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Three Pillars of a Strong, Dynamic Ministry

Pillars

When it comes to leading a strong ministry and building a healthy church, it takes more than solid theology or smart strategy. In fact, it takes a combination of those, plus the Spirit’s leading and empowerment. I think of these three as pillars of a dynamic ministry.

Every church needs to be led by a Pastor with a strong ecclesiology – a strong theology of church and mission. Out of our ecclesiology flows our mission, in fact. The mission doesn’t change. Jesus defined it in the Great Commission and has never revised it. How you see the story of the church unfolding in the New Testament should have a lot to do with how you lead the church today.

A Strong Ecclesiology

My ecclesiology encompasses the truth that Jesus founded the church Himself during His earthly ministry. It wasn’t “born” on Pentecost. It was born when the first apostles followed Jesus.

The church is local and visible. While I appreciate the Apostles’ Creed, I also fear that the point about believing in the holy catholic (universal) church has shifted our focus away from the local, visible body which is where the mission of Jesus gets organized in a visible, tangible, effective way.

The church will continue its mission, in the protection and power of Jesus, until He comes again. The church can’t and won’t fail. The gates of hell won’t prevail against it. While its easy to point out what’s wrong with the church, this core conviction motivates me to celebrate what’s going right with the church.

The New Testament presents a church that gathers and scatters. They meet in temple courts and from house to house. Sunday’s service matters. It’s a redemptive gathering of a covenant community to worship and to witness. Small groups matter just as much. Call them missional communities, house churches, or Sunday School classes, they matter as much as the gathering, but not to the exclusion of it.

The New Testament church is led by shepherds. I love the image of the flock under the care of its shepherds, who answer to the Great Shepherd Himself, Jesus. He is the head of the church. He has pre-eminence, and Pastors need the freedom to lead strongly while being accountable to the Chief Shepherd.

I could go on, but the way we build a healthy church, even if it is an organic movement of people gathering in a movie theater and in homes around the community, is determined by our biblical view of the church.

A Wise Strategy

One of my pet peeves is what happens when a church leader talks about a smart idea, a good strategy, or a sweet system. Inevitably, some critics line up to point out how “man-made” methods and marketing strategies and systems are evil and how leaders who develop them must have no strong theology at all. It never fails. Every time we publish an article on Pastors.com designed to help modern leaders face modern problems in their modern context, accusers show up in the comments to point out how Jesus, or the Spirit, or the Bible wasn’t mentioned even though the article is about strategy with an assumed strong theology undergirding it.

The fact is, I need to know about systems and strategies and I’m convinced that thousands of churches are stuck today with a really strong theology but no strategy for engaging the culture and making disciples. The fact is, you need healthy systems for accomplishing the timeless, biblical mission of making disciples. For example…

  • You know you should develop leaders, but what’s your leadership ladder?
  • You know you need to spread the word, but how are you equipping the saints to do so?
  • You know you need to challenge people to take a next step, but have you defined the next step?
  • You want everyone to catch the vision, but have you articulated it an understandable way?j

These are strategy questions, and there are plenty more where they came from. Don’t resort to juking leaders with a “just follow Jesus, just trust the Spirit, and just preach the word” response. You may mean well, but you’re crippling the church when you do so.

Be harmless as doves. But be wise as serpents too. Develop a strategy for accomplishing the mission.

The Power of God

Some churches have a strong theology and a good strategy, but are still stuck. Sometimes it’s because we’ve left out the third pillar of a strong, healthy ministry – the power of God. Having defined our theology and developed our strategy, it is still absolutely imperative that we go forward with an attitude of complete and utter dependence on the Spirit of God to bear fruit through us.

We can set the stage, arrange the chairs, and roll out the red carpet, but we cannot save people. This is a work of God.

And I’m not urging us to tack this onto the end. Just because I’ve listed it last doesn’t mean it’s least in importance. Leaning on the power of the Spirit of God is essential as we study the Scriptures and form our theology as well as when we’re creating the strategies to help us fulfill the mission in our present ministry context. His job, in fact, is to shed light on the teachings of Jesus as we study.

One of my favorite quotes comes from a guy who would likely disagree with most of what I write about, but I love his words. Shelton Smith said, “The difference between mediocrity and excellence is midnight oil, elbow grease, and the power of God.” THAT is so true.

If you want a strong, healthy, balanced ministry, find its definition in the New Testament, develop a strategy that works in your present context, and start and finish with trusting the Spirit of God’s empowering presence.

photo credit: Today is a good day

Whatever It Takes, Short of Sin

Into the DarknessAt Grace Hills, we will do whatever it takes, short of sin, to find people far from God and lead them to life in Jesus. That’s one of our core values, and it’s the one that probably creates the most tension for Christians. It’s a value that is drawn straight from Scripture:

I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do this all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

– 1 Corinthians 9:22-23 (NIV)

Paul was writing about his willingness to adapt his personal communication style to that of his hearer, whether Jew or Gentile. Whenever I hear someone say, “we shouldn’t try to be like the world just to reach the world,” I realize I’m probably up against someone who doesn’t like the pain of change or the awkwardness of adapting to the culture. It’s not that I disagree. We really shouldn’t have a theology or philosophy of life like those who haven’t submitted themselves to the God of the Bible. But usually when Christians talk about being “like the world,” they’re talking about non-biblical issues like the way we dress, our style of music, and whether we have tattoos or not.

