Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Pastor's Dilemma

I am a pastor. I try really hard to live with integrity and to do, say and believe things that are right, not just what is expedient. But the world is a political place. Unfortunately, the church is just as political (maybe more political) as the world at large. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of doing the politically correct or practical at the expense of taking a costly stand for what is right.

Security, professional and political, may be the biggest obstacle for pastors. This security can lead to complacency, which is often a forerunner to apathy. Pastors, including myself, or just a few steps away from ministry death when we begin to worry about ourselves, our futures, or even our families at the expense of our ministries.

Here is our problem: We are so in love with our paychecks, our parsonages and our pensions that we often cannot do what is right.
  • We need our paychecks. We worry about our employment and how we are going to make ends meet. We become consumed with all the same concerns that every other human faces. How will we pay the bills? Keep food on the table? Put gas in the car? Maybe even, keep up with the Joneses? When we are so concerned with the day to day and week to week issues of keep our heads above water, it is hard to keep our eyes on Jesus.
  • We need our parsonages. I do not make enough money to make a mortgage payment. If there were no parsonage I don't know what I would do. I like my parsonage. It is large enough, adequate enough, comfortable enough and nice enough to keep me satisfied. And I need it. I need a place to live and to raise my family. God help me, though, when I become too needy, too worried about where I will live.
  • We need our pensions. In my denomination, retirement from ministry is mandatory at age 70. I plan to live at least 10 years beyond that. I am going to need some money to live on. I need to keep my job so that my future can be secure. But it would be pathetic if I got so dependent on the prospect of that pension that I lost my prophetic voice in the meantime.

Sometimes I just need to remember some things that Jesus taught. He said not to worry about tomorrow. He said that he would meet my needs. May the Lord help all of us to be completely reliant on Him all the time.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

My Three Things

A couple of years ago I read a book by Steve Sjogren that really had a profound impact on me. The book, The Perfectly Imperfect Church, proposed that most churches try to do to much. Every church wants to be a mega-church, or at least compete with one. We feel as though we have to provide all the same programs and activities as the large church, or we are doing something wrong. The problem is that no one can do everything. No church, especially a small, or medium sized one, can meet every need.

At this point, Sjogren suggests that every church focus on three things that it can do. There should be three ministries/programs that any given church should get involved with and pursue. Most churches do not have the resources or personnel to carry out much more than that. To that end, Sjogren says, every church should confine itself to only a few things.

The natural corollary to that is that no person can do everything. However, every individual is created by God to do something. God has gifted every human to do work in and for His Kingdom. To that end, each of us should be seeking our purpose, our calling. Many leaders would have you believe that all Christians have a generic, one-size-fits-all calling. I do not buy this. Jesus loves me and he has called me. I have specific gifts and interests that no one else has. My purpose, my calling is special to me.

So I had a mid-life crisis and prayed a lot. I thought that if my life was half over I should make sure that I was doing God's work for the second half. After months of study, pray and counsel, I think God showed me what I am supposed to be doing for the rest of my life. Here it is:
  • For the rest of my life I will be teaching the Bible and encouraging people to love the Scriptures as I do.
  • For the rest of my life I will be working toward the renewal of worship, particularly in my congregation(s) and denomination.
  • For the rest of my life I will be raising up leaders for the church, particularly young people for the purpose of reaching young people.

Because of this focus, I will evaluate all that I do. To the best of my ability my activities will be able to fall under one of these purposes. I will endeavor to give my life to the purposes for which I have been called.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Why I Want to Change the World

A couple of years ago I felt really impressed (by God, I think) that I was supposed to change the world. Right away I dismissed the thought. It is foolishness for one person to change the world. After all, I am only an ordinary pastor of two tiny churches in an out of the way part of a relatively small state in a denomination that seems to be beyond its prime. What could I do? What can one person do to change the world? Or, for that matter, can the world be changed? Does the world need to be changed? And how do we know how to change it?

Before I got too discouraged about this problem, I thought about it. I considered whether or not the world could be different. I thought about how much influence I might be able to have. I wondered how best to move toward improving the world. And that’s when it hit me, I can’t do everything, but I could do something. In fact, if everyone did something we could change the world, for the better, in short order.

