Having a Church to Call Home

Last Sunday I was on vacation and my wife, and I did what is now becoming our vacation routine. Because we live close to a big city, we attend a megachurch that offers a Saturday night worship program at one of their sites. Worship starts at 6:00 pm and is done in a little over an hour, thus leaving us with all of Saturday night in the city to explore and have a good time. We actually stay out late on a Saturday night, which is rare for a preacher, at least for this one.

It is nice to attend a Church that I am not leading occasionally. We were able to walk in unnoticed. No one asking questions, no issues to be handled, no stress over the worship plan and no thoughts about the upcoming sermon. My wife and I were able to sit side by side and even hold hands while the program was happening.

In many ways, it sounds like a dream come true for some people. No expectations to fulfill. No connections to drain my emotions. No service to offer. No personal investment. Just in and out in an hour. While I enjoy the time of worship and the teaching of the Bible, I still left feeling a little empty. Yes, we are all believers worshipping together, but that is not MY Church.

The more you attend a Church gathering, and the more you invest your life into it, the more it begins to feel like home.

1. A Home Church is a Place of Connection. It has been used before, but the TV show Cheers had the best theme song ever. You know the words, “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name … and they’re always glad you came.” Every week I am so blessed to spend a few minutes with people I know and love. The smiles of the senior adults and the laughs of the little kids are no longer forced emotions but the connection I feel with people who are on this journey with me.

2. A Home Church is a Place of Expectation. I want to be around people who expect the best out of me. They want to see me growing and learning the ways of God. Every week I have people ask me how I am doing in my walk with God. Accountability is the word we use around the Church. It means that we open ourselves up to other people and ask them to hold us accountable for our actions. I need committed Christians in my life to help me reach my full potential.

3. A Home Church is a Place Where I Belong. Some things in life just feel right. The longer I am in a local Church, the more it feels right to me. The casual attendee does not get the same emotional connection to Church as the regular attendee. Few words can explain it. I just feel a sense of belonging every week as I see familiar faces sitting in the usual places and singing songs to God. It feels right knowing the people leading me in worship, prayer, and communion. This is where I belong.

It is nice to spend a Sunday or two each year away from the Church I lead just like it is nice to travel on vacation a couple of weeks a year. But with every trip, I walk in the door of my house and my Church and repeat the words, “Be it ever so humble, there is no place like home.”

Possible Lessons for the Church from Branson

I am back in the office after a weeklong vacation. Living in Missouri almost requires that you take a trip to Branson at some point, so last week my wife and I made the journey. We had a good week as we saw the sights, did a little shopping and took in some shows. As a preacher, my eyes are always trying to see things from the perspective of the Church and the services we offer each week. While I do not believe the people who attend Church are there to be entertained there are still some lessons that we can learn from the entertainment industry. Here are a few thoughts from my time in Branson and what they might mean for the Church.

1. The Value People Place on Entertainment. I am continually amazed at the amount of money people spend on a ticket to any entertainment. It could be a ballgame, a concert or even a small variety show in Branson. Twenty dollars is cheap in the entertainment world. People will spend almost any amount of money on things they enjoy.

2. The Power of Music. Branson has few people performing original songs. In fact, there are probably very few songs written in the last 20 years. At one show there was a song playing through the speakers at intermission, and most of the crowd joined in singing. People have memories and emotions tied to songs of all types.

3. Know Your Audience. One show we attended did throw in a couple of newer songs. The old man next to me kept asking his wife, “What is this song?” He told her in an exasperated voice, “I don’t know this song.” She shrugged her shoulders, and they both slumped back in their seats. Every age group has different expectations and ideas about how things should go. It is crucial to know who is in the seats.

4. High Quality is Important. Even in small theaters, there is an expectation of quality sound and lighting. No one should overlook the necessity of a quality production, even in the Church.

5. Be Interactive. Every show we watched, I mean every single one of them, had some part that involved audience interaction. I could not help but replay my sermons in my mind and wonder how many times I include the audience in what is happening onstage. It might be as simple as people shouting out a favorite song to involving people as part of an object lesson.

6. Use Humor. Another feature of every show was a touch of humor. Even a group of a cappella singers included some comedy in their presentation. The more people laughed, the more the show connected with the audience.

