Pastors, Church Leaders, and Churches: A Work in Progress…

Earlier this year, my family moved to Wheaton, IL. As we familiarized ourselves with the town it became apparent that their roads are a work in progress. Throughout the town, road construction was being done. We’ve said multiple times over the last month or so, “We’ll be glad when they get done!” As you know, sometimes road work can be an inconvenience. If it lingers long enough, it becomes downright annoying. 

When it comes to the life of a believer, we too are a work in progress. The Apostle Paul pens this idea when he writes, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6 ESV). So, our whole lives are lived “Under Construction.” 

As one who is a work in progress, I can attest to how many times I feel that my “work in progress” (or lack thereof) is inconvenient, tiring, irritating, and annoying. Honestly, I just want to be complete; I just want to be whole. 

As a pastor, I’ve had to face the reality that both the congregation and me are a work in progress—under construction. As a result, ministry can be met with struggle, heartache, loss, affliction, disappointment, difficulty, opposition, and suffering. Such can lead to cynicism, fatigue, burnout, and depression. In addition, it can have negative effects on our mental health, personal health, marriage, relationships, and overall view of ministry. 

Anyone who has ever been in ministry knows it is tough, difficult, and weighty. Things don’t go according to plan. What you thought was…isn’t. You thought you would be further along than you are. Some of the people that were with you in the beginning, aren’t with you anymore. You’re criticized and under constant microscopic scrutiny. Money is scarce. Maybe you’re seeking a new season of ministry and you feel as though no one is looking at you and giving you a second look. And there are times when you are left wondering if it (ministry), if you (the minister), are even good.

So, what do we do when we find ourselves struggling with our state of being a work in progress? 

Remember it isn’t your work but God’s. 

I’m a fixer. If I see a problem or someone tells me their problem, I want to fix it—unless it is house related, and then I call a handyman. When it comes to problems in our personal life or in our church, pastors tend to be fixers. If we have problems, we tend to go at solving them alone. It may be a frustration we are having, a person who is causing us issues, an addictive pattern we can’t seem to break, a feeling of depression, or a struggle we are having in our marriage. And rather than truly consulting God, and inquiring to Him, about how He would have us handle it, we try and tackle it on our own. In short, we put all the pressure on ourselves to solve the issue.

If we see ourselves as the foreman of the work, we will become vulnerable to the weight of ministry. When that happens, the jar of clay (the minister) will be crushed by the weight of the ministry. Pastor, church leader, we must hand our lives and our ministries back to the ONE who put them under construction in the first place. 

According to Paul, the one who put the sign up on our lives, “A Work in Progress,” or “Under Construction,” wasn’t us, but God. Paul notes, “…he who began a good work…” (Phil 1:6). Therefore, it would only stand to reason that the ONE who began the work would continue the work. 

Remember that God has a perfect track record of bringing His work to glorious completion.

I recently started coaching my eldest son’s basketball team, which reignited my affinity for basketball. It reminded me of when I was really into basketball—during the Michael Jordan era. I remember watching the Bulls growing up and seeing Michael Jordan hit game-winning shots, like the one against the Cleveland Cavilers in 1989. But did you know that Michael Jordan was only 50% on game-winning shots? In short, the greatest basketball player to ever play the game (arguably) didn’t have a perfect track record. 

I know as pastors we want the ball; we want the control. Control is a descriptive of fixers. However, our track record—if we were honest—is like Michael Jordan’s, imperfect. Just like failing to hit a game-winning shot, many cases of frustration, fatigue, burnout, and even (some cases of) depression are brought about by failing to see the desired outcomes. 

However, God’s track record for starting and completing a work is perfect. What He starts, He finishes. What He promises, He fulfills. Just think about Genesis 1. Could you imagine being alongside God during the creation project without knowing the specificity of His plan? As you stood beside Him you may not fully understand what God is doing, what He is building, but what He is doing is methodically and intentionally working to bring and shape something very good into existence.

We may not be in control, nor fully understand what God is doing.

We can trust that God—since the beginning—has a perfect track record of working something to glorious completion.

As one of the contemporary praise songs suggests, “He has never failed us, and He won’t start now.” 

Remember the process is anchored in the person of Jesus Christ.

I was recently on a panel at a conference where the question was asked, “What keeps you in ministry?” A few years back, I probably would have said, “Because I was called.” However, in my almost 20 years in ministry, I’ve experienced both mountaintops and deep dark valleys. Truthfully, the deep dark valleys have taken their toll on me, humanly speaking. 

But when I answer that question now, I quote Philippians 3:10 where Paul expresses, “that I may know him (Jesus) and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death….” 

I believe in the call as pastors. However, the call to ministry is answering the call to suffer. Again, this isn’t to take away that the call to ministry is one of joy and experiencing the power of God to move mountains.

