Our Ministry Transition to Bakersfield, California

After spending the last seven years ministering at the Northwest Church of Christ in sunny Saint Petersburg, Florida we are going to be making a change in our ministry. We will be moving to the even sunnier Bakersfield, California at the first of the year. The church here at Northwest has been a huge blessing to us. They have loved on us, grown with us, and have partnered with us in so many different ministries and to so many different people. Northwest is a fantastic church and we will always have family here. Missy and I have talked about how we could have stayed here forever and been super comfortable and never had a worry…but that isn’t how life is always supposed to be lived. We asked God for challenge and for opportunity and he opened the door to preach at the Westside Church of Christ in Bakersfield, California.

Please keep us, Northwest and Westside in your prayers that God will use times like these for His glory. We know good things are in store for both churches and can’t wait to see all God is going to do. We have been reminded again and again of God’s faithfulness and goodness of God’s people. We are truly blessed!

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Save the World, Lose Your Own Family…One of the Biggest Issues Facing Ministers

Many people enter into ministry or feel called to ministry because they want to make a difference in the lives of others. These people are helpers. If they didn’t work within a congregational context they would be a doctor or a nurse or work for a non-profit feeding hungry people. A lot of times people who are drawn to ministry have a hard time with boundaries because they feel God has called them to do significant things for the kingdom and don’t know how to say “no”. In addition to that, often ministers have issues with guilt and that multiplies the difficulty of telling people “no” because now, not only do you feel called to help, you feel punished by guilt when you don’t. So they work and work and work and too often the result is that you see ministers who saved the world but lost their own family in the process. They helped a lot of people and saved a lot of souls but their own family rejected God, Christ or the church because it was almost like a mistress that was whittling away at the minister’s time, attention and passion. No kid or spouse respects a mistress…she is an unwelcome presence in the home. Be careful to not make the church or ministry your mistress.

If you are a minister, make sure you make time for two things: 1) Self care: this is time developing your inner self, dealing with your issues (pride, guilt, messiah complex, boundaries, etc) and 2) Your family: don’t leave them in the dust while you pursue your passion and dreams. Make sure to walk along side them. Help grow their faith. Foster in the life of your spouse a deeper relationship with God. Enable your children to develop a deep passion for kingdom work. What good is it if a man saves the whole world but loses his family in the process? Be wise. We are called to sacrifice…sometimes we sacrifice things for the church and other times, if we are wise, we will know when to sacrifice church things for family. This takes wisdom and it won’t always come naturally to you but it has to be done if you are going to make it.

Last, we won’t get this right every time. There are going to be some people who do all of this right and still have children or a spouse who walks away from faith. Trust in the Lord. Maintain your integrity. Continue to love your family and be present in their lives. Mend what can be mended and wait upon the Lord and pray to the Lord for healing where necessary.

Wanting the Growth Without Taking the Risk

JesusAppearsToThomasI have been reading through Acts and one thing that has jumped out at me was their willingness to take risks for the kingdom. It starts fast…Acts 2 Peter preaches a bold sermon, telling the crowd that they killed the Messiah but that God was still inviting them to repentance and reconciliation. The result? Three thousand are baptized! After that they challenged the Pharisees and Sanhedrin, disobeying the orders of the religious “authorities” of their day. They were imprisoned, flogged, and mocked.The result? They grew to five thousand! All that and you are only to Acts 5!

Why were they so willing to step out like they did? What was it about all that had lead up to this in the Gospels through Acts 1 that was so influential in emboldening these men to do these things? Two things are mentioned in Acts 1 that are pivotal to their boldness and risk-taking behaviors. 1) Their encounter with the resurrected Lord. Jesus underwent the worst possible treatment and experienced the most agonizing death imaginable. Even through all of that, God raised Jesus back to life. Experiencing the risen Lord would embolden you. It would ready you to take great risks for the kingdom. 2) The coming of the Holy Spirit. God equipped and empowered them through the Holy Spirit to take on the task of taking the Gospel message to the world.

One thing you will notice in the early chapters of Acts is that the church is growing and that growth is usually preceded by a risky presentation of the Gospel or a manifestation of the power of God (like miraculous healing) that results in the growth of the church but also further persecution. Each time they faced challenges, they prayed harder and God responded with further confirmation of their ministry and preaching by giving them grace (Acts 4:33) and growth (from a few hundred to over 5000).