7. Service is Key. It doesn’t matter how great of a show you put on if your staff are unfriendly. My wife and I attended a show with dinner included and the lady who waited on us was stern and unkind in her actions. It made everything less enjoyable, and we will not return to that show in the future. How many people attend our Churches and are turned off by that one person?

8. Piggy Back Similar Items. Branson is full of shows designed for senior adults. I also noticed a number of antique stores. I saw some places that focused on veterans. Other sites focused on the nostalgia of the 1950’s and 60’s. If you have a group of people in one place with similar characteristics, it is wise to offer multiple forms of connection.

9. Most People are Open to Religion. I know this also connects to understanding your audience and the age of the people attending, but most performances do not shy away from introducing faith. The shows we attended in Branson included gospel songs and a production of the nativity. God was spoke of with conviction even in a secular setting. No one walked out or shouted obscenities or showed any anger at all. People seemed very open to the story of the Bible.

10. Under Promise and Over Deliver. A show that promotes itself as “the best” or “special” or “awesome” had better deliver. Quite often I find that the best and most enjoyable shows are those with little fanfare. I go in with low expectations and then see people working hard to deliver the best program available. I thought of how many Church events are billed with much praise only to let people down.

I feel like I need to remind everyone, I do not view Sunday morning as a show that the Church puts together for the pleasure of the crowd. No, we gather to worship, and God is our audience. I do still think there are some lessons we can learn from the world around us if we will only pay attention. My week in Branson was a nice downtime from my work in the Church, but I still learned a couple of things that I hope will make the Church I serve even better.

Stop Being So Critical of the Church

It seems to be acceptable to criticize the Church these days. In some cases, it is almost expected that people will have something negative to say about the Church. The criticism can range from being full of hypocrites to everyone accepting a political leader without question. There is the frequent finger-pointing about being judgmental or lacking in kindness. Through the years I have heard it all.

Honestly, I understand this critical spirit from nonbelievers. They do not accept or trust what we teach so why would they see the good in it. It is easy to throw rocks at that which you do not affirm or understand.

What I can’t comprehend is the disapproving attitude among Christians. We are on the same side. Jesus himself said, “for whoever is not against us is for us (Mark 9:40 NIV).”

The Church has never claimed to be a perfect place. It is not a group of individuals who have achieved total Christlikeness. Instead, we have an incredibly diverse group of people striving to learn and grow. Many have not put down deep roots, and others are distracted by the worries of this world. I believe about two-thirds of the people who come to Church will never reach spiritual maturity. But, I would rather them gather with an assembly of other Christians than for them to be anywhere else in the world.

Instead of being critical what if we …

1. Celebrate the Good in the Church. There are hundreds of positive things that happen every week in the life of any Church. Just this week I have seen a woman decide to be baptized. I have visited with an elderly woman who told me about the other ladies in the Church coming to spend time with her. I know of individuals who are praying each day earnestly. The list could go on and on. There are numerous positive things to celebrate if we open ourselves up to it.

2. See the Potential in People. Sure, there are messed up people in the Church, but that does not mean it is their final chapter. Michelle and I were talking about the transformation we have seen in a man over the last two years. He is becoming a better husband, father, and friend to the other members of the Church. We are not what we will one day be, but thank God; we are not what we once were.

3. Lose Your Critical Glasses. It seems that once we see something that bothers us, that is all we can notice after that experience. One person says something mean, and we quickly identify their “group.” They are a liberal or a Republican or a millennial. Then we paint everyone in that group from a negative viewpoint. Ask yourself, “Am I viewing that person on their own merit or on conclusions I have drawn about them?”

I believe that Christians are wonderful people. Are some quirky? Yes. Are some opinionated? Yes. Are some wrong? Sure. Am I better than those people? No. I need the same grace they need. We are brothers and sisters, not clones. We are part of a family. As the song says, “I am so glad I am a part of the family of God.”

Most Days I Feel So Small

As I was growing up, I dreamed of making my mark in this world. In high school, people would tell me to dream big or to go out and make an impact. College made me feel like I could change the world. Then I went out into the “real world.”

Most of my contributions to the work of the Lord seem so small and insignificant. I have never led a megachurch. I have never spoken to more than a few hundred people. This blog has about 50 people who read it each day. I teach two Bible studies right now that have nine people in each of them. I help lead youth group, and we currently have 17 in average attendance, and two of those are my own children.

I thought I would do more. I thought I would be more. I thought my impact on this world would be significant in some way.

Occasionally I need to be reminded of two simple truths.