However, if you really summarize ministry in the vein of Jesus, it is a call to suffer. Yet, in His suffering there is both life and glory.

In closing, pastor, church leader, your life and ministry are under construction. Both are a work of progress under the foreman of Jesus Christ, worked daily by the Spirit of God. There are certainly times where living in this “work in progress” can bring frustration, fatigue, burnout, depression, and mental illness. But in your struggle, remember the works not your, it’s His, He is good with a perfect track record, and that your life is rooted and anchored in the life and love of King Jesus. 

Chasing Donkeys: How Ministry Can Feel

This article originally appears on The Exchange with Ed Stetzer. Click here to access it.

Disclaimer: I’ve never chased donkeys. I have been in a situation where I’ve feared donkeys running me over—that was in Santorini, Greece, which is another story for another article. So, what’s the correlation between rural ministry and chasing donkeys?

The concept of chasing donkeys comes from 1 Samuel 9. From the account in 1 Samuel 9 and 10, I believe there are some lessons we can learn and apply to church leaders and pastors in any contexts—especially rural ones.

Do What I’m Called to Do

The backstory to 1 Samuel 9 is that Israel had demanded a king. Having expressed his disapproval and disappointment for what Israel did, Samuel nevertheless sent everyone home while he allowed the Lord to sort through the resumes.

The narrative then shifts to a wealthy man, Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin. Kish had a son, Saul, who was extremely impressive. No one measured up to Saul. One day, some of Kish’s donkeys had enough and broke loose. Guess who Kish wanted to send to track them down and bring them back? Saul!

Remember Saul’s description? He was extremely impressive. No one was like Saul. I could imagine if I was Saul, I would whine and complain about me having to go. If Kish were my dad, I would have responded, “Send the servant. Send my younger brother. Don’t send me! Chasing donkeys is beneath me.” But Saul didn’t respond that way. He simply heard the call of his father and went.

It’s a fact that well over the majority of churches in America run less than 100 members. Yet, we live in a culture (and Christian subculture) that celebrates big.

While there is nothing wrong with having a large and growing ministry, I do believe—to a degree—our Christian subculture over-celebritizes the larger churches and their leaders.

In doing so, this can serve as an unintentional shaming mechanism for pastors and church leaders faithfully serving in smaller churches—or praying about serving in such contexts.

Maybe you’re a pastor or church leader and you have these feelings that what you are doing is beneath you. Maybe you feel like you were made for so much more and have way more capacity than what you are doing. Perhaps there are days you feel your call is too miniscule, or maybe it feels meaningless.

I know that I have certainly been there. But let’s take a cue from Saul and do what we are called to do.

Nothing to Show for It

The story of chasing donkeys continues. Interestingly, Saul and his servant searched tirelessly for these runaway donkeys. They went through four different regions…still no donkeys.

Having been in ministry for almost 20 years, there are seasons where I have felt like I’m spinning my wheels with no forward traction. I know that I have felt this way when I’ve looked at numbers and seen no real growth. I’ve felt this way when I have given deep study to the Word and have preached with all the gumption and passion in the world, only to be told, “That was too long, pastor!”

I’ve felt this way when the back door of the church seemed to be as big as the front door—maybe even bigger. I’ve felt this way when there has been no excitement around our mission and vision, but everyone seems to be talking about the church down the street.

And I’ve felt this way when serving in a rural context with corn fields surrounding the church.

What do we do when we get to an intersection of ministry where we seemingly have nothing to show for all the energy we’ve spent? What do we do when we get to a point in our ministry where we feel like we have failed? What do we do when we reflect on a seemingly fruitless season and we feel like throwing in the towel?

Answer: Just keep going!

God at Work behind the Scenes

When Saul and the servant arrived at the intersection of nothing-to-show-for-all-their-energy-spent-searching-for-the-donkeys and Saul was thinking about turning around and going back home empty-handed, the servant suggested they try one more thing.

For me, it’s quite humorous to read his idea. He suggested they go and enlist the preacher’s (Samuel’s) help.

Off they went to find Samuel with the hopes that he could point them in the right direction of where to find the donkeys.

But little did Saul know that God had met with Samuel and told him that God was “sending” (see 1 Sam. 9:16) a man from Benjamin that he would anoint to become the first king of Israel. Saul believed he was going up to inquire about donkeys, but God was sending him to inherit a kingdom. For many of us, that’s the story of ministry!

Because many of us feel empty-handed and frustrated in ministry, we search for the expert to share insight to help us do ministry better. We want to inquire about where we should go, what books we should read, and what we should do to see greater fruit in our call.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that enlisting the help of experts and leaders to learn and grow in ministry is bad. On the contrary, it’s good and necessary!