So let me clarify what I mean when I say “whatever it takes, short of sin…”

  • I mean we will communicate to the culture in its own language, defining our distinctively Christian terms.
  • I mean we will share the gospel through the style of music people listen to.
  • I mean we will remove the awkwardness of walking into a group of strangers.
  • I mean we will address the struggles that people have, the questions they are asking, and the issues they are wrestling with.
  • I mean we will spend time with people who have time-consuming problems and brokenness from their past.
  • I mean we will host events to build a friendship with the community and ask nothing in return.
  • I mean we will love and serve people around us whether or not they ever become a part of our church.
  • I mean we will devote resources to missions locally and internationally to find the lost.
  • I mean we will care more about being respected and listened to by outsiders than being liked by other church leaders.
  • I mean we will speak the truth in love and trust God to heal and change people from the inside out.
  • I mean we will always make room for someone else to sit at our table (or in our theater).
  • I mean we will go all-out when it comes to kids ministry to serve and help parents.
  • I mean we will try things and fail rather than trying nothing to protect our false image of “success.”

That’s what I mean. Or to put it another way…

We will do whatever it takes… (all possible options are on the table)

Anything short of sin… (we do have parameters, but only where the Bible clearly gives them to us)

Anything short of sin to find people… (rather than expecting them to find us)

People who are far from God… (so we don’t expect them to look or act like us)

And lead them to life in Jesus. (the One and Only Savior)

That’s our mission, and it will be fulfilled by people who are willing to leave the comfort zone of their safe, religious bubble to invade the darkness with light.

The Problem With My Old Church Was…

Tilt-shift Church

Photo by 55Laney69.

That’s a phrase you will only hear in the modern, western church – particularly in the United States. In first century Jerusalem, if you didn’t like the music, the Pastor, or the amount of perfume Sister Bertha wore, you had to stay and work it out. Where else would you go?

Disclaimer: What I’m about to say has nothing to do with people who are far from God. I’m writing it to people who claim to know Him well. Read on.

I’m not promoting the idea of having only one church in every community. I think God is blessing a movement of multiplying churches that are helping to fill the earth with the good news of Jesus. But the side effect of our multiplying efforts is applying of the same consumer mentality we use at the mall to the church.

When you plant a new church in a community with a lot of churches, like northwest Arkansas for example, you come into contact with people now and then who are “looking for something new” because of the problems they encountered at their old church. I’ve heard plenty, including…

  • We just didn’t feel connected… Sometimes this is a church problem. Sometimes it’s a me problem. Some people will connect in one good church but not another good church.
  • We didn’t like the ________. Plenty of words find their way into that blank. The kids’ ministry. The way they gave to missions. The way they asked me to be, like, generous and stuff with my money.
  • We couldn’t get along with ________The Pastor? The Deacons? Sister Bertha? Whoever it is, our inability to reconcile broken relationships with other Christians is a shame. It’s a bad witness, and going to another church never solves the problem. It just transfers it.
  • We just weren’t getting fed. My favorite. As a Pastor, I usually translate this in my head into plain English… “We didn’t really like the Pastor, or the music, or the volume of the music. But the easiest thing to do is blame the Pastor for not ‘feeding’ us.” To this last one, I so often want to ask how long the person talking has been a Christian. If it’s a year or more, my next question would be, “When will you grow up enough to feed yourself?” Nonetheless…

If you, as a Pastor, play into these kinds of complaints, you’ve created a problem that will almost always come back to bite you, usually in a year or less. You’ve attempted to “sell” how much better your church is. You’ve hurt the brand of the church in general. And you’ve set the table for people with unreachable expectations, which is a Pastor-killing problem to begin with. Don’t do it. Instead say…

  • Oh, I’m a big fan of your old church and your old Pastor! You may not know him, or them, but that’s irrelevant. We’re in this thing called the kingdom together.
  • You may not like it here either. Because, if you complained about the music volume there, it will be the room temperature here. Here’s a secret worth remembering: complainers don’t like churches. At least not for more than a year, and that’s okay. Four out of the first five books of the Bible were all about how God feels about complainers.
  • You should go back and work things out. This one isn’t my idea – it’s Jesus.’ He stated it in the sermon on the mount when he told us to leave our gift at the altar and go work things out. Reconciliation is a primary agenda to the heart of God. We can’t just skip it and hope everything will just work itself out.
  • When will you grow up and feed yourself, you big spiritual baby? Just kidding. Don’t say this, because frankly and sadly, there are plenty of churches avoiding and watering down God’s truth. Still…
  • You are welcome here, IF God is calling you to be on mission with us. At the end of the day, we respect the priesthood of the believer. I don’t presume to know God’s will for anyone, so everyone is welcome to discover it as they walk with God.

