It’s Time to Get Mean About the Vision God Has Given You

Your church doesn’t need a new mission. God determines the mission. He defines the mission. And he’s been about the mission for thousands of years and simply wants your church involved in it. But your church is in desperate need of a vision that is informed by God’s Word, inspired by God’s Spirit, and applied passionately and broken-heartedly to your local context.

If you’re a Lead (Senior) Pastor and you don’t have a vision for how your church will carry out its mission in your local context, here’s my advice: Get away with Jesus! Take a retreat. Meet with some mentors. Read the word. Drive around your community and beg God to paint a picture in your mind of what could be if the gospel took root and sprouted all over the place.

Every ministry leader needs to cultivate a vision for their ministry context, but Lead Pastors are out front, setting the pace. God has chosen you to lead his sheep on a rescue mission for other lost sheep.

Once you’re a leader with a vision from God of what should be, it’s on to step two. Get mean. 

No, this is not an admonition to stop loving people or to become selfish and egocentric. Rather it’s a challenge to stand with conviction and communicate strongly what God has made clear to you as a leader.

My friend and coach, Shawn Lovejoy, just released his new book on the subject simply called Be Mean About the Vision: Relentlessly Pursuing What Matters. Here’s how he defines this…

Being “mean” about the vision is being intentional about the vision. It’s purposefully protecting the vision over time. Being mean about the vision is living it out daily in our lives, keeping our hearts focused and aligned with it. It’s communicating that vision with clarity and energy. Being mean is moving in a consistent direction, and recognizing when the vision begins to drift. When you’re mean about the vision, you will also protect it at all costs. You won’t allow what I call “vision hijackers”—people who want to derail the vision—to throw things off course. When you’re mean about the vision, you’ll intentionally keep the vision as the epicenter of all you are and all you do.

I know leaders who, right now, need to take the big risk of upsetting, offending, and even losing people for the right reasons. Four thousand more churches will close this year. A few will do so because of changing demographics, but most will close because they’ve spent too many years focusing inwardly, refusing to change the way they communicate. And often, these churches full of good people are led by good people who simply won’t dare to push the boundaries.

And I’ve been there. Looking back over twenty years of ministry, I can spot moments when I folded, when I ignored issues, when I gave into the vocal minority and slowed our progress. Those are the moments when stagnation occurred. And I can also see moments when I pushed forward and stood up for the vision God had given me. Those are the moments when growth happened.

Here’s my challenge to any leader who feels stuck…

You’re the leader! God has called you to this! He’s given you an assignment that involves the expansion of his kingdom in the community around you. Lost people are going to hell without the good news and your church has the saving message they desperately need. You don’t need to be a bully, but you do need to take the risk of leading forward, confidently, even at the cost of being misunderstood, criticized, and maybe even ousted.

What do you have to lose? Determine to get to God’s throne without the regret of missed opportunities to bring more people into his family!

Buy Shawn’s Book

God Will Find You In the Gutter, And Take You Somewhere Else

Jesus met with Nicodemus in the night, a relationally broken woman at a Samaritan well, and Matthew at a party thrown for tax collectors. He befriended prostitutes, recruited zealots, and pronounced forgiveness for known adulterers. God, in Christ, has definitely demonstrated his willingness to go to the gutters of society to change the lives of sinners by his truth and grace.

So know this. The Holy Spirit will pursue you to the darkest, deepest, dirtiest corners of life. He’ll meet you right where you are, no matter your story or situation. No place is off limits.

However, once he finds you there, you need to be prepared for his invitation to leave the gutter and follow him. He loves you, just like you are, but he loves you too much to leave you that way. He always has a better plan for your life than what you or your culture has had for your life.

My favorite unofficial title for the Holy Spirit is The Difference Maker. He changes the game. When the Holy Spirit gets involved, dead people come back to life, scared people find courage, and wanderers come home. Just listen to this…

But whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord — who is the Spirit — makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image.

– 2 Corinthians 3:16-18 NLT

The big truth of the Apostle Paul’s words is this: God meets you right where you are, but he doesn’t leave you there. He will radically change you, from the inside out, to look like Jesus.

