The Blessing of Qualified Deacons Who Serve

It is the time of year once more in our church where the members will prayerfully nominate biblically qualified, faithful men to serve in the office of deacon. We recognize two offices within the church - pastors (elders) and deacons. 

It is at this time of the year I sometimes feel like Bill Murray in the movie "Groundhog Day." We have been nominating deacons to serve in our church for decades. This is something that has occurred every single year that I have been here (the past 25 years) and for many years prior. Yet, every year the same questions come up regarding qualifications, expectations, and responsibilities of the men who serve.

Each year, the answers remain the same. At least the core answers do, for those are based on the only passage in Scripture where qualifications of deacons is given (1 Timothy 3.)

So, as we prepare for this time once more, we must go back to Scripture to ensure we understand what is required for men who answer this high calling for the lowly position.

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Often when looking at the qualifications for deacons, we begin reading in verse 8 of chapter 3 while ignoring the qualifications for pastors (elders) listed in the first portion of the chapter. While these are two distinct offices, there is a connecting phrase in verse 8 that leads the reader to see that which is required of pastors is true for deacons as well. That phrase is "Deacons likewise must be..."

While the offices of pastor/elder and deacon have been affirmed in the modern church, the roles of the offices have often been misunderstood, if not fully modified. Based on the New Testament, the pastor/elders are the primary spiritual leaders of the local church. Pastors are to teach or preach the Word and shepherd the souls of those under their care (Eph. 4:11; 1 Tim. 3:2; 5:17; Titus 1:9; Heb. 13:17).

Deacons are to serve. The church needs deacons to offer practical, logistical support and service to the pastors and the church body so that the pastors may focus on the study of the Word of God and prayer. 

The Similarities of Offices

It is clear as one reads through the passage that character counts. Men who serve as pastors and men who serve as deacons are held to high standards of character. They are to be proven, Christian men who are dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy, holding to sound faith and doctrine, and blameless. They are expected to lead their families well and, if married, to have wives who are above reproach as well. Clearly, if a moral character qualification is listed for elders, it is expected of deacons as well. 

The Differences of Offices

The character qualifications are similar, but the roles and expectations of the offices do differ in some significant ways. The most distinguishing difference in the passage is found in 1 Timothy 3:2 where pastors are required to be "apt to teach." 

This has caused confusion for some in that some churches have required their deacons to be serving in a teaching capacity in the church. What deacons are called to do is "hold" to the faith (1 Tim. 3:9).  The office requirement is clear on holding strongly to the doctrines and mysteries of the faith. The passage clearly suggest that deacons do not have an official teaching role in the church.

Nevertheless, while a deacon may not actually be leading a small group or Bible study in the church, he must have the capacity to answer questions regarding biblical truth and doctrine. He must be able to share this truth with others. He should also be willing to serve where needed in the local church...and that may be in a teaching capacity (for various age groups.) 

Character & Doctrine Matters

The deacon is an office of necessity so that the members of the church are served well. The pastor ensures they are taught well. God has positioned these offices in his church for his glory and the good of the church. 

So, as the questions come, the answers remain consistent. There are interpretative variances on some of the qualifications. For example, while "husband of one wife" literally means "a one-woman man" some churches have read this to mean that a divorced man is not qualified for the office (this is our church's understanding.) Other churches have held this to mean a man should be married to only one woman at a time, which was an issue in the day it was written and will likely be again as marriage laws and redefinitions of acceptable relations continue to occur. Some hold that if a man became a believer after a remarriage, he qualifies. 

Our church also has chosen to refrain from the drinking of alcoholic beverages for all pastors and deacons. While we concur that drinking alcoholic beverages is not a sin, we acknowledge that in our culture the command to ensure we not be stumbling blocks to newer believers has led to the continuation of this guideline. 

While the "Groundhog Day" feeling continues, there are things that come up during this season of "deacon nomination" that causes me to reevaluate our guidelines, processes, and roles in our church.

Things We Need To Reconsider

  • GET RID OF THE TERM LIMIT - We have "inactive deacons" and I keep looking in Scripture to see where that is validated. Our practice, as with many legacy churches, is to call a man to serve for a "term" as a deacon. In our case, it's for three years.  It seems to me the concept of "inactive" is wrong. Now, there are cases where a man should step down from service. Obviously, the abandonment of solid doctrine, immorality, divisiveness, or opposition to pastors (who are leading biblically) would be reasons for a removal from office. However, a year off after three years on seems to be nothing more than a passive way to remove men from office without having to address personality conflicts or more importantly, issues such as those listed above.
  • STOP NOMINATING THE UNQUALIFIED - The process of nomination is challenging. Yet, there are men nominated by well-meaning church members each year who are not qualified for the office. 
  • STOP TRYING TO FILL A QUOTA - We have abandoned this, but many churches still are focused on having the right number of men as deacons a required by their by-laws. The church is better off having the right men, even if it's a smaller number, than a large group of men who do not qualify.
  • SELECT QUALIFIED DEACONS WHO ALREADY SERVE IN THE CHURCH - Calling a man who does nothing in the church with the hopes he will once he is called as a deacon is akin to giving a person who never attends small group a teaching position in hopes that he/she will start attending regularly. It's futile. It's wrong. It lowers the bar. 
  • CALL TO REPENTANCE THOSE THOSE WHO HAVE SERVED, BUT WON'T NOW - There are some who do not serve actively due to health or serious familial reasons. Then there are the men who refuse to serve for reasons that are less than godly. A deacon who has served in the past but won't currently due to differences with pastoral leadership, anger, laziness, or simply a desire to not serve within the church, must be called to repentance. Why? Because this is sin. If the man has disqualified himself from the office, that too must be addressed. However, it seems that at times, certain men are begged by other church members to serve again as they did prior to their refusal to be "active" once more, but to do so without calling them to repentance is to affirm the sin keeping them out of the office. 

The Bible charges pastors with the tasks of teaching and leading the church. The deacons role is more service-oriented. By handling such issues within the church, the pastors are freed up to focus on shepherding the spiritual needs of the church. Deacons are a blessing. They honor God through their service to him and his church.


Why I Quit Men's Ministry

About fifteen years ago I was reading one of the popular men’s books available and selling well in Christian bookstores at the time. I was challenged and encouraged and even traveled out west to attend a retreat hosted by the author. At that point in my life, I needed this message and God used it to affirm his calling upon my life.

Prior to that, like many Christian men, I read a few books about living as a godly man that had become popular.  This was during the growth of the men’s ministry movement that was grew due to ministries like Promise Keepers and other conference events. The focus on biblical manhood was needed then. It still is. Pastors like Robert Lewis and his Men’s Fraternity material proved very valuable. I began leading Men’s Fraternity groups at our church and launched a men’s ministry called “Battle Ready” through our church. This led to retreats, outings, conferences, and small group studies over the years.

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One of the annual highlights for our men was Battle Ready Weekend. We would gather in Tennessee for three days of solid, no-holds-barred biblical teaching, personal reflection, along with some fun experiences like paintball, white water rafting, zip lines, and more.

The themes of the teachings were the same every year. In fact, most of the biblically-based books and resources for men’s ministry tend to be similar. There’s a focus on living out one’s identity in Christ, refusing to be passive, delving into spiritual wounds, being a godly husband, and leaving a legacy as a godly father.

I have fond memories of these days. The gospel was proclaimed. Biblical teaching on being the man God intends was offered. Wives started signing their husbands up stating the benefits to their marriages were clear. Children had conversations that previously had gone left unsaid.

We began inviting our sons to join us on these weekends. The shift was needed and those with sons were provided opportunity to speak into their lives in ways that they often desired, but were unable or unwilling to do so. In retrospect, the moments between fathers and sons proved to be powerful and impactful.

Then things began to shift.

Preparing for the weekend trips became an administrative headache. I was the keynote speaker, but also the schedule developer, the rooming reservationist, the event planner, and over every little detail of the weekend events. This was due to my own immaturity and weaknesses in leadership. I was “leading” but not leading well. I had created a retreat for me and ended up inviting other guys along. It was good. It was not best.