We have plenty of people that have helped us plant Grace Hills who came from other area churches. Most of them didn’t leave in a huff or after a split. They simply felt called to help and drawn to the vision we’ve continually cast. But our real heart, together, will always be for the broken, the sinful, the lost.

I don’t care why a person who is far from God wound up sitting in a seat in our movie theater on Sunday. I’m just glad they’re present. But for the scattered community of seasoned saints around us, I’d rather you stay put where you’ve been serving, unless God has called you to join the mission and embrace the vision of a new, multiplying movement of God.

Here’s the bottom line. The biggest problem with my old church… was most likely named Brandon.


By the way, have you "liked" Grace Hills Church on Facebook yet?


Why Grace Hills Church Is In Jeopardy

Thin IceGrace Hills Church is eleven Sundays old, officially, and about eight months old, unofficially. And we’re in trouble. If we don’t do something, all of our effort will be in vain and all hope of planting the kind of church Jesus had in mind will be lost.

No, we’re not out of money. God has provided every step of the way. No, we’re not losing people. In fact, we’re seeing new attenders every week. And no, we’re not losing our leaders. We’re seeing new leaders emerge as each week passes. But I still contend that we’re in jeopardy of losing everything important to us… if we don’t fight for it.

Churches do not automatically thrive. The American church, as a local institution, has proven that it can coast along in almost-dead mode for many years. But there are no churches that are effectively reaching and changing their surrounding culture by accident. Recently, Rick Warren wrote a brief piece on Pastors.com about breaking three common barriers to church growth. In the comments, a troubling attitude emerged that is probably not too uncommon among believers in American churches – that growth is up to God (which I wholeheartedly agree with) and so any intentional effort to cause growth is somehow wrong (which I couldn’t disagree with more).

We’ve been having “good Sundays” at Grace Hills, but I’m still very much on guard. In fact, I sometimes find myself troubled at the rising threats against our success, not from any force outside of our fellowship, but from within it. Let me elaborate on some ways I believe the mission is in jeopardy even now…

If we fail to intentionally be the church, we will unintentionally just do church. And that’s true, no matter how much we say we’re going to “be the church.” Doing the Sunday gathering thing is what we’re good at, and even though we spend a lot of time and money on it, it’s still easier than scattering to be the church in our community.

If we fail to intentionally make disciples, we will unintentionally just make fans. I believe in making Jesus famous and bringing people into the enjoyment of His glory, but our mission is more than increasing the popularity of the church. The mission is to help people become reproducing, sold out Jesus-followers.

If we fail to intentionally be authentic, we will unintentionally just perform. I’ve performed before. In fact, I’m a recovering performer and have struggled with an addiction to the approval of others, so admitting my weaknesses is tough, but essential. I no longer trust my autopilot to lead me into genuine authenticity. Being real takes effort, and if we aren’t real, nobody heals.

If we fail to intentionally embrace all people, we will unintentionally play favorites. And the apostle James warned us about the danger of insulting the cross by picking and choosing those with whom we want to do ministry. Rather than hanging out with only the “churchy” people, of our color, of our political persuasion, of our cultural background etc., the gospel itself demands that we purposely break free and seek out new friendships for the gospel’s sake.

If we fail to intentionally be generous, we will unintentionally consume everything. By default, we spend it all, and we tend to spend pretty much all of our resources on ourselves. Churches tend to fall into the trap of sustaining their institutional machinery, maintaining their buildings and budgets, and begging for more volunteers and bigger offerings to keep the snowball rolling. Generosity requires purposeful sacrifice (if we can even use that word in light of the cross).

Grace Hills is in jeopardy of existing for us rather than them. We’re in jeopardy of growing the institution of the church rather than the people of the church. And we’re always in jeopardy of becoming a well-liked brand rather than pointing the culture to the infinite goodness of God.

So what should we do? How do we stop our drift and shift out of autopilot? With focus, intention, and effort, we need to:

  • Check our hearts and our motives.
  • Remind ourselves of the mission often.
  • Repeat the vision regularly.
  • Keep Jesus at the center.
  • Put people before the organization.
  • Do it all with a sense of desperation.

After all, if we fail to take the reins, we’re already as good as dead no matter how long we keep the doors open. So… go.

Seth Godin on Church Planting

I don’t know if Seth knows what church planting is or not, but his post yesterday should be memorized (it’s short – that’s Seth) by every church planter in the world. I’ll quote it in its entirety because of its brevity…

There’s nothing wrong with having a plan.

Plans are great.

But missions are better. Missions survive when plans fail, and plans almost always fail.

Gotta love Seth.

[bcoxlike]