And how?

  1. He unveils our eyes so that we can see spiritual realities beyond the physical world.
  2. He grants us the freedom to pursue him passionately and live differently than we lived before.
  3. He uses the mirror of God’s Word to shape us into the likeness of Jesus Christ.

Change may be something that’s hard for you, but that might be because you’ve tried to adapt to external changes without an internal power like the presence of the Holy Spirit. The good news is that the Creator, the Architect, the Artisan who hand-crafted you in his own image wants to move into the broken you and fix, over your lifetime, all the ways in which his image is marred.

God wants to change your life. But he doesn’t force or coerce us. He invites. He draws. He burdens. He even warns. But he leaves the choice to you and to me. Will we say to him, with unreserved abandon, have your way, Lord?

Want to Grow? Things Will Have to Change

We like change that directly benefits us – a job promotion, a new home, marrying our dream mate, etc. But we’re terrified of change that threatens our sense of stability, security, or significance. Having been a Pastor for eighteen years now, I’ve seen my share of missed opportunities for new, fresh growth resulting from the fear of taking risks that might cost our comfort.

God is living, active, and dynamic. Furthermore, he is sovereign. We like to treat God as a product – apply, rinse, and repeat – who will give us the same results forever as long as we never change the way we use him. But God has a tendency to be elusive, calling us out of our comfort zones and drawing us into the sometimes crazy adventure of following him on his terms, not ours.

Growth and forward momentum are created by significant catalytic changes.

We’ve watched this already in the short life of Grace Hills Church. We started meeting in an office building with about 30 people. When we moved to a local hotel, we grew to 70. When we launched in our first movie theater location, 174 showed up and we averaged 120 for the first six months. We added a second service and grew to 200. This year, we moved to a different movie theater and have had an average attendance of 240. We’ve seen the same thing as we’ve added staff.

In my personal life, I can look back at the greatest moments of spiritual growth and can see that, in general, they align with unexpected changes in my life. When I met my wife, surrendered to ministry, started Bible college, had kids, moved to Arkansas, to California, and back to Arkansas again. It isn’t that we should thrust ourselves into constant chaos and instability. It’s just that moments of transition lend themselves to more intense transformation for our souls.

I get asked by many church leaders a rather basic and heartfelt question… how can we grow? How can we reach more people? How can we bring to life a seemingly dying movement?

And my answer is always the same, generally speaking… Change.

I’ll be accused of being too pragmatic, but I find great biblical precedent for this principle. God moved Abraham from Ur, Joseph from Canaan, Moses from Egypt to the desert and back again, David from the field to the palace to the cave to Hebron and finally to Jerusalem, Nehemiah from Susa to Jerusalem, Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, Paul to Antioch… you get the picture.

God even allowed great persecution to hit the church in its early days in Jerusalem (Acts 8). Why? To force them from their comfort zone out to every nation with the good news.

Yes, I know some things must never change. The central message of the gospel of King Jesus and all of the truth that God has revealed in his word, the Bible, is forever perfect and never in need of editing. But the culture around us is in a constant state of flux and our method of communicating eternal truth must be adapted to each new generation, or we risk irrelevance and obsolescence. There stand across Europe and North America thousands of empty cathedrals and church houses as a testament to a brutal truth: God’s Spirit has moved on, and we haven’t caught up to him.

I’m extremely hopeful. I believe in the perpetuity of true New Testament churches until Jesus returns. I believe strongly that the gates of hell stand no chance at all of prevailing against the beautiful bride of Christ – the church. But each church must have the courage to change the non-biblical dynamics of her approach to a lost culture, which means leaders must be bold and courageous and embrace the pain of change for the win of seeing more people brought into the family of God.

If you want your church to grow (and you should, if you take the Great Commission seriously), then you’ll have to change. Period.

As Henry Blackaby wrote, in his classic work Experiencing God,

Once you come to believe God, you demonstrate your faith by what you do. Some action is required…. You cannot continue life as usual or stay where you are, and go with God at the same time…. To go from your ways, thoughts, and purposes to God’s will always requires a major adjustment. God may require adjustments in your circumstances, relationships, thinking, commitments, actions, and beliefs. Once you have made the necessary adjustments you can follow God in obedience. Keep in mind—the God who calls you is also the One who will enable you to do His will.

