Life Measured in Ministry

bible.com/72/act.20.24.hcsb

Many measure their lives in money, family, or some other tangible asset that people can count. It’s sometimes been said that a man can be measured by his friends, or by the number of people who attend his funeral. I wonder what Paul would have had to say about all that? We don’t know if Paul had any natural children. We know he considered many of his concerts his children, and his protege Timothy was very special to him as a son in the faith.

But Paul describes here an attitude toward the self, putting aside all of one’s accomplishments and the pride that comes with them. Instead he says that he prefers to measure his life in the ministry and preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is a standard that if applied to each of us we might find ourselves wanting.

But each of us has a ministry. Whether a mom to her children, a husband to his wife, a social worker to her cases, a line to a factory employee, even a small church to a pastor. Having been in that last category, it is often a discouraging day to continue to minister in the small church, seeing the same people week upon week with no significant change. But being faithful and preaching faithfully, being a constant spiritual presence in someone’s else’s life can mean a great deal.

I want to encourage you this morning with this word from the Lord. Don’t measure your life by your accomplishments and prizes, but in the people who look to you as the anchor in the storms of life. In the people who seek you out when they need an encouraging word. Be mindful today of those people in your life. God bless you today.

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Doing Church

IMG20031Myopia is the medical condition of only being able to see things up close. It is the condition many churches fall into when they only look at themselves and their own needs for too long. A church can become myopic when it only focuses on the needs of a few, instead of the whole, or its members, instead of a community. For a church, this can be fatal. For example, if ministry is offered only to the offended, the blessed are ignored, and no one else notices when they leave, and vice versa.

We need to pull back and take a larger view of the controversies going on among our brethren so that we can biblically navigate through them ourselves. We are not the only church, and what goes on among them affects us as well. This month our churches celebrate together at the North American Christian Convention in Indianapolis. I won’t be attending very simply because I cannot justify the expense. I have been waiting for some kind of workshop schedule where I might find a seminar or two to brush up my skills for Chaplaincy. No such luck. The last schedule I saw was directed primary for those in churches doing church work, largely according to a large church model, or telling you how to get a large church. It seems like I’ve been hearing that rhetoric for the two decades of my pastoral ministry. It’s easy to see why.

The balance of influence in our brotherhood has shifted. It used to be that all the churches supported the Bible Colleges more or less equally, because the colleges’ needs were modest. But as they have grown, their needs have grown, as their need for church support. Churches who are larger contribute more, and as a result, have a greater stake in the graduates they produce. The colleges, now universities, have produced graduates more suited to the specialized ministries of the large church. Ministry graduates are now being trained in one or two things, not the many roles demanded by the small church, who can only pay part-time wages despite full-time expectations. Yet these ministry specialists bring hefty college debt and narrow training, like youth, counseling, or pulpit ministry. It is a recipe for frequent minister burnout, short pastorates, and vacant small-church pulpits.

And this is where we find ourselves today. We have hundred of small churches asking for a guy who can preach and change the light bulbs, while the graduates are continually frustrated by the small-minded of the small church. All they can think about (and I include myself in that bunch, once upon a time) is how to grow that church into a mega-church, just like Bob Russell did at Southeast Christian Church. Many of the men I trained with, and now myself included, have come out of the ministry with an overwhelming sense of frustration and guilt that we couldn’t do it. It is guilt and failure. It is also doubt. Has the Lord said? Did the Lord call me to ministry? Somewhere, somehow, there has been a disconnect between the average church and the average Christian University. And the smaller churches are turning to lay preachers, men who have little formal education in Bible, because they simply cannot afford the high-priced graduates (who have decades of college loans to pay off).

What can be done? It seems to me that two things needs to happen. First, the small church needs to wake up and and realize their ship is sinking and that all hands need to be on deck. There is no room for pew-sitters anymore. If a small church is going to survive, everyone, no matter the age, needs to be about the business of ministry, because they cannot afford someone to do it for them.

Second, The Colleges and universities need to wake up, and train more men for small church ministry. If colleges depend on donations, they need to realize their donation pool is drying up. The more often they have to compromise for funding, the more the small churches are going to bail on them. The Universities need to realize that its not all about the specialists. There needs to be a call for the generalists, those who can do a little of everything. This is a role that needs to be marketed and pushed, because that is the world their graduates are going back into. There needs to be a course on church politics, and how to do spine surgery on spineless elders. There needs to be a backbone clinic to speak truth to the powerful in the small churches and deliver the word of God without compromise, but with tact and respect.

Ok, soap box aside, I’ve been in enough small churches to see the same personalities with different faces. I love the small church, and I love the way small churches do things, how they impact their communities, and most of their people are honest, hard-working, down-to-earth folks. I miss it, just like I miss the quiet of Christmas Eve Communion and the strains of Silent Night, the Easter Choir and the Sunrise Service (followed by breakfast, of course). I miss the sense of belonging, of family in the small church. That’s why I think God made so many of them, because He loves them too.