So I made a decision that the world could be changed and that I should do something about it. Here is what I am doing (and what you should be doing too?):
  • I am being intentional about being a better person. I will be kinder and more thoughtful in my relationships with all people.
  • I am thinking about the effects that my actions and decisions have on other people. Remember George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life? He learned that even insignificant things can have great consequences. The same is true for all of us. Not only that, we are being reminded every day that our decisions not only effect other people, but also our world and the people who will inhabit it in the future.
  • I am trying to remember every day and all the time that God loves all people. Every person is an individual for whom Jesus died. I need to love them as such and share my faith with them.
  • I am working toward becoming an outward-focused Christian. That is, everything in my life is not always about me. I should be living completely for God, and therefore for other people.
  • I am attempting to be more generous. This includes sharing my time (I have less of it for myself than ever before), my energy (I am constantly looking for ways to serve), and my resources. It is amazing the places that you can share if you are open to it.

I have no illusions that I will someday be remembered as a great evangelist, missionary or world-changer. I am still just a normal guy. But hey, if all us normal guys would get together and work for the cause of Christ, the world would get changed, for the better.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Faith Teams Plan

So here it is. After several weeks of praying, it is time to begin putting legs to my faith team. (In earlier posts the faith team has been referred to as a mini-church or a small group.) What follows here are the first thoughts/steps in putting together the first faith team.
  1. The faith team will begin in mid- to late June. This will allow enough time to recruit the appropriate members.
  2. The faith team will meet at a neutral location. A home would be good, but more than likely we will begin at a coffee shop or restaurant.
  3. The faith team will meet every week as much as is possible.
  4. There should always be food, drinks and music available.
  5. A part of the curriculum/program will include video. Wherever the faith team meets, video capabilities must be available. It is important to be sure that if the faith team is meeting in a public place video will be allowed and will not be a nuisance to others.
  6. Additional study resources will be available weekly on this blog.
  7. The faith team will include 4-8 people. When there are ten on a regular basis it is time to designate leadership, begin training and start a new faith team.
  8. Recruitment of faith team members will include:
  • New Christians who desire to grow in faith.
  • Pre-Christians who are interested in learning more about the church.
  • Individuals who are interested in further training to the end that they might lead faith teams in the future.
  • Great care should be taken in the recruitment of faith team members. Each one should have a clear understanding of the expectations, purpose and direction of the faith team.

In future posts (before the launch of the first faith team) I will discuss more fully the details of a faith team meeting and the curriculum/program specifics.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Focus Your Prayer Life

Here are a few steps to help you develop, deepen and focus your prayer time. Many of the complaints that people have about prayer are answered, or can be remedied by following these steps.
  1. Keep a journal of all answers to prayer. Earlier I suggested writing your prayers. This idea is very similar. When we keep a record of what God is done, it encourages our continued prayer and faithfulness. Answered prayer begets faith. Faith begets more answers to prayer. Remind yourself regularly of the effectiveness of prayer.
  2. Start a prayer ministry at your church. An intercessory prayer group would be a great place to start, but getting several people together for prayer is sometimes difficult. Try a prayer wall. Provide sticky-notes for individuals to write and post their prayer concerns and answers to prayer. Watch how your prayer life gets charged and your congregation experiences a fresh renewal.
  3. Pray for other people. Do not be so consumed with your own needs that you forget to pray for other people. Especially pray for those you have problems with.
  4. Be silent so that you can listen to God. We usually spend too much time telling God what we want or need. Be sure that when you are praying you listen to what God is saying.
  5. Pray with the Bible. The Scriptures can be a great source for prayer material. In fact, much of the Bible is already written in the form of prayer. Use the Bible as a source and a guide for your devotional and prayer life.
  6. Get a prayer partner. Find someone that you can share with, pray with and be accountable with.
  7. Learn several models for prayer. Some of my favorites are:
  • ACTS- Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication
  • PRAY- Praise, Repent, Ask and Yield
  • ABC- Adore, Believe, Confess