10 Terrible Reasons to Be Done with Church

The “Dones.” It’s a term sociologists and researchers use to describe those who are done with church. The Dones were once part of a church, but have become disillusioned for a variety of reasons and have decided to be spiritual without the help of a local congregation. And the Dones are growing in number.

I’m a Pastor, and I’ve seen the church from every angle. I’ve been a church kid, a kid whose family left the church, and a young adult who found my way back to the church. I’ve been the Pastor of smaller, more traditional churches, on staff at a megachurch, and a planter of a new church unlike any other I’ve ever been part of. And there have been, in my twenty years of ministry, quite a few Sunday nights when I’ve felt the desire to be Done again.

But I’m here. And I’m committed. And I’ll share why, but first, I want to address some of the most common reasons you might think you’re Done with the church.

“The Church Is So Judgmental”

Guilty. The church in America has had a history of perpetuating an us-versus-them mentality toward people who don’t seem to fit in. We’ve been legalistic. We’ve focused on external appearances when God cares about the heart. We’ve rejected people over some sins and not others. And we’ve given the impression that God is displeased with people who can’t keep their lives in near-perfect order.

And we’ve been terribly wrong. The church needs to own this. We need to change this. And to turn the ship around and become a grace-based, love-filled, purpose-driven body once again, we need you.

You see, the church is often judgmental not because it’s made up of Christians, but because it’s made up of humans, and humans are all judgmental. We all tend to assess the people around us to see how we measure up, and if we can somehow outrank others, we feel better and safer. This isn’t just a church thing. It’s a work thing. It’s a class thing. It’s a race thing. And it’s pretty much always wrong.

“The Church Is Full of Hypocrites”

Guilty again. You see one person at church and another in the cubicle and they both go by the same name. We hear preachers and politicians proclaim moral virtues while secretly living very differently. We are actors. But again, we are ALL actors. It’s human nature to wear a mask to avoid the pain of scrutiny and judgment by others. So nobody walks into church cussing the way they did during the game Friday night. After all, we have an image to uphold.

Granted, the church ought to be the once place where this pattern is broken, but can we acknowledge that if we understand human nature correctly, this is really a terrible reason to be done with the church. After all, if you spot this problem, you obviously have a desire to be authentic and transparent yourself, so we NEED you to help make the church different.

“The Church Is Too Institutional”

This is often the case, especially in America. Rather than being a loosely-organized organic community of friends, we’re a business and a bureaucracy. We erect ginormous denominational structures with boards, committees, parliamentary procedures, and elected officers. Within the church, we have budgets and buildings and sometimes resemble the corporate world a little too much.

Here’s the flipside, though. Just as it’s possible to be too institutional, it’s dangerous to be too anti-institutional. Some level of institutionalism is necessary to maintain financial records ethically, organize people to accomplish the mission, and provide at least a simple structure through which people can be equipped to grow spiritually and serve others.

Somewhere, there is a happy medium, and you might just be the person to help us discover it.

“The Church Is Too Political”

Sadly, this is true, in multiple directions. On the one hand, we have the “religious right” or “moral majority” who completely confuse what it means for the church to be light and salt in the middle of a secular culture. We wrongly promote a kind of theocracy that seeks to “put God back into America” and legislate from our selected set of Scriptures. And on the other hand, there is a rather leftist, “progressive” branch of the church that seems to fight for an opposite set of values often with similar tactics.

I’m as done with this as you are. I’m convinced that Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Libertarians, and those who wish to rebel against Palpatine’s new Empire to restore the Old Republic and the Jedi should all feel welcome on Sunday. But here’s the good news – there’s a whole generation of church leaders who are tired of trying to bully the “other side” (whichever side that might be) into submission. We’re interested in meaningful conversations in search of truth. And if you are too, come back to the church. We need your voice.

