Does It Matter Whether The Community Would Miss Your Church?

closed-churchIf your church closed it’s doors, would the community around you miss it?

This question, and the many variations of it, is exceptionally popular in the ministry world. It’s been rumored to have originated with one of several famous pastors – I’m not sure who was first to use it in public. It’s prevalent in the world of church planting: “You want to plant the kind of church that five years in the community would miss if you weren’t there anymore.” It’s used in church revitalization circles, often to attempt to move a dying congregation into action in their community: “Right now, if we were to close the doors of this church, the community wouldn’t even miss us. Let’s work together to change that!” It makes for an excellent rallying cry and a very useful tool for inspiration and motivation.

But I don’t believe it’s a biblical question to ask. Or to put it another way, I think the way this question is commonly used tends to put the church onto a trajectory that is not mandated or modeled in the Scriptures.

I could be wrong, but I can’t find an example of this being a goal of any New Testament church. I’ve read Acts over and over, but I can’t find it. The closest I can come up with is the fact that Acts 8:8 says there was much joy in Samaria because of Phillip’s ministry of exorcism and healing. But the ministry of Phillip does not equal the ministry of a local church. In addition, when this question is asked today I have not heard anyone use it to spur a church on towards engaging the community with miraculous healings and casting out of demons. I’ve read the epistles over and over, and I can’t find one instance of an apostle telling elders in a city to make this their goal. I can’t find one call to a local body of believers to make their congregations so appealing and winsome to the unbelieving city around them that the city would miss them if they were gone.

Instead, we see examples of unbelieving cities hating the proclamation of the gospel. Believers are persecuted and scattered. As people come to faith in Christ, the economic systems of cities are challenged as idolatry is no longer a lucrative market. As the gospel goes out idolatry is challenged and hour long riots break out. None of this seems to match the description of “the community would miss the church.” As a general rule, unbelievers are quite happy to have the proclamation of Law and Gospel be dispensed with as soon as possible. They’re not asking for it or missing it when it’s no longer there.

My fear is that this question puts an unnecessary burden on pastors that has no root in Scripture. Rather than stay focused on the ministry of the Word, they believe that in order to have a fruitful ministry in a community they must make the church something that the community loves. They give their time to hosting block parties, producing top-of-the-line drama presentations, organizing huge Easter egg hunts, and putting on Fall Festivals. Often these community events have little-to-no gospel focus, and are seen as simply ways to bring the church into the goodwill of the community, and perhaps build relationships that may one day lead to the gospel being presented. Maybe.

Other times, pastors trying to earn the affection of the community by rallying a small army for community service projects. One church growth expert said in a recent book, “Plan weekly practical deeds out in the community. It doesn’t really matter what these events are as long as they: bless the people you’re helping, bless the city, and provide visibility for your church. Notice that the church must get credit for being a blessing; do not do anything anonymously.Doesn’t sound quite like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, does it?

The truth is, a church may be completely faithful. They may be boldly proclaiming the gospel during Sunday worship, to hundreds throughout the city on street corners and one-on-one over cups of coffee in a local Starbucks. They may be loving one another, meeting each other’s needs in practical ways, demonstrating the character and love of Christ in their day-in, day-out interactions with one another. They may be faithfully administering the sacraments and prayerfully exercising church discipline. They may be making disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey all that Christ commanded… and the community may not even know they exist. Or they could be completely apathetic to the church’s existence. Or further still, the community may hate them and wish they weren’t there. It really doesn’t matter – Jesus loves this church, and is well-pleased with their faithful service to Him.

What do you think? Am I missing something? Am I off the mark? I’d love to hear your thoughts…

 

Top Five: Uncool People Need Jesus Too

Written four years ago now, this post is by far the most read and commented on piece I have ever written. It was also the most controversial. So much so, that I posted a near-retraction shortly after, which you can (and should) read here. While it may have been an ill-advised rant, I still hold much of the concern that fueled it – there is a generation of young pastors that is flocking to the city to plant churches that will undoubtedly be very cool. What newly-developed suburbs were to church planting in the 1990s, rapidly-gentrifying urban cores are to church planting today. The artists and executives in the cities need the gospel, but so do the suburban soccer moms, blue collar factory workers, and rural farmers.

