Archive for January, 2021


Out of Ur: The Distraction

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“This is the account of Terah’s family. Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot. But Haran died in Ur of the Chaldeans, the land of his brith, while his father, Terah, was still living. Meanwhile, Abram and Nahor both married.. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah…But Sarai was unable to become pregnant and had no children. One day Terah took his son Abram, his daughter in law Sarai, and his grandson Lot, and moved away from Ur of the Chaldeans. He was headed for the land of Canaan, but they stopped at Haran and settled there. Terah lived for 205 years and died while still in Haran” (Genesis 11:27-31, NLT).

Terah and his family, including Abram, departed Ur to begin the long traverse to Canaan. The most direct route would have been due west, but given the fact that Ur and Canaan were separated by hundreds of miles of the Arabian desert, they took the circuitous route around the desert. Traveling to the northwest they followed the Euphrates River toward the northern most part of the desert. There, they would travel southwest toward the promised land.

The northwesterly part of the journey would have spanned some 700 miles. It is estimated that caravans could travel up to 20 miles per day, so we’re talking at least 35 days, probably more. Everything seemed to be going well as far as we’re told. And then it happened. A distraction came along that led Terah and the family off the route. We’re not talking about stopping at a rest area or a Bass Pro Shop. Haran was some 80 miles due north of the apex of their travel plan.

It’s one thing for a person to be leisurely traveling and to have their eye caught by a persuasive billboard to visit this site or that. So what if you pull a few miles off the route to check out a famous person’s birthplace or visit scenic view? We can become temporarily distracted and in most cases it doesn’t create much of a ripple.

But this was more than a distraction, for Terah not only stopped, he settled. We’re not sure why he stopped and settled. The Bible doesn’t give us that detail. The real question is whether you and I have stopped and settled on life’s journey, and if so, why?

We can become distracted by many things. Sometimes we become distracted out of boredom. Other times it’s something shiny that catches our eye. Some times we are distracted by visions of greatness or some misguided expectation that over promises and under delivers. Maybe we’re homesick, and the distraction provides us with something comfortable and familiar. Or perhaps we’re just plain tired of the trip we’ve taken and the distraction becomes a substitute that I like to call, “good enough.” There are as many reasons for us to be distracted from life’s purpose as there are excuses for not fulfilling life’s purpose. The apostle John generalized the distractions of life, calling them, “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16).

The city of Haran was a significant place. It was important to the economy, and was the center of worship for the moon god Zin. Located in what is modern day Turkey, it served as the convergence of several trade highways and waterways. The name Haran means “cross roads,” appropriately so, for it was the cross roads of trade and commerce.

For Terah and those like me who are prone to the distractions that lead to detours, the cross roads is significant. Cross roads cause us to contemplate the decision as to whether we will settle for what is or forge ahead to our God given destiny. Like Terah we can stop, settle, and eventually die having fallen short of our destination. Or, we can make the decision to push ahead and leave all that is good behind.

We can’t control the things that come before us that are distractions, tempting us to stop and settle. But we can control our response in the cross roads, pursuing the unseen in the face of that which is visible and convenient (cf. Hebrews 11:24-29).

Check back next Monday for part three of this series on Out of Ur, The Decision. If you enjoyed today’s post or found it helpful, feel free to share it with a friend!

Categories : Abraham, Out of Ur
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Preaching Without Notes

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Several years ago I made the commitment to preach my sermons without the aid of notes. Seminary is very permission giving about what any preacher chooses to take into the pulpit. In other words, there is no right way to do it. Some will take a full manuscript, some will use a skeleton outline with bullet points, and then there are those like me who commit the sermon to memory.

Speaking from memory has elicited some interesting comments over the years. Some have suggested that I extemporize (wing it) my sermons. Others have inquired as to whether or not I have a photographic memory or possess some kind of special gift. I am not an extemporaneous speaker nor would I consider myself particularly or uniquely gifted. But there is a simple trick that I learned from one of my ministry mentors who always preached without notes.

Are you ready?

They secret sauce, for me at least, is to write the sermon using pen and paper. Once the manuscript is complete, I copy it by hand at least twice. Writing the sermon in longhand helps me connect with it in a way that I have not be able to accomplish with a keyboard. Once this part of the process is complete, I rehearse it aloud and spot check the clarity of my communication as well as my memorization. At this point, I am reinforcing my memorization by speaking it aloud and hearing it aloud. That’s it.