The lesson I’m pointing out from the story of Saul and applying to us today is that while our micro call is chasing donkeys (doing ministry), the macro call of God for us is inheriting his kingdom.

In other words, the narrative of our ministry is embedded in a greater narrative of God’s kingdom. In short, God works behind the scenes of ministry to prep us for the inheritance of his kingdom.

Dear pastor and church leader, ministry isn’t the telos; it is a responsibility handed to us as we journey towards our ultimate destiny, our ultimate aim—to be heirs with Jesus in the kingdom of God. And from the biblical perspective—having received a glimpse of how God thinks and works—regardless of how insignificant or small we think our ministry is, it is the kingdom telos that keeps us chasing donkeys.

Does God Care about the Donkeys?

With all this talk about the seemingly menial task of chasing donkeys, of having nothing to show for our chasing donkeys, and the ultimate telos being the inheritance of God’s kingdom and not chasing donkeys, the question will naturally arise, “Does God care about the donkeys?”

In the narrative, we see the answer to this question is an emphatic “Yes!” Before Saul could utter a word about the donkeys, Samuel says, “As for the donkeys that wandered away from you three days ago, don’t worry about them because they’ve been found” (1 Sam. 9:20).

While Saul was busy chasing donkeys, God was watching over and leading them.

There will certainly be seasons where ministry is dry and we feel as though we are spinning our wheels, going nowhere. However, that doesn’t mean that God is not doing something with our ministry.

The Apostle Paul was the one who said that he planted, Apollos watered, but that God gave the growth (1 Cor. 3:6). In planting, Paul wouldn’t have witnessed much movement. In watering, Apollos would have seen little movement. But God saw the greatest movement as he was sovereign over the growth.

Our role in our call from God is faithfulness. God’s role in his call to us is fruitfulness.

Knowing that God cares about our ministries (our donkeys), regardless of the size or scope, we can faithfully set out to chase them, knowing ultimately that our chasing them is leading us in the direction of his kingdom.

In closing, to all my brothers and sisters in ministry—especially in rural contexts—keep chasing donkeys!

Dangerous Church

dan·ger·ous (ˈdānj(ə)rəs/)

Dangerous is an adjective which means, “able or likely to cause harm or injury.” It can also mean, “likely to cause problems or to have adverse consequences.”

Typically, when Americans think of the word “dangerous” they tend to think of a weapon, an object in the house, a kind of animal, a kind of person or group, an area of town, or a region of the world.

Those things that we think of as dangerous have the potentiality of causing an effect on us and our lives. When something is dangerous it yields a certain kind of power and authority towards those who consider it dangerous. In other words, when someone thinks something or someone is dangerous, there’s a respect and honor—even a fear—towards that something or someone.

If I had to guess, I don’t think people today (particularly in America or throughout much of the world) believe the church is dangerous. Sure, they may think that radical religious groups like the Westboro Baptist tribe is emotionally dangerous and/or a cultural nuisance. Yet, they don’t view the church, in and of itself, dangerous. In fact, many do see the church, by in large, as a menace and nuisance to society—not to mention irrelevant.

However, when it comes to the book of Acts, the church was dangerous. Now, before I go any further, let me clarify what I mean. Did the church cause bodily harm to people? No! In fact, they brought healing to people. Did they cause problems for religious people and their institutions? Yes. Did they cause problems in cities throughout the known world as people turned their life over to Christ proclaiming Him as King and God, not Caesar nor their pantheon of gods? Yes.

The harm induced by the church—the problems caused by the church—throughout the world in the first century, had to do with the kind of change and transformation the gospel brought into the lives of people, and thus, in the spaces they occupied. Isn’t this ultimately why the Jews and Romans killed Jesus? He was dangerous. He was a threat. He was causing harm and causing problems within their spheres of influence. He was disrupting their way of life, their religious system.

In this short post, I want to provide the “how” and “what” of becoming a dangerous church.

First, how do churches become dangerous? Jesus exclaims, “If anyone wishes to come after me he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23). So, just what does it mean to die to oneself? To help understand what it means to die to self, I use the acronym D.I.E. (Deny yourself; Intend to be crucified to the world; and Emulate Jesus. In sum, to follow Jesus—and to access and download His life for us—we must D.I.E. daily. To state it in another way, to download the latest version of His life for us, we must kill the oldest version of us.

To download the latest version of Christ’s life for us we must die to the oldest version of us.

So just imagine what our churches would be like comprised of people who D.I.E. to themselves daily.  Imagine the impact these churches would have in and on their communities and cities.

Those who D.I.E. become dangerous to those around them and the places and spaces they occupy.

Second, what does becoming a dangerous church look like? In other words, what are some of the characteristics displayed in churches that are dangerous? Based upon Acts 5:1–32, I believe there are at least five characteristics exhibited by a church that is dangerous.

