Real Love

Today is February 14 or better known as Valentines Day. It is a day here in America when we celebrate love, particularly the love between a man and a woman.

When I sat down to write a post for this day I thought, “I should write something about love.” Several thoughts went through my head from personal stories of love to poetic writing to inspire. Finally, I decided to write something about what real love looks like for people to understand it. Then I realized that has already been written. You have probably heard it read at a wedding, but here it is from The Message paraphrase:

Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, Doesn’t have a swelled head, Doesn’t force itself on others, Isn’t always “me first,” Doesn’t fly off the handle, Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, Doesn’t revel when others grovel, Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, Puts up with anything, Trusts God always, Always looks for the best, Never looks back, But keeps going to the end. Love never dies. 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 (The Message)

Happy Valentines Day

One or Two Bad Apples

You are probably familiar with the saying, “One bad apple spoils the whole bunch.” I would even guess that you have used the expression a time or two. It is the idea that one bad person affects everyone they are close to through their rotten behavior. I would say that this is a concept of which you need to be keenly aware in Christian circles.

I was reminded of this truth today as I went on the internet. A few months ago, I became a part of a small Church pastors’ group on Facebook. The rules of the group are very clear. It exists to support people, answer questions and not debate theology. For me, the group has been helpful with questions about benevolence and canceling Church because of the weather. It has been useful to know other Churches policies and procedures. All total those who have joined number over 3400 pastors from across the country and the world. Every day I am blessed by at least one post to this forum.

Two types of people consistently try to ruin it. The first is the righteous zealot. They make it a personal aim to break the rules and argue theology. They are right, and they know they are right, so they decide to debate and argue with everyone. A few minutes of reading these posts and comments make me want to quit the group for such mean statements from another pastor.

The second group that makes communication complex with the community is the self-absorbed. They continually post pictures of their Church work, their sermons, their blogs, and everything they are doing. They do not ask for other people’s advice because they are there to give instruction, not receive it. These people seem to be clueless as to the needs of others and turn every discussion toward their holy behavior.

As I read through the posts, I recognize three things:

1. Every Christian group has these one or two bad apples. Wherever Christians gather there will be someone who wants to argue and someone who is self-absorbed. I really wish this were not true, but experience tells me otherwise.

2. One spiritual gift could be self-awareness. I believe it would do us all some good to go before God and ask him to reveal our weaknesses, including our failures in dealing with people. One area of faith is dealing with our sin against God, and another is learning to deal with other people in a Christlike way. We need to be honest about our behavior and ask God to make us self-aware. Don’t be that bad apple.

3. Know that it is only one or two. My group is 3400 people, and only a handful are the issue. The Church I lead has about 250 people involved, and all problems come from a handful of people. Be careful about labeling any group based on the actions of one or two.

I know this information is nothing new to you any more than it is new to me. Yet, I need to remind myself of these things every day. Today I almost gave up on a bunch of well-intentioned pastors because two guys have issues. I will not let their behavior define me or my actions.

Understanding One Fundamental Dynamic of Church

After twenty-five years, it still stands as some of the best leadership instruction I have ever received. It came as I was talking to a pastor at another Church about some of the struggles I was having with the people I lead. After listening to me for several minutes, he responded by saying, “Remember, what you win them with, is what you win them to.”

I understood what he was saying, and the conversation went on to other topics, but his comment lodged in my brain, and I have thought about it repeatedly since that day. What he was expressing was a profound truth about how people connect to a Church.

If people attend a Church because they like the preacher, then they will always want a preacher that they like the same way.

If people attend the Church because they like the music, then they will always want the same style of music.

If people attend a Church because they like the visits and care of someone, then they will always want that same level of care.

If people attend a Church because of relationships, then they will always want to have the same type of close relationships.

What you win them with, is what you win them to.

The essential part of this truth is that as a pastor I want you to connect most to Jesus. I want you to come to this Church because Jesus is proclaimed, taught and glorified at that place. Any other answer is a little skewed.

Then comes the problematic side that I had experienced when I had my original conversation years ago. When the Church changes anything from the pastor to the music to the design of the building, there will be a group of people leave.

Let me ask you a pointed question: When you think about the Church you attend, what is the primary thing you like about it? If that aspect were to change would your feelings change too?

The way you answer this question will let me know whether you are connected here for the long-term or just for a season.

Trusting God in Everything

A life of faith is about trusting God in everything. I keep saying that word, “everything,” over and over in my head. It seems natural to trust God in big things. I believe God will handle my sin, my eternity and any issue bigger than my control. My prayers reflect my trust in God during seasons that involve words like cancer, heart attack, stroke, and disease. The continue plea for his healing is ever on my lips. There are dark nights that come with these issues, but my faith leans into God when everything is beyond my control anyway.

