Encouragement 4 U

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images-1-150x150Does everything around you seem to be small? Maybe you have a small church, small offerings, small resources, small dreams. Perhaps it seems like every church around you is bigger, doing more than your church. Driscoll reminds us of a kingdom principle: little things can do a lot. Remember Jesus’ words about leaven? Sure…he used this in the negative, but the truth (small things can have a big effect) is the same. In another place Jesus spoke of a mustard seed being the smallest of seeds but though so small it can still grow into a tree large enough for birds to rest in. A little can do a lot.

You might feel unqualified. You might say to yourself, “I wonder what the pastor of that larger church knows that I don’t know? What gift-mix does he have that I’m lacking? After all…his church is big, he must have some key that I don’t have.”

Let me tell you something. The pastor of the larger church is severely under qualified. And so are you. We’re all unqualified…yet He uses us.

You might only have ten people staring back at you on a Sunday but if you’re teaching them, loving them, discipling them, providing them a model to follow, then they, no matter how small, will go out and effect their world. You don’t know who one of your members will win to Christ, and they then turn around and win one, who wins one, and another, and on and on. A little can do a lot.

Don’t try to stay small and don’t try to be big. Small is not intrinsically bad, nor is big intrinsically good. What matters is faithfulness to what God has called you to whether it be big or small. What needs to be big, what needs to grow is a stubborn conviction that we are making a difference in the lives God allows us to touch.

Do you pastor a smaller church? Then do it well. Your churches impact is not contingent upon it’s size or your own personal qualifications. Never underestimate God’s ability to take something small and use it in a big way. And leave the definition of “a big way” up to God. A little can do a lot.

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imagesFather Matthew Kelty was a good friend of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, writer, poet, and peace activist who died unexpectedly in 1968 of an accidental electrocution. I was watching a lecture Kelty was giving on the life of Merton and in it he mentioned how one of the ways the monastery he and Merton were part of generated income was through the making of cheese. Apparently the cheese business was good for the monks because people from all over, including many celebrities, were ordering cheese from them. Soon there were those who tried to convince the monks that they needed to expand and grow their business. Kelty commented, “The American way is, ‘If you’re not growing you’re dying’, but we didn’t want to grow, we didn’t want to lose control.” That got me thinking. There are many ways in which a pastor can lose control if numerical growth comes for their church.

You lose some control when you move from parish priest to CEO. You lose control of your calendar by going from more discretionary time to less. You lose control of your availability, becoming less accessible. Your family will lose a bit more of you. Churches that go from small to big lose something by going from clan to city, from intimate organism to structured organization. A church loses simplicity for complexity when it experiences significant growth.

Large churches aren’t inherently bad. Small churches aren’t inherently good. But typically you will lose some things by going from small church to large church. In the long run…is it worth it? Maybe, and maybe not.

I saw a comic once in a Christian magazine. It was a split-screen with two pastors sitting at their desks day-dreaming. One pastored a large church and the other a small one. The pastor of the smaller church was dreaming of what it would be like to pastor a large church. The pastor of the large church was fondly remembering what it was like when he pastored a small church. Get it?

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images1-150x150You’ve heard the saying, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”? Do you have any squeaky wheels in your church? I know I have in mine. There have been times when I didn’t want to give the squeaky wheel grease but instead the boot! In a larger church the senior pastor has more buffers (associates) between he and the squeakers than the pastor of a smaller church. Someone once said that ignorance is bliss, but if you pastor a smaller church you’re not ignorant about anything that goes on in your church. It all reaches your desk. All the complaints, all the great ideas, all the squeaky wheels.

Over the years I have pastored in five different churches. In each church there has been someone who felt (and felt a need to tell me) that my church was “drifting aimlessly on the ocean”, “totally out of touch with the needs of people”, “going to hell in a hand basket.” And you know…sometimes I would believe them. Until I had enough sense to stop and take an inventory of what was going on in the church that was good, that was working, that was bearing fruit. There’s always something you can find that is good. Part of leading a church is remembering that it is never completely broken, and it’s never completely fixed.

