The highest compliment a pastor can give

“But Paul chose Silas and departed, being committed by the brethren to the grace of the Lord” (Acts 15:40).

“Tom, I need your help.”

“Ed, can you drop whatever you’re doing and meet me this morning?”

“Roger, I’ve got a tough visit to make and was wondering if you could go with me.”

Pastors don’t ask just anyone for this.

A preacher friend tells of the call he received in the wee hours of the night.

“A woman in the church was waving a gun around and threatening her family.  In recent weeks, we had been trying to help her with certain problems.  As I headed out the door for her house, I dialed the number for a deacon friend.”

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When the church exists for itself

How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? (Romans 10:14).

I live in a gated community of 25 homes.

This little neighborhood is surrounded by a high fence and entered through a gate which requires either a remote sensor or a code.  Homeowners pay a monthly fee to cover upkeep on the grounds and streets and a few services.  We rarely see anyone in this little ghetto other than residents and service people.

Therein lies the metaphor.

At Christmastime, as Bertha and I were placing decorations on the outside of the home, I mentioned that since we live in a cove–a tiny cul-de-sac among five other homes–almost no one will see the wreaths and lights and greenery. “We will see it,” she said. And I agreed. That, I expect, is why most people erect a Christmas tree in the first place. For themselves.

Churches do this, to their shame. They do programs and ministries which no one will ever partake of except themselves.  They plan elaborate pageants and oratorios and cantatas and wild game suppers and marriage retreats, and then fail to tell anyone other than the immediate family.

Then they wonder why so many pews went unfilled and the response to their evangelistic invitations was so tiny.

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The mentality that is killing your church

All this missions stuff is okay, I guess. But what’s in it for us?

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?'”  (Matthew 9:37-38 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, “Let’s skip that part and get to the part where you reward us.”  (Matthew 10:16ff with my insertion.  The part about 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 one church’s minutes from a century ago.  In a business meeting, the clerk told of a request for ten dollars from a new church in Texas. This was back when ten dollars was two hundred. After voting to send the money, the secretary said, “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 know 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.

It’s not sufficient to do something to please God, honor Christ, or obey the Spirit.

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What people want from the pastor and have a right to expect

I hesitate to say one group in the church has a “right” to expect anything of another. Insisting on our rights will almost invariably result in resistance, frustration, anger, and division.  And yet in a very real sense believers who support the work of the Lord with their tithes and offerings and time and energy have a right to expect certain things from their shepherd.  That’s what this is about. 

What follows is directed primarily to pastors. Others may listen in, but they should not miss the “they do not have a right” which comes at the end of each section.

If I got what I deserve, I’d be in hell.  And so would you.

The Christian life is not about getting our rights or having others meet our demands.  Far from it.

We have died with Christ.  We are bondservants instructed to submit to one another.  That is a far cry from the so-called “catbird seat” from where we call the shots.

Much better for us to appreciate anything we receive from the people around us, no matter how small or poorly given.

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What every pastor needs and cannot live without

My friend was telling me about the woes of a church in the next town.

“They got a new pastor.  He moved in and took over.  When he got wind of something going on in the church weekday school he didn’t like, he called the principal and teachers in and fired them.  He sent the students home and told them the church didn’t have a school any more.”

I said, “He closed the school?”

“Just like that.  Did it on his own authority.”

“Was the school in trouble or anything?”

“Not to my knowledge.  We know people who sent their children there. It seemed to be a fine school.”

“So what happened?”

“Everyone is upset.  Some of the members left and went to other churches, and attendance is down in that church.”

“Nothing more?”

“Not to my knowledge.”

I find this incredulous.

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When churches get the disappearing blues

This train got the disappearing railroad blues.  –Arlo Guthrie, “City of New Orleans”

The cleaners I used for over two decades has made a decision to go out of business, and has begun doing so very slowly.

They just don’t know it.

It started with a closed sign on the door one morning.  I walked away carrying the clothes I had planned to drop off.

The next day, a sign announced they had relocated the business.  Since the new site was closer to my house with more convenient parking, that did not make me unhappy.

Next, they began cutting back on the hours.  The young man newly hired to run it informed me they were now opening at 11 am and closing at 7.  No longer would people be able to drop off clothes on their way to work.

I said to him, “Shouldn’t you have a sign outside with the hours of operation?  Since this is a big change.”  Why I should care is another question, but I do.

The clerk casually assured me that the small notice on the glass door would suffice.

He was wrong.  To read that a customer would have to leave the car and walk to the door.  This is an ideal recipe for frustrating one’s customers…and thus for losing them.

I never see a car in front of the store indicating a customer inside.

And now, I’m gone too.

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How to grow a small church

“It doesn’t matter to the Lord whether He saves by the few or by the many” (I Samuel 14:6).

Depending on a number of factors, growing a small church is one of the more do-able things pastors can achieve.

Those variable factors include…

–the health of the church (you don’t want a sick church to grow; you want it to get well first!).  I once told my congregation, “There’s a good reason no one is joining this church.  I wouldn’t join it either!” Believe it or not, those words were inspired and they received them well, and repented.

–the attitude of the congregation (if the people are satisfied with the status quo, they would not welcome newcomers).  I’ve known Sunday School classes composed of a small cluster of best friends who felt imposed on by visitors and new members.  No one wants to go where they’re not wanted.

–and the location of the facility (a church situated five miles down an isolated road, at the end of the dead end trail, can almost certainly forget about growing).

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Pastor, grow your church…as God enables.

“Over ____% of churches in America have plateau’ed.”  (The percentage depends on who’s talking.)

Let the pastor dedicate himself to growing the church as much as possible.

Let growing the church be important to the shepherd.

But let the growth be the real thing, not something hyped up.  Solid growth, not inflated numbers.

A generation or two ago, pastors in our denomination took it for granted that if they wanted to (ahem) move up to a larger church, they needed to show numerical growth where they were presently serving.

Before long, some less trustworthy preachers decided to play that game to the hilt and ruined it for everyone. They grew creative in their counting, they schemed and plotted and even lied about numbers, and doctored the records to make it appear they were experiencing greater growth than they were.

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What to do for an unemployed preacher

Now, preachers and ministers come in all stripes and varieties, I understand that.

In the denomination I serve, there are some who are called “jack-leg preachers,” and it is not a compliment.  No dictionary defines that term, but mostly it means they are self-taught, self-designated, and probably self-called.

I’m not talking about these.

I’m referring to solid God-called well-established servants of the Lord who have been cut off from the church they were serving for one reason or the other and now find themselves unemployable.

I’m referring to faithful preachers of the Word who should be out there leading a congregation, but have not been able to find one willing to give them a try.

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Shellbound: Why churches tend to be unfriendly and cliquish

“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong.  The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.  I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).

I stood before the congregation holding two letters in my hands.  “Both came to my office this week.  I thought you’d like to hear what they say.”

“The first letter is from a member who moved several hundred miles away last year. She is missing this church.  She wrote, ‘The churches here are not friendly like our church back home.  No one speaks to visitors.  I miss our loving, friendly congregation.”

I said, “Do we have a friendly church?”  Heads nodded all over the building.

“Well, then, listen to this.”

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