Then, I invited my son. This became the father-son weekend I desired. Those things I had challenged other fathers to do was now to be modeled by me – the pastor, the men’s ministry leader, the founder of Battle Ready.

My son was in elementary school. He would soon be in junior high and would attend with me annually until his senior year in high school.

We did have some good times. There were a couple of years when he and I would leave early and arrive at the campground a few days before the bus full of friends from church arrived. It was just the two of us. I tried to make it a memorable week. Maybe I was trying to create something that I felt was missing in our lives? Perhaps I was trying to connect with him before it was too late. Hindsight is 20/20, but it also leads me to over analyze in ways that are often not helpful. So there's that.

We came home and my wife asked “How was your time together?” I said “Okay. It was good.”

I meant it. Truly. But she was expecting something profound to happen. When I failed to reveal the “moment” that connected us well, she seemed disappointed. In truth, I was too.

There was a gap. It wasn’t my son’s fault at that time. I really don’t think it was mine either. I’m not sure what the problem was. Well, looking back, it was something I had created with my overly busy schedule likely (I’ve been told that numerous times) and was trying to make up for lost time.

Words from Robert Lewis would resonate with me. He would say “An involved dad is not a strategic dad.” Boom. That was me. I was definitely involved. I coached his team. Went to school events (I did miss that one story time in elementary school that leaves a scar in our story) sponsored him and traveled with him on school field trips, would adjust my schedule to his, and took him with me on occasion when I could. But…that wasn’t necessarily strategic.

Then something happened.

THE WORST MOMENT IN MY LIFE (SO FAR)

Up to this point, it would be categorized as the worst moment in my life. For my son, it wasn’t good either.

There was a divide between us. He was in high school.

He made choices that fell outside our (my wife and I) understanding of biblical fidelity. There were many things that we never saw coming. Our family was under spiritual attack. A trap was sprung. It was an incredibly effective one as well. We were in a battle and while it manifested as being between my son and I at times, the true battle was deeper, more sinister, and spiritual.

Many in our community and even some in our church didn’t (and do not) understand this. I’ve discovered there is a two-dimensional narrative that some believe to be true. Based on the portions of our story known by some, opinions were developed. Judgments were made. Depending on who you talk with, varying characters in this storyline were the wrong ones and the bad guys. That’s always the case. Since living through this journey I’ve been convicted of times when I have made the same false judgments on others based simply on one version of a story, or perhaps only what I have observed.

I have learned. I hope I now know better. Looking back, confirmation has been given by God regarding our rightness to stand firmly on his Word and truth. Sin does not live in grey areas and of that we have been affirmed. We also have this amazing ability to see how we could have responded better (not by affirming sin) at times. That remains a continual struggle, since as you may know our story continues (just as everyone reading this is living in a continual story.)

Our son eventually graduated from high school. He went to university and excelled. He continues in graduate studies and I have no doubt that he will continue to do well. He may actually be the most intelligent young man I have ever met. He is gifted and talented. He is also perhaps the best friend an individual could have.

Yet, the fellowship between father and son is absent. I don’t say those words lightly or with animosity. It’s just a reality. It’s not a finality, but today it remains.

MEN'S EVENTS

I continued to plan men’s weekends even after my son went away to school and was beyond wanting (or pretending to want) to attend. I remember the last one I planned. It was in eastern Tennessee at Doe River Gorge. This is a beautiful location with many amenities. The cabins are perfect. I stayed in an old train caboose that had been converted into a hotel-type room. I had other men teaching sessions so it was not all on me. We had a good group attend and it was not unlike previous gatherings.

But…something was wrong.

I was tired. I was no longer being renewed through these weekends. I was burning out. And I felt like a hypocrite.

I was teaching the Word and as our men know, was always pretty transparent in my sessions. I would share weaknesses and mistakes and where I saw my needs for grace. Yet, in this story as a father, I felt like a failure. I was seeking to model the “how to” of being a godly husband and father and lo and behold, there was this monkey wrench thrown into the machinery.

“Where’s your son?” was asked by a few of the men. It was asked by some whom I thought knew what had happening and the journey we were on. However, these are men. I’m guilty as well. Sometimes we just don’t catch the obvious or hear the details.

Battle Ready Weekend ended and I began my drive home. I didn’t ride the bus. I drove alone. I arrived early to Tennessee and spent three days alone in prayer and just trying to gather my thoughts or anything else that would help. I actually found myself ready to end my weekend and head home about a day before all the men arrived. NOTE – if you want to leave before everyone arrives, that’s not a good sign.

Overall the weekend went well.

But, I was done.

I just could not do it again.

That was 2015.

I am still way too busy it seems. While things aren’t exactly as I desire them to be, God has done a work upon and within me. I went back to school and am almost finished. I’m older and hopefully a bit wiser. The crisis of life pushed me even deeper into God’s Word. I still have some men’s ministry books. Actually I have a shelf full of them, but have found greater insight into living for Christ directly from the Bible rather than from books about the Bible. Go figure. As a pastor, you’d think this would be obvious.

I still read these books and others. I have read biographies of great men of the faith. I have discovered once more what I have already known. The doubts and fears I have faced, the inadequacies that seem to be more and more obvious, the spiritual attacks, and more are not unique to my story. The perfect pastor’s family does not exist. It’s a façade. There is only one who is perfect, and His perfection is my strength. His grace is my sufficiency.

BACK AT IT

I’m not hosting another men’s weekend. We may never do those again like we did in the past. In fact, most of the men who were key to making it happen have left the church or moved elsewhere. Some have clearly followed God’s lead elsewhere to serve. Others have just been taken out of the story through moral failure or the abandonment of biblical truth. For those I grieve.

While I’m not hosting, I have agreed to speak at a men’s weekend. A portion of our annual attendees lived in North Carolina and under the leadership of my friend Travis Bowman, Battle Ready NC was created. I am so excited for what he has been able to do through this ministry. This year I will be speaking at the opening session for the men attending. It takes time to get from Florida to North Carolina. I will once again take a long drive alone for prayer and reflection. Yet, this time I believe God is calling me to do this for His glory and for the good of the men in attendance. Maybe it’s for the good of my family as well. I hope so.

I quit men’s ministry. Maybe I don’t need “men’s ministry” but I know what I do need, and I know the men in our church and community need this too. I need to walk humbly with God as a man with a strong faith, a biblical worldview, with gospel-soundness and a graceful love of others.

It’s kind of funny, in a sick way. I was telling men to be “Battle Ready” and was blindsided by the enemy who proved I was not. Yet in my weakness He is strong and where I have no capacity to be battle ready, I know he is.

The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent. Exodus 14:14 (ESV) [1]

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[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ex 14:14). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.


Your New Church Has Great Music, a Trendy Logo, and Looks Great On Instagram...But, That's Not Enough

Laura M. Holson recently (March 17, 2018) wrote an article about a young, large, fast-growing church in southern California for The New York Times. Dr. Albert Mohler referenced the article and church in his podcast The Briefing, posted on March 23, 2018.)

As I listened to Dr. Mohler's podcast and then read the article, I could not help but think "I know churches just like the one in the article!"

Pastors serving in a metropolitan or suburban (and perhaps in some rural) areas have noticed an uptick in new church starts intent on reaching the next generation. I am excited to see more churches in our city. I am so glad to see men step up, not just as a career choice, but due to a God calling (BTW - not all who seek to pastor, should. I wrote about that in the past here). That's why I serve in our city network as a church planting assessor, offer our facilities for new works, and seek to help those called into pastoral ministry as best I can.

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Now that I amazingly am an "old-timer" in our community since I've pastored here for over two decades, I often am asked about some of the new starts that pop up from my peers. Normally the question is something like "What's up with XYZ Church?" Sometimes I know the new pastor and have great things to say. Other times, I have yet to meet the new pastor and have no information to offer. Then, there are the other circumstances when I do know the pastor, know of his theology and focus, and seeking not to be negative, will just encourage others to pray for them (while never encouraging anyone to attend their church.)

