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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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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When the church bully happens to be the pastor

Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion but voluntarily, according to the will of God; not for sordid gain, but with eagerness;  nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.” (I Peter 5:2-3).

A friend wrote me about his pastor.

His pastor demands his way in everything, tolerates no dissent, and ousts anyone not obeying him.  He intimidates church members and dominates the other ministers.  His opinion is the only one that counts.

We could wish this were a rare phenomenon.  It isn’t.

The definitive bully in Scripture is Diotrephes.  I wrote something to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves the preeminence (“loves to be first among them” (NASB), does not accept what we say…. unjustly accusing us with wicked words; and not satisfied with this, neither does he himself receive the brethren, and he forbids those who desire to do so, and puts them out of the church (III John)

That’s the bully:  loving preeminence, rejecting outside interference, bringing accusation against the opposition, and putting people out of the church when they oppose him.

Invariably, when confronted, such a bully blames it on God.  “He put me in charge.”  “I’m the undershepherd of the church, answerable only to Jesus.”  “If you don’t like it, there are plenty of other churches where you would be welcome.”

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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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Don’t give us your testimony; show us Jesus.

“For this purpose I wrote to you, that I might know the proof of you, whether you be obedient in all things” (2 Corinthians 2:9).

“I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18).

On this website, I chronicled the doings of a few church members who were angry over nothing, raging all the time, finding fault where none existed, then pinning blame when confronted.  I suggested the primary reason for this behavior: They are lost.  Unsaved.  “The natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God,” says I Corinthians 2:14, “for they are foolishness to him. Neither can he understand them for they are spiritually discerned.”

That says it as well as anything.

Then, a few days after posting that, the Lord explained something to me.

He called to my mind His statement in John 15:21. These things they will do because they do not know the One who sent Me.  The persecutions of the faithful– all “without cause,” He emphasizes–have a solid reason.  These people do not know God.  They are lost, unsaved, unredeemed, unforgiven.

That explained it to the satisfaction of our Lord.

And I thought of something.

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Reflections on Christ’s church as we approach Easter

As we approach the Easter event, many of us begin to reflect once again on the death of the finest, the purest One ever to walk this planet.

It’s quite the indictment of humanity that earth could not tolerate Him and so put him to death.

In Robert Bolt’s prize-winning play, A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More is beheaded for opposing the ungodly doings of King Henry VIII. (Or, to be more exact, for not approving them.) As the play winds to a close, a spokesman comes center stage and addresses the audience:

“I’m breathing…. Are you breathing, too?…. It’s nice, isn’t it? It isn’t difficult to keep alive, friends–just don’t make trouble–or if you must make trouble, make the sort that’s expected…..”

At the trial of Jesus, they said of him, “He has stirred up the people from Galilee to Jerusalem.” They got that right.

Look at the world we live in. It could use another stirring up.

Following is my very brief four-point observation on the Church and Easter. You know that the whole point of Easter–the crucifixion, the burial, the resurrection–was the Church, don’t you?

“Christ loved the Church and gave himself for her.” (Ephesians 5:25) And then, “Shepherd the church of God which He purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).

Here are four discoveries every child of God needs to make about the Lord’s church….

1) It’s His church and He wants it back.

2) He’s its Head and expects it to obey.

3) It’s His body and He takes personally anything to do it.

4) It’s His bride and He glories in her.

We wanted to put this quartet of insights out in the open in order to keep us on course. Sometimes we preachers bury our points in so many words it’s hard to remember where we are, what we’re doing, or where we’re headed.

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