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!

Redeeming Rural

This article originally appeared on The Exchange with Ed Stetzer. You can click here for the original link.

A couple weeks ago the Laxton house couldn’t agree on a movie for family movie night, so my wife clicks on Hoosiers. Now, a movie as old as Hoosiers certainly raised my children’s eyebrows—and even complaints—since they weren’t born in the century that churned the movie. 

If you’ve seen the movie, you know the storyline of the 50-year old Coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) who moves to rural Hickory, IN to coach the Hickory Huskers. Through a battled journey, Dale victoriously leads the Huskers to the echelon of Indiana High School basketball—the State Championship.

Underneath the grand storyline (main plot) is a subplot. And this subplot has stuck with me as I continue to think, dream, and plan for rural ministry through the Rural Matters Instituteat the Billy Graham Center. What’s the subplot you ask? Redeeming Rural

In this post, I want to outline three redeeming (wrongs made right) elements seen in the subplot and exhort the church today to enact a similar redeeming quality in their mentality, ministry, and mission to rural areas. 

Redeeming the Rural Mentality

Early in the movie, Myra, a teacher at Hickory High, engages Norman Dale describing the rural-nessof Hickory. She vociferously notes that Hickory doesn’t appear on most state maps and that the only thing that comes through Hickory is a train. She goes on to explain that people—especially 50-year-old men—don’t move to Hickory for good reasons. 

I think Myra’s understanding of Hickory has been (and to some degree continues to be) a realistic understanding of many today—even those in the church. For decades the church has promoted ministry and mission in the urban (and suburbia) areas, as these centers continue to experience upticks in population. 

When figure heads of evangelicalism call young leaders to give their lives in strategic areas like cities, and when large denominations have church planting initiatives that focus their resources and efforts on cities, it’s no wonder why there has been a vacuum of leadership, resources, and ministry-aid for rural areas. And if someone does move in or stay rooted in rural areas to do ministry, they probably face the Myra’s of the world thinking they had no better opportunity or offer elsewhere. 

It’s important for the church to reverse engineer such a negative mindset towards rural areas. Rural places do not need to be seen as places of inopportunity but prime locations for opportunities. The problem Hickory faced and that many rural areas today face is that fewer are willing to mine and leverage the potentiality of resources of small towns to [figuratively speaking] “put” them on the map. 

Jesus had to overcome the stigma of what comes out of small towns. Nathanael, prior to following Jesus, is quoted as saying, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

The church must redeem the mentality towards rural areas by seeing them as places of great potential.

Redeeming Rural Ministry

Hoosiers depicts a great deal of brokenness—a town inhospitable to outsiders, a teenager who had suffered great loss, a town drunk living in shame and isolation, and a failed basketball coach in need of a second chance. Who knew rural towns had so many problems? [When I think of small towns, my mind typically goes to Mayberry—a quaint little town with very little problems.] 

The reality is, rural areas aren’t immune to the depravity of humanity. Whether it’s an area with a sparse population of 26 or a small town of 26,000 every single person is in great need of redemption. Every area, regardless of how small has wrongs that need to be made right. 

Residing in rural communities are cold hearts of pride and racism that need to be melted. There are tears of grief being shed that need a shoulder to rest. There are frustrated addicts that need faithful advocates. There fractured marriages in need of healing counsel. There are orphans that need a family. There is the unemployed searching for meaningful employment. There are failures in life longing for dealers of hope. There are prisoners in need of visitors. And there are searchers for purpose in need of people of direction. 

In order to redeem rural ministry, the church must focus on the needs of people rather than the number of people in the area. 

Redeeming Rural Mission

When thinking and discussing rural, almost everybody wants to focus on size. For many, size dictates importance. That’s exactly what some thought about Hickory, IN. This concept of the importance of size has creeped into the church’s understanding and impetus of mission, which has deterred many away from focusing on and going to rural areas.   

Today, more than ever, there is a need to redeem rural mission. To do so we must understand a few things. 