There will always be those squeaky wheels that feel everything is wrong in your church. That’s never a true assessment. And don’t forget, if someone says “There’s a lot of people that feel the same way I do”, he’s usually referring to himself, his spouse, and maybe one other person.

While it’s true that a church always has things it needs to work on (never totally fixed), it’s also true that there are good things going on as well (never totally broken). Don’t let the complainers suck the joy and objectivity out of you. Draw up a list of what is good, what is working, who is being blessed, and what your church does well. Remember, it’s never completely fixed and it’s never, never completely broken.

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Unknown-150x150You know what a maxim is right? No…I don’t mean that men’s magazine. Maxim: a short, pithy statement expressing a general truth or rule. Years ago the maxim, “All healthy things grow and reproduce” began to be used by the church growth experts to explain that if your church is healthy it will grow and reproduce. Therefore, if your church is not growing and reproducing…your church must not be healthy. This phrase comes up all the time when I’m talking to pastors of smaller churches. I believe we’ve become victims of a maxim.

First of all, not all healthy things grow and reproduce. Humans don’t keep growing. I stopped growing a long time ago, assuming that you don’t count gaining weight the same as growing, and I’m healthy. Women reach a point where they can no longer have children and we wouldn’t say they’re not healthy. “All healthy things grow and reproduce” is a neat phrase, it sticks in your head, but it’s a weak statement when used in the context of church growth. How is it that we have become victims of this maxim?

This is how it works. Let’s say you believe the statement “all healthy things grow and reproduce” applies to the church. Let’s say your church isn’t growing numerically. So now you begin to search for what is wrong with your church. If you can identify the area in which your church is not healthy and correct it then your church should begin to grow…right? Maybe…and maybe not. Healthy churches grow and unhealthy churches grow. One church does all the right things and stays small and another does all the wrong things and experiences growth. Go figure.

Now let me clarify…sometimes a church is doing things, or not doing things that actually create obstacles to growth. This is a very real possibility and one that needs to be explored. You can be so close to the situation that you can’t even see the things that might be preventing growth. I have a step by step process I’ve developed to help a congregation see their church through the eyes of a visitor and identify obstacles to growth. If you think this might be of help to you let me know.

Let’s come back to this maxim: all healthy things grow and reproduce. We’ve seen that not all healthy things grow and reproduce. I believe your church can be small and be healthy. Why one church grows and the other stays small is a mystery and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If you assume the reason why your church isn’t growing is because something is wrong, if you invest time and energy in finding out what it is that is wrong, if you make the adjustments and still see no growth…where does that leave you? I’ll tell you where it leaves you, it leaves you even more discouraged and probably questioning yourself and your calling. Victim of a maxim. Don’t be a victim.

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images-150x150I’ve pushed this book before, Rethinking the Successful Church by Samuel D. Rima. This isn’t on my “recommended” reading list, it’s on my “read this book or go to jail” list. Every pastor or future pastor who hasn’t already read Rima should stop what they’re doing right now and find this book, order this book, beg, borrow, or steal this book.

Most pastors, if they’re really honest…really, really, really honest, would admit that they would love to be thought of as having a successful church. Now that isn’t necessarily bad if one’s definition of success is a pure one, one unaffected by the western culture. “The task of redefining our understanding of success will not be an easy one. Over the course of a lifetime we have had drilled into us a cultural view of success that is not easy to shake.” (Rima, pg.168)

The word success has become so Americanized that it is hard to use it without thinking of size, numbers, big, popular, influential, etc. I’d like to throw out the word, at least any connection between it and the local church, and replace it with the word value. “For me, success in ministry has become much more qualitative than it is quantitative. The reality is that it is entirely possible to manufacture phenomenal church growth and produce dramatic tangible indicators of success, while at the same time accomplish nothing of any genuine eternal value.” (Rima, pg. 163)

“Today we live in a culture of success.” (Rima, pg.48) How true, and might I add, our Christian-culture tends to define success in the same way our secular culture does. Equating size with success has been “drilled into us over the course of a life time.” Throw out “success” and replace it with “value.”