Church growth doesn’t come easy. Many ministry movements have tried to provide riskless solutions that will draw people in but we learn in Acts that ultimately we are going to have to take some risks to see the kingdom grow. When we do, God will be right in the middle of it all. How many things do we start that if God doesn’t show up and bless it the whole thing is destined to fall apart? We all want the growth but few are taking the risks that are required to get there.

Gordon Fee’s Admonition to Preachers – Don’t Become “Professional”

Another post from Listening to the Spirit in the Text by Gordon Fee. Fee’s admonition is on the danger of ministers getting out of touch with God and their task becoming routine and “professional” rather than seeing ministry as a spiritual and vibrant activity,

“I regularly tell students: Have the touch of God on your life. Live in fellowship with him; be among those who cry out with the Psalmist, ‘my soul and my flesh long for you’; ‘O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you. My soul thirsts for you; my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.’ If those who teach and preach God’s Word, which preaching must be based on solid exegesis of the text, do not themselves yearn for God, live constantly in God’s presence, hunger and thirst after God – then how can they possibly bring off the ultimate goal of exegesis, to help to fashion God’s people into genuine Spirituality?

A great danger lurks here, you understand, especially for those who have been called of God to serve the church in pastoral and teaching roles. The danger is to become a professional (in the pejorative sense of the word): to analyze texts and to talk about God, but slowly to let the fire of passion for God run low, so that one does not spend much time talking with God. I fear for students the day when exegesis becomes easy; or when exegesis is what one does primarily for the sake of others. Because all too often such exegesis is no longer accompanied with a burning heart, so that one no longer lets the texts speak to them. If the biblical text does not grip or possess on’e own soul, it will likely to very little for those who hear.

All of this to say, then, that the first place that exegesis and Spiritual interface is in the exegete’s own soul – that the aim of exegesis is Spirituality, which must be what the exegete brings to the exegetical task, as well as being the ultimate aim of the task itself.”

Few ministers are unaware of this point. It is just important to be reminded of it time and time again. Keeping our heart connected to God in ministry is essential to longevity, to growth and to effectiveness. The danger of routine ministry is great. One thing that helps keep ministers from getting in a rut is to continuously remember that God is working in us and through us to make an eternal difference in the lives of others…that is hardly ordinary or routine! Remembering that and living in light of that is the challenge.

The Problem With Our Evangelism Is That It Worked

And it worked because it was really all about us…

Advertisers want to convince you that you can’t survive another minute unless you have what they want to sell you. They lead you to believe it is about you…your image, your body, your happiness when it is really about them…their money, their shareholders, their reputation and image. Sometimes evangelism takes a similar approach. You tell people they have a problem, sin. You tell people there is a solution to their problem: the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. They are told that their biggest problem is death and that God has provided them a way to have eternal life through Christ so that we can live with God forever and so that death doesn’t have the final say. It is like we are selling them a product that and if we make it sound enough like the whole thing is about them…their issues, their problems, and their future…maybe, just maybe they will be interested. That is the way to get people interested in something, right…make them think something is about them.

Success breeds repetition. When something works we tend to do it again. Presenting the Gospel in this way “works” and so it is perpetuated. A whole generation was converted to Christ with this approach to the message and many of them had weak and shallow faith…that when what was in it for them was no longer so apparent, they jumped ship and the church is now in decline. I can’t help but wonder if our decline is directly related to how we communicated the Gospel for so many years.

I want to say, the things I said above regarding what God has done for us through Christ are all true, no doubt. I am not saying it is wrong to say those things. The Gospel is about God dealing with sin and death and bringing us life. What I am saying can get misplaced is the focus on the message. The Gospel is not primarily about us. The Gospel is primarily about God. When we sell the Gospel as the solution to our biggest problem, it is not that we are speaking untruths, it is that we aren’t emphasizing the main thing. That main thing is God. Instead, we make it about us…our problem, our needs, our life. The problem, ironically, is that approach works. So we do it again and again. In doing so, we just tap right back into that Western way of thinking that the world revolves around us. Honestly, it almost sounds like God revolves around us…God did all of that for you. Yes he did. But why? Because we are so great? No. Because he is so gracious. That is the point. All of this is to God’s glory, not ours.