First, the size of the place has no bearings on the scope of God’s mission. God has called the church to go into all the world! A Christ-centered mission will have a church moving for and towards the whole world regardless of location.

Second, the purity of God’s mission isn’t the call to scale or multiply, but to faithfully make disciples.

Redeeming rural mission will require the church to decommercialize God’s mission. Instead of going where we will get the biggest bang for our gospel-buck, we will go where the Spirit prompts. 

Third, the size of the place does not affect the size of the impact. In fact, mission to rural areas has the potential of seeing greater community impact. If you did a cannon-ball in the middle of Lake Michigan, few will see and experience the impact; if you did a cannon-ball in a swimming pool, everyone around (and in) the pool sees and experiences the impact. Rural areas are the swimming pools the church can do gospel cannon-balls that can be felt and experienced by many in the community. 

In closing, after overcoming the less than 21st—Century cinematic affects, the Laxton children sat through the entire movie. They were captivated by the overall storyline of defeat, struggle, redemption, and celebration that captivated their imagination, spoke to their hearts, and inspired their lives. 

While my kids were into the overall drama of the movie, my mind raced to how basketball transformed a small rural town in Indiana. And to know that the church has something so much greater than basketball! 

My prayer is that the church will not neglect its responsibility to take the gospel into the rural areas of the world. To do so will require the church to redeem rural by seeing such areas as places for opportunity, people in need of ministry, and platforms for mission. As the church does this, there will be a glorious subplot of the gospel redeeming rural communities for the glory of God and the good of the world! 

Undermining Revitalization–Part 1

Imagine you have spent your entire life enslaved. Freedom seems unattainable, and hope is scarce. However, one day a strange man—a fugitive from Egypt—shows up with the message that God sent him to Egypt to demand Pharaoh to let God’s people go so that God can bring them to the land of promise. 

A hope that was once extinct now started to emerge. Freedom’s light was beginning to shine.

Over the next several days drama ensues as competing miracles, plagues, destruction, and death pummel around you. When the dust settles, Pharaoh releases the slaves. He releases you. 

Freedom! Or so you think. Not much time elapses between release and vengeance. Pharaoh and his army set out to wipe you and all the other freed slaves. You plummet back into fear, panic, and fading hope. 

Suddenly, however, there is a commotion, people pointing towards the sea. You look up only to see two walls of water—one on the right and one on the left. You hear a loud cry telling you to march towards the sea. With adrenaline taking over, you enter to where the sea should be, but instead of water, you are on dry ground. You walk forward in the place where the sea had been laying since its creation. You cross the sea and arrive at the other side. When all the people cross safely to the other side, the sea walls come tumbling down over the entire Egyptian army. 

Now what? 

Here you are—freed slaves in the middle of the desert. Who are you, where are you going, and how are you going to get there?These are the questions racing through your mind. Days and weeks pass. Life is tough. Whispers of grumbling began to filter through the camp. These whispers grow louder and louder until they become full out complaints towards God and His leader, Moses. 

Just when you think about joining in the complaints, fire from heaven consumes a portion of the camp, and immediately, there is a hush. The complaining quickly turns to concern. 

On the next day, rather than eating manna, you eat meat for the first time. Nothing has tasted so good in such a long time. But as you were enjoying your quail, you hear cries in the distance. Those who had craved and obsessed over the meat begin to die. And as these people are buried, you begin to make the connection that when people complain against God and obsess over things other than Him, they end up dying. 

You think to yourself that there has to be a reason God freed you—us—from slavery. Certainly, as you sit there and ponder, there has to be more to God bringing us out here other than to teach us some spiritual and life lessons around complaining, gluttony, and idolatry

About this time, you hear reports that Moses has put together a spy team. These men are going to go scout out the Promised Land—the land that God had promised to give Abraham’s descendants. You haven’t been this excited since the day Moses showed up in Egypt to share the good news of freedom and redemption. Now, there is news of a Promised Land—a land flowing with milk and honey—a land of blessing, prosperity, and flourishing. 