You and your church may never be successful according to the world’s definition but that doesn’t mean you don’t have value. A church can have value whether it has 5, 50, or only 100 members. And a church can have 500 or 5000 and not necessarily have value. “At some point on our ministry journey we have got to realize that we can build the biggest church in the world and actually see thousands of people coming to Christ, and still be an abysmal failure in the eyes of God. If our motives are impure, our methods dubious, and our personal character and spirituality seriously flawed, I do not believe God considers us successful.” (Rima, pg. 173)

You have value by remaining faithful to your calling when it would be easier to run in the opposite direction. You have value when you show up week after week to teach the word. You have value by loving your people…especially those who are hard to love. You have value by trying to produce followers of Jesus, by praying for people, counseling people, comforting them when they are in pain. Your church might not have success but it does have value when it loves those inside and outside it’s doors.

Throw out success. Replace it with value. Read the book!

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imagescontent: adjective, in a state of peaceful happiness : he seemed more content, less bitter. • satisfied with a certain level of achievement, good fortune, etc., and not wishing for more : he had to be content with third place | the duke was content to act as Regent.

complacent: adjective, showing smug or uncritical satisfaction with oneself or one’s achievements : you can’t afford to be complacent about security.

“Godliness with contentment is great gain.” – Paul (I Tim. 6:4)

God wants you to be content with the size of your church without becoming complacent in regards to discipleship and evangelism. I realize this is not an easy balance to achieve but it is one we must move towards.

Would you describe your current attitude in regards to the size of your church as “a state of peaceful happiness?” Could you say you are, “satisfied with a certain level of achievement, not wishing for more?” Remember, we’re talking about the size of your church, not how well it’s doing in reaching the lost, feeding the poor, making serious followers of Christ, etc. Are you content in being the pastor of a small church? Can you embrace contentedness without becoming complacent about all the other things the church is suppose to be and do? I hope so. But I also know from personal experience how hard it is to be content with a smaller congregation.

Is it just me or does it seem like much of what pastors are exposed to in the church-related books they read, the conferences they go to, ministerial meetings they attend end up making them feel more discontent than content?

There still exists in much of “Churchianity” far too much emphasis upon numbers and church growth. I’m not against numbers or church growth, but I am against anything that makes pastors feel like they don’t measure up, like they are unappreciated, unnoticed, like they don’t count solely because their church is small.

Certainly it would be wrong to become complacent about discipleship and bringing the name of Jesus to the lost, but could it be just as wrong to not be content?

My dear friend, pursue contentedness without becoming complacent. Reject those things that make you feel bad about yourself or the size of your church. Ask the Father to give you contentedness without complacency. Either contentedness is great gain, as Paul says, or it’s not. I choose to believe Paul.

What are your thoughts?

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UnknownI think if we’re honest with ourselves we’d have to admit that we all want to do something great for God. When I was 21, newly married and new to the ministry I can remember laying on my back in bed with Ellen and saying, “Before I die I want to do something great for God…something significant.” For us that meant planting a church. For me (I’m sure Ellen cared little about what I’m about to confess) that meant not just starting a new church…but a church that would be big.

As you know, our western culture equates “great” with size, numbers, applause, etc. It’s hard for us not to be influenced by this.

Not too long ago I read an interesting book, “A Monk’s Alphabet” by Fr. Jeremy Driscoll. In a paragraph entitled Great he says, ”Great, the illusion that there is something important to do with one’s life! Oh yes, I understand the point. Life is glorious, and we are marvelously made. But perhaps it is a question of the approach. When someone sets out to do great things, how much is accomplished really, and at what exorbitant prices? Maybe it is better to let go of the focus on great things as a goal, to live with hope placed in heaven, and then use well whatever time we find at our disposal. With the optic of that new amazement, something great may be done. But “great” will never mean a great me, a me that is marvelous and outlasts the short span of a lifetime. “Great” may mean something good done for others, something of value left behind. But I will vanish more and more. That is how it is, and with an act of faith and trust, I say also that this is how it should be.”