You don’t have to be particularly gifted to preach without notes. It just takes time and commitment. The benefits of doing this work are, in my opinion, worth the effort. Here are some of the benefits I have found preaching without notes.

First, I feel a great sense of ownership in the sermon. The entire process of prayer, preparation and delivery requires me to internalize the material in a deeper way than if I just clicked print and walked away from my desktop. The sermon becomes so internalized that I have found that I am free from distractions such as crying babies or people excusing themselves to use the rest room. My sermons may not always be preached verbatim, but I have never “forgotten” my sermon.

Second, preaching without notes gives me the opportunity to meditate on my content wherever I want, whether it be while driving or waiting in line at the grocery store.

Third, it provides a sense of freedom in my delivery. When I am tied to my notes I am, by default, tied to something physical, like a pulpit for example. Anything that limits me physically on the platform is a limitation to my communication. Limitations include confidence monitors and video technology, for that matter, which is not fail safe.

Next, memorization infers that I care deeply about my topic and that I care about my audience enough to make the effort. Someone may disagree from time to time with what I say, but no one has ever accused me of inadequate preparation! Preaching without notes adds credibility to me as a communicator and builds trust with the listeners.

Finally, preaching without notes helps create a two way conversation with the listeners. Because I am free from notes, I am free to focus on eye contact and making purposeful gestures that are natural. If I can focus on the congregant’s non verbal responses, I can determine whether or not I’ve connected with them in a meaningful way. If I read a manuscript or am heavily tied to notes then at best my eye contact is 50%. The more tied to notes I am, the more the sermon becomes a one way conversation where I talk “at” the audience instead of “with” them.

I do not intend for this post to sound like I have the only way or that anything shy of preaching without notes is wrong. But I do think it’s the best way. And I think you can do it, too!

Categories : Preaching
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Out of Ur: The Departure

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It takes a lot of work to find a name for a podcast because many have already been claimed by other presenters. When I began the pursuit of a catchy, no more than three word brand I went through several iterations before finally settling on “Out of Ur.” Mind you, every idea I had centered around the same theme…the struggle of faith and the challenges of selfless obedience to God. I then came across the following passage in Genesis 11, which follows the story of Babel and a lengthy account of begats.

“This is the account of Terah’s family. Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot. But Haran died in Ur of the Chaldeans, the land of his brith, while his father, Terah, was still living. Meanwhile, Abram and Nahor both married.. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah…But Sarai was unable to become pregnant and had no children. One day Terah took his son Abram, his daughter in law Sarai, and his grandson Lot, and moved away from Ur of the Chaldeans. He was headed for the land of Canaan, but they stopped at Haran and settled there. Terah lived for 205 years and died while still in Haran” (Genesis 11:27-31, NLT).

A bit of background may be helpful. Ur was a community located on the Euphrates River north of the Persian Gulf in what we would call modern day Iraq. Because of the waterway, Ur was a highly developed area of commerce and religious worship. The passage doesn’t give a specific reason as to why Terah loaded up the family wagon to leave, but there are several plausible reasons for the move.

It could have been the prudent thing to do. Some fifty years following his departure, Ur was overthrown and destroyed. Perhaps there had been rumblings of a potential threat of invasion. The geographical location of Ur would have made it a desirable location of foreign governments.

Another reason may have been his intent to improve his situation in life. While Ur was known for commerce and religion, it would not have been the epicenter of either. Any wealth Terah and his family had acquired in Ur could have been grown and developed by moving to a more fluid environment.

But the reason we typically accept for leaving Ur is God’s call to Abram. Genesis 12:1-3, reinforced by Acts 7 and Hebrews 11, informs the reader than God’s call upon Abram’s life occurred while he was in Ur. Terah is given respect as the main character by virtue of his parental position, but the work taking place in these initial stages is in the life of Abram.

Abram’s calling was a call to leave one place in order to go to another. That’s pretty obvious. But the spiritual truth at work is that none of us can climb the next rung until we remove our foot from the rung we’re standing on. Or, as one author wrote, “Breakthroughs are always break withs.”

In order to experience the next rung we, like Abram, have to take steps of steady obedience in the same direction. But it also requires we exercise faith. Abram was far more certain of the place he was to leave than the place he was going. He obeyed, walking by faith.