You will be on your way to a more fulfilling and exciting prayer life when you work on a few of these steps.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Christian's Mandate

I recently read an article entitled The Preacher's Mandate. It was essentially a call to faithfulness in ministry. I think that the concepts are transferable to the lives of every person who calls Jesus Lord. So, I offer the The Christian's Mandate.
  • Pray like nothing good will happen if you do not pray. Pray like everything depends on God to act.
  • Work like nothing good will happen if you do not do it.
  • Do everything like you were doing it for God himself.
  • Do not look for a personal message from God, but rather the message of God.
  • Do not be satisfied until you are helping to bring the Kingdom of God. When you are helping to bring the Kingdom of God, do not be satisfied until it comes.
  • Remember that your life is always on display. You are a testimony to God's work in your life. Be an example of Godly living.
  • Prepare your heart with the Word of God. Be ready for every struggle that may come into your life.
  • Make Jesus the highest priority in your life. When you do this others will see your commitment and be won to Christ.
  • Always maintain a Christ-like attitude and lifestyle.
  • Work to show other people Christ in your life. Doing this you will be showing less of yourself.
  • Exhibit true humility at all times. Do not be full of yourself, your accomplishments or possessions. Remember that Jesus is your all in all, and the source of your being.
  • Trust that God's will is the best possible action for your life.
  • Maintain an attitude of concern and love for all people at all times. Work to never lose your patience, your temper or your testimony in any of your relationships.
  • Do not use people to further your agenda, life or career. God loves others as much as he loves you.
  • Share Christ with other people, not what you think about Christ, or what someone else told you about Christ.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Why I Write My Prayers

Many of you who are reading this know that I often write my prayers. In fact, I try to make it a regular, if not daily, habit. My procedure goes as follows:
  1. I read my Scripture passages for the day. This year I am following the reading schedule that we are doing together as a congregation. I am staying a little bit ahead, and I am doing some reading for sermon preparation. Otherwise, I am reading the same things as you each day.
  2. I then read a short passage (5-10 pages) from a devotional book. Right now I am reading a collection of pastoral prayers for worship.
  3. When I have finished this reading, I open my spiral notebook and fill my page for the day. More about what and why I write coming up.
  4. I then work on Scripture memorization, other prayers, etc.
  5. Finally, I read a chapter from a book that will help me professionally. Currently I am reading a book called Great Preaching. (I may not be able to do it, but I can sure read about it.)

This is a daily ritual for me. There is no question in my mind or heart that this discipline makes a great difference in my personal spiritual life. But, why do I write my prayers?

  • I write my prayers because it gives me a record of my relationship with God. I can look back at my dated petitions and answers to prayer. I can see when I have struggled, and how God has answered my prayers.
  • I write my prayers because it is a great discipline. I date each page in my notebook. By doing this I know when I have been faithful and when I have not. Although I do not write all my prayers, and I do not write every day, I know that I am in spiritual trouble when I miss several days in a row.
  • I write my prayers because it gives me time to hear God. I write more slowly than I talk. When I write I give God my prayers and he sometimes speaks to me before I am finished.
  • I write my prayers because doing so opens up new avenues of prayer, praise, worship and repentance. My prayer may start on paper, but it often ends sometime later in intimate moments with my Lord.
  • I write my prayers because it gives me balance. I can see if all my prayers are self-centered petitions. I can then make adjustments so that my relationship with Jesus will flourish.
  • I write my prayers because it is a testimony to my family. People around me can see that prayer is important to me because they can actually see me doing it.

I do not believe that writing is the only way to pray. I do believe that it is helpful for me. Maybe it can be helpful for you as well.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Problem with Peer Pressure

I think that I am now in a position to solve all the problems of the world. Well, I won't be able to solve them, but I think I know the answer to all the problems in the world. Okay, maybe that is still to lofty a statement. I do believe that I have hit on something that, if dealt with in the lives of individuals, will help a lot of people. Peer Pressure.

That's it. That is the problem that is wrecking your life and mine. Peer pressure is the thing that is making the people around you intolerable. Peer pressure is the thing that, maybe more than anything else, is making you do things that you do not want to do. And you thought you were through with peer pressure when you hit your eighteenth birthday.