When was the last time you heard someone talk about another pastor who had a “great” church and that church was also small? That doesn’t happen too often does it? We’ve been conditioned to define great with size. I bet some of you reading this feel that you are doing nothing that could be called great…mostly because your church is so small. Don’t you believe it! The church down the street might very well have more paid staff than you have in your entire congregation but that doesn’t mean in the eyes of God they are any more great than your church is.

You have been called to be a great pastor, great in character, great in your soul, great in love, great in faithfulness to your family and your calling. If that is not enough for you than maybe you need to get away for some reflection to discover why. You are called to do something great, but it’s more a call to be something great…an inward greatness fed and developed by intimacy with Jesus. Your church is called to be a great church but that is not dependant upon size. A small church can be a great church. If you are a faithful pastor to your people, no matter how many of them there are, you are doing something great.

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UnknownI can remember fishing with my grandpa when I was a little boy. Fred Flowerday, one of nine boys and a girl born to a farmer in Nebraska. Fred knew how to fish. Grandpa taught me about “keepers”. Those of you who fish know that “keepers” are fish worthy of…well, keeping. If the fish was too small or looked sickly, Grandpa would say, “Throw it back.” All others were keepers.

Now if we apply this metaphor to newcomers at your church, it’s easy to sound callous and disinterested. But the fact is that some people will be right for your church, and some won’t. Some will be keepers, and some should be released to go swimming in another pond. It won’t do you any good in the long run to encourage someone to stay and get involved in your church if you know the church will not be a right fit for them. Save yourself, and your new fish, a headache. Be comfortable in saying, “I don’t think this church is a good fit for you.” You’re not being mean (provided you speak caringly), you’re being a good leader. You’re being good to them and good to your church.

If you sense that your new catch has a different agenda than yours…let them go. If your fish is pushing for a different style of worship than you want…let them go. If they want you to be more charismatic than you are or less charismatic than you are, if they want you to be something other than what you are, they will be frustrated with you and eventually you will be frustrated with them. Express to them that it’s okay for them to leave, no hard feelings.

Now I understand that you want to grow your church. You don’t want people to leave, you want them to stay. I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to feel you’ve got a “keeper” because they seem so excited about the Lord, so talented, so experienced, and they believe in tithing. Sure you might have a small check in your gut about them really fitting in, but hey…they tithe. All people have worth, but not all are worth the energy of trying to keep them happy when your church is simply not right for them. It’s not going to be worth it to you to try and fit a square peg in a round hole. You will either damage the square peg or damage the round hole to make them fit. Either way you’ve got damage.

Maybe you’ve been struggling with someone in your church for a long time. They always seem to be kicking against the goads. Maybe your church is not a good fit for them. Have enough integrity and courage to suggest they try someplace else. Be kind, choose your words carefully, and then show them the door. You barely have enough energy to care for those who are a good fit for your church, let alone those who aren’t a good fit. Keep the keepers and be willing to stock someone else’s lake. Who knows, maybe there they will be happy and flourish because they’ve found a church better suited for them.

imagesMatthew Wolfe had an article published in Newsweek entitled, Reaching My Goal of Having No Life Plan. It caught my eye. Matthew has earned two degrees in music and has a Ph.D. in literature. In his past he was a “goals junkie” who lectured on the value of long-term planning. Matthew even began writing a book that he hoped would be the definitive word on the subject. But then he was converted…converted from making long-term goals which he says are, “…an exercise in futility.”

