Friday, April 24, 2015

Churches and Transition (2)

How do churches make the necessary transitions to remain vibrant and viable in the face of sweeping changes across the culture? It is not easy, for sure. But, it is possible. 

The church I serve was established in 1871. It is older than our city! Ulysses Grant was the President of the United States when a small band of Baptists organized our church in a small community forged around a stagecoach stop. The church eventually moved three miles to the north because the railroad was about to start servicing the area.

Think about all of the changes that have occurred around this church since 1871! And our church is flourishing today. We are home to about 2500 or so regular attenders. We sponsor Mission Arlington that has about 350 apartment churches that meet each Sunday across our city with another 4000 or so in attendance. We also host and support Living Hope -- the largest ministry of its kind in America that assists sexually broken people in their journey of healing. We also have a Child Development Center, a Center for Counseling and Enrichment (11 licensed counselors), Christian Women's Job Corps, operate an office building downtown and we have launched a church-based mission network called Restore Hope. We also are training and sending our own people to live long-term cross-culturally across the world. We are directly at work in Niger, Sierra Leone, Costa Rica, Mexico, China, Indonesia, Spain, India, Japan and New York City. Last year we were able to determine that our church had direct ministry contact with over 600,000 people in over 160 countries around the world. 

All that to say -- God has blessed our church and it is flourishing.

How have we managed all of the transitions in both the broader culture and within our own body? Here are a few insights I have learned along the way.


This is a crucial insight. Many churches make the mistake of staring in the rear-view mirror. Many churches long for days long gone. I would challenge you to surrender any lament about "what used to be." You have to get over it!

In my office, I have a rug that reads, "You are here." I stand on it occasionally! If you want to go anywhere, you have to start where you are! You cannot start from where you wish you were. You have to begin here and now.

I could challenge you to embrace your era. This is not 1955. It is 2015. America is a different place than it was just 50 years ago. Your church (and mine) must recognize the unique challenges and opportunities of this era.

So - take some time to evaluate this era. What are the forces at work today? Recognize that pluralism, technology and migration have all had an effect on the culture. Churches are called upon to minister in the midst of the pluralistic realities resulting from massive people migration to the USA. We live in the day of the diaspora. This is also a day where churches are more focused on Kingdom endeavors than denominational initiatives. Churches are looking for collaborative opportunities based on shared affinities rather than geographical proximity.

Take some time to evaluate how the realities of this era can offer your church opportunities for ministry and mission. This is a great time to be alive and in ministry! Seize this day! 

Friday, April 17, 2015

Churches and Transition (1)

I know you have heard some version of the following joke:

How many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb? What? CHANGE??

It is not just true of Baptists -- all types of churches struggle with change. Transitions are rarely neat and clean. Change usually comes because it is forced upon us. Often it is characterized by more fits and starts than strategic implementation of well planned ideas.

Regardless, change is inevitable. Transitions are in the future of every healthy church.

I grew up in a very conservative Baptist church in the deep south during the Civil Rights Era. It was a tumultuous time, to say the least. I was in the second grade when racial integration became a reality in Birmingham, Alabama. I can remember the strain placed on all societal institutions in those days. I wasn't old enough to understand the dynamics at play, but I was aware of the tensions that existed at every turn.

Frankly, our church struggled to manage the sweeping transitions occurring around it. It held on for a long time as a bastion of its tightly construed reality. Finally, a few years ago, the church disbanded and the facility was assumed by another church. I lost touch with any connections in that community years ago. I have not been aware of the status of the new church and its ability to be a viable witness in a transitional community.

Today, my brother sent me some recent photos of the demolition of the church buildings that used to house our church (and the new one, as well). I don't know what has happened there -- but I did find the rubble recognizable. After all, I spent the first 21 years of my life attending that church. I was saved in that sanctuary. I was baptized there. I was called to ministry there. I preached my first sermon there. I was married there. I was ordained into the ministry there. I can close my eyes right now and see that sanctuary. 

It was a bit shocking today to see that building in ruin. But, in all honesty, that church had been in ruin for a long time prior to this. It refused to change. It refused to acknowledge the ministry needs all around it. It chose to protect what was precious to it, rather than embrace what it might also discover to be just as meaningful.

I have been serving as a pastor now for over 30 years. I know how difficult it can be for a congregation to hold fast to conviction and embrace necessary transitions. I have led my fair share of efforts aimed at changing a church's strategy and identity in mission. I know how threatened a church can "feel" when changes are occurring at blazing speed all around it. Technology, demography, ethnography and economic changes can radically alter a church's ministry context. Sweeping changes can overwhelm local church leaders.