Like Abram, we have the experience of going from and going to. And like Abram, we share in this ongoing pattern of the Christian experience. Seldom do we get to have the best of both worlds…to have our cake and eat it too. (People may take a vacation to an island resort, but they usually end up right back where they started.) These destinations may be unclear and uncertain, as is the journey toward the new destination is unknown. But there is joy in both the journey and the arrival. It just takes one step, repeated many times over.

Next week I’ll examine the second feature of the story, which is the distractions we face along the way. Thanks for reading the Out of Ur weekly email newsletter. If you’ve enjoyed it or know someone who may, feel free to forward it to their inbox.

Categories : Out of Ur
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Talk Like TED

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I did my doctoral studies in the field of preaching, and consequently have read approximately 100 books on the topic. Each one of these has contributed to my thinking and practice of preaching and public speaking. Some time ago my friend Cliff Jenkins recommended a book by Carmine Gallo that may be one of the most practical helps for those who speak to audiences whether religious or secular. The name of the book is Talk Like TED.

For years “TED Talks” have served as an influential platform for sharing insights and ideas. Some of the most popular presentations have garnered millions of views on YouTube and other media outlets. They have propelled the careers and book sales of presenters. Regardless of the topic or the presenter, these TED talks share one common denominator: they are all outstanding. Carmine Gallo has evaluated hundreds of TED talks and gleaned nine distinguishing features of each to help each of us become better communicators.

#1 UNLEASH THE MASTER WITHIN. You can’t inspire others if you’re not inspired by the topic. Each presenter is clearly passionate about their subject matter.

#2 MASTER THE ART OF STORYTELLING. Passion is best expressed through storytelling, not imperatives. The best stories illustrate and illuminate the subject and inspire listeners to take action.

#3 HAVE A CONVERSATION. Become so familiar with your subject matter that your pace, timing, and gestures become natural and unforced.

#4 TEACH SOMETHING NEW. Reveal information that is either completely new, is packaged differently, or offers a novel way to solve an old problem.

#5 DELIVER JAW DROPPING MOMENTS. Make your presentation memorable and stamp it in their minds.

#6 LIGHTEN UP. Use humor to poke fun at yourself as well as your topic.

#7 CONFINE YOUR PRESENTATION TO 18 MINUTES. Constrained presentations require greater creativity. What is left unsaid makes what is said even stronger.

#8 PAINT A MENTAL PICTURE WITH MULTISENSORY EXPERIENCES. Since the brain doesn’t think without a picture, create images through images, videos and props. Give your topic multiple voices to engage the minds of the listeners.

#9 STAY IN YOUR LANE. Don’t be something other than who you are. Be authentic, open and transparent. People can generally spot inauthenticity. Authenticity is the key ingredient to gaining the trust of the listener.

Gallo’s book should be considered a must read for anyone who speaks publicly. His insights from the presenters of TED talks are both timely and timeless. If you think about it, you’ll find at 2,000 years ago Jesus Christ implemented these principles, and we’re still talking about his presentations today.

Categories : Books, Preaching
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What Do You Want?

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Imagine that Jesus walked into your community. Crowds are pressing around him and the disciples are trying to clear a path like a first century secret service. Now think about a need in your life that is beyond overwhelming. You’ve tried everything and everyone, but there is no relief. What would you do if Jesus came walking into your space?

Mark’s gospel tells a story about a blind man named Bartimaeus. I’ll call him Bart for short. The Bible gives few details about Bart. We know he’s blind and has to beg for money. We also are told his father’s name–Timaeus, which indicates that he may have been from a family of some means or standing in the community, perhaps meaning that they had given up on Bart. Remember, he was a beggar. When Bart heard Jesus was en route he prayed what has now become known as the “Jesus Prayer.” “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me” (Mark 10:47, 48). The secret service tried to quiet Bart, but to no avail. When Jesus heard him pray he summoned him and asked a simple question. “What do you want me to do for you?”

Talk about a blank check! Bart wasn’t timid. He answered Jesus with direct precision. “I want to see!” And Jesus granted his request.