Finally, a land to call home. 

Waiting for the return, however, feels like an eternity. Your soul hungers for God’s blessing, for God’s best, for God’s promise, for God’s life for you and His people. You believe that their return means you are one step closer to experiencing God’s movement and blessing. 

After 40 days, news spreads throughout the camp that the scouting team is back. Everyone, including you, jostles to hear about their escapes and what God has in store.

As people gather around, the spies reach into their bags and pull out mouth-watering fruit from the land. They verbally describe how the land was indeed bountiful and fruitful. 

However, what comes next is not what you were hoping for—or expecting. Rather than words of positivity and affirmation, their words are filled with negation and prohibition: The inhabitants of the land are too much for us to handle. They are simply too strong to overtake. We cannot enter the land of promise. 

But from the back of the pack there is another voice. One man, Caleb, says that the people ought to go and take possession of the land. In the sight of God, the inhabitants of the land are no match for the power of God, Caleb reminds the community. Your excitement grows, only to be eliminated once more.

The naysayers win as fear, trepidation, and disbelief spread throughout the entire camp. Now, rather than moving towards the vision God has laid out for His people, many want to return to slavery in the land of Egypt. As a result, God issues judgment on the community that no one 20 years of age and older will see and enter the land of promise. You will never see that land.

Obviously, this was the story of the children of Israel outlined in Numbers 13 and 14. However, when we draw on the contemporary relevance for today, we can equate what transpired in the wilderness to what has transpired and is transpiring in many churches today—namely, there is a leadership vacuum to champion and protect the gospel vision of reaching people far from Jesus in struggling, dry, and barren churches. 

The result is that hundreds and thousands of believers will spend much of their church days—if they don’t leave for another church—in safe mediocrity, monotony, and even gospel (mission) malnutrition with their souls longing to experience God’s vision for their church. 

To address the topic of revitalization, in this four part series, I will first note the stark reality for how many churches in the West are struggling in the wilderness of mediocrity and malnutrition as they experience plateau and decline, and with very little impact in the community. The second and third part will then turn to how leaders can and do undermine the revitalization process. And finally, the fourth part will conclude with an exhortation for leaders to choose an alternate ending—one of hope and flourishing rather than one of struggle and survival. 

Struggling in the Wilderness 

Churches in the West should be concerned regarding their health and vitality. No longer enjoying the prominent role in society and culture, the church in the West has struggled greatly over the last few decades to keep and even reach new people. In fact, over the last couple of decades Mainline Protestantism has been hemorrhaging.[1]In addition, many evangelicals realized the struggle the church (in general) was having to reach a changing culture, which led many in the 1980s and 1990s to shift their methodological strategy in hopes of reaching people who had left the church as well as those who were far from Jesus.[2]

This era saw the rise of Willow Creek, Saddleback, North Point Community Church, and similar style churches. However, some practitioners and church growth experts like Aubrey Malphurs see most of the numerical growth during the church growth movement as mainly the results of transfer growth (Malphurs, 1994, 62). 

Even though numerical growth has been the story for some churches over the last few decades, that hasn’t been the story for the majority of established churches. 

David Olsen, in The American Church in Crisis, predicts that approximately 55,500 churches will close between 2005 and 2020 (Olson, 2008, 176). 

In Comeback Churches,Mike Dodson and Ed Stetzer accentuate that 70-80 percent of North American churches suffer from decline or plateau, and 3,500-4,000 churches close each year (Stetzer, 2007, 17).[3]

Frank Page, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, notes in The Incredible Shrinking Church

According to a special report published in Leadership Magazine, of the approximately 400,000 congregations in the country, 340,000, or 85 percent, are either plateaued or declining in membership. Some are in crisis while others are soldiering bravely on, grateful not to be in worse shape than they are (Page, 2008. 8). 