Referencing the article from the NYT and Dr. Mohler's assessment once more, I noticed some things that stand out and should be addressed by evangelicals (based on a solid definition of the term). I list some of these below, in no particular order:

The Term "Evangelical" Has Become Almost Unusable

In America today, the term evangelical is used by some who understand the meaning to be related to an identified subset of Christianity that holds to biblical authority and the desire to reach out, or evangelize (thus, the name) those who are non-believers. This is a valid definition. It lines up with the explanation of the National Association of Evangelicals on their site:

Evangelicals take the Bible seriously and believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The term “evangelical” comes from the Greek word euangelion, meaning “the good news” or the “gospel.” Thus, the evangelical faith focuses on the “good news” of salvation brought to sinners by Jesus Christ.

However, most recently the term "evangelical" has been muddied. The media uses the term to identify any church or Christian that cannot be categorized as Catholic or Protestant Liberal. More troubling, the term has become an identifier of a perceived political ideology. Christians are likely to blame for this.

Marketing Is Celebrated More Than Message

To be clear, I love specialty marketing stuff. I have no real issues with churches creating attractive logos and plastering them on shirts, hats, or other items. Maybe that's a hold over from my business classes in college. A well-designed logo becomes identifiable in a community. Churches seeking to connect with Millennials often utilize social media (Instagram and Snapchat primarily) to spread the word and create a sense of "coolness" for what they're doing. I'm not opposed to it. Just call it what it is. It is not evangelism. It is not discipleship. It is marketing. While not a bad thing, the church must remember that we have not been called to market well, but to be "salt" and "light" in the world (Matt 5:13-16), commissioned to make disciples of Jesus Christ (Matt 28:19-20).

In some churches, especially the ones referenced in the article, music is incredible, complete with the best sound systems, incredible musicians and smoke machines.

Yet, the message is somewhere an afterthought. The message is toned down into a stream of tweetable thoughts of positive thinking, self-belief, with just enough Jesus sprinkled in to allow the gathering to claim to be Christian. But, it's dangerous.

From Holson's article:

Mr. Veach believes he can save souls by being the hip and happy-go-lucky preacher, the one you want to share a bowl of açaí with at Backyard Bowls on Beverly Boulevard, who declines to publicly discuss politics in the Trump era because it’s hard to minister if no one wants to come to church. Jesus is supposed to be fun, right?

“I want to be loud and dumb,” Mr. Veach said with a wide, toothy grin. “That’s my goal. If we aren’t making people laugh, what are we doing? What is the point?”

Asked about abortion rights, Mr. Veach declined to give a specific answer. “At the end of the day I am a Bible guy,” he said.

Mr. Veach’s father shrugged about his son’s equivocation. “Last thing you want to do is turn off a whole demographic,” he said of today’s pastors. “If you draw lines in the sand, people are going to think God hates them.”

And Mr. Veach wants Zoe to be a refuge for many, against the rhetoric of so many other dogmatic evangelicals.

“From the time I’ve entered, and, maybe, just what we grew up in, it’s, like, you don’t bring politics into church,” he said. “We’re here to preach good news. We’re here to bring hope to humanity. We’re here to talk about God. This is not the place for a political agenda. This is the last place. When I come to church, you know what I need? I need encouragement.”

Dr. Mohler responds:

Now before we dismiss that statement entirely, there's something profoundly true in what he said. People do not come to church in order to talk about politics. That's not what their souls need. But what he said is fundamentally wrong and it ends up being actually, not only allergic to politics but antithetical to the gospel because he reduces what people do need to exactly the wrong word, encouragement. There have been far too many evangelical congregations that have talked more eagerly and more clearly about politics and political issues than they have about the gospel and that is to their shame. But the inescapable fact is that if you are 'a Bible guy" then that means you have to teach the Bible and it means you have to believe the Bible as the inerrant and infallible word of God. It means that you have to preach the parts of the Bible that a contemporary society might find encouraging but it also means you've got to preach the parts of the Bible that a modern, very secular society will find anything but encouraging. Most importantly, if you claim to be committed to human flourishing, you have to be clear about whom the Bible identifies as a human and what flourishing would mean.

"Gospel Lite" with a Good Beat

Now, I do not know Mr. Veach. And, clearly, all I have to go on is what the church promotes online and an article written for The New York Times.

What I do know is that as I read the article about Zoe Church in southern California, as described in this article, I could not help but think of a few churches in our community that seem to have taken the exact blueprint for church launching and growth. They have great music, marketable goods, a trendy logo, an incredible social media presence. This is the Instagram and Snapchat generation and these churches are connecting well.

My concern is the sacrifice of good theology for the propagation of crowd gathering, bent solely on encouragement and good feels.

Many of these music-driven churches are based on others such as Hillsong, described in the NYT article as the "granddaddy of them all." Mohler says, "Hillsong is in many ways an updated millennial prosperity theology packed very well with contemporary music."

Worship Doesn't Have to Be a "No Smoking" Zone

To be clear, having a good band lead worship, complete with lights and even a smoke machine is not bad. Some lambast music styles, but I do not. I am firmly convinced authentic worship can take place through a variety of music styles. To argue otherwise is a waste of breath and ultimately moot.

However, just having good music does not excuse weak preaching. There are some incredible worship songs being written today and many have been sung regularly in churches throughout the world. Yet, the wise pastor would be careful to ensure the worship music (whether old hymns, country gospel, hip hop, modern praise, etc.) has strongly worded lyrics that affirm good theology.  A good rule of thumb is that if a band spends more time explaining why a lyric is biblical after being confronted by solid, biblically sound pastors regarding said lyric, the song should be deleted from the worship set.

I don't care if the band plays contemporary music. I don't care if there are lights and a smoke machine. I don't care that a trendy logo is slapped on various items. I really don't care if a church does that. My warning is to not major on the minors (all that stuff) and miss the main thing - the message of the gospel.

A Higher Standard

I care about these churches because I know some of their pastors and a good number of their members. I pray they will not sacrifice the good news for a good time.

However, if a local church proves to be more icing than cake, I will continue to pray for them and not recommend that anyone attend. 

And for those who counter "Well, they weren't going to church anywhere. At least that church is better than not going, right?" I say - "Probably not."

I care because I want people to come to Christ. I want the unreached reached. I want the lost found. I just don't want a fluffy, weak, watered-down version of Christianity to propagate.

There's too much at stake. 


Live for God and You Will Face a Sanballat & Tobiah

I have been leading our church through a study of Ezra and Nehemiah on Wednesdays recently. We have discussed much about the rebuilding of the Temple and walls of Jerusalem. We looked at the significance of rebuilding these structures and of the gates of the city as well.

As you who have studied these books know, there are a few characters who show up early in the book of Nehemiah that seek to discredit Nehemiah's leadership and put a stop to the work being done in the city. These men are Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem.

The main protagonists are Sanballat and Tobiah. At first, they start hurling insults at Nehemiah and the people. Then, the threats lead to potential physical attacks. They are opposed to the work of God and are doing their best to stop it.

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Photo credit: alvaro tapia hidalgo on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Nehemiah is seeking to lead God's people well and honor God through the work. The enemies seek to place themselves first, not God nor his people. This is clear in the writings. 

Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem were men of influence. They had authority in the community due to their roles as governors and leaders of their regions. They represented people groups that were originally expelled from the Promised Land of God's people centuries prior. 

While it's not necessarily a good thing to ask "Where am I in this story?" when it comes to biblical narratives, primarily because that seems to place self at the center of God's stories. In this case, there are some things that are not only clear historically, but applicable for churches and Christian leaders today.

There are always Sanballats and Tobiahs

Most pastors I know have experienced this reality. When a pastor or Christian leader seeks to do great, impossible, God-sized things for the glory of God, there is always opposition. In other words, there's always a "Sanballat" and "Tobiah" in the midst. These may be community members or neighbors. Sometimes, they are actually members of the church. 