Also, I am happy to say that I am seeing more and more diversity happening in church planting. I’m grateful for friends like Jared Wilson laboring in rural New England and Justin Hyde pastoring in small town, TX. Acts 29 in particular, and church planting as a whole, seems to be widening its reach. May it continue to be so…

hipsterThrough my work with the Acts 29 Network, I get the privilege of assessing a number of potential church planters each year. I also get to hear about dozens more from fellow pastors as well. When I guy comes in to get assessed, by the time he gets to the interview stage he’s already submitted a lot of paperwork. Resumes. Plans. Budgets. Demographic Analysis. Dental history. (Ok, just kidding on the last one).

And as I’ve looked at some amazing plans from church planters, I’ve started to notice a trend. They all sound the same.

It seems as the unique vision that God’s given so many church planters is almost identical. Phrases like “gospel-centered”, “missional”, and “cultural renewal” are littered throughout their proposals. It seems that the phrase “In the City. For the City.” or some variation of such has become church planting boilerplate.

Not only is the language the same, but so is the target group. It’s amazing how many young pastors feel that they are distinctly called to reach the upwardly-mobile, young, culture-shaping professionals and artists. Can we just be honest? Young, upper-middle-class urban professionals have become the new “Saddleback Sam”.

Seriously, this is literally the only group I see proposals for. I have yet to assess a church planter who wants to move to a declining, smaller city and reach out to blue collar factory workers, mechanics, or construction crews. Not one with an evangelsitic strategy to go after the 50-something administrative assistant who’s been working at the same low-paying insurance firm for three decades now.

Why is that? I can’t offer a definitive answer. It could be that God is legitimately calling an entire generation of young pastors to turn their focus to a small segment of the population that happens to look very much like they do.

Or it could be that we’re simply following in the footsteps of the church growth movement that we’ve loved to publically criticize while privately trying to emulate – we’ve just replaced Bill Hybels and Rick Warren with Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll.

Just thinking out loud…

Top Five: Breaking the Sound Barrier

Today, I’m reposting the fourth of my favorite posts from the past. This one is very near to my heart, as it documents my journey into the world of open air preaching and contact evangelism. I reflected on getting started in an earlier post called Out There Preaching, and then wrote this once I had begun preaching publicly on a regular basis.

urlBreaking the sound barrier - opening up my mouth and telling people about the good news of Jesus. More traditionally called evangelism.

This is an area I’ve struggled with for a long time. I’m naturally an introvert, so being bold in conversation doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m not the kind of guy who strikes up conversation with people I don’t know most of the time – I’m actually pretty quiet. In addition, I’ve been a pastor for over a decade, and it has been very easy to settle into a really comfortable pattern of spending most all my time with church people.

But there’s something greater at work than my natural introversion and typical social circles - I’ve been given a call by God to be preacher of the Gospel. This year, I’ve been praying that God would change me, and give me a heart broken for people who are lost and separated from God, coupled with boldness to share the gospel. I’m praying for opportunities, and he’s giving them to me – often in the form of me having to get really uncomfortable.

I’ve been spending more time out in public places and on our the university campus, trying to strike up conversations with people. This is way outside of my comfort zone, but I’m learning. I’m also trying hard to move things to spiritual matters more quickly and not be afraid to go there. Often times I get an open door when I tell people I’m a pastor – I ask about their spiritual background, listen to their story, look for opportunities to bring the gospel. Listening to people and drawing out their stories comes pretty naturally to me, but I used to be much more passive about it. Essentially, unless they came out and said the equivalent of “will you tell me about the gospel?” I would stay in passive mode. Recently I’ve been trying to move past that, asking permission to share the gospel in the midst of conversations. (For example: “I grew up in a pretty religious background too, but have come to understand that Jesus was about something other than religion. Can I tell you a little about that?” or even “Would it be alright if I quickly told you what’s at the heart of the Christian faith? It’s different than what a lot of people think.”) If people are open after talking, I’m trying to set up times to get together and talk further.

I was also really challenged by Steve McCoy’s writing recently on Open Air Preaching. At first, I bristled against the idea – it seems so out of the norm for our culture. I’ve known some guys for years (an evangelism ministry called Peasant Saints) who do this on a daily basis here in Houston – I had always kept my distance. But what I came to realize is – I wasn’t doing anything. I was really convicted by the story of D.L. Moody:

D.L. Moody, one of the greatest and most effective evangelists of the last century, once got into a discussion with a woman about his style of evangelizing, which some people complained was too pushy or too in-your-face. “I don’t like your methods very much, Mr. Moody,” she told him. “I’m not sure I like them all that much either. Why don’t you tell me your method and maybe we can compare?” “I don’t have a method,” she answered. “On second thought, I like my method better,” Moody replied.