There is an apparent backwards ecclesiastical movement taking place across America in the majority of churches. Rather than growing, many churches are suffering from severe decline and facing impending death. The state of our churches’ effectiveness, fruitfulness, and missional impact in the West is bleak.[4]

While many advocate for church planting as the antidote to this deadly infection of Western churches, the question still remains: “How do we revitalize these struggling churches?” 

Revitalization is no easy task. In Planting Missional Churches, Ed Stetzer writes,

Saving dead and dying churches is much more difficult and ultimately more costly than starting new ones. Some authorities even argue that changing a rigid, tradition-bound congregation is almost impossible. As Lyle Schaller has indicated, even if it is possible, nobody knows how to do it on a large-scale basis…Church revitalization does not happen much, but it does happen sometimes. I have been struck by how infrequently it actually occurs… (Stetzer, 2006, 11).

George Barna also comments, “In many cases, trying to revitalize a declining church is probably a wasted effort” (Barna, 1993, 15). This sagacious comment comes in light of how rigorous and demanding church revitalization can be. Although revitalization is difficult, it is also an opportunity to demonstrate the power of the gospel. 

If the gospel brings the dead to life, shouldn’t it be able to awaken declining and dying churches? Absolutely! Thus, revitalizing churches is a gospel task.

What is involved in this gospel task of renewing and revitalizing struggling, dry, and barren churches? Much ink has been spilled addressing what is involved in revitalization (e.g., the importance of preaching the gospel, being a leader who leads with conviction and courage, praying to undergird, having patience to wait, and embracing unity around a new or renewed vision). 

With such good theological and practical content today regarding revitalization, there’s one element to this gospel task that is typically overlooked. That element is a group of leaders championing and protecting the vision of a renewed (and revitalized) church. To that I turn in Part 2.


[1]Ed Stetzer, “Churches in America—Part 2,” July 6, 2016 The Exchange, https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2016/july/state-of-american-church-part-2.html

[2]Many refer to this shift as the “Church Growth” movement as many church leaders attempted to see the church increase in numbers of converts, attenders, and members. 

[3]Also, in Breaking the Missional Code, Ed Stetzer and David Putnam believe 89percent of all churches are not experiencing healthy growth.

[4]Rick Richardson, in his recent work You Found Me, notes that based upon research only 10% of churches are growing by conversion. 

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. 

Sexual Depravity in the Church

Disgusted…Outraged…Grieved. Those words describe the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 when he addresses news about sexual misconduct happening within the church at Corinth and how the church dealt with it. The situation Paul addressed involved a man sleeping with his father’s wife—which would make her his step-mother! 

It seems that Paul couldn’t believe what his ears heard. A so-called professing believer sleeping with his father’s wife and the church failing to confront him. This was so taboo in the 1st-Century pagan world that Paul states, “[This kind of sexual immorality] is not even tolerated among the Gentiles.” In other words, the pagan Gentile community would not even put up with this, yet the church failed—up to that point—to do anything. 

It is sad to say, but the church has been rocked by sex scandals since her inception. In fact, prior to the birth of the church, we see a plethora of sex scandals in the Old Testament Scriptures involving the people of God. So, the sex scandals involving televangelists over thirty years ago and the sexual abuse scandals of the Catholic Church and now the Southern Baptist Convention shouldn’t necessarily surprise us. In short, sex scandals find their way into every kind of church and denomination. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t numb ourselves to the depravity that exists within the church. 

When hearing news of such sinful behavior, the people of God should be filled with both disgust and grief. But more than an emotional and spiritual response, the people of God should also respond with actions that deal with the sin and in cases of abuse protect the innocent and vulnerable. Southern Baptists are learning that the hard way. 

It’s not enough to shake our heads in disgust and disapproval; it’s not enough to repent and grieve at the sin within. Action must be taken to authoritatively express such behavior is not befitting of the people of God as well as to defend the weak and vulnerable that are susceptible to sexual predators that are wolves among sheep. 