Over time they become easily recognizable. Here are some things that occur within the church that reveal a Sanballat and Tobiah may be in the room:

  • A sense of "me first" or "our group first" rises to the surface when community engagement and mission expansion are presented.
  • A pervasive negativity fills the room and is stoked by the Sanballats and Tobiahs. Negativity is like a cancer and can turn a joyous gathering of Christians into a complain-fest that sees nothing positive happening.
  • Vision dissipates.
  • A desire to go back rather than forward is often expressed.
  • An "us versus them" mentality is expressed, either overtly or covertly. The confusion may come in identifying the "us" and the "them." 
  • New ideas (or even old ones cemented in biblical truth) are opposed.
  • A number of pastors have heard the "We were here before you came here. We'll be here after you're gone." expression regularly.
  • A continued reminder of how big a failure you are as a pastor or leader (i.e. "You didn't visit enough," "Your sermons are negative diatribes," "You love 'them' more than 'us,'" "You're changing things and we don't like it," "Your family is rude/mean/loud/unruly/undisciplined/etc."

Here's the good news - your Sanballats and Tobiahs are just members of a long-lasting club. It's a club no one should want to be a member, yet continues to grow in number, it seems.

Pastor, be encouraged. There's no pastor who has not faced this. You are called to shepherd and serve. You are not perfect. You will make mistakes. Believe me, people will let you know when you make mistakes. Just remember that God called and equipped a king's cupbearer for an impossible task of rebuilding a stone wall with large wooden gates around a city. This task he (Nehemiah) was given was impossible. Then, while continually facing opposition, even from those who were working with him, he was opposed by Sanballat and Tobiah. Yet, he finished the task. The city was restored. God's good hand (Neh 2) was upon him. It is on you as well. Stay focused on the task, grounded in the gospel and respond to the negative attackers as Nehemiah did...

And I sent messengers to them, saying, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” Nehemiah 6:3 (ESV) 

I love that! When Sanballat and Tobiah were working once more to distract and stop the work Nehemiah was called to do, he responds with "Can't talk now. The work of God I am doing now is too important." 

Take heart. You're not the first to face opposition. You' won't be the last. Don't waste time talking about it to those who are direly opposed to God and his work (regardless their position or title) and press on. Yes, this is easier said than done, but then most vital things are.

One other warning: Be careful not to become a Sanballat or Tobiah. It's really easy to slide into that mode, even justifying one's own sin while doing so.


You Are Called to Pastor - Do You Really Need Seminary?

I have served in pastoral ministry for almost thirty years. When I surrendered to God's calling as a pastor, I began counting down the months until graduation at the university I was attending. I knew, immediately, that seminary was my next step. This is likely due to the fact I lived in Fort Worth, Texas which was home, at the time, of the largest evangelical seminary in the world (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.) My pastor was a student at SWBTS, as were the numerous student pastors who served part-time at the small church where I was a member. In fact, it never occurred to me that seminary was not an option. 

I am currently back at seminary, working toward a Doctor of Educational Ministry at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

So, I would understand if in your reading of this article, you deem me to be biased. I am. I believe seminary education is good and valuable for the one called to pastoral ministry. 

I also understand that it is not a biblical requirement of the office.

Nevertheless, as I have had opportunity to serve in the local church and see young people surrender their lives to what we term "full-time Christian service" there is a trend I have noticed of minimizing the need for theological education. This is not true for all, but there are those who just want to hurry up and get on the field and forego the study.

Do You Have To Go To Seminary to Pastor?

Well, no. You won't find a verse that commands the called out ones to enroll in an accredited school for the purpose of earning a degree. Yet, we must not dismiss this as a viable option for pastors, or in some cases a recommended one.

Dr. Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary states it this way:

Seminaries, when they are faithful as servants of the church and accountable to the church, training ministers without apology for the churches, and doing so effectively, can offer a pastor the most comprehensive background for ministry that can be put into about a three year period. Now, as I say, I hope every pastor would have at least that much, because I think to really be a skilled preacher of God’s word and a pastor, to continue to grow, most pastors will go beyond that and if not in formal study, at least that better be the investment in how they study on their own.

Yet, we have all heard from those in the local churches who have decried the seminary education for fear that all that training messes with good preachers and makes them ineffective. Well, if you haven't heard that type of talk, you haven't been around many of our smaller congregations who struggle with the sending off for educational purposes.

Southern-Seminary
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary - Louisville, KY

In some cases, these complaints are valid. In fact, in Baptist life just a few decades ago, the great fear was becoming a reality. Biblically-based, theologically conservative institutions were not just leaning, but running quickly to the left and disavowing the veracity of Scripture as inerrant. While many Baptist colleges and universities were lost to the cultural shift, the six Southern Baptist seminaries were reclaimed through what has become known as the conservative resurgence.

Therefore, over the past few decades, much like many years ago, the ministerial training offered at our seminaries has proved to be quality, biblically-sound, and effective. Of course, there will always be small exceptions, but by and large, this is the what God has provided, all to his glory, in our schools.

Pastoring Without Seminary

Yet, there are many godly men serving in pastoral ministry who do not have seminary degrees. These are not unlearned men. They are wise and biblically sound. 

Matt Chandler, Pastor at The Village Church, is one such man and has addressed this clearly. He states:

I have been asked recently about what my thoughts are concerning seminary and why I never finished. I have found this to be a very polarizing subject where people put me in the camp of those who think that seminary is unnecessary or put me into the other camp that thinks scholarship isn't important for the pastorate. The truth is I think most men need to go to seminary and scholarship is extremely important. 

There is a recent trend of really sharp, entrepreneurial, driven men skipping seminary all together and planting churches. I don't have a problem with this at all if those men have picked up the tools they need in other places and are continuing to grow theologically and philosophically. If a guy can handle the Greek and Hebrew, knows at least at the cursory level Christian history and can wrestle through and find answers for deep, difficult theological questions then he might not need a degree from a seminary. These men are usually driven, avid studiers and readers by nature. If they could, they would spend their whole day with the scriptures as well as with men like Calvin, Luther and Spurgeon. I said might because seminary then becomes an obedience issue between him and the Lord and may still be a very good idea.

On the other hand, if you don't have the tools, have a tendency to be lazy in study, can't handle the languages, know nothing of how to find answers to deep, difficult theological questions except to quote John Piper and know nothing of our rich history then you need to go get some tools. If you are lazy in study and continue to get in front of people and teach, you have much more courage than I do. I would strongly recommend seminary for its accountability and plan to educate you in doctrine, language and history.

Speed Doesn't Justify Poor Theology

Dr. M. David Sills has written an incredible book titled Reaching and Teaching: A Call to Great Commission Obedience. As a former field missionary overseas and now as a seminary professor, he brings great insight into the flawed model of ministry that offers little discipleship training and provides empty titles for those determined to be leaders.

With a desire to reach the unreached, we have unfortunately turned previously reached groups into unreached groups while ultimately seeking to speed the return of Christ (as if we actually can manipulate God to adjust a time he already has set.) Yes, reaching the unreached is a mandate. It is biblical. It is right. Nevertheless, as Dr. Sills states, "The great missiological error of our day is the mistaken notion that the Great Commission equals reaching the unreached."

Reaching and discipling are not synonyms. (TWEET THIS)

The great tragedy of the world is not that it is unreached; it is that it is undiscipled. Jesus commanded us to make disciples, not just to get decisions.

Sills continues in a recent article posted on the International Mission Board site...

Theological preparation is necessary to plant the pure seed of the gospel in the soil of the target culture rather than simply bringing a potted plant that is indigenous to the missionary’s home culture.

Yet, a degree from a theological seminary may not be necessary, and in fact, some seminaries might do more harm than good. But every missionary must have a masters degree from the School of Christ, no matter how or where he gets it.

Missionaries would be wise to go to the best seminary they can find, one that teaches sound theology and biblical missiology, and get all the education they can in preparation before deploying to the nations.