Humans were made to be in community. Even the bold and creative among us are at heart conformists. In fact, we not only are conformists by nature, but also by training. Our western educational system of grading and socialization teaches us to fit in. We are taught and then rewarded for coloring inside the lines, for drawing our letters and numbers the same way, and in some cases, for wearing the same clothes. We are trained to live with and expect peer pressure. Sometimes it is even comforting.

Since we are made to be in community settings, and since we are trained for the same thing, it becomes natural for us, no matter what our age, to try to fit in with what everyone else is doing. We are susceptible to peer pressure.

This is not a problem until we take this to it's logical conclusion. We want to fit in so badly that we lose track of ourselves, our own personality, beliefs or values. It is in exactly this sort of setting that we get the mob mentality. I may disagree with your plan to lynch someone, but I want to be a part of the group. I do not want to be ostracized. I do not like Hitler, but everyone else is going along...

Are those examples too extreme for you? What about your relationship to God? Is it possible that there are times when you think of yourself and your comfort before you think of God's will? Could it be that God wants you to grow and stretch in a certain area of your life, but you are worried that you might look like a religious fanatic?

You see, peer pressure never leaves. The concerns, the pressure to conform is always there. Each of us must decide for ourselves whether we will follow God, that is, follow what is right or follow the crowd.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Mini-church vision

The church is in a rut because we believe that the world should come to us. We sit back and wait for the lost and hurting to come to our worship services and our programs. Then we get frustrated because we are offering all these great opportunities and no one is coming. There are too many options (distractions) for most people to even realize that they need Jesus, let alone church. That is why it is time to make some changes.

The church must do things differently to reach the world.

  • First of all, the church must go to where people are. After all, this was a command of Jesus (Matthew 28.19). If people do not come to us, it does not remove our responsibility. We must reach people, wherever they are.
  • We need to get over our traditions and rituals. For the last 30 years there have been arguments about appropriate music in church and worship settings. That dispute is nothing compared to what we need to be discussing. Where can we have worship? What makes spiritual growth? Do we need to sing? Do we need a sermon? How can we be more accountable?
  • Our concerns with proper authority, responsibility and offices are probably hindering more than helping us when reaching new people. We need to consider calling, gifts and passion when assigning and accepting leadership rather than education, experience and political affiliation.

At least for my lifetime there will be a church, at least in the traditional understanding of church. However, the church will continue to decrease in attendance, in importance and relevance. The Kingdom of God will not decline. The Kingdom of God will march on. The question for us is will we be marching along.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Reasons People Do Not Pray

One of the greatest problems with Christians- at least in USA- is the lack of prayer and the subsequent spiritual anemia. There is no one that is against prayer. In fact, nearly every person I know, Christian and not, would say that they should pray more than we do. We understand that we should pray and we feel guilty that we do not. So why do Christians not pray?
  1. We do not pray because we do not know how. No one ever taught us how to pray. They taught us that we should pray, and helped us to feel guilty when we did not. But for the most part, our churches, pastors, Sunday Schools and Bible studies have failed to teach us how to pray.
  2. We do not pray because it is boring. Too often this response is a result of the MTV world. Prayer often requires silence, waiting, stillness, and we get too anxious for that kind of commitment.
  3. We do not pray because it does not work. After a life time of prayer 'wish-lists' that have gone unfulfilled, you may have given up. If God didn't answer by now, why would he answer at all.
  4. We do not pray because we think that God is too busy for us. Our needs are less significant than those of other people we know. Surely, we shouldn't bother God.
  5. We do not pray because we think that we can solve our own problems. We have been taught to do it ourselves, after all. Prayer could be construed as a sign of weakness or dependence.
  6. We do not pray because we do not understand it as communication in a relationship with God.
  7. We do not pray because we are lazy. Prayer is hard. It takes time. It is sometimes frustrating and disappointing. It is easier if I just don't do it.
  8. We do not pray because we do not want to be considered 'religious fanatics.' Other people will look down on me or think that I am weird if I spend too much time praying.
  9. We do not pray because we do not have time. There is too much to do and prayer is so 'non-productive.' We can't afford to spend our time on it.
  10. We do not pray because we do not know all of the proper religious language. You have to sound spiritual or godly to pray. I just don't have the vocabulary.