1. I will never know the impact of my life. God has a way to take efforts and use them in incredible ways. Your life may touch one person. That one person then impacts three other people. One of those people may do something unbelievable for the kingdom of God. My life may be a part of a chain of events that I cannot see. I believe God can do big things with my small life that I will never know about entirely.

2. I never know what will make an impact. I have preached sermons to a small group of people who I thought were mostly asleep. Then one of the people comes to me and says, “That was just what I needed to hear.” I am shocked that God takes my below average sermon and uses it to help someone on their spiritual walk. We never know what conversations and contributions will help people in their life. Quite often the things that we think will make a significant impact are lost in the size of the spectacle. Little connections can be used in ways that I never imagined.

I need to remind myself that I am serving a big God continually. He can take my tiny efforts and use them to accomplish his grand plan.

So each day I get up, and I do my part. I do whatever task God puts in front of me. I keep working with the people he has put in my life. I do the best I can to represent him in even the smallest of ways. Who knows what God will do with my efforts?

I believe our impact on this world is significant even when it doesn’t seem big.

Common Traits in Plateaued or Declining Churches

Most of my life has been spent working in Churches who have been in decline or have at least plateaued for years. I have even helped a couple of other Churches close and join up with the one I was leading. All of the Churches I have lead have been small and are usually in small communities. Most of the time I have accepted calls to preach in these situations because I thought God could use me to help them rebuild. I have noticed some similar things in all of the Churches I have led through the years.

These are issues that any Church can have that are fixable.

1. They have become blind to the mess. Many Churches see their facility with the glory it once held. Now the building needs cleaning. Many parts of the facility need updating with a paint job or some new carpet. I am told that after four weeks you become blind to some of the problems in your situation. Imagine what 40 years might do to a person.

2. Tomorrow may be worse mentality. With this mindset, people do not want to spend any money. If they do spend money, it must go before the board and be talked to death. I once was a part of a six-month discussion of a new sump pump. The other side of the issue is that people start keeping everything because we may need it one day. Trash and junk are stored everywhere, and everyone is afraid to throw it away. God only knows how much I have thrown away through the years.

3. Yesterday was better than tomorrow signs. When this type of thinking takes over the Church becomes a place where the saints of yesterday get memorialized. Plaques are everywhere and fastened to everything recognizing the donation of someone from days gone by.

4. Only friendly to insiders. When a visitor finally does come to Church, they are not greeted warmly by the people. They are seen as outsiders who will leave one day. Why be nice to people who are only here for a Sunday or two?

5. The preacher is paid to do all the ministry. In many of the small Churches I encounter the preacher is paid to do everything. They preach, teach, lead, set-up, clean-up, do youth ministry, organize children’s ministry, visit the hospital, marry and bury. Very little gets done by other people, except making decisions. Others meet to make the decisions, and the pastor tries to carry out their wishes.

6. Leadership issues. Lack of leadership or poor leadership are the two most significant problems. To move forward the Church may select men who are unqualified, or they try to bring everyone on board. I have been a part of a Church of 80 with 14 leaders. If you subtract the women and children, then over half of the men were in leadership. Needless to say, very little got accomplished.

7. Change has become unimaginable. We like the way things are done, that is why we keep coming back. So why would we want to change anything? The 30 Christians who attend are happy so why mess up a good thing?

8. Only take care of themselves. If the people are few and the money is tight, then we better not overextend ourselves. Missions giving is slim, and service events are non-existent. The Church exists for us, and everyone outside the walls can take care themselves like we are doing.

9. Children are not a priority. Almost every small Church I have lead had an awful program for kids. I could tell you about dirty nurseries, dangerous toys, unsupervised children’s area and a total lack of security. It is incredible that a group of people who love their grandkids doesn’t care about the spiritual education.

10. Faith is rarely stretched. Everything is comfortable. We attend the same class with the same people where we talk about the same things. We then go to worship where we sit in the same place next to the same people while singing the same hymns. We take the same communion and hear a familiar sermon. We go home and eat the same old meal and watch the same old TV. Each Sunday is a repeat of the last week, and no one does anything daring for the Lord.

I know there are legitimate reasons that some Churches stay small. They are in areas where very few people live or where the community is dying. The majority of Churches I have experienced have enormous potential for God, but they have never sat down and talked about any major issue. The problems mount up, and we blame our lack of effectiveness on “the people these days.”

