Diotrephes.  Diotrephes was a man who became a self-appointed boss of a church. And over a period of time, he was the one that excommunicated certain people and he screened whatever was done in the church.  As the self-appointed leader, he wouldn’t even let John come to speak as a representative of Christ.  So, John wrote a letter and reproved him.

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The new pastor is changing things quickly. Someone do something!

The new pastor  announced they were changing the name of the church.

The new pastor decided the worship music of  the last umpteen years needed updating and has brought in another director and more musicians.  The organist and pianist who have served so faithfully for many years are still being included but they never know what’s going on and wonder if they are unwanted.

The new pastor decided they should go to two morning services.

The new pastor decided they should go to one morning service.

The new pastor decided.

Anyone see a problem here?  The new pastor comes in and starts rearranging the furniture.  Restructuring God’s church.  Moving people around like chess pieceds.

The new pastor is ruling. Or so it seems to many.

Ever been there?  You should read my mail.  It’s happening all around you.

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When the criticism of the pastor is unfair, what to do

If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.  –President Harry Truman

Everyone who does anything will be criticized.  As a rule the critics are the do-nothings, the nay-sayers and spectators who sit in the grandstand and feed off each other’s negativism.

The man in the arena is the achiever.  As Theodore Roosevelt said, It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better.  The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.  

Here is how the great apostle put it–

We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair;  persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed–always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.  (2 Corinthians 4:8-10)

That is your manifesto, Christian worker.  Take those words to heart.

Now….

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