Obviously, every one of these reasons is ridiculous. Prayer is the lifeline for every Christian. Get off your seat and start doing what God has called you to do.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Poetry/ Song Ideas

  • It's Just a Cross (rap)
  • If you're happy with nothing, you can be happy with anything
  • Serving life without parole
  • Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star/ Jesus Loves Me
  • I've Fallen and I Can't Get Up
  • Look at the Rising Son
  • Psalm 56.3-4, 10-11
  • Walk This Way
  • Come and Worship, worship Jesus Christ the King
  • Rockin' Soul
  • Crazy Worship

Friday, May 4, 2007

Notes on a Selfish Scandal

So, I watched the film Notes on a Scandal. It was very interesting. It is the story of two teachers in a London middle school. The new teacher, played by Cate Blanchett, is a young, lively and attractive woman with a semi-happy marriage and home life. The other teacher, Judi Dench's character, is the stereotypical old-maid teacher. She is grouchy, lonely and critical of seemingly everything and everyone.

On one level, this movie is so easy to watch that it is almost boring. Everyone who has ever been in any school knows both of these teachers. My third grade teacher could have been replaced by Judi Dench. The graduate assistant who taught my first English class in college could have been the Cate Blanchett character. And just when I thought that this movie would bore me, the unthinkable happened.

During a school play the older teacher realizes that her only friend, the new teacher, has not arrived yet. So she goes in search of the novice. What she finds is surprising to say the least. For the younger teacher is found in her classroom in the arms of one of her 15 year old students. Apparently an affair has been going on for some time. The story that continues from here is not predictable, and I will not spoil the plot for those have not seen the film yet. But, I would like to draw some comparisons between the movie and real life.

Actually, there are only two comparisons, and they are the same. People are selfish. We all look out for number one. We are more concerned with our own interests than we are with anyone or anything else. Too often, our only concern for anyone else is how to get them out of the way when they are interfering with our own desires.
  • Sheba, the younger teacher, is selfish in that she spends the whole movie thinking only of her own desires. To begin with her selfishness is evidenced in her disregard for her family, for morality, for societal conventions, or ethical behavior. Her affair with a teen-aged boy exemplifies what many people believe. 'I deserve whatever I can get.' And then, after her affair is discovered and revealed, Sheba desperately works to preserve her reputation, her dignity, her family. However, I was left with the feeling that she wanted to save herself only to save herself. She had little or no concern for the victim of her sexual abuse, her co-workers or her family.
  • Barbara, the other teacher, may be more selfish. In her quest to be rescued from her loneliness, Barbara manipulates those around. This alienates some people and submits others to her. However, no one has true affection for Barbara. Her loneliness has become permanent and almost suffocating as she tries in vain to co-erce others into being her friend. This is completely different than Sheba's, but it is nevertheless selfishness of the highest order.

I believe that selfishness is the one thing that all humans hold in common. In theological terms we talk about original sin. This is that nature that each of us inherits at our birth. Every person is selfish. Each of us thinks more of ourselves than we ought. Notes on a Scandal is a perfect illustration of this principle. Barbara and Sheba are repulsive. They show us what we could be. Let us pray to God that it is not so.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

How the Think Like a Christian About Hunger and Poverty

Did you ever notice that you never hear television evangelists preach about what Jesus really said about being poor? It would wreak havoc on their income stream I suppose. They need people to keep sending them money. But Jesus said that we should give our money to the poor. He said that we should feed the hungry, care for the homeless, love the orphans, visit the prisoners and meet the needs of the ill. In fact, Jesus’ life can be summed up by saying that he did those things. Jesus’ teachings can be summarized by saying that he taught those things.