I decided I liked the Peasant Saints guys’ method of getting the gospel out better than my doing nothing at all. So I spent a few weeks watching them in action, trying to learn. After a few weeks of watching and praying, I felt God leading me to try. I’ve been preaching for over a long time, but I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t nervous as I stood up to preach. But I did it. By the grace of God and with the help of the Holy Spirit, I broke the sound barrier.

I preached twice that week, and I’ve been out there preaching with them three mornings a week for the past month. Every morning, 20-40 people hear the gospel in a clear, concise, and winsome way. And here’s the thing – no one has freaked out. No one was resentful. People listen. No one has fallen down and cried out “What must I do to be saved” either, but we have been able to give out a dozens of free ESV Bibles to folks as well. In the past month, I’ve been able to preach the gospel to hundreds of people who never would have walked through the doors of my church. Not only that, but I’ve been able to have many conversations with people afterwards, often with the opportunity to pray for them. God is at work through the power of His word, and He is at work shaping a growing me.

I’m still stretching and learning, and I know a lot of this runs counter to much of the common thinking of the day in many circles – but I feel really good. I’m becoming more bold, and I believe that God is honored in our speaking regularly and clearly of Jesus. For years I had been a “build a relationship and earn the right to be heard” kind of guys… but because of my lack of boldness I rarely got to the gospel with people. It’s not that I don’t want to build relationships – I do, and am trying to be much more intentional in that. But I want to Gospel to be at the forefront very early and very often.

I hope I can be an encouragement to others who are shy, introverted, and on the fence – the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation. Let it out of the walls of the church, pray like mad, and watch and see what God might do.

Top Five: Miracle Crusades and Miracle Gro

miracle-groAs I’m getting back into regular blogging, I thought it might be fun to repost my top 5 favorite posts from the past. (Believe it or not, I’ve been blogging since 2004 and actually used to post much more regularly!) This was first published five years ago in February 2005. When I wrote this Kaleo was under 6 months old. A lot has changed in our church over the past decade, but the heart behind the post still holds true.

So, Benny Hinn is in town today. He had a crusade last night and one more tonight in the Toyota Center.  There are billboards announcing the “miracle crusades” all over town, featuring the unmistakable white suit and combover that makes even Donald Trump blush. Here’s a quote from the Houston Chronicle about last night’s services:

Thursday night, thousands responded to Hinn’s altar call during which he asked everyone to give their hearts to Christ. Later, hundreds responded after Hinn began to command illnesses and diseases to disappear in the name of Christ.

“I command arthritis to go,” he said, bringing many to tears.

Hinn listed several diseases that were healed Thursday night including cancer, emphysema, spinal curvatures, tumors and other maladies.

Over 17,000 people were there last night. That’s more than the average attendance at a Rockets game this year. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard say things over the past few days like, “Well, with so many people following his ministry, it must be of God.” (The crusades have been a pretty popular topic on local talk radio.) I know that line well – it used to be one of my favorites.

I used to explain to people that all healthy ministries grow – because anything that’s healthy grows. Well, that is partially true. But cancer grows pretty rapidly too – and it’s definitely not a healthy thing for us. Seeing thousands flock to Hinn’s crusades and to Osteen’s spiritual pep-rallies makes me realize more than ever that lots of people attending does not equal spiritual blessing.

But what about things that really are healthy? Don’t they grow also? Well, yes they do… but not exponentially. I’d always been lead to believe that if something (*cough*, a church, *cough*) was truly healthy, that it would grow steadily and rapidly, and that this growth would continue as long as it was healthy. If it stopped growing, it must not be healthy anymore.