Let’s stop playing church, and let’s be the church, and let’s do it together.

Deep Sea Diving

Preparing a Sermon is like deep sea diving. You have all of your gear prepared, checked, and put on by your professors and mentors. You take the plunge into the deepest, most interesting texts that you believe carry the most meaning relevant to the people you are preparing to speak to. You dive into word studies, original languages, dictionaries and commentaries. You turn over every rock, even spaces between the rocks, examining and studying to discover every coral of meaning. Then, as you begin to come back up, your writing and editing, your practice and recording to make sure you get every word, every pause just right, you begin to feel more confident that this is the Word of the Lord and people are going to be impacted in an insightful and meaningful way. People will be moved beyond words and march up the aisle, begging to know more about the Good News. Just ahead of you, you see the sunlight gleaming off the the surface and you know this message will rock the house.

Only to have some person in the back shake your hand on their way out and say, “Better luck next week preacher!”

The New Normal

Sitting at my computer looking through email. Reminded me of an earlier time, a different job, different names, but me still sitting and looking at my screen. I have been sitting in this spot, doing exactly the same thing since I started in ministry. It made me long for those days, those friendships and relationships I used to have. Made me wonder if I would ever have them again. Yeah, I get wistful sometimes.

From 2001 to 2009, I ministered in a Christian Church in Clarks Hill, Indiana. In Clarks Hill, IN, I was close enough to touch Lafayette, where much of my extended family lived. I could be at my parents’ house in 20 minutes. In 2009 I was asked to resign that position, which left me and family without a home within just a few weeks’ time. With God’s help, we had a call from a church in Palestine, Illinois, a former Disciples of Christ Church where they welcomed our family. We stayed there until early 2012 when we moved to our present location in Morehead, Kentucky.

At times, it hits me. Why did God move me so far away? I miss my family, being able to see my uncles and aunts, my parents and my brother. I wish I could be with them, spend another cheesy birthday party or family meal, especially when those feelings come over me.

But this is the new normal. Family is now a phone call away. I live four hours from my parents, and sometimes I feel very alone. Working in an area where extended families live together “up the holler”, I miss the validation that comes from family, to know that you matter to them.

I see families every day trying very hard to tear themselves apart through drug and alcohol use, abuse and divorce. I see men and women destitute because they don’t have any family. Why? Because they’ve destroyed every relationship they have. Their own family will not take them in, not again. It crushes me to hear that, every time.

But true family isn’t about blood, or surnames. It is about our common relationship with Jesus. Even folks who’ve lost everyone still have a family in Jesus. And this is a family that will stick closer than a brother.

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
(Mar 10:29-31)

December Expectations

December is once again upon us. December brings with it the commercialization of the holiday, the gaudy and even tasteless Christmas décor full of light, sound, tinsel and garland. There is the traditional fight for the “true” Christmas, whether it is the Christ-child born on Christmas day or the annual arrival of St. Nicholas on housetops bringing gifts for the children. Is it about gifts and holiday glory, or is it about “peace on earth and good will towards men”?

To be honest with you, it’s all about to wear me out. I’ve been around this globe for 40+ years. I’ve been the kid expectantly waiting at the Christmas Tree. I’ve been the parent trying to provide the same experience for my own children. I’ve been the pastor trying to keep the “Reason for the Season” front and center during the worship services and have been disgusted at the reduction of the “holiday season” to dollars and cents for retailers. Like Thanksgiving, there is a reminder of those who will not be present this year. Depression goes up during the holidays without question. We miss them, and for good reason. Our loved ones made the holiday, the “holy days” special because we shared with them our hopes and dreams, our laughter and joy. Now, even if they had given us gifts we never liked, we would give much to see them all over again.

My grandmother always knitted sweaters for us during the rest of the year, and gave them away as presents for Christmas. Even though I never truly appreciated those sweaters when she was alive, I would treasure even the tiniest doily today, because it was from her hands. I’ve outgrown all those sweaters, but I wish I had kept just one. That annual tradition of hers was part of my understanding of what Christmas was about, and now its lost. I mourn this loss, and know that I will not see her face again until Jesus calls me home. I say to myself, “if only I’d known then what I know now.”

I’m afraid that as we get older, it is this thought of regret that can characterize our thinking during the holidays. It can be a stain on us and our celebration because we are thinking about the past, feeling the past pulling us backward to a time we cannot recover. But this is selfish. Did not my grandmother have memories too of her childhood? Did she not, while she knitted those many sweaters, have memories of her childhood, when she received such gifts from her grandmother? Didn’t she grieve? Didn’t she weep at a sudden powerful memory? But instead of dwelling on her past, she invested in her present, so that the next generation would have fond memories of her, not her grief.

Make this holiday season a joyous one for the sake of those who follow us. Let us remind them of Christ’s first advent, so that they will be ready for His second.