If God opens the door before they actually graduate, then by all means they should follow his guidance and go. The Lord knows what each missionary needs to do all he has planned for him or her to do, and he also knows what the world needs.

Make sure you hear the still, small voice that says, “This is the way, walk in it,” and then obey that call as if souls depended on it. You shouldn’t run before you’re ready any more than you should delay once you are. God’s timing is not ours. If he hasn’t yet said, “Go now!” then get all the education you can get while you’re home.

Planters, Pastors, and Missionaries in Hurry Up Mode

As we have mentored and coached young ministers and pastors over the years, a few challenges have arisen. In some cases, a person surrenders later in life (when it comes to schooling, this may mean over age 30) and while working a full-time job and seeking to raise a family, deem theological education as not being an option. While some, as in Chandler's case, may rightly continue serving without any training, others drastically need coaching.

When there is an urgency to hurry up and get to work in the ministry, things often do not go well. Don't get me wrong, God remains sovereign and can work through anyone willing to serve. I'm not negating his power or call. Yet, I have seen unteachable people rush to service only to do more harm than good for the kingdom.

Sills states "If God opens the door before they actually graduate, then by all means they should follow his guidance and go." I agree, but I also have seen some vibrant newly surrendered ministers and missionaries who actually forced the door open. In these cases, undone work remains undone. 

In these cases, it's really not about seminary or continued education. It is about having a teachable and learnable spirit. 

If he hasn’t yet said, “Go now!” then get all the education you can get while you’re home.

Patience is a pain, but it's a virtue too, right? In the waiting, God prepares and provides. Seminary and theological training are not tools to cool one's passion for the gospel. It is a gift of God. We should remember that and take it to heart.

And, just as a building with the name church on it does not make it a viable option for education and worship, neither does an institution with a name college, university, or seminary mean it's a good option. That being said, I'm glad to say that as a Southern Baptist pastor, I can wholeheartedly recommend our seminaries for those called into ministry, for the furtherance of their training. I can, and do. We live in an era where quality theological training does not mean uprooting one's family and moving across the country (though it could.) Distance learning is provided by all our schools, and depending on the region one lives, most likely an off-campus site is available in a short driving distance. If not, then by all means move. As God calls, he provides.

Our SBC seminaries:

 


When You Should Leave Your Church

A few days ago, I posted an article intended for other pastors and church leaders. The article was titled "People Will Leave Your Church - And It Hurts Every Time." It drew a few more clicks than other articles I have written.

I have had a few responses from friends through personal conversations and emails. No one who has contacted me expressed anger, but a few comments focused on "Which one am I in the list?" and "I've learned some things in this journey" from friends who have changed churches.

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While I address the reality that sometimes people leave the local church for good and godly reasons, the previous article focused more on the wrong reasons people leave. So, as a Part 2, here's a list of reasons why it is good to leave a local church. Oh, it still may be painful, but then who said life was to be pain-free?

When You Should Leave Your Church...

  • WORK TRANSFERS - I addressed this in the previous article and whether it is the military or the corporation moving an individual or family, in most cases, it is good to keep one's job and move. We have viewed this as a great mission agency move to new areas of ministry. God blesses in these shifts and also brings new people into communities who will join the local church and serve well. 
  • WHEN HERESY IS TAUGHT FROM THE PULPIT - There are so many "gospels" being preached from pulpits nowadays that often those in the congregation find themselves confused on what is truth and what is opinion. Paul addressed this to the Galatian church (Gal 1:7-9).
  • A DISREGARD TO SCRIPTURE - When church leaders systematically pick and choose passages and doctrines to uphold while ignoring others consistently, a gap in teaching is occurring. In many cases, this will result in the lack of church discipline and compromises on leadership qualifications.
  • WHEN LEADERS SOW DISCORD AND DISUNITY - Unity in the church is difficult, and all churches will struggle with this, but when leaders are sowing the seeds of discord and creating factions, it is time to address how Kingdom work can be accomplished when Christ's commands are ignored. (Romans 16:17)
  • GROSS HYPOCRISY - When lip service is given to the mission and calling of biblical Christianity, but actions do not match such, the church has refused the gospel and the power of God. These churches should shut down for they are a stumbling block to true Christianity.
  • RACISM - Sadly, there remain churches that based on practice and organization do not accept "them" as members or would rather "they" have their own services or churches because it's better that way. Racism disguised as "missional preference" is still racism and must be addressed. If no change occurs (i.e. repentance) then leaving said church is right, for God likely left years prior.
  • UNADDRESSED SIN & UNHOLY LIVING IS TOLERATED - When open sin among church members is ignored, or worse yet excused, the church fails to uphold the truth of Scripture. If the pastors are the offenders, then other pastors, deacons, elders, and church leaders must confront them for the goal of restitution and repentance (1 Tim 5:19-20). If it is a church member, the same is true (Matt 18:15-17). Most people don't like this because it sounds so confrontational (and it is.) Yet, if your church isn't willing to kick you out due to unrepentant sin, it's not worth being a member there.
  • THE MISSION DEMANDS IT - Sometimes, God calls his children to leave the safe place of the home church to serve elsewhere. In some cases, this may be to the uttermost parts of the earth. This is the calling of all Christians actually - to go wherever He calls. Sometimes that calling leaves you in your current community and local church. Sometimes it moves you elsewhere. 

There are right times to leave. None of these center on consumeristic themes or even the "I'm not being fed" mantra so often heard. However, of the ones listed above (and it's not a complete list, I'm sure) there are two where God's calling and glory is celebrated. In those, the mission rises and God is honored. These two times where God calls his people out and they are sent reminds me of the church at Antioch. 

The other reasons actually center on the holiness of God as well. When His church refuses to be holy, biblically grounded, and God honoring, hypocrisy and discord reign. However, even in these cases, leaving the church should not be the first response. Pray through this. Seek God's face. He may just be calling you to the mission that forces you to remain and be a change-agent for his glory within the local body.

 


Dear Young Pastor and Church Planter...Listen!

There comes a point in pastoral ministry when people stop referring to you as the new, young pastor. Youthfulness is fleeting and along with the greying of hair, stiffening of joints, and a few more "smile lines" comes, hopefully, some wisdom.

I am encouraged at this stage of ministry when others seem to be lamenting the perceived fall of the church in our culture. As I visited a church last week, and joined the senior adult men's Bible study class, one gentleman stated his dismay at how the world is and how bleak the future appears.

I imagine every generation since Adam (or at least Noah) has said similar things. 

Nevertheless, be encouraged. Of course, our study last week was on Barnabas. How appropriate. 

There are many young men who have answered God's call into pastoral ministry. Many young men and women are committed to living as disciples of Jesus Christ, on mission for Him. Though the rise of the "nones" continues to make headlines (or at least becomes sermon fodder or religious discussion points) the fact remains that God has not changed and, in case you have forgotten, is still on His sovereign throne.

That being said, once you step over the line into "older adulthood" or at least "median adulthood" (those designations change depending on who is looking back in the mirror) perspectives shift. Wisdom of the ages is garnered, at least we hope so.

Every Timothy needs a Paul. The wise pastor realizes that at some point he, too, becomes a Paul for another Timothy. This is a daunting and wonderful role not to be ignored.

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So, as I stand here at this point in pastoral ministry, I have many years behind me. I have no idea how many ahead (though I'm planning for many.) I have learned some things. I have much more to learn. Oh, and some of the things I have learned, I am still attempting to put into practice. In other words - I have not arrived and I know it.

H.B. Charles, Jr., pastor of Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church in Jacksonville and Orange Park has written an excellent book for pastors that features a chapter titled "Lessons I've Learned Along the Way." As I read these, I find myself agreeing and even laughing because I know each statement has a deeper story behind it. H.B. is a friend and has been and is being greatly used by God as His pastor to those at Shiloh and beyond. As I read these tips from H.B., I thought of the young men in our church and network and those I have come to know, at least in passing, and I offer his tips, others I've found and mine as well. H.B.'s are marked. Get the book here for his full list.