Now for scripture. In John 15 Jesus says he is the vine and we are the branches. If we remain in Christ we will bear fruit but only if God, the gardener, comes and prunes us. Here is how Jesus concludes the parable in John 15:8, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” The only way we even exist is due to God’s grace. The only way we have connection with the vine, which gives life, is by God’s grace. The only way we bear fruit is through our connection with the life-giving vine, which is by God’s grace. If you step back and look at all of the grapevines and all the care and pruning and planting it took to produce such a harvest, you wouldn’t compliment the fruit that is produced for such an achievement. You would praise the gardener who planted and tended to it for so many years. Jesus says, our being in the vine, which allows us to bear fruit is all for the glory of God.

So when we reach out and evangelize, let’s make sure it is all about God otherwise we just convert them to be more self-centered than they were before they were converted.

Ventura Church Of Christ Looking for a Young Adult Minister

A few weeks ago at the Pepperdine Lectures, I was asked by Dave Schulze from the Ventura Church of Christ if I knew of anyone who was seeking a position as a Young Adult minister. I told him I would see what I could find out. If this is something you would be interested in pursuing please let me know and I will get you Dave’s information. Email me here.

Also, thanks to these recent wordpress blog followers:

Princess Warrior of the King of Kings
The Quiet Christian
Joe Seeber
Brandemae
Laura Ann Day
Kendall Person
Michael Armstrong
Xiaoqian
Philip Johnson
Urban Wall Art
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Kmo212
Jacquelyn Heasley

Worth Fighting For: Key Lessons in Reviving a Small Church in Decline

I asked Jimmy Hinton to provide insight into the turnaround process in the small church where he ministers in Somerset Pennsylvania. He graciously provided these insights, reminding us that small churches don’t have to die. They can make a return to growth but it is going to take work!

Jimmy’s thoughts…

Many people have told me over the years that it is easier to plant a church than to try and change the direction of an existing church.  This is true in many ways, but church planters are faced with a whole different set of challenges.  Many of my friends who minister at small churches are frustrated at the lack of meaningful dialogue between them and their elders/deacons.  In fact, several of them feel that they are stuck in the proverbial rut and that the elders are lording over them and, in some cases, working against them.  Another friend of mine once joked (sort of) that perhaps we should be praying to God for strategic deaths in our congregations so that His church would actually stand a chance of turning around.  Some of my friends have seriously debated whether it would be better to walk away from their small congregations and plant a new church.  So I ask the question that many ministers and church leaders are asking, “Is your small church doomed?”  If the signs point to yes, is it too late to turn it around?

Matt asked if I would write some of my story on how our small church made a turnaround.  Some may disagree with me but, by all definitions, a few short years ago our congregation was a dying church.  While we are not exactly splitting at the seams yet, we have recently begun to evangelize in meaningful ways and are more unified now than we have been in years.  People are genuinely excited for the Lord and new people are coming in just about weekly.  We are appointing elders and deacons this October.  I serve at the congregation that was my home church growing up, and in my 33 years of life they have not had any elders or deacons.  We are not the exception in the Northeast.  It is quite common for Churches of Christ to not have elders or deacons in this area.

I have served at Somerset for four years this June and my wife and I are as excited as the day I began.  Just as an aside, I do not claim to be an expert minister, a church doctor, or someone who has all the answers.  I simply am a servant of God who has been, and continues to be, blessed by Him.  There are several commonalities among small churches in decline, and I will offer some biblical principles that I believe, with God’s power, can turn a dying church around.  I will add that, just like a dying marriage, a dying church is worth fighting for.  Isn’t this what Paul did with the church at Corinth?  Church “divorce” should not even be on our radar.  The church is the bride of Christ, and she belongs to Him, each and every member.  We have no business hijacking her, abusing her, or dividing her up into pieces.

1. It is not your job to change people—Many church leaders carry a burden of responsibility that they were never called to carry.  We cannot change people.  If a minister accepts a position because he wants to change people, he will burn out very quickly.  Rather, he should model, instruct, and encourage Christ-like living in all that he does.  Invite others to follow your lead.  Be an ambassador for Christ (2 Cor. 5:11-21).

2. Make known your expectations—The quickest way for church leaders to find themselves at an impasse is to hide their expectations with one another and with the congregations they serve.  I let my church leaders know what I expect of them and ask them what they expect of me.  Every few months I make adjustments (as people grow and are equipped) and keep raising the bar.  My congregation knew when I was selected as their minister that gossip, personal attacks, and anonymous complaints (all things that were going on prior to my hiring) will never be tolerated by me.  Just recently, we raised the expectations on Sunday worship.  If people are assigned to serve on a given Sunday, they will be on time and they will come prepared, just as the minister is expected to come prepared to preach.  Our worship has had a complete turnaround just simply by making expectations known.