When I first read this passage last week my first thought was, “so what’s the big deal? The guy is blind. Of course he wants to see.” But as I meditate on Bart’s answer I have come to the conclusion that his request was for empowerment, not enablement. For Bart, sight was the ability to be free of dependence upon others for the things we take for granted. The ability to travel and the capacity to earn a living were wrapped in that request for sight, not to mention the chance to enjoy the beauty of creation. He could have asked to be able to have someone help him with his personal needs and for food and housing so he wouldn’t have to beg. But he wanted to be empowered. And with his new found empowerment he followed Jesus down the road (Mark 10:52).

Blind Bart is a simple lesson about prayer. Many times I find myself praying for enablement when I should be praying for empowerment. Sometimes my requests are generalized when then should be specific. And more often than I want to admit, my requests are passive instead of active, meaning they are for my own comfort and well being instead of for following Jesus and being of service to those around me. Like Bart, I want to pray for the root, and not just the fruit.

What do you want Jesus to do for you that will empower you to be who he created you to be?

Categories : Prayer
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The Eight Pockets of Stewardship

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People who regularly attend church services or who have joined a local faith community have particular giving habits and patterns. It’s important that those who steward the financial resources of a congregation understand that donors are not motivated equally by every appeal. In my pastoral experience, there are eight different pockets of giving in a congregation.

First, there is the regular giver to the general fund. These are the people who are committed to the core values and mission of the church and support the operating budget on a regular basis with their tithes and offerings. These funds represent the basic support structure for fixed expenses as well as the program ministries of the church.

Next is the giver who supports the building fund or the debt retirement from a previous capital campaign. They are motivated by capital improvements whether it is new construction or the renovation of a facility that needs modernization.

Third is the donor who values missions and missionaries. They are generous givers to annual mission offerings through their denomination and/or toward individual missionaries that the church supports. These gifts are usually significant and rightfully so, given the fact that many denominations require their affiliate missionaries to raise their own support. Some church members may be giving to missionaries directly, bypassing the church offering plate.

Then we have those who support benevolence ministries or social programs within the community. Churches may make appeals for these funds above and beyond the operating budget. These needs will touch some of the members who will in turn give generously of both their time and money.

Giving pocket number five is those who support the program ministries of the church. Ministries to children, youth and music are often underfunded because that’s how churches balance their budgets. Fixed expenses are, well, fixed. At the end of the day, utilities, insurance and payroll are not going to be cut for programs that can either reduce or even eliminate their plans for the year. Some congregants will provide support to these ministries out side of their regular giving because they know they are the key to vitality.

Number six is the giver that supports parachurch ministries such as the Gideon’s International, Focus on the Family, or Operation Shoebox. While churches may have some of these organizations in their budget, some people may be motivated to give directly to them.

Seventh, are the financial supporters of memorial funds. These can be tricky for pastors and stewards to navigate for a couple of reasons. One reason is that the memorial has to be honored in perpetuity. Every established church has to determine how to maintain an item that has been given in memory of a person regardless of whether or not anyone in the church remembers the decedent. Another reason it is tricky is that the family of the deceased may want to direct memorials to an item that the church either doesn’t need or toward and item that is out of the price range of the request. Wise and gentle leadership will need to work patiently with families to help provide guidance and support as they make their decisions. Memorial gifts can be an excellent opportunity to seek win-win solutions that honors the member and helps the church.

Finally, there is the member who has committed to remember the church through a planned gift. Planned giving can make a significant impact on a church’s financial well being. Pastors may be surprised how willing faithful congregants will be to remember the church in their estate planning if they will simply plant the seed with a nine word question. “Have you considered including our church in your estate?” Perhaps they have on their own accord. Perhaps they are willing, but haven’t been asked. Pastors do not have to be attorneys or financial planners to ask this question. If the member is motivated, they will do the rest.

So what are the takeaways from knowing about eight pockets of stewardship?