  • They realize they serve a dangerous God. Early in this chapter, God takes out Ananias and Sapphira because of their lie and deception. They lied to church, and ultimately to God, about the amount for which they sold their property. A dangerous church has a dangerous God working in and among them to fulfill His mission. I find it interesting that in the same chapter, religious people are trying to protect their institutions and way of life through violence and threats. Dangerous churches never have to resort to violence and vehement threats to those who endanger their way of life and mission. Why? Because they serve a dangerous God who ultimately protects His people, His church. This doesn’t mean that we don’t shepherd, watching out for wolves in sheep’s clothing or ravenous lions looking to devour weak prey. It simply means we don’t have to fight fire with fire—violence with violence, nastiness with nastiness. We can trust in a sovereign, omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotent God who work in and through us to accomplish His will for His good pleasure.
  • They stand in awe of God. A couple of times in this chapter Luke tells the reader, “And great fear came upon” those who heard of what God had done—particularly with Ananias and Sapphira. The idea of “fear” invokes awe. There’s this healthy reverence and fear the church has towards God. When a church stands in awe of who God is and what He has done, is doing, and will do, they posture themselves submissively to God offering their bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to Him.
  • They embody unity and togetherness. In the early days of the church, while God did many signs and wonders in their midst, they gathered consistently in Solomon’s Portico, a large outer-court where large numbers of people could gather. We also see in other places, whether it is in the Upper Room (Acts 1), devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to one another (Acts 2), or believing they were of one heart and soul (Acts 4), the early church wasn’t about individuals coming to a location to consume a religious experience but about individuals coming together to form a body (Jesus’ body) to live on mission. One person can make a difference, but a group (a body comprised of many) can alter history. Think about it. The only reason why Jesus altered history as we know it, was because He empowered His body to go into all the world. A dangerous church can only become dangerous when it is unified, moving and operating together in the power of the Spirit.
  • They buy into Jesus’ comprehensive mission. Not only did they preach the gospel, they served the hurting, the needy, the broken, and the sick. They were serving and meeting the needs of so many people that it went out on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to the point that people from the surrounding towns and villages started bringing the sick and afflicted to Jerusalem. As they physically met needs they spiritually pointed to Jesus—the hope and King of the world—who had come, lived, died, and rose again to make all things new.
  • They are willing to die. After being arrested, the apostles’ lives were threatened once again in Acts 5. They were told they had been warned and charged not to teach in the name of Jesus, yet they continue to do so. Peter, along with the other apostles, respond, “We must obey God rather than men.” And they go on to proclaim the gospel once more to these, already irritated, men. In the face of an angry religious mob, Jesus’ devoted apostles declare, “Kill us if you must, but we cannot disobey the command of our King.” This mentality makes the church extremely dangerous. And it is this kind of attitude that becomes the seedbed and fertilizer of God’s movement in the world. Church father, Tertullian, put it this way, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The world cannot stop people willing to die for what they believe in!

In closing, are you dangerous? Is your church dangerous?

May it be said in our generation, from cities and communities throughout our land, “These men (and women) who have turned the world upside down have come here also” (Acts 17:6).

Living in the Land of OZ: Three Ways for the Church to Posture Herself in a Foreign Land

The influence of Christianity upon Western society seemingly has become a past experiment. As the Enlightenment experience failed—failing to eliminate all societal ills and bring about a human utopia—so too has the “Christian Nation” or Christendom failed. As a result, the church has struggled with this shift—and now find herself, in many ways, confused as to her role and posture in a pluralistic, secular, post-Christian, and skeptical environment. In other words, the church in North America has finally realized they are no longer in Kansas but in the land of OZ (or biblically speaking, in Babylon). And now believers and churches across the denominational spectrum are asking the question, “What do we do?” 

Believers and churches across the denominational spectrum are asking the question, What do we do?

In many ways, the North American church in the twenty-first century finds many similarities with the people of God in Jeremiah 29. [The dissimilarity that I must point out is that God was in a covenant relationship with the nation of Israel, whereas America is not.] Jerusalem had fallen. No longer did Israel experience cultural and national hegemony. Now in captivity, Israel experienced life as a sojourner, alien, and minority. They were marginalized. Obviously, many saw their newfound position as difficult, demoralizing, and depressing.

In response to their newfound foreign environment, they had a few options with regards to how they would posture themselves towards the larger culture. First, they could have just faded off as a sub-cultural hermit—sitting and longing for the ‘good ole days’ as they faded into irrelevancy. Second, they could have taken a more antagonistic, resentful, and angry approach, one that was mean-spirited, violent, and intolerant. Second, they could have bashed the Babylonians over the head with the Torah. Third, they could have accommodated the Babylonians—thinking “if we can’t beat ‘em’, join ‘em’.” Or, they had a fourth option—God’s option. They could seek the peace of the city.