I have spent my life working against these obstacles. Sure, it may make some people frustrated and others uncomfortable, but the call of Jesus is to reach the whole world with the gospel not to rest in the comfort of our own salvation.

How do You Want to Spend Your Final Years?

I am leading a Monday night men’s group. Right now, I have nine men who are walking with me through some material on how men step up into the different phases of their lives. The final part of last night’s meeting drew our attention to the role of a Patriarch.

While the video did not give much information on the exact dynamics of the Patriarch in a family, the accompanying study guide asked a great question, “How do you want to spend the final years of your life?”

To the best of my study and experience, there are three options for us.

1.Grow Old and Selfish

Several senior adults spend the final years of their life on their own selfish dreams. They travel and enjoy the finer things in life. They play golf all day or another type of hobby. They spend money and accumulate extensive collections of stuff. They justify this behavior by saying, “We have earned it.” They also use the phrase, “We deserve this.” These people spent their earlier life giving all of their time and money to work or family, and now they are going to indulge themselves.

2. Grow Old and Scary

Some people end their lives full of bitterness. They grow angry with their family and friends. They speak of the “people these days” as if they were the enemy on the battlefield of life. Quite often these people complain that no one who cares for them or visits regularly but spends times with their visitors whining more than anything else. As a result, their grandchildren are forced to visit them on holidays to try and keep peace in the family.

3. Grow Old and Spiritual

These people have seen the best and worst of life, and they have grown closer to God through all of their experiences. They speak with kindness and love. They demonstrate faith and perseverance. Many in this group serve at Church until their body gives out on them. They spend their final years making an impact for the kingdom of God wherever life takes them.

So the question remains, “How do you want to spend your final years?” The Patriarchs of the Bible were spiritual leaders of entire families and clans until the day they died. People came to them for wisdom and guidance that only a life of faith can produce. They were a source of blessing to the community through the final stages of their journey.

Here is the deal. You are already headed one of these directions. Your life has a trajectory of movement that will place you squarely in one of these categories. Where you end up is not just the result of the decisions you make when you retire. Instead, they are the culmination of the choices you are making every day. The question for today is simply, “Is my life headed the direction I really want it to go?”

Suffering in Silence

As a natural-born introvert, my tendency is to withdrawal within myself. When pain and heartache come, I tend to push away from the crowd and spend hours inside my mind. I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve, and I certainly don’t talk about my emotions. I will get through this all alone, no matter how long it takes.

For years I thought I was the only one who felt like this in the world. Then I noticed recurring conversations with people, often within the confines of my offices. They would tell me of deeply personal struggles that I never imagined them going through each day. One would speak of marital troubles, and another would tell me about their children, and still others with addictions of some type.

The idea came clear to me the other day, and I stopped to write it down. The truth is that numerous people are suffering in silence.

Maybe that is you? Maybe that is someone you love? If it is, I would tell you a few things.

1. It is okay to suffering alone. That is not what you might imagine me to say. Honestly, I think it is good for people to process what is going on within their heart and mind. Think about it. Pray about it. As I read the psalms, I often picture David on a hillside alone with a pen and a parchment pouring out his heart to God. I little self-reflection and critical thinking can be good for the soul.

2.God has not left you. Some of Jesus final words to his disciples in Matthew chapter 28 are a challenge. His disciples are to go into all the world making disciples. It will not be an easy job. In fact, it will come with persecution and hardship. There will be nights alone and frequent criticism. Jesus ends his call to service with some comforting words, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

No matter how dark life gets, Jesus has not left us alone. He is there in our pain. He hears, and he responds to our suffering. It might not be in the way we imagine with a loud voice and a violent shaking of the earth, instead it might come in the small quiet voice within our soul. Even when you feel alone, you are not. He will never leave you or forsake you.

3. Some people want to help. You do not have to suffer alone. I would tell you as a Pastor that if you have gone for weeks and weeks suffering from the same issues, I would seek help. This help might come from a friend, a family member, a Church member or a professional like a counselor. I would bet money that there is someone in your life who would love to help you. The challenge is not to find someone to listen; the hard part will be opening yourself up.

From personal experience, I know that the suffering in our soul can often be greater than physical pain. It can torment us day and night and slowly drive us crazy. Sometimes silence is golden, and other times it is deadly. Take time to reflect on your pain and know that God is there with you and we are here if you need us.