For the young pastors and ministers out there...

  • Don't plant a church with only people your age and younger. You may be cool, but that "wisdom of the ages" thing is missing and that's dangerous. (David K. Tarkington)
  • You may have to serve as a bi-vocational pastor for a season. That season may be decades long. (DKT)
  • Arrogance is not a spiritual gift. (DKT)
  • Sometimes when God closes a door, he doesn't open a window. He wants you inside when the building collapses. The Q: Will Christ be enough? (Jared C. Wilson)
  • Be a friend to other pastors, even if they're not friends to you. (H.B. Charles, Jr.)
  • Don't assume anything. (HBC)
  • Contextualization is great, but dress like an adult. (Dean Inserra)
  • You hopefully won't be the last pastor at your church. Live and lead so you leave a godly legacy, even if most of the members of "your" church have no idea who you are thirty years after you're gone. (DKT)
  • If they don't trust you, you can't lead them. (HBC)
  • Before you ask someone why they didn't share their struggles with you, ask yourself first if you've shown yourself to be a safe person. (JCW)
  • If we’re more concerned with our standard of life than God’s intentions for our family, God has a harsh word for us. (J.D. Greear)
  • Ecclesiologically speaking, a lot of stuff that counts can't be counted. (JCW)
  • What good is it to be a "good Christian neighbor" if you don't care enough to share Christ with those neighbors? (DKT)
  • Do not read anonymous mail or unsigned letters. (HBC)
  • Sometimes, you need to not read signed letters. (DKT)
  • Never vent online or on social media. (DKT)
  • The pastor who is always available will be of no use when he is available. (HBC)
  • If you can keep from preaching, do it. Christian ministry is a calling you receive, not a vocation you choose. (HBC)
  • There is nothing new under the sun, but that's no excuse for plagiarism. (DKT)
  • You have to say the hard things. Yet, you must do so in love. (DKT)
  • If pastoral ministry was easy, everyone would do it. (DKT)
  • Discipleship is a process. (Jimmy Scroggins)
  • Love and affirmation are not the same thing. (DKT)
  • If you guard your character, your reputation will take care of itself. (HBC)
  • Pray. Journal. These are verbs. (DKT)
  • Wherever you go, you represent Jesus and the church. (Grant Ethridge)
  • When given the opportunity to preach the Gospel, do it. Be ready at all times. Keep sermons with you. (DKT)
  • If you have a church building with a built-in baptistry (some churches are plants and borrow facilities) keep water in it for every service. Don't miss those "Ethiopian Eunuch" moments. (DKT)
  • Network with other pastors and churches in your area. This helps eliminate the competitive nature that we all have. (DKT)
  • People do not give to needs. They give to vision. (HBC)
  • Every young pastor needs an old mentor. (Sam Rainer)
  • Studying for your sermon is not the same as spending time alone with God in prayer and devotion. (DKT)
  • No politician is either your messiah or the enemy. Don't put your hope, or your ultimate fear, in the political domain. (Micah Fries)
  • Avoid hero worship. Everyone God uses is a jerk and a sinner. (HBC)
  • If you come to a new church after serving in another, remember - no one cares how you did it at the previous church. The longer you live in the past, the less you will be able to lead to the future. (DKT)
  • If you give someone responsibility, give them the authority to carry it out as well. (HBC)
  • You cannot farm out all the pastoral care to the associate pastors and deacons. However, you cannot do all the pastoral care either. This reality will anger just about everyone in your church at some point. (DKT)
  • Don't burn bridges. (DKT)
  • Don't plant a church out of anger. That's not a plant. That's leading a church split. (DKT)
  • Don't blame God for your bad decisions. He may not have "called you" to do what you did. (DKT)
  • Dig your own wells so you don't have to steal other people's water (HBC)
  • You need to be a "Timothy" before you're a "Paul." (DKT)
  • A cynical pastor is an oxymoron. (HBC)
  • Don't outsource discipleship of your children to others in the church. Lead them. Love them. They may become prodigals, but if so, wait patiently as you pray for them, remembering God loves them more than you. (DKT)
  • All transgressions begin with sinful thinking. (Billy Graham)
  • Make sure there are windows on the doors to your office. (DKT)
  • Avoid the appearance of evil. (Paul)
  • You can't know a man until you know his story. So, go eat lunch with "that" guy in your church and let him tell you his story. (DKT)
  • When it's all said and done, you want God to say "Well done, good and faithful servant." You also want your wife to say "Well done, good and faithful husband." No, they're not equal statements, but God's calling is not just at the building down the street with the crosses on it. In most cases (not all) pastors were married before they became pastors. Your faithful wife loves God, too, but while your calling is to serve the church, hers is to you. Too much to unpack here. (DKT)
  • You're not cool. Come to grips with that. Even if your Instagram filter is amazing and your logo is lit (is that the right word?) I know I said you may be cool in the first point, but you're not. Jesus wasn't either, so you're in good company. (DKT)

There are hundreds more insights from hundreds more pastors. Men like Johnny Hunt and Mac Brunson have much to offer younger pastors. So too do the pastors like Mike Wyatt (my pastor when I surrendered to ministry back in the 1990s) and Allen Harrod (my pastor at FBC Orange Park who offered leadership and friendship when I first graduated seminary.) Some of these pastors and mentors do not have books for sale at Amazon. Some may not be known outside their congregation or small town, but listen up, there's much to learn. Young pastor, remember...leaders are learners. Never be that guy who can't take advice or encouragement. Maybe one day when you're greyer and even less cool than you are now, you will have words to share with that young pastor (who is likely in fourth grade right now) that God calls for His glory and good. 


Putting a Stop to the Youth Exodus in the Church

For the past few years, church leaders and evangelicals have been lamenting the loss of younger people in the church. While some new church starts and mega-box churches have seen growth in seeming success in reaching the younger generation, the statistics show a loss overall. Much has been written about this and most hearkens back to Pew Research Center's 2015 report. While that report is two years old, it is likely no significant changes have occurred.

Generational labels differ based on what study is cited or book read, but by and large, the Millennials (born between 1981 and 2000) and Generation Z/Boomlets (born after 2000 ) are trending away from the church. There's not as much data regarding Generation Z, but the older portion of the generation are in high school and graduating this year. 

Generation Z/Boomlets

This generation has been described this way (from MarketingTeacher.com):

  • In 2006 there were a record number of births in the US and 49% of those born were Hispanic, this will change the American melting pot in terms of behavior and culture. The number of births in 2006 far outnumbered the start of the baby boom generation, and they will easily be a larger generation.
  • Since the early 1700s the most common last name in the US was "Smith" but not anymore, now it is "Rodriguez."
  • There are two age groups right now:
    • Tweens.
      • Age 8-12 years old.
      • There will be an estimated 29 million tweens by 2009.
      • $51 billion is spent by tweens every year with an additional $170 billion spent by their parents and family members directly for them.
    • Toddler/Elementary school age.
  • 61 percent of children 8-17 have televisions in their rooms.
  • 35 percent have video games.
  • 14 percent have a DVD player.
  • 4 million will have their own cell phones. They have never known a world without computers and cell phones.
  • Have Eco-fatigue: they are actually tired of hearing about the environment and the many ways we have to save it.
  • With the advent of computers and web-based learning, children leave behind toys at younger and younger age. It’s called KGOY-kids growing older younger, and many companies have suffered because of it. Most recognizable is Mattel, the maker of Barbie dolls. In the 1990s the average age of a child in their target market was 10-years-old, and in 2000 it dropped to three-years-old. As children reach the age of four and five, old enough to play on the computer, they become less interested in toys and begin to desire electronics such as cell phones and video games.
  • They are savvy consumers and they know what they want and how to get it and they are over saturated with brands.

The Numbers

Pew Research shared the following:

Religious “nones” – a shorthand we use to refer to people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is “nothing in particular” – now make up roughly 23% of the U.S. adult population. This is a stark increase from 2007, the last time a similar Pew Research study was conducted, when 16% of Americans were “nones.” (During this same time period, Christians have fallen from 78% to 71%.)