Embedded within this Spirit breathed option, there are at least three particular ways the people of God were (and are) called to seek the peace of the pagan land.

1) Live here as if you were living there. We are to live everyday normal lives as if we were living in the homeland. God informs His dazed and confused people to, “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease” (Jer 29:5-6). In other words, God tells them to live here as if they were living there (back at home)—faithfully tilling and cultivating both land and family while they multiplied in the land. Seeking the peace of the foreign land begins by living faithfully as if we are in the homeland. [Keep in mind that for believers today, our “homeland” is the new city where Jesus will have made all things new (Revelation 21).] 

God tells them to live here as if they were living there.

2) Live to bless, not curse. God expresses that His people take up the task of blessing the pagan nation. This is quite remarkable! The people of God were to live as a blessing, praying to the Lord on behalf of the nation as they seek the flourishing of the pagan city. For in the city’s flourishing, God’s people will flourish. While the scope of this article does not permit me the time to dive into the notion of “blessing,” this vision, nevertheless, harkens back to both Genesis 1 where God blesses humanity (Gen 1:28) as well as the prophetic promise God made to Abram, “through you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen 12:3). Blessing a pluralistic and pagan city means believers will work for and towards the common good in a way to bring flourishing and functionality to every sphere of life.

Blessing a pluralistic and pagan city means believers will work for and towards the common good in a way to bring flourishing and functionality to every sphere of life.

3) Live faithfully, not forcefully. We are to strive for faithfulness, rather than striving for world change. In this passage, there is nothing about seeking the transformation of the city. God doesn’t ask them to work towards transforming Babylon into a theocentric (Jewish) nation. God doesn’t ask them to transform the Babylonian culture and cultural practices to those that more align with the Torah. While change may very well take place, God’s call to His resident aliens was a missional posture of faithfulness—faithfulness in all areas of their life, as they seek God and the welfare of the pagan city. 

God’s call to His resident aliens was a missional posture of faithfulness—faithfulness in all areas of their life.

In applying this notion to the cultural context of the church today, please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. I completely agree that the gospel is transformative; the gospel changes individuals, families, cities, and even nations. To a certain degree God did bring change in Babylon through the faithfulness of people like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. My point is that the goal for the people of God is faithfulness to God and to His call, work, and mission in the world.

In neither Testament does God ever assign the task to His people of world change or city transformation—forcing people to believe and behave like the people of God. 

The mission of the church is to witness and make disciples. We witness and make disciples by working as ambassadors for the kingdom of God, serving as agents of blessing for the city, and inviting people to follow Jesus as their King who is in the construction process of making all things new. In sum, we simply share and show the gospel of King Jesus!

The mission of the church is to witness and make disciples.

In closing, may the church today—in finding herself in this foreign land like Dorothy found herself in the land of OZ—seek to live faithful lives reflecting the characteristics, attributes, and signs of God’s kingdom life in our homes, vocations, relationships, and ethics. May churches seek the “welfare” of the foreign city, living as agents of blessing rather than antagonistic, mean-spirited, angry, resentful and defensive agents. And finally, may we take the posture of faithfulness—faithfully calling people to follow Jesus. 

Pre-Clean Before the Deep Clean

We have decided in the Laxton house to hire someone to clean our home a couple times a month. Given our busy schedules both at work and chauffeuring the kids back and forth from their events, we thought it best to hire someone to help us keep our house clean. 

On the eve before the cleaning person started, my wife frantically goes around barking orders at everybody to clean the house for the “cleaning lady.” I’m sitting and listening to this thinking to myself(because I don’t want to upset momma; because when momma’s not happy, no one is happy), “What? This is crazy! We have to clean the house for the “cleaning” person?” For a man, it didn’t make sense. However, Joannie explained it a little more to me and then it still didn’t make much sense. [Ladies, what can I say…I’m a man.]

This got me thinking about how some Christians communicate (whether unintentionally or intentionally) about “cleaning up” our lives, and how many outside the church view themselves before darkening the doors of a church building or thinking about giving their life over to God. 

Here’s the misconception: We think we need to pre-clean before Christ does a deep clean

Like I said, Christians communicate whether intentionally or unintentionally that there’s some self-effort that goes into cleaning up a person’s life before Christ comes in to do a deep clean. My feeling is that this is unintentional. In other words, churches don’t really know they are doing it. But they do so through their posture. 

The posture of many churches communicates to people that you need to be a certain kind of person to make it here. Your worldview can’t be too crazy. You need to be somewhat moral and decent. You need to use a PG (or at the most PG-13) language. You need to do a little bit of homework so that you can understand a smidgen of what’s going on—since few will do anything to try and reach communicatively where you might be. In short, you need to be somewhat put together. 