In the west (Europe and North America, and Japan and China to a lesser extent), we have more money than anyone else in the world. I believe that the poorest person you know, would be wealthy in most communities in the rest of the world. We have been entrusted with great wealth, and our biggest problem is that we too often squander it. When we get a little extra cash we buy a bigger, fancier, costlier television, or a new outfit, or an mp3 player, or a video game, or go on a trip. All of these are things that we do not need, but we “have” to have them.

So how can we make a difference? What can I do to help solve the most serious problems in the world (and these are the most significant issues in the world)?
Live more simply. Your parents would have thought that a 25” color television set was extravagant. How could you explain spending more for your flat-panel HDTV plasma number than they did for their first car?
  • Be generous. Give away some stuff. Give away some money. Volunteer some time at a shelter, food pantry or soup kitchen.
  • Be observant. Notice who there is around you who needs some help. Help others to feel good about themselves and their situation.
  • Give. In addition to church, you can find other charities- Christian and otherwise- who are making a difference. Try Heifer Project, Compassion International and Food for the Poor to start with.
  • Pray. Pray for those who are hungry, who do not have clean water, who live in poverty. But also, pray for the rest of the world, those of us who have money. Pray that we will learn that we cannot continue to turn our heads, but that we must do something- give something.
  • Go somewhere. You do not have to go to Sudan or Haiti to find poor and hungry people. They are here in the USA, in Indiana. Go and make a difference.

I do not have this all figured out. I certainly am not perfect in my generosity or my giving to others. But I am working on it. I am committing to making 2007 a year of sharing what I have and helping to meet the needs of others. I hope that you will join me.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Jack Bauer is like Jesus?

Do you remember a couple of years ago when The Passion of the Christ first came to movie theatres? There was all sorts of furor over the violence, the blood, the unnecessarily graphic nature of the film. Even Christians, who agreed with the content, tone and message of Mel Gibson's movie were occasionally moved to shudder, or at least scratch their heads and wonder why. You see, no matter how much we love Jesus, no matter how grateful we are for his suffering and sacrifice, we really do not want to have too much information about the details. It is just too uncomfortable and ugly for us. We want the Christian world to be pretty and pleasant.

So, I was watching my favorite television program the other day. Jack Bauer was once again in the middle of saving the world. That's what he does on 24, after all. I was thinking to myself how grateful I am that Jack is out there protecting me and saving me from all the bad guys. And though I know that the program is a fantasy, I secretly pray that there are some real Jack Bauer's in the world. I hope that there are people- men or women- who put my safety above everything else.

And there was Jack, torturing another suspect/ criminal/ terrorist to get the information that would save the world. There were no other options. Jack had to use extreme measures. He had to use torture so he could get the information before the bomb/ nuclear device/ assassination/ biological weapon went off.

It was then that I realized that as much as I love Jack Bauer, as much as I think that I- and our country- need him, if I knew him in real life, I would not choose him as a friend. What he does is important, crucial in fact. But it is ugly and unpleasant. Jack is, in reality, an unsavory character. He is surrounded by unsavory people. What he does makes me wince and disgusts me, but I need Jack. I need him to save the world.

Isn't that just like Jesus? We do not want to know the details about his suffering, his torture, his death, but we need him. I need him to love and forgive me. I need him to save the world.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Local Church Vision Plan

As our churches consider what it means to have a mission statement, or a vision plan, let me propose these steps.
  1. A 'dream team' of leaders from both congregations should be appointed. This team will deal with the rest of this plan and offer proposals to the church councils of both congregations.
  2. The 'dream team' will be charged with guiding the congregations (and other interested persons) through an analysis of the local church(es), it's needs, strengths and the desires of it's constituents. The dream team will also assess the needs- social and spiritual- of the churches and the surrounding community. Vision planning will result from these assessments and analyses. Finally, the dream team will set goals that will move us to accomplishment of this new vision.
  3. The dream team will set action steps for the church to follow. These will include concerns in the areas of facilities and resources, spiritual life (including discipleship, ministry and fellowship) and programming.
  4. The Church Council of each congregation will then receive, discuss and approve the mission/ vision statement, goals and action steps.
  5. The Church Council will then become responsible for the implementation of the vision plan.