Inconvenienced For Christ!

A few weeks ago, I was talking about getting volunteers for our VBS program and asking any and all to help out. Anyone who helped I know would be “inconvenienced” for the week, but only that they might introduce some small child to the Lord. What a task! A responsibility to witness to the truth of the gospel is ours, and what greater opportunity than VBS!

What did you say?

Many chose not to be “inconvenienced for Christ.” I know the reasons, because I’ve used them myself. But, I fear that these will be the testimony of millions before the throne of Christ.

He’s coming you know. He’s coming for you. He will ask you to give an account for the talents you’ve been given. (Romans 14:11-12) “For it is written, “As certainly as I live, declares the Lord, every knee will bow to me, and every tongue will praise God. Consequently, each of us will give an account of himself to God.”

What will you say?

You might believe that the missionaries and ministers fulfill the great sacrifices. You might think that the only the professionals can accomplish the great missions. “I just don’t have the time or training.” Nonsense! Did the Lord only call the missionaries and ministers? No.

Every Christian is called to ministry (Rom 8:28 “And we know that he works all things together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose”), for we have all been tasked with the ministry of reconciliation (2Co 5:18 “All of this comes from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation”), bringing this lost world under the subjection and saving knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (may His Name be praised). We have a duty to our King to serve Him, wherever we are. This call isn’t just for religious nuts, or the slightly dazed and confused. It’s time we proclaimed the truth about Jesus!

But you’re tired. You like your life the way it is. Christ will only get in the way, mess things up, be too much of a bother, an inconvenience not to be pursued. Sadly, many will die with these words on their lips. (Luke 12:19-20) “”Soul, you’ve stored up plenty of good things for many years. Take it easy, eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.” But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Now who will get the things you’ve accumulated?’”

What will you say?

You see, Jesus isn’t just for the super-religious. Life is too short to be a spectator. Jesus isn’t for the pious, the perfect, the morally pure. (Mar 2:17) “When Jesus heard that, he said to them, “Healthy people don’t need a physician, but sick ones do. I did not come to call righteous people, but sinners.”” Jesus calls you to come to Him, to become a “beloved disciple” whether you feel you deserve it or not. Are you willing to be “inconvenienced for Christ?”

What will you say?

Where To?

It is the Sunday before Mother’s Day. I tell my wife that we ought to go out to eat, since next week we will probably go out to eat with my mother. Her first choice is to go out to Ryan’s in Lafayette. Ryan’s, I think, Mmmmm. Let’s go. By the time we are on our way to Lafayette, Ryan’s gets downgraded to Long John Silvers. Ok, fish, not as many options, but still ok. By the time we get there, instead of dining inside the restaurant (because it’s too busy), we go through the drive through and end up eating at home anyway. What I had imagined as an elegant dining experience out became a rushed lunch at home.

Like our ill-fated lunch journey, many churches end up exactly where they started, only more frustrated than when they set out. One of the biggest problems that churches run into when they hire a new minister or make any drastic change is that they don’t know where they are going. When the minister has exhausted himself trying be a one-man operation, the church fires him because he “just doesn’t understand the way things are done around here.” We want to fulfill what the Lord had commanded us, to go out and make disciples, baptizing them and teaching the apostles’ doctrine and empowering them in Christ, but, how do we do it in a way that is culturally relevant? How do we attract these people to the gospel? How do we get there from here?

What the New Testament teaches is “every-member” ministry. (Romans 12:1-8; 1 Corinthians 12:1-14) All of us are empowered to become ambassadors and witnesses. Evangelism is the function of the entire church, and so must be a part of everything we do. .

Any large church has hundreds of ministries to many different kinds of people. As a small church, we don’t have that luxury. We must be willing to do a few things well rather than trying to do a lot of things poorly. What things do we do well as a church? I would suggest that we find out and use those outlets as a springboard for bigger and better things, when our numbers justify the change.

First, does your church know how to eat? I’ve been in many churches that serve good food. Why not use this ability for evangelism? What about making meals the center of home-based Bible Studies and Small groups. What we put to God’s use, God will not neglect.

Secondly, is your church a giving church. What about helping in local projects, like building a shelter for the school kids in the morning, or letting them come into the building for hot chocolate. What about some after-school tutoring and programming. God will use what we can give to further His kingdom.

Thirdly, maybe you are the only church in town. Many in in a community consider the only church to be their church who have never been in a Sunday Service. Why not capitalize on that and use it to your advantage? Your facility is your number one physical asset. Why don’t we use it to bring people inside?

Many of you have ideas that you would like to see your church work on. It’s time to step up to the plate and get involved. Get involved in Youth Ministry, or Missions, or Worship, or even Benevolence. What great things can God do with a church that is listening to Him? Think about it. Think about where you want to go with your church. Draw the “map” and plot the course for your church. Then act to accomplish the goals you’ve agreed upon. Let’s make your church’s community a “city that cannot be hid”!