That sounds great, until you start to really think it through. I believe healthy things grow to the size they are supposed to be, and then they stop growing. Imagine if a child grew exponentially – we’d be walking in a land of giants! We grow until we get to our natural, healthy size, and after that any growth usually isn’t healthy at all. (We start to grow around the waistline – something I’m all too familiar with as well). I think churches are the same way – God has a size for each church, and it will grow to a healthy size as long as it remains faithful to the gospel and pursuing the glory of God. But what is that size? I can’t tell you that one. Could be 30. Could be 3000. Only God knows that. I do know that if a church that is very healthy at 30 tries to become a church of 3000, there could be problems ahead.

So how do you know? How do you know if you should try to keep growing? Very simple answer: you don’t. You don’t try to grow – ever. Instead, you focus on being healthy and taking care of the body. You make sure your church is feeding on the Word of God, worshiping with their lives, depending on God through prayer, serving your neighbors, sharing the gospel, etc. and then you trust Christ to take care of the growing part. (After all, isn’t that what he promised to do anyway? “On this rock I will build my church…”)

So what do I think about Benny Hinn? Not a big fan. Something about commanding God to do things doesn’t sit right with me, and neither does much of his theology. (Anyone read Counterfeit Revival?) But he reminds me of what God is teaching me about growing my church (or more aptly, about NOT trying to grow my church).

He reminds me of the greatest church growth principle of all: if you preach a me-centered message and promise people that God’s greatest desire is to make much of them and make them healthy and wealthy – you’ll have no problem drawing a crowd.

But then I think of Christ’s words in Matthew 7.13-14: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”

Church Growth, John Calvin Style

johncalvinThanks to the dean of my seminary, I came across this quote from John Calvin and thought it was too good not to pass along. In a day when theologically reformed churches can be seen as ambivilant towards seeing conversion growth in our churches, this serves as a helpful reminder for us all:

Therefore, in keeping with the teaching Luke gives here [Acts 6:7-9], let us learn that we constitute a true church of God when we try our best to increase the number of believers. And then each one of us, where we are, will apply all our effort to instructing our neighbors and leading them to the knowledge of God, as much by our words as by our showing them good examples and good behavior…. That is not said only to preachers and those who expound the word of God.  It is the charge of all Christians in general.

- John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary on Acts

What I Need To Hear: The Pastor and Prayer

boundsThanks to the recommendation of Joe Thorn, I’ve been reading through Power Through Prayer by E.M. Bounds. It is having much the same affect on me that it has had on Joe: “The past few days reading this work have wrecked and (hopefully) begun to rebuild me in critical ways.” While it is useful for any Christian, his words have a unique force for those of us called to pastoral ministry. I’m reminded of the way God stirred my heart at the 2011 Desiring God Pastors’ Conference, and I’m convicted of how far I have to grow in prayer. Lord, help me.

Here are a few quotes from the highlights I’ve made while reading on my Kindle:

The other tendency is to thoroughly popularize the ministry. He is no longer God’s man, but a man of affairs, of the people. He prays not, because his mission is to the people. If he can move the people, create an interest, a sensation in favor of religion, an interest in Church work — he is satisfied. His personal relation to God is no factor in his work. Prayer has little or no place in his plans. The disaster and ruin of such a ministry cannot be computed by earthly arithmetic. What the preacher is in prayer to God, for himself, for his people, so is his power for real good to men, so is his true fruitfulness, his true fidelity to God, to man, for time, for eternity.

If you as ministers are not very prayerful, you are to be pitied. If you become lax in sacred devotion, not only will you need to be pitied but your people also, and the day cometh in which you shall be ashamed and confounded. All our libraries and studies are mere emptiness compared with our closets.

Prayer is no petty duty, put into a corner; no piecemeal performance made out of the fragments of time which have been snatched from business and other engagements of life; but it means that the best of our time, the heart of our time and strength must be given. It does not mean the closet absorbed in the study or swallowed up in the activities of ministerial duties; but it means the closet first, the study and activities second, both study and activities freshened and made efficient by the closet.

PRAYER, in the preacher’s life, in the preacher’s study, in the preacher’s pulpit, must be a conspicuous and an all-impregnating force and an all-coloring ingredient. It must play no secondary part, be no mere coating. To him it is given to be with his Lord.

Breaking the Sound Barrier

This is an update on what’s been going on since my post called Out There Preaching back in late February.

Breaking the sound barrier - opening up my mouth and telling people about the good news of Jesus. More traditionally called evangelism.