3. Absolutely no straw-man arguments—This is one that destroys churches, quickly spreads anxiety, and is downright divisive (see Titus 3:10-11).  When a minister hears, “People are saying. . .” he usually pictures a mob of angry congregants and expects the worst.  This is the intended purpose of straw-man arguments—to create a fictitious mob in order to gain leverage and intimidate.  I have a policy that there will be no anonymous complaints.  Period.  If someone wants to throw a stone, they will write their name on it or it is dropped immediately.  I once received a nasty letter in the mail criticizing my sermons.  There was no name or return address.  I threw it in the trash and never acknowledged it to anyone else.  I’ve seen ministers and church members nearly ruined by church leaders over something an anonymous person was upset about.  If someone doesn’t have the guts to go to the person who offended them, they have no business hiding behind a straw man and stirring up the Lord’s church.

4. It is the minister’s job to train, re-train and equip leaders—This is one that I have fought God on for a long time.  Preachers of small churches have enough on their plates, right?  As if preaching isn’t demanding enough, ministers of small churches often find themselves caught in the additional roles of full time shepherd, deacon, secretary, janitor, tech guru, evangelist, song leader, author of bulletin articles, counselor, coordinator of church events, leader of men’s business meetings (the name says it all!), officiant of all funerals and weddings, director of education and outreach, the interim youth minister, and the go-to guy for all other decisions, including whether or not purchasing a new stapler should be approved.  Plus the minister must find time for his family—another full time job.  The irony is that ministers are taking on all of these responsibilities precisely because they have not adequately trained others to be leaders.  Paul was doing more than just evangelizing everywhere he went.  He was mentoring, training disciples, and calling others to imitate his pattern.  Paul was equipping leaders to equip the saints.  This command to equip others has really broken down in the small church.  Acts 6:1-7, 2 Thess. 3:6-15, Romans 12:3-8, 1 Cor. 12:1-31, and Eph. 4:1-16 have become my modus operandi.  Meditate on them and find ways to put them into practice.  If a church falls apart after you leave, the signs point to a dependent church where members were not equipped to serve and lead.

5.  Make it happen—We joke that this has become my motto when people come to me with fresh ideas for ministry.  Harold Shank calls this permissive leadership.  Ministers, you should model permissive leadership to your congregations, including your elders and deacons.  When a church member comes to leaders with excitement and new ideas for serving others, the best thing they can hear is, “Make it happen.”  Most idle people, I am convinced, are currently not serving because either nobody has allowed them to serve or they haven’t been taught how.  We leaders must learn to trust, equip, and empower the saints to serve.  Children will never learn how to ride a bike if the parents always ride it for them.

6.  Create structure or it all falls apart—Churches under 100, especially if there are no appointed elders and deacons, tend to follow the strongest or most domineering personality.  Because there are not recognized shepherds and deacons, nobody really knows who the actual leaders are.  Typically, small churches easily become androcentric (male-centered) and whoever happens to show up at scheduled men’s business meetings are designated “leaders” and “decision makers.”  Small churches need to get more structured and ministers need to start recognizing giftedness among each and every one of the members.  If you see someone as a potential shepherd, let him know and start building him up.  If you see certain women who have gifts, encourage them to nurture them and serve more often.  Encourage and teach your members how to work together so that nobody is sitting on the sidelines.  Working together eventually dismantles and deflates domineering people, because the congregation no longer needs a strong personality to do the work for them.

7.  Let no one despise you and be transparent—I am mostly talking to ministers here.  If people within a congregation (including elders or deacons) are giving you unfair criticism, remind them that they hired you because they trusted you to lead.  Do not allow people to despise you.  I am hesitant to offer this advice, but if a person is relentlessly harassing you for the way you lead, offer them to take your job for one week.  This is not meant to be sarcastic.  Most people have no idea how much ministers of small churches actually do or the types of spiritual problems that they are regularly faced with.  Really offer for the criticizer to have people come to them with the kinds of things that you deal with on a daily basis and allow them to come up with the best biblical solution.  At very least offer for them to shadow you for a day and ask them for input, or perhaps type up a few case studies and then ask them how they would handle the situations.  I close with this passage:

“Command and teach these things.  Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.  Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.  Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you.  Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress.  Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching.  Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:11-16 ESV, emphasis mine).

Lead on, and may God bless and lead your small church to bear fruit!