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The Abiding Church: Calling Church Leaders Back to Jesus

The Abiding Church

When I first moved back to northwest Arkansas to plant a church, not everyone understood. Even quite a few church leaders wondered why the neighborhood needed another church. But Nate Sweeney embraced us and has encouraged us all along the way. I so appreciate his ministry in northwest Arkansas, and I’m excited about the release of his first book, The Abiding Church.

Nate Sweeney has walked through a plethora of leadership issues in his young life, transitioning a church from its long-standing traditions into a church that communicates the gospel clearly to a new generation, with a new name, a new leadership structure, and a new style of ministry. Though he understands how to relate to the culture, Nate’s heart is really for the church to do what it was always intended to do – abide in Jesus. 

In The Abiding Church, Nate offers encouragement, a challenge, and some practical wisdom for church leaders who need a fresh fire in their bones. He balances the idea of growth with the idea of intimacy with Jesus. Healthy churches grow, but healthy churches are more than just smarter or bigger – they’re more committed to the gospel and keep Christ at the center of their attention.

In Nate’s words to church leaders…

At the end of your life you will look back and realize you did a lot of things for God. You had good days and bad. You had victories and failures. You obeyed His word and sinned against Him. All of this should be swallowed up in a loving relationship with Him. If you’re banking on anything else then you will be greatly disappointed. If you remained in Him then you will have produced fruit. You will have allowed Him to prune you so you could grow. You will have done something that mattered because it was centered on Christ. Anything you do outside of Him will not produce lasting fruit. He wants to change you into the image of God as He spends time with you. An abiding relationship with Christ encompasses everything you need to be planted, take root, grow, and produce fruit in God’s kingdom.

Nate oozes kingdom-mindedness and love for fellow leaders, and he’s instigating a movement that might just change the world starting in Arkansas. His words are well worth reading and heeding!

 

A Dozen Ways to Kill a Great Idea

Some committee's recording clerk, waiting for action to happen.

Some committee’s recording clerk,
waiting for action to happen.

Ever watched a really good idea crash and burn? Me too.

Here’s some brutal honesty… entire movements have gone down in flames because of boneheaded approaches to good ideas. This isn’t to say we can’t afford to make mistakes. In fact, the only way to know we’re taking risks is to make mistakes. We can’t afford not to make them. But we also can’t afford to ignore timeless principles of leadership effectiveness.

In honor of our most fatal leadership mistakes, here are my “from the hip” ways to kill great ideas (warning: sarcasm ahead)…

  • Form a committee. In this way, you’ll be able to devote more time to keeping minutes and electing officers and less time to solving problems. Also, we’ll be able to prevent a single great leader from running with the idea without feeling the need to check with several people with different opinions before proceeding.
  • Be sure to control it. Before you even start executing a good idea, be sure to write plenty of rules and parameters so that no one feels the freedom to run too fast with it. Freedom is the enemy when we’re trying to kill good ideas.
  • Devote a lot of time to calculating the costs. Be sure that everyone understands just how much failing can cost us so that we inch along, paralyzed by fear.
  • Assume it’s everyone’s responsibility. If we’re able to say, “our church should really be doing this,” it takes the pressure off of anyone in particular who might actually take ownership. In this way, no one gets blamed for the death of the idea… at least not individually.
  • Assume it’s your responsibility alone. If we get help, we’ll just saddle people with the burden of investing their time into meaningful pursuits rather than having more free time to not develop their gifts for kingdom influence.
  • Vote on it. This will give everyone a sense of power and let them decide that they’re “against” the idea even if it isn’t something they understand. After all, majorities of people are usually smart right? Besides, in the end, it’s really about keeping as many people as possible happy.
  • Avoid learning from others who have acted on similar ideas. Never ask people who have succeeded or failed before. It’s better to re-invent the wheel, take full credit (or blame) in the end, and brag on how much we’ve been able to do (or not do) all on our own.
  • Keep young people out of it. They’re all too inexperienced and unwise to lead anything. Besides, do the voices of the young really matter? I thought they were meant to be seen and not heard… or valued.
  • Keep old… advanced… experienced people out of it. After all, they’re just all grumpy, afraid of change, and set in their old-fashioned ways. Their years of wisdom and experience will just complicate matters.
  • Keep women out of it. …In all honesty, even in sarcasm, I’m too afraid to touch this one. I can just testify it’s boneheaded.
  • Execute the idea purely in our natural power. God’s power is just too much. The Holy Spirit can’t even be seen visibly, especially at committee meetings. Besides, we need to be busy executing, not wasting time in prayer.
  • Take a little more time to talk about your intentions for the good idea. As long as you’re intending to do something good, it’s as good as doing it, except that it never get’s done. But you will have meant well when it’s all said and not done.