This is an area I’ve struggled with for a long time. I’m naturally an introvert, so being bold in conversation doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m not the kind of guy who strikes up conversation with people I don’t know most of the time – I’m actually pretty quiet. In addition, I’ve been a pastor for over a decade, and it has been very easy to settle into a really comfortable pattern of spending most all my time with church people.

But there’s something greater at work than my natural introversion and typical social circles – I’ve been given a call by God to be preacher of the Gospel. This year, I’ve been praying that God would change me, and give me a heart broken for people who are lost and separated from God, coupled with boldness to share the gospel. I’m praying for opportunities, and he’s giving them to me – often in the form of me having to get really uncomfortable.

I’ve been spending more time out in public places and on our the university campus, trying to strike up conversations with people. This is way outside of my comfort zone, but I’m learning. I’m also trying hard to move things to spiritual matters more quickly and not be afraid to go there. Often times I get an open door when I tell people I’m a pastor – I ask about their spiritual background, listen to their story, look for opportunities to bring the gospel. Listening to people and drawing out their stories comes pretty naturally to me, but I used to be much more passive about it. Essentially, unless they came out and said the equivalent of “will you tell me about the gospel?” I would stay in passive mode. Recently I’ve been trying to move past that, asking permission to share the gospel in the midst of conversations. (For example: “I grew up in a pretty religious background too, but have come to understand that Jesus was about something other than religion. Can I tell you a little about that?” or even “Would it be alright if I quickly told you what’s at the heart of the Christian faith? It’s different than what a lot of people think.”) If people are open after talking, I’m trying to set up times to get together and talk further.

I was also really challenged by Steve McCoy’s writing recently on Open Air Preaching. At first, I bristled against the idea – it seems so out of the norm for our culture. I’ve known some guys for years (an evangelism ministry called Peasant Saints) who do this on a daily basis here in Houston – I had always kept my distance. But what I came to realize is – I wasn’t doing anything. I was really convicted by the story of D.L. Moody:

D.L. Moody, one of the greatest and most effective evangelists of the last century, once got into a discussion with a woman about his style of evangelizing, which some people complained was too pushy or too in-your-face. “I don’t like your methods very much, Mr. Moody,” she told him. “I’m not sure I like them all that much either. Why don’t you tell me your method and maybe we can compare?” “I don’t have a method,” she answered. “On second thought, I like my method better,” Moody replied.

I decided I liked the Peasant Saints guys’ method of getting the gospel out better than my doing nothing at all. So I spent a few weeks watching them in action, trying to learn. After a few weeks of watching and praying, I felt God leading me to try. I’ve been preaching for over a long time, but I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t nervous as I stood up to preach. But I did it. By the grace of God and with the help of the Holy Spirit, I broke the sound barrier.

I preached twice that week, and I’ve been out there preaching with them three mornings a week for the past month. Every morning, 20-40 people hear the gospel in a clear, concise, and winsome way. And here’s the thing – no one has freaked out. No one was resentful. People listen. No one has fallen down and cried out “What must I do to be saved” either, but we have been able to give out a dozens of free ESV Bibles to folks as well. In the past month, I’ve been able to preach the gospel to hundreds of people who never would have walked through the doors of my church. Not only that, but I’ve been able to have many conversations with people afterwards, often with the opportunity to pray for them. God is at work through the power of His word, and He is at work shaping a growing me.

I’m still stretching and learning, and I know a lot of this runs counter to much of the common thinking of the day in many circles – but I feel really good. I’m becoming more bold, and I believe that God is honored in our speaking regularly and clearly of Jesus. For years I had been a “build a relationship and earn the right to be heard” kind of guys… but because of my lack of boldness I rarely got to the gospel with people. It’s not that I don’t want to build relationships – I do, and am trying to be much more intentional in that. But I want to Gospel to be at the forefront very early and very often.

I hope I can be an encouragement to others who are shy, introverted, and on the fence – the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation. Let it out of the walls of the church, pray like mad, and watch and see what God might do.

What Are Pastors Good For?

Eugene Peterson, on the work of the pastor:

“I want to study God’s word long and carefully so that when I stand before you and preach and teach I will be accurate.  I want to pray, slowly and lovingly, so that my relation with God will be inward and honest.  And I want to be with you, often and leisurely, so that we can recognize each other as close companions on the way of the cross and be available for counsel and encouragement to each other.”

Praying this conviction into my heart during the season of Lent…