  1. People have finite resources, so choose wisely how they will give. Every offering appeal will diminish the ultimate goal of advancing the mission and ministry of your church. Churches are wise to limit endless appeals in favor of a unified budget that is inclusive of the values and partnerships that have been established.
  2. Evaluate the number of appeals your church makes each year. Pastors will focus primarily on the offering appeal during the service. But the wise pastor will also do his or her best to eliminate giving fatigue. Your coffee and hospitality counter is an ask. The missionary offering is an ask. The youth bake sale is an ask. So is the $10 for the kids to attend Bible School. The benevolence need is an ask, right down to the canned food drive and the request for gently used clothes. How many “asks” is your church making on a given week? In a month or year? We should not be amazed that people complain that all the church does is ask for money even if the pastor preaches on giving once or twice per year.
  3. Not every donor is motivated by all requests. In the aforementioned list of eight, some will give generously toward two or three, while someone else may give toward a different three or four. Seldom will you find a member who will generously support all eight. It is critical to know your audience and to time and make your appeals strategically to maximize impact.
Categories : Giving, Stewardship
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Would You Like to Get Well?

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Jesus asked him, “Would you like to get well?” “I can’t, sir,” the sick man said, “for I have no one to put me into the pool when the water bubbles up. Someone else always gets there ahead of me.” Jesus told him, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk!” (John 5:5-8, NLT)

John chapter 5 opens with a curious story about a man who had been been disabled for 38 years lying by a pool of water. Evidently there was a phenomenon of miraculous healing power associated with the pool, for randomly an angel would come and “trouble” the water, and whoever could get into the pool first would be healed of their physical malady. There was a crowd of people there around the pool, waiting for that opportune time. Suffering has lots of company. Apparently there was no numbering system like we have at the DMV that would order the crowd into a “now serving number 231” kind of system. If you could be first, you would reap the benefits.

Of all the people who were crowded around the pool, Jesus took note of this particular man. Jesus directed a very important question to him and him alone. “Would you like to get well?” Now that question required a simple yes or no response. One would assume that the man’s response would have been a no brainer. But instead of saying “yes,” the man began to do what many often do. He made excuses and affixed blame. He blamed others for not attending to his needs, and he blamed a system that was put in place that made the playing field not level. In today’s culture he might have said, “It’s not fair,” or “I’m not lucky.”

Jesus, patiently listened to the excuses, and then told him to stand up, pick up his mat, and walk. I imagine that the thought must have flashed in the disabled man’s mind, “I can’t do that.” The thing about Jesus is that he will always ask us to do something we cannot accomplish on our own. But this flash of doubt was erased as the man experienced total healing. It wasn’t gradual, it was immediate. He dutifully rolled up his mat and began walking, when he is then confronted by the religious leaders for violating the Sabbath by carrying his mat. He defended his action, explaining that a man had healed him and told him to pick up his mat and walk. The religious leaders inquired who would do such a thing. And, “the man didn’t know” (John 5:13).

Legalism and religion will always find something wrong with the miraculous work that God is doing in your life. It’ll be the wrong day, like the Sabbath, or the wrong way, like not getting into the pool, or achieve the wrong outcome, like carrying your mat. That principle was true over and over in the ministry of Jesus, and one would think that 2,000 years later it would change. But it has not.

The story concludes with the man in the Temple. Jesus, who found him at the pool now finds him in the Temple. Wholeness will take you places your brokenness will never take you. And in that moment you can be open to the deeper work of God in your life. “Now you are well, stop sinning” (John 5:14). Many times our obvious problems are merely symptoms of more significant internal issues within our lives. To the naked eye, the man was disabled. In this instance, the divine eyes of Jesus saw something internal that no one else could see. The man thought his problem was his disability that confined him to a mat for nearly four decades. But without the internal healing of forgiveness and wholeness, nothing that really mattered would have changed. It’s the internal disability that either keeps us on the mat, or causes us to return to the mat time and time again. You may not be able to change how you got on the mat, but you don’t have to stay on it.

Categories : Change, Jesus, John
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The Unheralded Essential Workers

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For nearly a year we have wrestled with the world wide pandemic, and as long as we have witnessed the struggle we have celebrated our health care community. These doctors and nurses have been on the “front lines” of dealing with the most severe cases that require hospitalization. Our health care workers have been honored in various ways and have been highlighted on newscasts with frequency. I join those who celebrate them, for it is deserved.

But there is a vocation among us that has equally labored during the pandemic who remain largely anonymous. They have worked around the clock, dealing with COVID-19 decedents and their families without attention as they go about their essential work. Who, you may ask, is this group? It is our nation’s funeral directors.