Overall, religiously unaffiliated people are more concentrated among young adults than other age groups – 35% of Millennials (those born 1981-1996) are “nones.” In addition, the unaffiliated as a whole are getting even younger. The median age of unaffiliated adults is now 36, down from 38 in 2007 and significantly younger than the overall median age of U.S. adults in 2014.

Yet numbers can be confusing and sometimes do not tell the full story. In a 2016 article, Pew reveals the factors leading the growth of "nones" in the US:

Indeed, our Religious Landscape Study finds a clear generational pattern: Young people who are not particularly religious seem to be much more comfortable identifying as “nones” than are older people who display a similar level of religious observance. Nearly eight-in-ten Millennials with low levels of religious commitment describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.” By contrast, just 54% of Americans in the Silent and Greatest generations who have low levels of religious commitment say they are unaffiliated; 45% claim a religion. A similarly striking gap between Millennials and others is also seen among those with a “medium” level of religious commitment.

What Can the Church Do?

Normally, at least it has been my experience, when data like this surfaces, churches and denominations react, rather than respond. In many cases, the exodus of young people comes as a surprise, all too late. Parents who had faithfully attended church, signed their children up for every program and event from AWANA to DiscipleNow, youth camp, mission trips, etc. wonder where they went wrong when the now adult child seemingly walks away from church with no intent of coming back. 

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In the past, churches would say (well, not out loud, but it was a predominant thought) "Just wait until they get married and have kids. Then, they'll come back to church." Maybe that was true a generation ago, but it doesn't seem to be now. The fact is that young parents who just attended church and were entertained as teenagers seem to find more community in social networking sites, school activities, athletic endeavors for kids, and other areas and church is not avoided...it just never come across their minds.

Yet, all hope is not lost.

Reaction is not the answer, but godly response is. 

What we are facing is not new. Have you ever read the Old Testament? When you read Moses' commands to the next generation in Deuteronomy 6 regarding the passing on of truth to the next generations, there is a since of fear in his words. The fear is that unless the family teaches of God, models worship in the home, and remembers the covenant past with God, the kids and grandkids will not only forget, but walk away. The journey away from God is not without consequence.

What faithful parent or grandparent of a prodigal hasn't shared similar lamentation in prayer?

Since trends tend to raise awareness, let's look at observable trends of those who have not abandoned the faith.

Jon Nielson, Pastor of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, recently shared an article highlighting some of the trends he has personally observed of faithful Millennials and young adults (full article here).

  1. They are converted. Sometimes, we deem attendance as a faith indicator. Yet, just being in the youth room or the church building does not a convert make. Teenagers from "good families" who get good grades, play football, cheer, get accepted to multiple schools, etc. are considered by many in the church to be "good kids" and while they may comparatively be, the problem is when salvation is presumed. Christians truly don't abandon Christ. Church attenders and members do.
  2. They have been equipped, not entertained. Oh boy, this is big. "Come to our youth group. It's really fun!" isn't a bad thing, but when everything in the ministry is focused on the student or young person, rather than on the God we worship we perpetuate a "better than the church down the street" model that defaults to the latest events, concerts, praise band, dodgeball tournament, ski trip, and other such events (which are not bad...they're just no the ultimate point.) I'm all for fun and I like being entertained, but if we're simply creating consumers of Chrstianese rather than making disciples, no wonder the younger generation walks away. "Big church" will never be that fun. Seriously - the deacon retreat is not quite the level of youth camp. 
  3. Their parents preached the gospel to them. Better yet, their parents worshipped with them and not just at church. The gospel was lived out, modeled, and shared. Normative home life was Christ-centric. Parents who are discipled well disciple well. When the parents are not believers, the church fills the gap. The problem occurs when Christian parents outsource discipling their children to the "professional Christians" at the church. Let's just say that after decades of promoting this model, the proof is in the pudding. It does not work.

Walker Moore of Awe Star Ministries developed a model of student ministry years ago where students led. The gifting of "significant tasks" to students for the health of the ministry allows God to work in and through young people at levels where the "come into the youth room and wait for the adults to feed you" model never will. 

So, what can we do? We can remember. God has not abandoned young adults and teenagers. And, God is not through with the older generations, either. It's not like all the Boomers and Gen Xers are believers, right?

I'm not pessimistic when I read the statistics. I'm actually happy that the scales are now falling off our eyes. Sure, many are walking away, but it's not too late. We (the church) are now being forced back to Scripture and the model is clear. Disciple-making is our commission. It begins in the home, not the church building. Family equipping discipleship is more than a model. It's a biblical command (Deut 6). 

I believe God is recalibrating our focus. While we may be as fearful as Moses, the hope we have in Christ remains. So, don't lose heart. 


Maybe You're Not Called to Ministry?

When it comes to the calling to ministry, the church seems to struggle, though not overtly with the concept.

Whether it be in service to God through the local church as a deacon, elder, minister or pastor or as a missionary on the field, the phrase "I've been called" has been stated and affirmed by hundreds of churches over the years.

But, how do you know?

Seriously?

Was it through a Macedonian vision like Paul received (Acts 15-18)? I'm not saying that it wasn't, but I will say unlikely simply due to the reality that even in Scripture that type of calling was rare. 

To be called to ministry is an honorable and good thing. Of this there is no question.

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 1 Timothy 3:1 ESV

However, while all Christians are called to serve the Lord and the cause of the Gospel not everyone is called to that specific pastoral role or position within the church.

In many cases, a person will come to the pastor and state "I've been called by God to be a <fill in the blank>." The pastor is likely excited at this point, as he should be. Yet, to be honest, most churches in my experience, do not have a plan for discerning the calling.

 

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Photo credit: amlusch via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

 

Therefore, licenses and ordination certificates have been handed out like spiritual participation trophies, to the detriment of the church and the individuals.

This happens in Baptist churches when it's time to select deacons as well. With each church being autonomous, the processes for deacon selection vary, but in many cases, the candidate needs to be a man who fulfills the qualities expressed in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. At least these are the qualifications that should be followed. Unfortunately, in many churches, the passage in Timothy is considered, but then the candidates being nominated end up being the only men we can think of who attend regularly and, as is the case in many churches, haven't been divorced. And...the concept of calling is ignored, not to mention a firmer biblical understanding of qualifications and calling. Benjamin Merkle writes a concise post regarding such qualifications here.

Therefore, there are a number of men I can think of who need to turn in their ordination certificates since they have disqualified themselves, if in fact they ever were truly qualified...but, that's a posting for another time.

But I Love God and Feel Called...

Our church has been blessed to have a number of men surrender to God's call into pastoral ministry. Yet, there are some who have voiced their feelings for calling and for one reason or another have shown evidence that they were not. This is not to discount their calling as a Christian and disciple. That calling is for all who have surrendered to Christ as Lord.

Yet, not every Christian is called to be a minister/pastor/missionary or deacon. 

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Ephesians 4:11-14 ESV)

Feelings Lie

Emotionally-based responses may be God-centered and Spirit-led, but they also may be responses to human manipulation (often not intended) and based on false expectations. I have met some well-intentioned men who are enamored with the concept of ministry, but were not called and ultimately suffered. I went to seminary with some.

I have also met some folks who seemingly regretted "missing God's call" earlier in life. I won't discredit that, but the calling of God is not like a pop fly to right field that can get lost in the lights. Yet, intentionally sinning by saying "NO" to God does happen. All too often.

Dennis Poulette, a friend, former missionary in Mexico, and fellow seminary classmate who works for Youth Ministry International, led a group of us through a discussion on this very topic. Insightful and challenging. Dr. Stuart Scott shared some information on this as well and the convicting reality is that we, the church, must do well to help those "called" to discern. The church plays a heavy role and in a culture where people change jobs like socks, the unfortunate reality is that the calling to ministry seems hot and fun right now and many may be licensed and ordained apart from God's calling. It is wrong for the calling to pastoral ministry to be viewed as just another temporary job.