I’m grateful for the leadership of J.D. Greear, current President of the Southern Baptist Convention. He recently released “10 calls of action for the SBC”. I believe these ten action items are a good start to authoritatively express that such sexual activity is not befitting of the people of God and that as the people of God we will take steps to ensure the protection of children and the vulnerable. 

While the “10 calls of action for the SBC” is an institutional step for the SBC, I believe every local church bears the responsibility in taking personal action in such matters—regardless of church polity or governance. Paul, when addressing the church in Corinth, didn’t tell them to wait for a denominational head to make some recommendations for how they can deal with such sinful believers. No, Paul told them they had the responsibility to take action. 

In these few verses in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul provides —at the very least—a description for how church leaders and believers should engage and respond to such horrid news in their faith community. Paul’s exhortation outlines at least four steps local churches—regardless of church structure, polity, or governance—can take today to authoritatively express such sinful behavior (particularly in sexual abuse cases) is not befitting of the people of God and to proactively work towards the protection of children and the vulnerable?

Be Rational

How many of us have uttered some kind of version of these words, “This would never happen to…?” Maybe you’ve said, “My wife and I would never get a divorce; My children would never do this; I couldn’t imagine my neighbor going all homicidal maniac on people.” The list could go on and on. But the point is, we don’t want to think that deep depravity can happen around us—not to mention even through us. 

Churches cannot afford to be ostriches with their head stuck in the sand. They must be rational when it comes to this area. Sexual abuse, sexual misconduct can happen in their faith community.

Since the Fall of Adam and Eve, people who have been part of God’s faith family have descended into the depths of sexual immorality.

Being rational about such matters allows churches to be responsible in dealing with such matters. 

Be Educational

I remember the day I turned 15, I couldn’t wait to arrive at the local DMV to get my learners permit. But before I received my learner’s permit license, I had to pass a test. Guess what? I failed. To get the license I had to pass the test. Truth be known, I didn’t study for the test. I thought I could wing it and pass. Boy was I wrong. Being humbled by my failure, I went home and studied. And being educated made all the difference. 

The church in recent days and years has been humbled by their failure in the area of sexual abuse.

This failure has led to a fractured trust in the institutional nature of the church, which directly effects our missional mandate.

In our humbled position may we seek to be educated on the basics of what we need to know with regards to sexual abuse so that we can earn the right to be trusted once again. 

This doesn’t mean church leaders and members need to become specialists in this area, but they should learn the basics of how to handle an allegation, minister to survivors of sexual abuse, and handle situations where sex offenders attend or join a church. Being educated on the basics prepares us to be able to pass the tests when they come. 

Be Practical

I’m a simple, down-to-earth, practical guy. I never much cared for the complexities of calculus. I just wanted to know the simple steps to take to arrive at the answer. Now, I’m not naïve enough to believe that everything can be condensed into simplicity, especially in complex and messy waters such as sexual abuse and misconduct. However, I believe there are couple of practical steps churches can take to protect the vulnerable and prevent sexual predators from attacking.

First, churches need to strengthen their hiring policies and procedures. Having been a lead pastor, I’ve been amazed at the lack of calls I’ve received from sister churches hiring staff members that worked for me. In the last church I served, I had four staff members transition to new assignments, and only one church reached out to me to discuss the staff member. 

I’m sure most people realize that prospective employees only put references down that will give them a good recommendation. Therefore, churches must go deeper to find out more information about a person. For example, if a church is hiring a person to be the Student Minister, wouldn’t it be a good practice to talk with a couple of adult leaders and even parents from the previous church? 

Second, churches need to delegate at least one, if not a few, people in their fellowship to be special advocates for sexual abuse victims and survivors. These special advocates would minister and serve the victims and survivors in three primary ways: (1) be the contact for someone who needs to make an allegation, 2) be someone a victim or survivor could trust, and 3) journey with the victim or survivor through their darkness so that they do not feel alone. 