“The Church Complicates My Life”

As a kid, my family attended Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, and Sunday School. There were programs, events, activities, and business and committee meetings. And we were part of a church with less than two hundred people. Somewhere along the way, we thought the cool thing to do would be to come with as many “ministries” as possible for as many people as possible and stay as busy as possible.

But does all the busyness produce actual, spiritual growth? Not often. It just wears us out, keeps us busy “at church” instead of living on mission, and prevents us from developing meaningful relationships outside the life of the church in the real mission field. And we can attend ten Bible studies per week and not practice anything we’re learning.

Thankfully, God is raising up a generation of church leaders who are driven by God’s eternal purposes for the church rather than by programs, events, buildings, and schedules. It’s entirely possible to streamline the church’s structure in a much more simple way to stimulate real growth and real relationship-building. But we need your help.

“The Church is Too Dogmatic”

Maybe. But I don’t think being dogmatic is the problem. Once we discover that something is absolutely true, we should indeed hold onto it, right? I think the problem is often the way we present truth – like a bulleted list of precepts to be blindly affirmed. If we know Jesus is the only way to eternal life, we must be dogmatic about it. But we also must allow people the room, the space, and the time, to explore our message and come to a place of belief on their own time.

In other words, I don’t think the problem is that we preach the Bible. I think it’s that we preach the Bible in a way that leaves no room for conversation about the Bible. But again, there is a generation of church leaders aspiring to set the table for real discussion. So come on back and grab a chair.

“The Church Just Wants My Money”

Sometimes, the church has approached the subject of money in terrible ways. People have definitely been spiritually abused and taken advantage of for the benefit of some church leaders who live lavishly off of a gullible flock. But again, this doesn’t represent the church as a whole. In fact, most church leaders today are calling upon the few who commit abuses in this area to repent.

What makes it hard for leaders is that generosity is part of discipleship, and giving is part of a commitment to Jesus and to the local church. Jesus talked a lot about money, and the Bible has a lot of teaching on the subject. So if you’re done with church because of the subject of money, you have to evaluate whether your problem is with the church or with Jesus.

The matter of greatest importance is the motivation behind our giving. Financial contributions should be the responsibility of those who are called, saved, and committed. The face of the matter is, when we give, we reflect God’s nature, our faith grows, and the world is ultimately impacted as a result.

“The Church Doesn’t Care About Issues that Matter”

And what are the issues that matter? I would say that this question is a little bit relative to our current historical and cultural moment. What matters to you may not have been a significant issue a generation ago, or at least not as prevalent. I personally believe the church is doing amazing things in arenas like human trafficking, poverty, education, the environment, and civil rights.

Every church will have a different personality and its members will have a unique set of overlapping burdens such that one church might take on several signature issues, but not every issue. And since I assume I’m talking to people who generally agree about the truth of the gospel but disagree about the usefulness of the church, we must understand that the eternal destinies of the souls of people is the single most crucial issue of all.

Don’t leave the church over this. Bring the issue to the table and take personal responsibility for it.

“The Church Seems Irrelevant to My Life”

The church has often been slow to adapt to its environment, culturally speaking. Our music, our terminology, and our means’ of communicating the gospel have been too slow to keep up. Walking into many churches is like walking out of the modern world through a time portal to the 1950’s. And out of fear, many churches refuse to give up extra-biblical traditions. But the last few decades have presented a significant course correction in this area.

From the Jesus Movement of the 1960’s to the admittedly awkward rise of contemporary Christian music, many segments of the church have endured the necessary and painful transition needed to bring an always relevant biblical message back to the attention of the surrounding culture. We have a long way to go and many preferences yet to lay on the altar, but the church has come a long way.

I think it would be difficult to find mid-sized town or large city in America where there is not a strong, biblical, culturally-relevant, gospel-oriented church to join.

“The Church Let Me Down”

Me too. When I was twelve, the church I grew up in had a split over personality issues masked as doctrinal ones. My family quit. When I was a young, inexperienced Pastor, I found myself in the middle of a couple of feuds that ultimately killed two churches. I was determined to never be a Pastor again, but God had other plans. The church lets people down. Often.