I’m guilty of at least a majority of these at one time or another in my own leadership, so I’m not writing out of arrogance but in confession.

Three Prerequisites to Leading Others Well

Ninety and Nine

I have no idea who this is, but the dog looks nice.

Being loud doesn’t make you a leader. Neither does being popular. Leadership is influence, and influence means taking people in a direction they wouldn’t otherwise be going – hopefully forward. Ambition isn’t enough to qualify you to lead. There is more to the equation.

You need to be led before you can really lead. This one is tough for eager leaders, but in order to lead well, you must first be okay with being led. One of the greatest leaders I know who was in charge of 350+ staff in a well-known megachurch said, “I’m a man under authority.” If you don’t know what it’s like to follow or if you’re unwilling to learn from those ahead of you, you’re not quite ready to lead.

You need to love people before you can really lead. You can lead and love self, but the end result is pretty pitiful. Great leaders love those they are leading. Good shepherds have a tendency to lay down their lives for their sheep, and great leaders are always thinking about how to move their followers to the next level.

You need to become a servant before you become a leader. We know that servanthood is the prerequisite to kingdom influence based on Jesus’ example and His words, but we don’t like to let go of our identity as a leader to fully embrace it. We even like to call ourselves “servant-leaders” so we’re not leaving out the leadership part of the equation. But think differently for a moment. What if you saw yourself as a servant first and as a leader second? How would it change the way you lead people?

Can you lead and influence without being led, being a lover of people, and being a servant? Sure, but why would you want to? Your reward for such leadership is shallow and short-lived. Instead, choose the Jesus path – be a servant and a shepherd. Be led well, and then lead with confidence!


And here’s a follow-up thought…

Building Rhythm Into the Life of Your Church

Portsmouth CriteriumMinistry is a marathon. This is true for church leaders, for volunteers, and for the church body itself. When we drive and push people to sprint all the time, burnout is inevitable. You can grow a large church by constantly creating mountain peak experiences and pushing for the top. But you will create a healthy church only as you discover the appropriate cycle of moving forward at an aggressive pace, and taking moments to breathe.

There is plenty of discussion about whether churches should be all things to all people, or keep it simple and do a few things well. I definitely lean toward simplicity. We try to balance the five purposes of worship, evangelism (mission), fellowship, discipleship, and ministry and we try to do little else. Our structure doesn’t have much of a hierarchy to it and leaders are free to lead without being micromanaged.

We like to focus on the mission. But this doesn’t mean we never push hard for growth. Too many souls hang in the eternal balance for us to get lazy and coast along in mediocrity. And while balance is an elusive target, rhythm is possible. How do you find your rhythm?

Focus on five to size peak moments in the year.

Start with the holidays like Easter and Christmas. Then think through any special emphases your church celebrates such as a spiritual growth campaign, a missions emphasis, or something like a Friend Day.  Don’t forget about the non-Sunday events like Vacation Bible School or evangelistic crusades.

Build unity and excitement as you climb toward peak moments.

Spread the word with a gathering momentum. Give people specific challenges and calls to action along the way such as, “Write down the names of three people you’re going to invite…” or “Fast with us through lunch on Wednesdays and pray for the big day.”

Celebrate the big wins as a church family.

We recently set a new attendance record, but I tend to shy away from talking about numbers for fear of an overemphasis there. But when I talked publicly about the big achievement, people were excited. It creates a story worth repeating in the future.