People usually don’t think of funeral directors and staff until absolutely necessary. Yet, they remain on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, bypassing weekends, holidays and paid time off because death doesn’t wear a watch, keep a calendar, or respect anyone’s plans. This is the responsibility that funeral directors signed up for. And in most cases, they serve quietly, faithfully, and for far less remuneration that one might think. For example, the average starting salary for a funeral director in my state (Iowa) is around $36,000 per year.

The pandemic has placed our funeral directors at constant risk. The burden of embalming or cremating a COVID positive case requires directors to utilize the same PPE that any hospital professional would require. Funeral directors also have to creatively help families grieve the loss of their loved one, working within the boundaries of masks, limited gatherings, and the stipulations of local churches that permit funeral services in their houses of worship. Like churches, they master live streaming to allow friends of the departed to attend services virtually. In addition, they stand alone during arrangements to provide counsel, support and understanding, compassionately listening to family members who are in the initial stages of grief.

So what can pastors, churches and church volunteers do to support this important act of service provided by our local funeral homes?

  1. Commit to cooperative service that makes the family’s needs the priority. In other words, endeavor to come alongside the funeral director to provide support for the family through the ongoing process of bereavement from the death notification, through the arrangements, during the funeral and interment, and toward the coming months of follow up. While I personally do not advocate directly participating in the arrangements, the pastor’s availability to answer funeral director’s questions about service arrangements, dates, times, music, etc. is helpful.
  2. Communicate clearly the expectations and regulations your congregation has put in place during the coronavirus pandemic, and then own them. I did a funeral this past summer where the church had established rules about wearing masks and social distancing that the pastor expected the funeral directors to enforce. That was unfair. If you have guidelines in place, communicate them to the funeral director and, at a minimum, help police the behavior of attenders.
  3. Extend hospitality to the funeral directors and their staffs. Make sure they know where restrooms are located. Inform them of your church’s customs and preferences. Let them know where the family gathers prior to the service. And perhaps, offer them a cup of coffee or a bottle of water.
  4. Treat them as the professionals they are. It takes four years of education, a year long internship and a passing grade from the state board of examination for them to be qualified to do the job. They have an incredible amount of experience and are fluent in every faith tradition in your community regardless the size. They know what they are doing, and deserve to be respected accordingly.
  5. Finally, lead your congregations to include them in their pandemic prayer lists alongside first responders and health care professionals. Their work involves incredible exposure and personal risk, and in many cases, will leave the most long lasting impression upon the family.

If you’re a pastor, I encourage you to have a conversation with one or more funeral directors in your community. Ask questions, and learn the stuff you didn’t learn in seminary. It will benefit you as you serve the people in your congregation. If you’re not a pastor, feel free to forward this along to the person who you would ask to attend to your final wishes.

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The 2020 State of the Plate

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For the past several years I’ve been invited to participate in a stewardship study conducted by Brian Kluth in partnership with Christianity Today that explores stewardship trends among American churches. This year’s survey was complied from the responses of nearly 1,100 churches from all 50 states. Of the respondents, 60% represent churches of 200 or less and 18% are between 200-500 in attendance. The COVID-19 pandemic tinted this year’s results in an interesting way. Here are some of the highlights from the executive summary.

  1. Giving has stabilized or increased for most churches. 22% have seen increases while another 42% have seen stability. Still, 36% of the churches have seen a decrease in giving since the shutdowns began. These numbers correlate with the fact that during the same time period 21% of American households experienced a decrease in personal income.
  2. Another corresponding reason is the decrease in the in person worship attendance for those who have opened for public worship. 58% of the churches who have re-opened have reported less than half the attenders they had prior to coronavirus. Online worship attendance is also beginning to trend down since the onset of the pandemic.
  3. Optimism about future budget requirements is marginal. 12% of churches expect salaries and benefits for staff will be decreased. 25% believe that major projects and purchases will be delayed. 19% believe that funding for programs will decrease, and 8% anticipate that support to missions and denominational entities will be reduced.
  4. Pastors are hopeful about the viability of their congregations. 63% believe their churches will stabilize and another 46% believe their churches will become stronger and grow. However, 16% of pastors anticipate their congregations will face and struggle with difficult decisions. And, 7% believe their churches will either merge with another congregation or close. This corresponds with the data from Barna Research in mid 2020 that projected one in five churches will close in the next 18 months due to the impact of the coronavirus.

So what does this mean for church stewardship in 2021? Here are some observations and predictions I have for the future.