So - how do we manage our way through the shifting cultural sands and inevitable transitions that need to happen in order to provide both a prophetic and viable Gospel witness in a given community? That is what I want to explore in the next few blog posts here. Stay tuned . . .

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

What does the Church Need from Millennials (and anyone else, for that matter)?

If you are clued in to significant discussions among church leaders today, then you know millennials are a hot topic. What are churches supposed to be doing to attract this very attractive group of people?

Let me begin be offering a significant set of caveats. First of all, I am a pastor of a local church. I have served as a pastor since 1983. I have spent my adult life serving local churches as a pastor. So, I have a certain perspective forged by over 30 years of pastoral ministry. Obviously, I am a "local church guy".

Also, I love people. All kinds of people. All ages of people. People from all walks of life. I'm surrounded by people from multiple generations in all facets of my life. I live in a multi-generational home. My parents have lived with us for about 17 years. (My father died six years ago, but my 92-year-old Mother still lives with us.) I have two millennials as children. And, I work in a multi-generational setting. And I am 55 years old -- so, I have personally navigated through several generations myself!

Also, I believe in contextualization. I serve a local church that trains and sends its own people to live cross-culturally across the world. I have spent years studying missiology and cultural adaptation. I have worked for the past 15 years among unreached people groups in remote regions of the world. I know how important contextualization is with respect to the advancement of the Gospel.

Also, I believe in analyzing trends, researching sociological factors and considering cultural shifts as a church leader. Sticking our heads in the sand, digging in our heels and resisting change are not options for church leaders. We have to breathe the air of our day and live in the moment of opportunity. I am a firm believer in embracing one's era without complaint.

Finally, I have greatly benefited from the immense amount of material produced by others about millennials. Thom and Jess Rainer published their research on this significant generation in a book entitled, The Millennials: Connecting to America's Largest Generation (B&H Publishing Group, Nashville, 2011). This book is full of insight about the generation of Americans born between 1980-2000. There are close to 80 million millennials! 

I have also enjoyed the insights rendered by people like author/blogger, Rachel Held Evans on the relationship between millennials and the Church. As I have perused the material on this subject, often the resources in print have to do with the reasons millennials are leaving the Church. I have listened to numerous opinions about what our churches need to do in response to this alarming trend. I have heard the challenges from millennials themselves with regard to what they need from the Church.

So, now that I am appropriately covered with caveats, I want to address this topic from a different perspective. As the title of this entry reveals, I want to turn this issue on its head. Here is my question:

What does the Church need from Millennials?

I have given this much thought. As I have already mentioned, I have listened. I have considered and digested what I have heard. And, I am a practitioner. My life is lived in the local church. I serve as pastor to people from multiple generations. Of course I am concerned about any group of folks that seemed to be "turned off" by the Church. We don't want that to be true of any generation of Americans. However, I would note that each generation of Americans has had its own set of issues with the Church. Anyone who lived in the turbulent 1960's knows that local churches struggled in that era to adapt to the sweeping changes that occurred then.

With all that said, let's get back to my question. What are the expectations of the Church from millennials (or anyone else)?

First - give the Church a chance! Local churches are not perfect. They are filled with broken people. They are led by broken people like me. Most local churches that I know really do care about people. They often are at the forefront of benevolent activity in the community. They are populated with people that visit sick folks in hospitals, take food to those who are ill at home, arrange carpools for parents who are temporarily out of commission, take care of the bereaved, call on the elderly and just do a lot of good things. Churches gather regularly to attempt to praise God, give attention to authentic community and study the Bible. Church people are often just trying to figure out how to respond to God's leadership in the midst of a myriad of challenges.

It is easy to take potshots at the Church. Anyone can do that. Anyone can point out the weaknesses and failures of any local church. But -- what if you give the Church a chance to demonstrate what is good and healthy about it? What if you suspend judgment until you more deeply understand the intent of a group of believers who are gathering as the people of God in the attempt to serve His interests in a given time and place?

Second - give yourselves to the Church! The Church needs people who are willing to make serious commitments to the Lord and His work. Local churches are able to accomplish so much because of committed people who are invested in the interests of the Kingdom. Jesus established the Church and left it behind to represent Him on earth. If you are one of His followers, then get involved in what He is doing today! He is working through His Church. He wants you to discover the abundant life that is only available through a dynamic relationship with Him and a purposeful engagement with His people.