Take breaks from busyness.

Our church has a minimalistic calendar to begin with. Little happens beyond the weekend service, small groups, and the various outreach efforts happening as we live missionally. But in terms of promotion and pushing for a big turnout, we back off after a big day. We tell staff to take an extra day off. We tone down our promotional lingo a bit, partly because when we do need to do a big push, we want it to be noticed.

Strengthen the ongoing ministries between the special moments.

When we’re not asking “how can we do this thing big?,” we’re asking, “how can we improve small groups, create more discipleship moments, and pour into our leaders through meaningful interaction?”

Cut away the good distractions.

There is tremendous power in concentrating on the mission and eliminating distractions. If a program trips us up on our way to fulfilling our mission, we need to eliminate it. There are plenty of good things churches can be involved in, but for every church there are some best things we can be devoting our energy to, and it varies from one church to the next.

Spread the leadership load around.

When I lived in southern California, I would often see large groups of cyclists riding together. The one in front was fighting wind resistance and making the ride easier for the rest of the pack, but when the leader gets tired, he drops to the back and lets someone else lead. It’s called “drafting” and it’s important in the life of the church. Counting on the same few people to take the load on every major event leads to burnout.

Some moments in the life of the church ought to stand out from the rest as especially significant, but between these, we need to breathe, rest, and recuperate. We’ve been working on the mission for a couple thousand years now, so there’s a bigger picture at stake than just next Sunday. If you’re a church leader, it’s up to you to discover the rhythm of your church and align with it. People will thank you in the end.

How have you discovered rhythm or fought against the tyranny of the perpetual sprint?

5 Truths About Empowering People to Change the World

People

Photo by Tim Pirfält.

In the Bourne series, the assassins (who are the central characters) are referred to by their controlling agency merely as “assets.” Sometimes I fear that within Christian ministry, we fall into the terrible habit of treating people as assets – instruments to help us get ministry done successfully rather than people with souls. One of the values I remind myself of often is that people are not a means for getting ministry done. People are the ministry. And those who volunteer are not placed in our path to make us successful, but so that we can help them to grow and to move forward.

To keep ourselves from the edge of the slippery slope of using people to get ministry done, it’s important to remember some hard, unchanging truths…

1. Ministry is about relationships, not results.

If we think like much of the surrounding corporate world, as much of the western church does, then we see goals and figures without seeing people. I’m all for looking at numbers to celebrate and evaluate, but never for the purpose of determining who is and isn’t useful to the kingdom. It isn’t about what a volunteer or staff member can produce in the way of results for us. It’s about what kind of growth we can help to produce in that leader. Growing leaders typically have growing ministries, but numerical success is the byproduct of healthy relationships.

2. People are souls, with or without roles.

If we ever leave someone in a role because of their talent while their personal life is falling apart, we’ve failed. As leaders and shepherds, it is our calling to create healing and health deep within the souls of people. So when people walk into the room, our first question shouldn’t be are you ready to get to work? It should rather be something like how’s life going? How’s your soul doing?

3. Jesus modeled people empowerment perfectly.

Jesus wept over people, prayed over people, and eventually died for people. He gave up His time and His comfort to serve others. And He accepted the rejection, criticism, and abandonment that He would receive from His people, even knowing full well that it was coming. Then at the end of His earthly story, He released His people to go change everything with the gospel. If you want to know how to empower people, start by looking at Jesus.

4. Everybody matters, and every life has dignity.

To use anyone for what they can produce, or to reject someone because we doubt they can produce, is to insult the One who created all people with inherent dignity. Moses even learned this lesson when he questioned his own ability to be a persuasive speaker. God responded simply, “Who made your mouth?” In the business world, we select the most qualified. But in the Kingdom, everybody gets to participate!

5. I’m a people too.

Some awesome mentors and friends have poured into me, expecting nothing in return. Someone is waiting for me to pay it forward. It’s the way this idea of ministry is supposed to work. Don’t use people, empower them.