I am finding faith to be more challenging to maintain in the daily details of life. I am not sure I trust God when I know I would have handled everything differently. Take yesterday for example. It was a Sunday morning, and God should have wanted his people to be gathered into community to worship him. God should have wanted his followers to worship, serve and listen to his word explained. God should have wanted our Church to meet yesterday.

Instead, I woke up yesterday to more ice. This is the third or fourth round of ice and freezing rain we have received lately. School has been canceled for several days and getting out of the house has been difficult. Sunday morning was greeted more ice, and I spent the morning calling the Church staff and texting with my leadership before we decided to cancel our worship program.

I will be honest with you; if I were running the world, it never would have happened. The ice would have melted on Saturday and the next day would have been beautiful with a large group of people gathered in worship. For me, a Sunday off is greeted with mixed emotions. Preaching is not only what I get paid to do, but it is also something I enjoy doing each week. I love explaining God’s word and making spiritual connections. I hate not meeting to share what God is lying on my heart. Then comes the planning issues. I spend hours and days planning the future for our group. Now I must go back and rethink everything. This one morning off throws a monkey wrench in all my plans.

At moments like this, I set in my office frustrated on Monday morning. What gets cut? What gets moved? What gets changed? One day off will take a week to clean up. Why would God do this not only to me but every other Church in our area? I don’t get what God is doing.

Then I bow my head and remind myself that God is greater than I am. He has a plan. He wants to see his word communicated more than I do. He is doing things that I may never understand on this side of heaven. I am reminded today that faith is not just about the cross and heaven, it is also about the little things. Faith is trusting God daily in everything. It believes he will accomplish his will in me and through me even when it doesn’t go like I design.

I really have no idea what the ice yesterday will do to my ministry, but I know God will use it for his good. Whatever headaches we as believers encounter is usually God’s way of doing something bigger than us. I am glad to serve a God who is present in the details even when they are beyond my immediate understanding.

Forced to Rest

You might not know it by looking at me, but my days are usually full of activity from morning till night. I am not busy rushing through life with no purpose or direction. Rather I fill my time with things that bring me joy when I am not working. I love to fish, hunt, metal detect, coin collect, look for shed antlers and be outside every spare minute. Fortunately, I married a woman who also loves to keep active and especially be outside in some way.

Then weeks like this one hit. This week there has been ice, rain, and cold in my region of the country. School was canceled for several days, and travel was not advised. Because of modern technology I was still able to work on my blog, youth lesson, and sermon for Sunday at home. Beyond that, there has not been too much to do.

This week I have been forced to rest. I have sat quietly inside without rushing to do anything. I honestly believe weeks like this are God’s gift to the world and me. Quite possibly it is his gift to you. Maybe this week God is reminding you that he runs the world. You can take some downtime, and nothing significant will be lost. You can miss some school and the activities associated with it, and your world will not stop. When this break is over, and things return to normal, there will have been nothing missed or lasting importance.

When this break is done, you and I will be rested, and our life will be better for the downtime. I fear that we will jump back into everything the fills every minute without taking time to reflect. Sometimes God forces us to rest and hopefully it helps us to see what our priorities should be because of who runs the world. If you miss it, then these are just lost days. If you learn from them, then this time is more beneficial than any activities you missed.

Following Jesus is Not Always Simple

When I write and preach, I want to simplify things for people so that it is clear what they need to do for Jesus. I try to come up with anywhere from two to five simple thoughts or actions that will help them grow in their faith. I never want to complicate what God has said or make the way of Christ more difficult than what he made it.

Yet, I always have a line from a favorite teacher in mind. After hearing a sermon about the easy steps in following Jesus, he said, “I don’t find any Gethsemane in your sermon.” It is a statement that echoes in my head repeatedly when I think about the Christian life.

Jesus came to seek and save the lost. He came to give himself as a ransom for many. He knew what he came to do, how it needed to be done and was at harmony with God’s will. Still, the night before the cross he is found in a garden where they press olives. He leaves eight of his disciples at the gate and takes Peter, James, and John with him a little father than the rest. There he hits his knees in prayer and voices that painful phrase, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39 in NIV 2011)

We find Jesus at Gethsemane praying with sweat like great drops of blood. He struggles to accept God’s will, knowing it will be a painful experience. He is grounded in his faith and yet he works through his natural emotions until he surrenders entirely to God’s will.

The truth is that sometimes following Jesus is not simple. There are no simple steps to do the right thing. There are nights of anguish that include painful prayers of surrender. There are moments when you will beg for another way to accomplish God’s will. There are times when faith is difficult, and fleeing will seem more comfortable. When this happens, take comfort in knowing Jesus endured the same struggle in his life.