Now let me share my pastoral heart with you. My deepest pain as a leader is knowing that we won’t be able to meet everyone’s needs, connect everyone in a group, discover everyone’s gifts, solve everyone’s problems, or bring healing to every sickness. I know, Sunday after Sunday, that while we will do our very best, our best is never enough and some will always be let down.

So here’s my question. What if nobody bailed? What if everyone decided to stay and work out their issues and be part of the solution? I think it would be a game changer.

If you think you’re done with church for any of these reasons, let me challenge you to think differently. Instead of saying, “I’m done with the church, because…” why not say, “I’m done with my part in the problems I see, but I’m going to be part of the solution.”

Here’s the biggest reason you CAN’T leave the church. Jesus died for her. The church, as imperfect as she is, is the love of Jesus’ life. The church is God’s choice institution for sharing the gospel, making disciples, counseling the broken, healing the sick, feeding the poor, and making a difference in its surrounding community. God wired you for community. You need his people and you need to be humble enough to see the church as “us” and not “them.”

As Bill Hybels famously said, “The local church is God’s Plan A, and there is no Plan B.”

Pointers for Pastors: Lead Better by Understanding Basic Psychology

PointersNot all change leads to growth, obviously, but growth never happens without change. So leadership is, in large part, motivating and organizing a group of people to change and grow. But… nobody likes change. Even people who say they like change don’t like it naturally. They’ve just developed a good attitude about embracing it.

As a Pastor, I used to take it quite personally when someone was afraid of the change I was urging for our church. While it doesn’t always solve all the issues, I finally came to understand that there is a psychology behind leadership that needs to be understood, even by shepherd-theologians leading a church. We must understand that people resist leadership for two big reasons: they’re afraid, and they’re hurt.

People are afraid when their sense of security is challenged, and security is a basic need of the human soul. We are naturally protective of the status quo, so we resist change that challenges us to move out of what is comfortable, safe, and familiar.

And people are hurt when their sense of significance is damaged. This happens when we feel ignored or invisible, or left out of the equation of a decision that affects our sense of security. We are supposed to have both of these needs met through our relationship with God as we seek our shelter in him and serve his people. But we naturally seek significance in superficial ways, which leads to trouble.

Why does all of this matter so much? Can’t we just push people by virtue of our position of authority? Shouldn’t people just get in line behind us and follow us in spite of their feelings? Maybe, but that’s not really leadership. Leadership is instigating and motivating people to move, then organizing them to move in the right direction with a clear picture of the destination. Charles Stone addressed this well in a piece on the six brain barriers to healthy church change.

If you want to lead better, understand what motivates people to resist you. When you bring comfort and encouragement to people who feel insecure or insignificant, you have a highly increased chance of leading them to do what you believe you’ve been called to do.

To lead better, understand how and why people think the way they do.

Here’s an audio clip in which I expand on this a bit…

Meekness is the Leverage of Leadership

In today’s world, meekness = weakness. God does not view it that way, however. The Bible says of Moses,”Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.” (Numbers 12:3) And in a world where power is everything, Jesus entered the scene in a wooden manger surrounded by barnyard animals. He grew up in an humble village, the son of a carpenter, of modest means. He lived His life serving others, yet Jesus was certainly the most influential leader in all of history.

If you study the lives of Moses and Jesus you’ll find something interesting – they were both great leaders. Both were willing to boldly confront sin and error. Both would rebuke those who believed and lived lies. Both were willing to venture out into the future with faith. Yet they were the meekest men in history. How can this be? You see, we’ve misdefined meekness. Biblical meekness is not weakness, it is really just the opposite.

The Bible’s word for meekness is used in reference to a broken horse, which has all the power to destroy its rider but refrains out of respect for authority. The word is also used to refer to a soldier who has all the might to take on the enemy, yet submits himself completely to the authority of his commanding officer. Meekness is the key to having leverage in leadership. It’s the refusal to demand respect in exchange for commanding it with a life of integrity. It is “controlled power.” Meekness is the willingness to supress those urges to lash out at the wrong time, opting instead to wait for further orders from our commanding officer, Jesus.

Is meekness displayed in your life? How can you submit yourself to Jesus more today? How can you lead others with boldness and courage?