Be Biblical

The last, and most important, step local churches can take in authoritatively expressing the sinful nature of such behavior and proactively working towards the protection of children and the vulnerable—and thus preventing sexual predators from attacking—is to be biblical. 

First, deal with public sin publicly. For this article, I don’t have the time nor space to address the various degrees of sin and when to practice church discipline, but church leaders should never sweep public sin under the rug. In each of the cases where the Apostle Paul addresses public sin that shames the name of Christ, he talks about handing them over to Satan (1 Corinthians 5:5; 1 Timothy 1:20).

The goal of such discipline is to expose sin, demonstrate God’s judgment against sin, save the soul of the offender, protect the church’s holiness, and be a good gospel witness. 

Second, exercise wisdom and discernment when desiring to be redemptive and restorative. I understand churches who want to be redemptive and restorative to those who’ve either faced sexual abuse allegations or have been tried and convicted of sexual abuse. But to hire or place leaders with a tainted past in similar environments in which they failed isn’t redemptive or restorative, it is reckless. Moreover, to hire or place leaders with a tainted past in similar environments without disclosing their past to the appropriate people is not only reckless, it is criminally negligent. It is incumbent upon leaders in the church to be wise, discerning, and above reproach. 

Third, seek to be places and people that are invitational safe havens—especially for children and the vulnerable. Jesus exclaimed, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them…” (Matthew 19:14). Jesus also uttered, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). 

Over the past 2000 years many have answered Jesus’ invitation to come to Him and join His kingdom and God’s family. The church is the vehicle by which Jesus continues to extend His invitation. But if churches become people and places that aren’t trusted, then we will fail at our mission mandate.

JD Greear expressed, “If we don’t get this right, our churches will not be a safe place for the lost.” 

In closing, these are not the end-all-be-all steps that churches should take. I’m sure there are many more. Truthfully, there’s a lot of work to be done by the church in this area. However, churches must be willing to make huge commitments to taking small steps. 

It’s simply not enough to be sickened and grieved by such sinful behavior. But, as the Apostle Paul exhorted the Church in Corinth, we must proactively do something about it. When the church meets their emotional response with action steps, they will create systems and cultures that deter predators and protect children and the vulnerable, and thus be healthy missional vehicles that advance the good news of Jesus.  

Lead·er·ship (/ˈlēdərˌSHip/)

I’ve been in leadership positions almost all my life. Leadership, for me, dates back to youth sports. However, over the past nineteen years my leadership has been concentrated in two main areas: leading ministry in the local church and leading my family at home. 

While it is my desire to continue to grow as a leader, I felt compelled to put some thoughts down as to what God has taught me about leadership through my understanding of the Bible, the leaders I’ve served under, the books I’ve read, the podcasts I’ve listened to, and the practical experiences of leading. 

There are so many leaders who have offered their own definitions of leadership. Now I don’t know what makes one qualified to give their definition of leadership, but I’ve put some thought into it over the years and I’ve come up with my own. My definition is based more upon an image embedded within the word “leadership”. In short, my simple definition of leadership is: one who leads a ship

Let me expound on my simple definition. Leadership is the action of leading a ship (a person, group of people, or an organization) from point A to point B in a manner that glorifies God, so that the contents of the ship can arrive safely and be used to bring blessing and flourishing to the world.  

By this definition, there are at least 10 things we can learn about leadership. 