I also flip this story over and think about it from another direction. If I am truly following Jesus, then I should have my times in Gethsemane. If my journey of faith seems easy, then maybe I am doing it wrong. Jesus said that the way to destruction is broad and dark. The way of Jesus is narrow and difficult and winds through shady gardens where we want to give up on trusting God. If a struggle in our faith demonstrates that we are on the correct path, then when was the last time I wrestled with God in prayer?

Being in Gethsemane with Jesus is dark and scary because it leads us to the cross of sacrifice. This is the way of Jesus, and he invites us to walk with him. Where is the place where your life is being pressed in your faith?

The Attrition Rate in Churches

Church consultant Lyle Schaller took the stage at the first “Church planters” conference I ever attended. He was an author and speaker who was known for his wisdom achieved from years of working with Churches. He said something that morning in Chicago that I have never forgotten. He told about how he will stand up before congregations and explain to them, “All of you sitting here are going to move, quit or die. We cannot count on any of you being here in 20 years.”

I literally cannot remember anything else he said that day, but he put something into words that I had noticed in ministry, but no one had articulated for me. Later on, I would hear it called an “attrition rate” by other people in the Church world. It is the concept that every year you are going to lose people in your Church community in one way or another.

In the early years of ministry, I said boldly, “Not on my watch.” I will teach, preach, lead and motivate in a way that no one will ever want to leave.” This just led to frustration as people still moved away to be closer to family or to make more money at a better job. I had no control over people and their decisions, and they left. Not only that, but people drifted away despite my best efforts. One couple was going through a rough patch in their marriage, and I allowed them to put me on speed dial. It seemed like every night they had a new fight, and I was there to help them through it. Once again, I failed, and after months of work they decided to divorce, and both of them left the Church.

It is estimated that at least twenty percent of the people who attend the Church I lead in January will not be there by the next January. Simply put, people will move, quit or die. Most Church communities need to add twenty percent new people, just to maintain their average attendance. The people who attend worship each week are a sea of ever-changing faces.

Unfortunately, even in communities of faith people will leave. It still breaks my heart, but I have come to the point where I do not take it personally. My goal is to help people on their journey with God as long as they are walking the same path with me. Maybe God brought us together so that I could teach them a little something. Perhaps he brought us together so that I could learn something. God only knows. Our job is to plant the seed of the gospel, water it and harvest it as God allows.

Being a part of a Church community means we will see people grow and mature in their faith, but it also means we will see people leave sometimes long before we wanted them to go. That’s okay, God is bigger than my Church and is doing his mighty work in ways I will never understand. Faith is trusting God with me and also with you.

The People Who Visit the Church

Most Sunday’s in the life of the Church I lead we are blessed to have guests join us for worship. On any given Sunday we can have between one and five guest individuals or families. Through the years I have literally spoken with thousands of people who came as first-time guests to the Church where I serve as pastor. I have discovered several things from these encounters that might help you to understand all guests, including the friends and family who attend with you.

1. Beware of people from other Churches. I know some of you are immediately angry about me saying this, but it is the truth. There are two things I have consistently encountered with this group. First, they want this Church to have the best parts of their last Church. They want a high-powered small group ministry, or teen ministry or whatever. Usually, they are more interested in what is provided for them rather than leading anything. Second, is the opposite group of people. These people despise their last Church. Their feelings were hurt, and they are distancing themselves in every way. A wise old elder one time told me, “Anyone who comes here badmouthing their last Church, will eventually leave here badmouthing this Church.” Both groups have made me leery of people who come from other Churches to join us. There have been a few wonderful who come from other Churches, but these are the exception to the rule.

2. Don’t get excited about people who get excited. Occasionally someone will attend, and they are super excited about everything at the Church. They love the worship, the sermon, and the people. They pick up information, ask about classes and guarantee they will return. Usually, that is the last time I see them. Their excitement is fleeting and forgotten by the next Sunday. If they do return, they often only last a short time. Something else more exciting comes along, and they are on to the next activity.

3. Those who show little excitement are the most likely to return. Guests who attend and stand off to the side are frequently the most interested in what is happening. They were not expecting to like it or for people to be nice and they are pleasantly surprised. They stand back waiting to see if people will continue their hospitality or if it is a momentary show. They observe quietly while deciding if they will return. Many times, they will return for weeks before sharing any information with the office on a guest card and sometimes it takes two or three weeks before they pick up a guest bag. The whole time they like the Church but remain silent.

4. People who don’t immediately return are not gone forever. Most people attend Church with no plans ever to return. They are just there to make someone happy. As a result, the next four Sundays are already booked full. More than once I have seen it take a year before someone is able to join us for worship with any regularity. Gone this week does not mean forever.