Dr. Al Mohler refers to the affirmation as inward and outward calling. Mohler states...

Charles Spurgeon identified the first sign of God’s call to the ministry as “an intense, all-absorbing desire for the work.” Those called by God sense a growing compulsion to preach and teach the Word, and to minister to the people of God. (full article)

That is evidence of the inward calling.

Yet, the outward calling is essential as well.

Jim George of The Master's Seminary uses the acrostic C.A.L.L. to express the same thing. Since they teach acrostics in seminary, it's easy for me to remember.

You are called to ministry when you have...

C - Confirmation from your church's leadership. Pastoral leadership matters and his confirmation of your calling should be sought. Your confirmation of calling will be based on where you have been serving in the church already. There may be a season of serving required as discernment happens. No leader or minister can do so apart from willingness to serve.

A - Ability. Do you have serving gifts or speaking gifts? Just because you want to preach doesn't mean you can. It is true that being a talented speaker apart from the calling of God is possible. However, this is not speech class or debate club. And yes, I know "God wants your availability not your ability" but don't miss that God gives talents and abilities and equips the called.

L - Lifestyle of integrity. This is the 1 Timothy 3 emphasis. Think about how many "pastors" and ministers are featured on the local news due to immoral acts. It's appalling. I saw today where a pastor was arrested for participating in armed robberies of local convenience stores. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Seriously!

I was talking to a police officer  while on a mission trip to another state years ago who told me he was at the funeral of a local pastor's wife and the pastor, right after the graveside service, walked up to one of the ladies in the crowd and said, "My bed is going to be cold tonight. Why don't you come over?" WHAT??? Yeah, this happens.

To be honest, most of the integrity failings aren't so obvious, but if a man has a history of immorality, debauchery, thievery, lying, etc., apart from repentance and clear life-transformation, it's easy to say "You're not called."

L - Longing. This is the desire to serve, share, and proclaim the Gospel. It's not "church work." It is something that cannot be ignored and when the Lord calls and transforms, He creates a longing for the Gospel and a love for God and others.

The first three - Confirmation, Ability, and Lifestyle are objective, biblical principles (external.)

The last one - Longing is subjective (internal.)

To be called is a noble honor and not one that is sought, but one received. The church would do well to helping discern with and for those "called to ministry." 

Consider the Call

Mohler presents these questions in closing...

Consider your calling. Do you sense that God is calling you to ministry, whether as pastor or another servant of the Church? Do you burn with a compulsion to proclaim the Word, share the Gospel, and care for God’s flock? Has this call been confirmed and encouraged by those Christians who know you best?

Ministry is not easy. It is not always fun. Yet, when God calls and equips, the joy of serving in obedience and fulfillment that comes is wonderfully overwhelming.


Does Your Church Needs Rebooting?

Years ago, when I was in college and working at IBM as an intern, I learned much about personal computers and how they worked. I had to...job security. There were numerous times I would be called in by the executives in the building to come to their offices and fix their computers. The PC was still a fairly new machine and for a corporate culture that was built and relied on mainframes, learning the world of the PC was a shift for many long-time employees.

Nevertheless, I learned quickly that the first and often the best fix for the desktop computers was to simply turn off the machine, wait about thirty seconds, and turn it back on. The rebooting of the computer often reset the software and memory to a point that speed was regained and work could continue.

Computers have changed dramatically over the years, with the advent of smaller, more powerful microchips and, of course the move toward mobility with smart phones and tablets. However, even now, and maybe especially now, the simple rebooting of the machine is often needed.

On a Mac or Windows-based PC, the ability to "multi-task" by having multiple programs running at once is both a great help and at times, a great hindrance. Sometimes the computer (or phone) will slow down and cause the user great distress. Often this is remedied by closing programs that are open and running in the background. For the iPhone, it's a simple double-click of the button and a swipe of the app. It's simple, but does wonders.

It is my assertion that the local church can become much like these computers and phones at times. We, too, have many programs running. The larger the church, the more programs. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with these various programs, but over time, churches have shown a tendency to do more because it's the "right thing to do" but fail to increase resources to keep the work at a high level and productive. In computer terms, we are running more programs but have not added any memory, or maybe storage space, to the machine.

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And we become bogged down.

We are considering this reality here at our church, and it is illustrated clearly when I look at our planning calendar and see markings and events on just about every day of the year. Some program is doing something, somewhere, in the name of the church (or at least using the resources of the church.) 

I think it's time for a reboot.

It's almost impossible to truly reboot a local church, especially one that has property and has been in existence for decades. To turn everything off for a season will cause great distress. However, maybe distress is what is needed?

Ministry programs are good, but as the old saying goes "sometimes good is the enemy of best" and as many church leaders know, despite our best efforts, "sacred cows" tend to appear over time.

One pastor stated at a conference that "Sacred cows make the best hamburger." He elicited a laugh from the crowd, but most pastors just wondered how this could ever happen.

Summer is a good time to reboot.

For our church, the school calendar pretty much runs the family calendars of our community. Therefore, the eight weeks or so of summer become a down-time for many families (or a short-time in which to cram any vacations or get-aways.)

While we still have the typical summer events on the calendar (VBS, camps, mission trips, etc.) we are cancelling our mid-week gatherings on Wednesday evenings. Some are shocked because in the Baptist world, Wednesday is like "Sabbath, Jr." but truth-be-told, over the past three years, the attendance on Wednesdays has been so low, the people basically voted to not come, by...not coming. 

If I could, I would probably cancel everything except Sunday morning worship this summer. It would be risky because our church culture is so set, but I know a reboot is needed. 

What happens when you reboot?

For a computer, programs and memory gets reset. For the church, leadership should take the time set aside during the reboot to evaluate every program and ministry offered by the church. It is during this time that "sacred cows" can be put out to pasture. It is at this time the hard questions such as "Should we even be doing this?" should be asked and then when the church is turned back on...some of the programs don't reappear. In other words, some programs need to be uninstalled.

Most pastors I know would love to do something like this, but find each week to be jam-packed with meetings, study time, visitation, etc. and the needed evaluation and restart never happens. We're just too busy. That's the problem with a continually running machine. You are always working to keep the machine running.

Dangers

  • Finances may suffer. Here's a practical reality, if you reboot some programming, giving may suffer. Just because your church isn't meeting on a certain day (or days) does not mean the expenses cease. In a consumer-based culture where people pay for their luxuries and activities, the unfortunate reality is that some feel as if they're "paying for their spiritual fix" weekly. Therefore, the risk of losing offerings is very real. However, this should not drive the decision. Just be aware.
  • A good idea vs. a God idea. Far too many of us pastors read about what some other church has done and then attempt to do the very same thing. While what was done at another local church may have been God's perfect plan for them, it may not be for you. Therefore, rebooting your church over the summer or some other time may just be a "good idea" and not "God's idea" so tread lightly and pray fervently.
  • The congregation doesn't "get it." Just because something makes perfect sense to you as a pastor and leader, the fact is that most in the congregation are not privy to the inner workings of the organization and would not automatically understand. So, communicate clearly and do so over and over again, BEFORE pulling the plug.

Does your church need a reboot? Perhaps. If you're on the verge of personal burnout, there's a good chance the church is as well. So goes the shepherd, so go the sheep. Giving permission for people to slow down is not a bad thing.

Reminders

Even if you stop doing some church events, remember that the Great Commission and Great Commandment never get put on "pause." The church is not the building (we keep saying that even though we don't act like we believe it) so this may force leadership to truly equip the saints for the work of the church, in their families, communities, workplaces and even on vacation.

Oh, one final warning. Sometimes when I would reboot a computer, it would not come back on correctly. That was an indication that a more serious issue needed to be addressed. Is it possible to reboot a church and find some things not coming back online? I believe so. In these cases, church health is the issue and when you recognize a real problem, you're better positioned to deal with it. 

Okay. I'm logging off now. I think I need a personal reboot.