  • Leadership begins with yourself. No one can effectively lead others until they have learned to lead themselves. If you cannot navigate yourself from point A to point B, what makes you think you can navigate others? Those who lead others have effectively led (and are leading) themselves. 
  • Leadership is purposeful. In other words, there’s got to be a reason (or reasons) why you want to lead yourself (and others) from point A to point B. If there’s no reason or purpose, there’s a good chance there will be no sustaining motivation. This is why I chose to define leadership as leading “a ship from point A to point B in a manner that glorifies God….” The glory of God lays the foundation and purpose for how and where I lead. Leaders who lead the ship well keep the purpose (i.e., the mission) close to the heart and soul of those they lead.  
  • Leadership transpires on all kinds and sizes of ships. Like point one, leadership can be the size of a one-man boat (or jet-ski). It can also be the size of a fishing boat for five—to fit your family. Or, it can be a cruise-liner taking hundreds and thousands from point A to point B. The kind of ship will determine the destination in which you lead your ship. The size of the ship will determine how many you will need in servicing the ship to reach its destination. If you don’t know what kind of ship you are leading, nor the size of ship you believe you could be, you’ll have difficulty determining and navigating the direction of your ship. 
  • Leadership is about going where you or others have not been. As of now I’m training for a half Ironman. I’ve never competed before in a triathlon. In fact, until recently I’ve never swam long distances or owned a road bike. Nevertheless, I’m training for one. To help me better understand training for a triathlon, I have met with my neighbor who has competed in a full Ironman. I’ve also avidly read books and articles by other triathletes. Such people are leading me from point A to point B—a destination that I’ve never been before. Most people you lead have never been to where you want to take them. That’s why it’s vital to cast constant vision of the “WHY,” “WHAT,” and “SO WHAT” of the ship (organization).  
  • Leadership is about recruiting and training a crew for the mission. Depending on the size and scope of the ship (organization), leaders will need to understand who and what they will need to lead the ship from point A to point B. In other words, leaders understand they can’t do everything—nor should they. Therefore, effective leaders recruit, train, develop, and empower others for their role and tasks within the organization. 
  • Leadership is about strategic navigation. I’ve been on my fair share of smaller boats, pontoons, and cruise-liners. There’s strategy in navigating a boat. Whether through a host of other boats, wakes, or storms, those captaining the boat need to know about the etiquette and best practices of boat navigation. They also need to know what kind of waters they are on. A leader who fails to understand strategic navigation through various elements and obstacles increases the likelihood of sinking (or at least damaging) the ship rather than sailing the ship to its destination. In short, effective leaders know strategically how they will navigate the contextual waters as they guide the ship from point A to point B. 
  • Leadership is anchored in servant humility. In short, leadership isn’t about the leader. First, and foremost, leadership is about the purpose. For the most part, in any organization the purpose will far outlast the leader. Second, it is about those you are leading. The fulfillment of the purpose is directly tied to the leader’s effectiveness in empowering and equipping people to do the work. Third, it is about those that will be impacted and influenced as you lead your organization to fulfill its purpose. Thus, great leaders will think less about themselves as they busy themselves serving others!
  • Leadership is about making the tough and courageous calls. We’ve all heard the cliché, “That’s why they pay you the big bucks!” Leaders are where they are because they can (or should be able to) make the tough decisions. There are many elements that can threaten the safety and direction of the ship and thus the overall purpose and mission of the organization. Therefore, leaders—through wisdom, discernment, counsel, and boldness—know when they need to stand their ground, know when they have to let people go, as well as know when they have to push through the fear, insecurities, and timidity of those who are afraid of going where they’ve never been. 
  • Leadership is about sacrifice. Taking people or an organization from point A to point B is a weighty task. Just think, leaders have the responsibility of leading people to accomplish a mission that ultimately impacts and influences others. Thus, effective leaders feel the weight of their responsibility. As such, they work vigorously learning and growing in their life and field, setting the example for the organization, and entering in the life of those they lead in an effort to enhance them as people and team members. 
  • Leadership is about multiplication. Even the biggest boats in the world have limitations—in both their size and scope. Therefore, there is great need for more boats. More boats mean more leaders. Great leaders ultimately multiply who they are. In fact, the greatest leaders multiply other leaders and thus create a fleet of ships that carry a part of the mission and purpose of the organization. Leaders who fail to multiply cap the capacity of their ship. 

In closing, if you are a captain of a sports team, a stay-at-home mom, a pastor, a small group leader, a small business owner, a shift supervisor, or the President of the United States, you are leading a ship. So, how’s your ship?