Such a posture communicates to “dirty” people that they need to have some things straightened out before Jesus does a deep clean in their life. This kind of posturing frustrates people with already dirty lives. Just like our house, we knew it was dirty. We knew it wasn’t put together. That’s why we “hired” someone to clean it. So, being told to clean it before the professional cleaning person came was frustrating. In essence, we were being told to do something we had yet to do.

When churches posture their engagement this way with a lost world that waddles in their dirty sin, they wind up pushing them further away. When the church (even unintentionally) communicates that a dirty world must do some pre-cleaning prior to attending Christian community, they tell them to do something they don’t know how to do and to do something that only Jesus can fully do. 

One of the glories of the story of the Gospel is that “dirty” people found Jesus attractive. They encountered Jesus in all their filth. There was no pre-cleaning that happened. Sure, some were cleaned after encountering Jesus, others left still in their mess. Nevertheless, they encountered Jesus in all their nastiness. 

Dirty people found Jesus attractive.

The church must have a posture where people in all their filth feel safe enough to encounter the glorious Christ. If not, we aren’t as much like Jesus as we imagine. Truthfully, I believe the church, by in large, has a lot of work to do in reimagining such a posture where “unclean” people feel comfortable enough to approach. [Hint: we can start by realizing that we don’t have it all together. We might dress up and play a good part, but we all have our own mess and our own struggles. We call this vulnerability and authenticity. Those two places are a good start in creating a safe environment. Never forget the difference between a believer and an unbeliever is Jesus. It’s not our morality or how we seem to have it all together. It’s simply Jesus!]

Never forget the difference between a believer and an unbeliever is Jesus.

The other thought that’s a misconceptionis when people think they need to clean their life up before coming to God. If I had to guess, this misconception finds its roots in shame. In other words, people are ultimately ashamed of who they are, what they do, and how they feel. They feel they don’t add up. They feel they aren’t enough. They feel defeated. Thus, they feel shame. 

Shame is a powerful deterrent from God. It is what drove Adam and Eve into hiding. Because there’s this innate feeling that we don’t add up to a being that (if He exists) is transcendent. And so the thought goes, if God is real, and He is who He says He is, then I need to get my act together before I come and bask in His presence—much less join His family. 

The overall thrust of this way of thinking is what most religions teach. You work your way out of shame into God’s good graces. In other words, you pre-clean your house before God does the final clean. But, that in no way is the Gospel message. You don’t have to pre-clean your house. You don’t have to tidy up the home of your heart. Jesus comes into the darkest and dirtiest residences and makes them miraculously new.  

You don’t have to tidy up the home of your heart. Jesus comes into the darkest and dirtiest residences and makes them miraculously new.  

Some might come back and say, “That sounds all well and good. But what happens if I make it dirty again.” Truthfully, it’s not “if” you will make a mess again, it’s “when” you make a mess again. What makes the Gospel so unbelievable is that Jesus not only comes to clean the home of your heart, but to make your heart His home. Jesus has covenanted (not contracted) to not only do a deep clean justifying your past, present, and future sin, but to work with you to bring about a sanctifying cleanse where you become more like Him. Over time you will have less and less mess.

What makes the Gospel so unbelievable is that Jesus not only comes to clean the home of your heart, but to make your heart His home.

In closing, I ultimately realized why my wife asking our children to pre-clean before the professional cleaner came. However, when it comes to our lives, I’m grateful that Jesus doesn’t ask us to do some pre-cleaning before He does His deep clean. I’m grateful that Jesus enters into our mess and chaos (regardless of how bad we think it is) and not only cleans it but takes up residence to keep it clean as He leads us to our glorious future home—eternal life with Him in the new city.  

Your Church Might Be A Country Club If…(Part 2)

In my previous post I began outlining four identifiers that your church might be more like a country club than a church. Once again, I’m not knocking country club memberships. If you are a member of one, I give you permission to sing along with Travis Tritt—loud and proud—“I’m a member of a country club….” [If you are a country music fan, maybe you just got that song stuck in your head for the remainder of the day. You’re welcome!] 

The reason for my posts is that I fear many American believers view the church as a country club. Or at the very least, they practically behave as if the church was indeed a country club. Regardless, viewing the church or behaving as if the church is a country club distorts both the identity and the mission of the church. 

Knowing the characteristics of a country club can help protect the church from becoming or being viewed as such. Here are the remaining four identifiers that your church might be more of a country club that members pay for than the church that Jesus died for.

1—Your church might be a country club if your members worry about public disruption.

One of the benefits of being a member of a country club is that you don’t typically have to worry about the public infringing upon your property. In other words, the members of the club can enjoy the exclusivity of the club’s amenities. They don’t have to vie for tee times, tables in the dining room, the pool, or the tennis courts. In short, they can enjoy their club with minimal crowd or public disruption.