How to Bring Joy to Your City

The City of Vancouver
photo credit: ecstaticist

I love that part of the story of the early church in which God allows persecution to scatter the Christians from Jerusalem like ants. The Bible says that everywhere they went, they preached the gospel (see Acts chapter 8). Phillip, in particular, headed to a city in Samaria and became the earliest cross-cultural missionary. When he preached there, the citizens listened and embraced Jesus. The Bible sums it up by saying, “So there was great joy in that city.” (Acts 8:8 NLT)

I’ve spent a lot of time lately reading Acts and other sources of early church history. I’ve found this theme to be recurring. The apostles enter a city and preach Jesus against the backdrop of creation and the story of God. People embrace Jesus and the city takes on new life.

The other reaction that happens is riots break out and people get upset, but it’s usually the established religious leadership, feeling threatened by the dethroning power of this new gospel, that stir up the crowds. As I’ve looked over the stories, from Samaria to Athens all the way to Rome, I see some recurring themes.

  • The apostles establish trust and common ground, often hearing local leaders in the synagogue before engaging.
  • They start with the story of creation (with Gentiles) and with Abraham (with Jews).
  • As they present the gospel, their message is accompanied by signs and wonders, especially with the Jews.
  • Some respond by embracing Jesus. Others reject the gospel. Everyone is free to decide without coercion.
  • Churches are formed as disciple-making, disciple-maturing, and disciple-multiplying centers.
  • Cities and cultures are transformed as people are influenced with the gospel.
  • The gospel travels beyond that city into the surrounding territories and to new fields.

As I try to learn from the early church and make application to where my church and your church exist today, I think we often bring about reactions other than joy in our cities. Sometimes we ignore the city by taking up the best land, paying no taxes, and keeping to ourselves as though we’re better than everything around us. Sometimes we imitate the city and lose any distinction as a community of Christian believers with a new, biblical code. And often, we irritate the city by shouting at all the nonbelievers who, to our dismay, don’t act like believers.

I think there’s still a way to capture the essence of apostolic mission, which infiltrates cities with the gospel as new believers develop a sense of mission in every realm in which they live. From within political structures, schools and education boards, workplaces, social services, and other realms of city life, the gospel earns a hearing and makes a difference. And in the end, great joy comes to the city.

As we work through these issues in the context of a new church plant that gathers in a movie theater and scatters all week long, we’ve developed a bit of a philosophy about how we want to transform northwest Arkansas in a positive way. Specifically, we want to…

  • Plant a church that makes the good news both visible and audible to our community.
  • Scatter throughout the community as small groups that grow spiritually and serve practically.
  • Live the gospel, love people, and share Jesus as individuals.
  • Bring down the cultural barriers that keep ethnicities separated on Sunday mornings.
  • Partner with the city’s governmental leaders to address real issues that affect local residents.
  • Partner with local charitable organizations, Christian or not, that address problems like hunger and homelessness.
  • Partner with local schools to improve education, minister to teachers, and help hurting families.
  • Partner with other local churches in kingdom-focused projects.
  • Multiply as individuals, as small groups, and as a church through new worship services, venues, locations, and autonomous daughter church plants.
  • Minister to the hurting, the broken, the mentally ill and emotionally unhealthy through counseling and recovery ministries.
  • Support families, not by replacing parents as disciplers, but by supplementing and aiding parents in the discipleship process.

Is there more? Sure. This is not some to-do list or official statement we’ve adopted. And it’s not comprehensive. It’s just a list of priorities that I, as Lead Pastor, am thinking through continually.

I love northwest Arkansas with my whole heart. I loved living in Kentucky, and I definitely loved the humidity-free beach culture of southern California. But the Bentonville-Rogers area is my city. It’s my home. and I want to bring great joy to every neighbor I possibly can.

Today, after the morning service was over, a single Mom came to let me know that after struggling to feel at home in any church setting, she and her daughter agreed they had found a home at Grace Hills. I love that! That’s the joy of just one person who finds life in the gospel and in a church family. May that joy spread and not stop spreading until Jesus comes again!