  1. Churches will need to maintain and continue to develop their digital footprint. The coronavirus caught a lot of churches on their heels when the shutdowns began. They did not offer an online worship experience and neither were they equipped to do online giving. Many, if not most churches, successfully mitigated this vacancy in the past nine months to an impressive degree. However, it must continue to be in place and enhanced because whether we intended or not, technology has given people permission to decrease their in person worship if they come back at all. This may necessitate a revision of staff job descriptions and the reallocation of budgeted resources.
  2. Churches cannot expect to return to February, 2020. Coronavirus has signaled a significant shift in culture both at home and abroad. In my opinion the worst thing a church could do is expect a reset and carry on as if the virus was simply a blip on the radar. We need to eliminate the phrase, “get back to normal.” Churches that desire to be both efficient and effective in the future are going to have to re-engineer programs and outreach for maximum impact. In short, the church of the future cannot continue to maintain a campus centric ministry (“y’all come!”). The church of the future will need to creatively think of possibilities and opportunities “beyond the walls.”
  3. Finally, the path forward, especially for the smaller congregations of 200 or less, will be cooperative kingdom collaboration. Churches will need to be open to sharing resources, facilities, programs and even personnel in order to provide ministry for and with their congregations. Of course many congregations have done this previously, mostly around social needs in their respective communities such as food pantries and clothing ministries. Going forward, this may extend to many of the traditional ministries (in particular children and youth) that have previously been held close to the vest.

My prayer is for you in 2021. God is not finished with his church. If there was ever a time to pray and seek God’s will for the future, it is now.

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The #1 Enemy of Change

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Welcome to 2021. For most of us, it couldn’t get here fast enough. This past year was tough of many. Individuals, family units, businesses and churches all faced struggles they had never before experienced. The sunrise of the New Year brings cautious optimism as we contemplate what we want and need in the upcoming weeks. Some of us will have aspirations and make resolutions, half of which will be abandoned by the end of January. Others will formalize goals, complete with action plans and deadlines for achievement. But without maintaining the rigors of daily, incremental steps toward those goals, these too will be unaccomplished.

We are generally comfortable with the idea that we are not perfect, and the largest room in the house is the room for improvement. Herein lies the challenge. I have always identified with the apostle Paul’s words in Romans 7:15-16, where he said, “I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” Sound familiar?

The number one enemy of change, in my opinion, is ambivalence. Ambivalence sees both the reason to change and the reason not to change simultaneously. It is wanting and not wanting something at the same time, or wanting both of two incompatible things. People who are stuck in ambivalence live in the language of “yes, but.” It’s a bit like having a committee inside your head with members who argue back and forth about the proper steps forward. In short, ambivalent people “want to want to change.” I think you’ll agree, ambivalence is a pretty rotten place to be stuck.

The good news is that ambivalence is a normal process on the pathway to change. If you’re ambivalent about a change you need to make in the coming year, well, welcome to the human race. Miller and Rollnick, in their book Motivational Interviewing, offer seven steps out of the muck of ambivalence, the first of which is DESIRE. It is the language of wanting. Next is ABILITY, where one assesses their own ability of achieve the change that is desired. Next comes SPECIFIC REASONS, where a person lists all of the positive outcomes that could be possible in the change is implemented. The fourth step is NEED, where the process shifts from “I want” to “I need.” This transition affixes a sense of urgency.

Step five is COMMITMENT, which begins to signal the possibility of action toward the change. This step is most easily identified by promise making and the solicitation of accountability. Next to last is ACTIVATION, which bridges the commitment to the final step toward action. Activation uses words like “willing” or “ready.” The final step is ACTION, where the person begins to take the necessary steps toward making the change. Action could be something as simple as purchasing a FitBit all the way to checking oneself into a treatment center.

In summary, the likelihood of change is small unless the above steps are taken in order. For the apostle Paul, he recognized as much in his struggle. He carries his struggle in Romans 7 to an important question. Romans 7:24 states, “Oh, what a miserable man I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death?” Notice he didn’t write, “What will free me.” His question is “who,” and the answer is the person of Jesus Christ (7:25). He realized that he did not have the ability to accomplish the needed and necessary changes in his life without the help of a power that is greater than himself. That is the power he needed, and that is the power I need myself.

Categories : Change, New Year
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