For many churches, and church members, they don’t like crowds—they don’t like newer people coming in and disrupting the way things are. They want their same parking spot for both their car and their rear. In addition, church members may fear more newer people means more newer things. In other words, if the public comes in, they may shape the church house into something they aren’t comfortable with. 

I know what many church members say. They say, “We want to grow and reach new people.” What they really mean, however, is, “We want to grow and reach new people as long as it’s convenient and agreeable for us.” In other words, they are fine as long as the newer people don’t rock the boat or disrupt what they have going on. It’s incumbent to keep in mind, Jesus didn’t die for His people to protect their exclusivity, but for His people to proclaim and demonstrate the inclusivity of the gospel—that Jesus is for all mankind. 

2—Your church might be a country club if you view other churches (“clubs”) as competition. 

The last thing you want if you are a club owner—or a club member at that—is people leaving and going down the street to the newer, bigger, and fancier club. In fact, if a club starts losing lots of members to the club down the street, they begin to see them as their big bad competitor. As a result, there tends to be a sour taste towards the “other” club. In addition, there tends to be reactive measures taken by the “losing’ club. Instead of having their own identity and crafting the club accordingly, they copycat the club down the street—thinking such measures will plug the leak. 

Churches should be different. Churches aren’t in competition with one another but are partners in the Great Commission. I believe the reason why many churches and church members see each other as competitors is because for the last thirty years or so, there’s been a lot of swapping going on. Something happens at one church, and people leave to go down the street to the other. Or, another church sprouts up with a “better” band, preacher, children’s ministry, and environment, and people from the “older” church leave to attend the newer. Such a cycle is built upon consumerism which drives competition. 

Church leaders must learn to be secure in who God has called them to be and what He has called them to do. While every church has the same call and task—or the same message and mission—the way they go about enacting them should have flexibility. In other words, church shouldn’t come in a one-size fits all mold. As J.D. Greear expresses, “We are to marry the mission [and the message], and date the method.” Every church must seek the face of God to determine how they are to flesh out their call and task there in their locale. Keep in mind, it may not look like the church down the street. And that’s ok. 

Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. I’m not suggesting there’s nothing to learn from one another. I think there is plenty we can glean from the various models and styles of church. However, the minute we see another church as a competitor and not as family is the minute we Americanize the church’s mission—to be better than the church right down the street. 

The minute we see another church as a competitor and not as family is the minute we Americanize the church’s mission.

3—Your church might be a country club if 99.9% of your programs and events evolve around members.

Have you ever noticed the calendar of a country club? Almost every single event and program is for its membership. There might have been more, but the only event that I saw on the calendar that involved outsiders was the member-guest golf tournament. Like I said, there could have been more, I just didn’t see them. Such a practice shouldn’t be odd though. Should it? The members do pay for the club’s services and amenities. Thus, it would only stand to reason every event and program would revolve around the members.  

Having every event and program revolving around members isn’t a bad thing if implemented at a country club. However, it is detrimental if implemented at a church. The church is a body or organization where the membership doesn’t exist for itself but for those who have yet to join. If churches aren’t intentional, they will find that most of what they do is geared for insiders not outsiders. But if churches will stay true to their Christ-given mission, they will develop their ministries and programs with non-members in mind. If not, they are well on their way to becoming a country club. 

4—Your church might be a country club if you create an environment of becoming before belonging. 

If you are going to belong to a country club, you will have to become of member of that club. It is as simple as that. Sure, some clubs offer you an opportunity to try out the golf course and the kitchen prior to joining. Nevertheless, if you are going to belong and find community at the club, you will first have to become a member. Just out of curiosity, I wonder what would happen if clubs allowed people to belong to the club before they became a member? Perhaps more people would join?

In the church there’s a small debate over the progression of people’s faith and involvement with the church. Do people believe (in Christ), then become (a member of a church), and then belong (to the community)? Do they belong, then believe, and then become? Once again, I don’t believe there is a one-size fits all for every person. However, I do believe the church must be flexible on each person’s process and progression in the faith and involvement with the church. 

Having said that, I do believe churches should be very careful at creating environments that prohibit people from experiencing Christian community before they actually become a Christian. In other words, churches would do well to create safe environments for people to belong before they believe and even become. Just out of curiosity, what kind of impact do you think a church could have if they created safe places for nonmembers (people far from God) to belong as they explored faith, engaged in a Christian community, and witnessed authentic worship? 

Country clubs are places that provide services people pay for, whereas the church is a body of believers providing service for the king who died for them.

In closing, there’s definitely more that could be said with regards to churches behaving more like a country club than what Jesus intended for them. The reality is, country clubs are places that provide services people pay for, whereas the church is a body of believers providing service for the king who died for them. When church leaders and church members keep this at the forefront of their mind, they will be a missional vehicle advancing the good news to a people in desperate need rather than a recreational vehicle enjoying the amenities of a religious club. 