Quit viewing the church as a commodity to be consumed and embrace it as an opportunity for you to be used by God in service to Him and others. Years ago I heard a story told by Zan Holmes, legendary Pastor of St. Luke's Methodist Church in Dallas. When he was a child, he returned home from church and told his grandmother that he didn't get much out of the sermon. She asked him, "How much did you put into it?" "What do you mean?" he asked. "I am not the preacher." "Well, did you pray for the pastor this morning? Did you read your Bible this week? When you showed up at church, were you prayed up?" To all of this, Zan answered, "No." She wisely added, "Then, how dare you to expect to get anything out of something that you put nothing into!"

So - yeah, put something in the Church.

Third - help make it better! Every generation has offered unique gifts to the Church. Those gifts have been invested in the midst of a certain context. For example, the early history of the Church was marked by different needs brought on by both internal forces and broader societal factors. The leaders responded appropriately. There was a period of edification -- the theologians responded with writings to meet that need. Later polemical writers addressed the theological distinctions emerging within the Church itself, apologists spoke to the wider culture and systematic theologians arose once the Church was legally established across the Roman Empire.

There have always been generational differences and particular generational needs reflected across the Body of Christ. Each generation of believers has the responsibility to steward its respective influence in ways that are healthy and beneficial to the entire family of God. So - let's continue to answer the bell. Millennials (and anyone else) need to look for ways to assist the Church in transition and adaptation without compromising the integrity of the Gospel witness. We also have to find ways to do this without demanding that the Church bend everything in our generational direction.

Finally - follow The Jesus Way! Here is what I know. If you follow Jesus, He will never lead you out of the Church. He may lead you to a particular local church. But, He will not lead you out of the Church. The Church is His Body. His Bride. His Family. His Army. He loves His Church.

Jesus is not asking you to simply find your way. He is calling you to find your way to His Way! He wants you to know Him and heed His guidance. He wants you to surrender your desires to Him. He wants you to seek His presence in your life and His perspective on your life. You already know your perspective. Seek His. What does He think about the Church? What does He think about your connection to a local body of believers? What does He think about your investment of your life? What does He think about your commitment to His Kingdom interests?

Somehow, every generation of believers prior to our own has figured out how to be the Church for its time. Surely, we can do it as well.

This is a great time to be alive. It is a great time to be in the Church! May God use all of us to reflect His glory through the Church!

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Good Friday

Jesus had entered Jerusalem on the Sunday prior. It is an understatement to say He received a royal welcome. John tells us that the Pharisees were so overwhelmed by the spectacle of Jesus' entry that it felt like "the whole world has gone after him" (John 12:19).

I love John's accounting of the final week of the life of Jesus. Right after the Pharisees offer this concession, John records, "Now there were some Greeks who went up to worship at the festival" (John 12:20). These Greeks (Gentiles) asked to have a meeting with Jesus. In fact, the whole world was going after Jesus! Even at Passover, both Jews and Gentiles were seeking Him.

The teaching that follows this incident in John's account sets the stage for what was to happen next. Back in John 2, Jesus encountered a potentially embarrassing situation when a family friend ran out of wine at a wedding. His mother asked Him to intervene. Jesus responded by saying, "My hour has not yet come" (John 2:4). John uses the Greek "hora" (hour) to refer to Jesus' redeeming work on the cross. In John 7, Jesus was in Jerusalem ant the crowd tried to seize Him but His "hour" had not yet come (John 7:30).

However, in John 12:23, Jesus declared, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified." It was time. John mentions this again in John 13:1, "Jesus knew that the hour had come . . ."

It was time.

It was time for the Life-Giver to offer up His own life for all of humanity. It was time for the Prince of Peace to receive all of the attacks of the prince of this world (John 12:31). It was time for the Advocate to be assaulted by the Accuser. It was time for the Savior to face Satan.

It was time for the Son of Man to act on behalf of all the sons and daughters of the world. It was time for the Son of God to fulfill the work assigned to Him by the Father. It was time for the King of Kings to be inaugurated. The Kingdom of God had come on earth. Strangely enough, it would required the death of the King. But, Jesus said that His death would bring about life for others (John 12:24).

It was time for the sins of the world to be answered by the Lamb of God (John 1:29). It was time for the one who had come down from Heaven's throne to be lifted up on a sinner's cross (Philippians 2:6-8). It was time for the love of God to be on display for all the world to see (John 3:16). It was time for God to reconcile the world to Himself (2 Corinthians 5:19). 

The hour had come.

Almost two thousand years have passed since that fateful week in Jerusalem. We have the benefit of history and God's revelation to help us digest the events that occurred that week. Thousands of theologians, priests and preachers have digested these events. We are truly blessed in that regard.

However, each one of us -- as a follower of Jesus -- has the opportunity to simply pause and reflect on the meaning of the death of Jesus Christ. Good Friday is the day to do it.

It is time.