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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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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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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10 lessons about leading the Lord’s church I’ve learned the hard way

This is not the final list. I’m still learning.

Most of what follows about leading God’s church is counter-intuitive. Which is to say, it’s not what one might expect.

In no particular order….

One. Bigness is overrated.

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

Most pastors, it would appear, have wanted to lead big churches, wanted to grow their church to be huge, or wanted to move to a large church.  Their motives may be pure; judging motives is outside my skill set. But pastoring a big church can be the hardest thing you will ever try, and far less satisfying than you would ever think.

Small churches can be healthy too; behold the hummingbird or the honeybee.

Trying to get a huge church to change its way of thinking can be like turning around an ocean liner.  Even so, the Lord’s teachings about the mustard seed (see Matthew 13:31-32 and Luke 17:6) should forever disabuse us of the lust for bigness.

I will spare you the horror stories of pastors who have manipulated God’s people and lied about numbers in order to create the illusion of bigness.  Forgive us, Father!

Two. Lack of formal education in the preacher is no excuse.

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Help, I’m a pastor!

“In a multitude of counselors there is victory.” (Proverbs 11:14 and 24:6)

I said to Pastor Marion, “I’m glad to exchange notes with you like this. But you need a couple of mentors–older guys with long histories in the ministry–whom you can sit across the table from and talk about these things.”

He named two such, a seminary professor and a retired pastor.

Pastors often find themselves in tough situations.  At the moment, Pastor Marion is leading his church in a massive building campaign, while working night and day to minister to his growing flock.  In the five years he has been there, his church has doubled or more in attendance. And then, this happens….

A deacon who is used to getting his way in the church called a meeting of the key leadership. He was upset about some of what Marion has been preaching, he says. Furthermore–it will not surprise you if you have ever been the target of this kind of abuse–-“many others in the church feel the same way.”

He threatened that steps may be taken to remove the pastor from the pulpit.

What is a pastor to do?

I mentioned a few possibilities, but with the caveat that “these are just some thoughts.” No way do I want to take responsibility for whatever he decides.

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21 battle-tested truths I’ve learned about the Church

I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth. (I Timothy 3:15). 

Church was always a part of our family’s life, starting with the New Oak Grove Free Will Baptist Church near Nauvoo, Alabama, continuing with the little Methodist Church in a mining camp near Beckley, West Virginia, four years later back to Nauvoo, then college chapel at Berry College near Rome, Georgia.  Then, at West End Baptist Church in Birmingham God did a dozen great things in my life forever changing my earthly and heavenly fate.  When I left West End, it was to pastor God’s churches.

The Southern Baptist Churches I was privileged to serve have been so faithful, so foolhardy, so daring, so wonderful–

–Unity Baptist Church, Kimberly, Alabama. (1962-63) They were the first, bless ’em.

–Central Baptist Church, Tarrant, Alabama (first six months of 1964, then off to seminary in New Orleans)

–Paradis Baptist Church, Paradis, LA (1965-67 My seminary pastorate. We lived in the back of the building.)

–Emmanuel Baptist Church, Greenville, MS (1967-70)

–FBC Jackson, MS (minister of evangelism) (1971-73)

–FBC Columbus, MS (1974-86)

–FBC Charlotte, NC (1986-89)

–FBC Kenner, LA (1990-2004)

–And finally, as a member (once again) of the great FBC of Jackson, MS, where Bertha and I are members in retirement.

Here is what I have learned–my TWENTY-ONE battle-tested, tried-in-the-fire-and-found-to-be-authentic, strongly held convictions about the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

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