Your Church Might Be A Country Club If… (Part 1)

I have been involved at three country clubs in my life. The first CC was under my parents’ membership in Covington, TN. The second CC was as an employee serving as the assistant to the golf pro in Canton, GA. The third was at an affordable club I found in Louisville a few years back. Let me just say, I have an affinity for golf!

I’ve also grown up in the church and have been in vocational ministry for almost 20 years—serving as a Lead Pastor for the past 12. Let me say, with all her blemishes and imperfections (of which I am a part), I love the church! 

Having been a part of both country clubs and churches—as well as studying the North American landscape—I think for many Christians it’s easy to confuse country club membership with church membership. In this two-part blog, I want to highlight eight identifiers (four in each post) that your church might be a country club.

Keep in mind, Jesus didn’t die for the church to be a country club. Jesus died and rose again for the church to be a commissioned conduit to take the good news to the ends of the earth! 

With that in mind, here are four identifiers that your church might be a country club.

1—Your church might be a country club if the goal is to keep members happy. 

A country club is a service provider. For many, they provide golfing, swimming, tennis, dining, and entertainment services. Thus, if their services don’t appeal and appease the members, they will soon experience a decrease in membership. As a result, if members complain about the conditions of the locker rooms, the quality of the greens, the attire of the staff, or the taste of the food, country clubs will work to rectify the problem. A club’s future and sustainability is fueled by the satisfaction of the members. 

A church, on the other hand, is a mission vehicle. A church’s goal isn’t to keep members happy consuming a service, but to equip members to be sent out proclaiming and demonstrating good news. However, many churches have been turned into country clubs as they field an onslaught of complaints and suggestions. When churches are crafted into the image of consumers they distort the image of their Savior. 

2—Your church might be a country club if the leaders are seen more like a board of directors.

Many country clubs have a group of people called the board of directors that oversee the activities and effectiveness of the organization. In short, the board is mostly comprised of business people that are mainly concerned with two things: membership happiness and the club’s bottom line. Thus, board of directors are inclined to measure a club’s success based upon the bottom line of bodies and budgets. 

In the New Testament, church leaders were never referred to of as a board of directors, but as apostles, pastors (elders), evangelists, shepherds, and teachers (Ephesians 4:11). And these leaders were to equip the members for the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:12). Did you catch that? Those who belong to the church are to do work! Gospel work! I don’t know about your club, but I never experienced my club calling for a work day for members to tidy up the property. Members pay others to do the work so that they can enjoy the benefits of the club. 

Church leaders aren’t a board of directors but a body of developers.

Beware, churches that are primarily built on a country club mentality will experience a bottom-line effect when they have leaders that call members to work—getting their hands dirty—for the sake of God’s glory and others’ good. 

3—Your church might be a country club if people with affluence carry all the influence. 

For many, membership to a country club carries a connotation of status and wealth. Our culture is conditioned to treat those of status and wealth differently than those without the position or the deep pockets. I’ve witnessed first-hand how the owner of a multi-million-dollar company received preferential treatment compared to the retiree who drove a UPS truck. It’s not that the retiree was treated poorly, he just didn’t carry the weight the million-dollar business man did. 

I’ve also witnessed first-hand in the church world how status and wealth can get one a prominent place of influence in the church. Never mind the person of affluence swims in a theological, missional, and spiritual kiddie-pool. Yet, because of the influence his affluence provides him, he is able to bend the ears of the board of directors (leaders), which ultimately gives direction to the bent of the church.   

Affluence should not be a factor for giving one influence in the church. People that should be given a voice and weight are those who exhibit an authentic and deep abiding love for Jesus and His mission.

Success in business doesn’t mean maturity in mission. 

4—Your church might be a country club if the membership is homogenous. 

There’s seldom diversity in club members. Most members are cut from the same piece of cloth. They live in the same area, go to the same schools, dress the same way, vote for the same political party, etc. In short, most country clubs are set up for homogeneity. 

The church, however, was birthed for diversity. With the mission to create a peoplefrom all peoples, Jesus envisioned a diverse church—a third race as some have expressed. Therefore, churches should be about engaging, reaching, and cultivating the diversity represented in the community around them. Therefore, churches should experience racial, cultural, socio-economic, political, and to some extent denominational diversity. In doing so, the church demonstrates the in-breaking reign of God to unite a people from all peoples through the blood of the Lamb! 

In closing, I’m for both country clubs and churches. Given my affinity for golf, I understand the benefits and environments of country clubs. Given my love for Jesus and having studied His affection and mission for the church, I understand who the church is and what the church is to do. But the two entities are entirely different! A church isn’t a country club, and a country club isn’t a church.