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Archive for Pastors

Jun
20

Three Ideas For Sermon Series

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When I served in the local church I was always preaching a series of sermons, which meant that I was always brainstorming ideas for upcoming series of sermons. Sometimes they were expositions of entire books in the Bible or lengthy passages such as the Sermon of the Mount. Other times I enjoyed preaching a series on a biblical character such as Joseph, Moses or David. At other times I would do a thematic series on a topic such as prayer, fear, or suffering. I am a planner and like to have a general idea of where I was going over the course of the coming year. And I was always open to a series idea even though I may not get to it for a year.

Here are three series I really enjoyed preaching that I want to suggest. I think they were beneficial and well received, especially by our younger families.

The first suggestion is on the subject of contentment. I wasn’t a stewardship series, per se, but I did deal with what it meant to be content. I tried to answer the question, “How much is enough?” There are great texts available for this type of series filled with rich word images from the original languages.

The second is on simplicity. This could be timely, given the fact that we are coming off a world wide pandemic that basically forced us to simplify our lives. Many people, especially young families, discovered that they could have margin in their lives both in terms of time and money, and may be reluctant to give up the ground they gained.

The final suggestion is akin to the series on simplicity. It is on sabbath, and how to discover rest in a world of unrest. This topic is found throughout the Bible, and books such as Living the Sabbath by Norman Wirzba provide a lot of insight as to why Sabbath was important in history and remains important today.

There are many resources available on these topics. If you are intrigued by any of these ideas, I’d be glad to visit with you further. You can find examples of these sermons by using the search bar or the tag cloud on this site.

Categories : Pastors, Preaching, Sermons
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May
23

State of the Bible – 2021

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Here’s a new study from Barna research on how American’s view the Bible. Check it out here: https://www.barna.com/research/sotb-2021/. Are you surprised by anything in the report?

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With the exception of one Elder led congregation, I have always been a part of a congregational church. A congregational form of church government means that the membership sits atop the organizational chart, providing the final thumbs up or thumbs down to initiatives from subsets of the church. A congregational church may delegate some of the day to day decisions to the church staff or to a board, but reserve the “big” decisions for church wide business sessions.

A couple of things about that fact strike me as strange. For example, voting on issues always creates winners and losers. All in favor say “aye,” and all opposed say “nay.” Let’s count the votes and see which side has won and which side has lost. American politics reminds us that we have winners and losers every two years.

A second thing that is striking is that all votes are equal and count the same. The wealthiest member of the congregation gets one vote. The oldest member gets one, as do the youngest and newest members. Every member gets one vote. Just one. They’re not weighted, which is appropriate. Every time I step into a voting booth I am reminded of the fact that any other number of registered voters can cancel my vote. While this is striking, it works for America and it works for congregational forms of church government.

There is one more thing about congregation wide voting that I find interesting. Voting is based on a model of approval and disapproval. If I approve of an initiative or a candidate, I can vote “yes.” If is disapprove, I can vote “no.”

So what happens if I “lose” the vote? What do I do if I find myself in the minority of the will of the people?

Whenever I am in the minority, I move from approval to acceptance. I don’t have to approve of the action of the majority to find a position of acceptance as a minority voice. You see, I am troubled when I see a celebrity look into a television camera and say, “If so and so is elected then I’m moving to (fill in the blank some other nation).” There have been plenty of elections when I didn’t “approve” of the majority opinion and my horse didn’t win, but I didn’t move to another nation. I remained a good citizen of my community, state, and nation. I paid my bills and my taxes. I exercised my right to vote in the next election. I didn’t approve, but I accepted the outcome.

One of the things those of us in congregational churches need to remember is that sometimes things are going to happen when we don’t “approve.” But for the sake of the whole, we can come to a point of acceptance. We can continue to faithfully serve, continue to give as instructed by Scripture, and continue to work to advance the cause of Christ by serving our community and living as a faithful witness. We don’t have to always “approve.” But we can learn to “accept,” for the sake of something bigger than our one vote.

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Here’s a helpful article that is worthy of pastors’ attention about the struggles of motherhood and the challenge that churches face in meeting their needs. It’s by Dr. Heather Thompson Day, associate professor at Colorado Christian University. You can read the article at the following link: https://www.barna.com/guest-column-mothers/.

I appreciate Day’s research about the stress levels of mothers, single mothers, and working mothers. The pressures and demands of being a mother become more complex with each generation of children. While Day appeals to churches to provide support to mothers, she stops short of offering some practical suggestions. Here’s what I would offer that is practical and tangible, based on my experiences as a pastor.