Here is the harsh reality. Somewhere between fifty to eighty percent of guests will not return. They will not like the Church’s music, the preacher, the way people dress or whatever. Others will like what they experience and want to return. I usually lump them into one of the four groups above. Maybe this is you or someone you know. I hope you do not see these words as the ranting of a bitter old preacher; instead, these are the way my encounters have gone through the years. I love guests who come to worship with us, but those who stick are not usually the ones you would think.

Staying Connected in a Disconnected World

One topic of discussion at almost every leadership meeting for more than a year has been the infrequency in which people come to Sunday morning worship. Just 20 years ago the average was for people to go to worship three out of four Sundays a month. Now the numbers are more like one in four each month. The numbers are dropping, and Church community is becoming increasingly difficult to cultivate as a leader.

But today instead of challenging you to attend more, laying on a guilt trip or searching for ways to improve the numbers, I am going to accept them. I recognize that for some people Church attendance will merely be less frequent for legitimate reasons. If that is the case, let me offer a few ways to stay connected.

1. Schedule to attend as much as possible. I suggest at the beginning of each month you look at your calendar and decide to attend every Sunday you are able.

2. Use social media. Our Church has Facebook, and we post updates, announcements, and information almost daily. We are looking for people to help us add other formats to keep every generation connected. If your Church does not have social media, then start it yourself.

3. Listen to the sermon. Every week I post the sermon from Sunday online, usually by evening on the day it was preached. That means that if you miss worship, you can still hear what the preacher is teaching. Once again, if your Church does not have this, then maybe you can provide it. I have a minister friend who has a person record the sermon on an iPad and then uploads it to YouTube every week.

4. Sign up for information. Our Church has a monthly email newsletter. You contact the office, and your name goes on a list. It is really just that easy. Most Churches I know have some kind of monthly communication whether it be print or digital.

5. Find out about a prayer team. Our Church has an email prayer team. Requests are submitted and emailed out immediately. Several of our older adults who do not use email has added a phone call list as those requests hit email. One way or the other everyone can stay updated on the needs of others.

6. Group life. Many Churches offer small groups to help people connect. Currently, we have two Sunday school classes and a Bible study for women. This does not need to be something formal created by the Church. Find a group of other believers and get connected in any way you can from game nights to special interest groups, to exercise buddies, or just hanging out over coffee.

I hate the direction that participation in worship is headed, but most Churches are working hard to help you connect. With a little effort, you can still be a part of a community even when you are separated for a season. How else have you found to stay connected to the body of Christ?

Weekend Mind Dump

In the very early days of the first blog I wrote almost 15 years ago, I would have a weekly “mind dump.” I would take one post a week and share anywhere from five to fifty things that were on my mind. While I haven’t done that in much in the last few years, today I want to clear up my writing file and my head with a little mind dump. These are incomplete thoughts swirling around my mind that are not enough to fill a full post, but together they will make one.

1. Judgmental people will eventually judge you.

2. Recently I was watching the TV Show Parks and Rec when I heard Ron Swanson say something about a guy named Justin. I took note and googled the quote:
“He’s a tourist. He vacations in people’s lives takes pictures, puts them in his scrapbook, and moves on. All he’s interested in are stories. Basically, he’s selfish.”

3. Have you ever had a complete conversation/argument in your head before you talk to a person? Then you talk to them and find out that all your thoughts, ideas and assumptions were wrong? Yeah, me neither.

4. It amazes me the number of times the Bible talks about false teachers and their teaching. Within the first 100 years of the Church, people were already distorting the gospel for various reasons, while the apostles were still alive. Guarding against false teaching is always important.

5. Christianity touches on every aspect of life. It is not a singular discipline. It touches on philosophy, psychology, science, politics, compassion, ethics, spiritualism and world religions. One failure within the Church is that it is hard to teach about all these equally well.

6. Maybe the problem is spiritual. Recently I have read of all kinds of evil going on in the world right near me from bullying, suicide, addiction, to abuse. Most people speak of these in terms of problems but rarely do they talk about the condition of the heart and soul behind them. When we divorce ourselves from God and spiritual life we are left with good intentions and failure.

7. My heart is breaking for our teenagers. They have little connection to God and parents who don’t care.

8. There is a difference between good work and God’s work. God’s work is always good, but good work is not always Godly. In fact, I fear that good works can keep us from God because we think we are good enough without Jesus.

9. Psalm 20:7 Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

10. I now subscribe to 153 blogs on my blog reader called Feedly. Monday through Friday I receive 75-100 new posts. I read about ten a day entirely and skim another ten. Part of learning is digesting the right material. Maybe this post had something for you or perhaps not. Either way, thanks for reading and have a good weekend.