What stood out to me about Matthew’s article had little to do with whether or not setting goals is good or bad, but the things Matthew said about our fast paced lives, which he claimed is fueled, by goals. “The world of goals is about fast-tracking your life. It’s about getting from point A to Z, ASAP. Do not linger over a cup of J. There is no time to smell the R. Just go! Go! Go!” This secular thinker made me think. “We’d all be more receptive to life’s opportunities if we weren’t trying to look so far ahead.” he said.

There is a lot said these days about our need to set goals for our church…two year goals, five year plan, etc. I’m not saying this is bad it’s just that when you detail your plan and then it doesn’t work out it can be discouraging. Or have you ever heard stories of new church planters who go from 20 to 200 in 12 months? Have you ever wondered why your church doesn’t grow like that? What do they know that I don’t know? Maybe they’re better at planning than I am?

It’s so easy to get depressed when your ministry goals don’t speed along like you hoped they would. But is it possible that in our push to go from A to Z, ASAP that we might be missing things that are far more important than the growth of our church? “When I tell people I no longer make long-term plans, more than a few hint that I am a slacker or even a failure. I think it depends on how you define success. Am I right? Hardly. Famous? Nope. Climbing the professional ladder? I’m not even sure where it is anymore. Am I happy? Yes. Life may be a highway, but I’ve tossed my maps and GPS. If something neat turns up along the way, I’m stopping to take pictures.” says Matthew. Maybe we can learn something from this “failure” with a Ph.D.

I’m not suggesting that we quit making plans. But I am suggesting that our obsession with growing our church is more an indoctrination from a culture that values success over significance and rewards size more than substance. I am suggesting you invest more in your soul than your church. I am suggesting you discover what you could cut out of your calendar which would make more time for quiet, solitude, time for thinking, reading, praying, playing. Matthew Wolfe found a way to slow down and enjoy the more important things. In so doing, he was able to say, “I’m happy.” Are you happy?

imagesA a number of years ago I did something I never dreamed possible. I donated all of my commentaries and bible study helps to my alma mater. There were a few really old or rare volumes that I kept for sentimental reasons or in hopes of impressing someone in the future who might see my personal library, but other than that, I boxed them up and dropped them off. I must admit, as I walked away I had mixed feelings. I felt like a parent abandoning their child on someone’s doorstep.

There were two reasons why I gave a big portion of my library away. First, online bible study helps were becoming so abundant that I hardly needed to open “real” books anymore. And second, I discovered that I so seldom needed to turn to commentaries in order to put together a good sermon that they didn’t justify the space they were taking up on my bookshelves. On those rare occasions that I needed to look something up I could do so online. Here are some random thoughts, in no particular order, I have about commentaries and the place they play in sermon preparation.

If you spend more than an hour a week reading commentaries you’re probably spending too much time reading commentaries.

If you already have a Bachelors or Masters in Bible & Theology, or something similar, you’ve probably been exposed to an adequate amount of bible and theology classes and hours of commentary reading will probably not result in you discovering anything new, i.e. “new” from a scholarly, commentary, academic point of view. If you do learn something new (and there’s always something new) the practicality of it will probably not be so great as to justify the time spent.

Assuming that you have some type of formal training in Bible and Theology, the only time you might want to turn to a commentary is if you are dealing with a controversial or difficult passage and you feel a need for some other opinions on the passage.

If you have no formal training in Bible and Theology then go to the local Christian book store and find a few commentaries designed for laymen. These volumes are easier to understand, typically make the application for you, contain all the important stuff, and are less expensive than the larger more scholarly commentaries.

When you need input from commentaries then take advantage of the free tools online, you’ll save time and money.

Discover which website is good for what. For example, one site might be good for commentaries and another good for concordance. One might be strong if you’re looking for a parallel bible while another one excels in Greek and Hebrew. One might have a better selection of word study helps or Bible dictionaries than another. Once you’ve discovered the strengths of each website create a link to each one, change their names to reflect what you’ll use them for, i.e. commentaries, bible dictionaries, Greek, etc., and put them all in a folder on your desktop. And there you have it, your own custom library.

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