  1. Lay Off the Obligation to Volunteer in Children’s Ministry. Our mother’s and grandmother’s all took their turns working in the church nursery, teaching Sunday School, and volunteering for VBS. They did their duty and did their time, and now expect the 21st century mothers to do the same. But the world has changed. Many of those same mothers and grandmothers didn’t work outside the home nor face the pressures of modern day parenting schedules. I remember one parent who told me, in so many words, if they had to watch their own kids when they came to church they “just as well stay at home.”
  2. Lay Off the Proverbs 31 Ideal. Many mothers place enough expectations upon themselves with out a pastor (usually male) pointing out Proverbs 31 as the model of perfect motherhood. Yes, the Proverbs 31 woman could do it all, and by my observation, many of today’s moms are already trying to do it all, including meeting the additional expectations they feel from other moms in the PTA or the weekly play group.
  3. Lay Off the Lip Service to Reaching Young Families. If you want to young families, make a commitment to reaching them. Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk. Create environments and contexts where young parents can be with each other, sans kids. Provide occasional date night opportunities for parents by offering child care so they can catch their breath. You can do the same in early December so parents can Christmas shop together for their kids.
  4. Lay Off the Sports Guilt. I’m old enough to remember “blue laws,” which virtually shut communities down on Sundays. Stores, gas stations, and even restaurants were closed on Sunday so that local churches had the market cornered one full day each week. That ship has sailed. Even Wednesday nights, a night once respected by local school districts is off the table. Whether we agree with it or not, parents are going to provide their children every opportunity to learn and grow possible, including sports and the fine arts. Whether we agree with it or not, sports and fine arts are going to schedule practices, games and performances on Wednesdays and Sundays. Whether we agree with it or not, parents are going to choose those practices, games and performances over church activities. I learned a long time ago that I’m not going to win that battle. I also learned I wasn’t going to judge or criticize parents who made the choices they made. Nothing is to be gained by invalidating a young family’s Christian commitment just because their kids play soccer on Sunday morning. So instead of judging them, celebrate them. Encourage older congregants to attend kids sporting and fine arts events. Make your presence known to them where they are, not just when they are on the church’s campus.
  5. Lay Off the Guessing Game. One of my pet peeves of church leadership is the insistence that they can sit in a room and discern how to meet the needs of mothers, fathers and young families. But if truth be told, they’re just guessing at it. Or worse, they plan as if they’ve read the latest and greatest book released on the subject by the guru of the day who lives in a different geography. There is not magic formula for reaching young families. So maybe church staffs need to quit guessing and actually talk to the mothers and fathers. No, I’m serious. Ask them. And then listen. What they have to say may not be in your church’s program or schedule, but that’s ok. You really don’t have to guess any more. And if you can discern what the needs actually are, who knows? They might be more prone to invite and bring their friends along. The gymnasium you’re thinking will help you actually may be for naught. What moms or dads may prefer is a mentoring relationship with an empty nester who has already walked where they’re walking.
May
01

Leaving Can Be Life Giving

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The most recent issue of Christianity Today had a column by Rev. Dennis R. Edwards, PhD, titled, “Leaving Can Be Life Giving.” I thought it was a powerful account of a pastor who left his position due to systemic racism and institutional toxicity. The key quote from the article is, “Pay attention to the wounded faithful who exit. Their words may be the word of the Lord.” You can read the article at the following link: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2021/may-june/racism-leaving-prophetic-institutions-dust-off-your-feet.html?share=BVWUKAktFXWrI2NPviYnK5OFgn0HFGos&utm_medium=widgetsocial.

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Barna Research released a study this week which assessed how church goers feel after attending worship. These emotions range from feeling encouraged, disappointed, connected and more. To read the research you can use the following link: https://www.barna.com/research/churchgoers-feel/.

The surprising statistic from this research is the level of disappointment people feel following worship attendance. A full 50% of churched adults feel some measure of disappointment, and nearly 40% of practicing Christians feel the same. I am reminded that disappointment is the result of failed expectations. In other words, there is a significant disconnect between what pastors and worship leaders are providing in a worship experience and what attendees are actually looking for or need. This is critical, because disappointments are also resentments under construction. People may feel a wide range of emotions on any given Sunday, but repeated disappointment is a foundational crack that needs to be addressed.

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Apr
11

I’m Spiritual, But Not Religious

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Over the past several months I’ve enjoyed many conversations with irreligious people about faith. In my encounters I’ve heard one recurring theme over and over–“I’m spiritual, but not religious.” One person, when I pressed for further understanding, quipped, “Religion is sitting in church thinking about fishing. Spirituality is going fishing and thinking about God.” Without question, people are very open to spiritual things, but simultaneously bypassing organized religion to find and fuel their spirituality. Religious institutions are becoming less and less where people turn to in order to find meaning and make sense out of life. So where do they turn?

Harvard Divinity School published a study titled, How We Gather, that centered around the question, “How can we retrieve the ancient wisdom, without the constraints?” The research team discovered that people who seek spirituality do so by accessing several practices outside the confines of formal religion.

  1. Finding community by valuing and fostering deep relationships that center on serving others. Creating new communities is often more powerful than joining existing ones.
  2. Striving for personal transformation by making a conscious and dedicated effort to develop one’s own body, mind, and spirit.
  3. Seeking social transformation by pursuing justice and beauty in the world through the creation of networks for good with the goal of closing the asset gaps. This effort extends beyond geographical and political boundaries. It is global in its focus.
  4. Finding purpose and hope by clarifying, articulating and acting on one’s own personal life mission. (Yes, the secular world is challenging their employees to write their own personal life mission statements.)
  5. Fostering creativity by allowing time and space to activate the imagination and engage in play, especially as digital interfaces become more common.
  6. Valuing accountability by holding oneself and others responsible for working toward decided goals, often without a centralized authority.

Yes, I realize that these are all core values of religions groups and local churches. The key distinction is the structure and constraints of religion and local churches. The listing above is expressed in the ministry of Jesus and the apostolic work reported in the Book of Acts. Perhaps the key is for churches to reevaluate their “constraints.” Churches have a lot of rules, some of them written, many of them unwritten. Unfortunately, many of these rules are reinforced from obscure verses from the Bible and the particular interpretive biases of church and denominational leadership. What isn’t cited from Scripture is purely the culture of the congregation. The result is that many feel invalidated as persons. Much of local church life is on the top shelf and inaccessible.

No, I don’t advocate tossing the Bible aside and giving in to every whim of popular culture. But I do think churches need to reassess what is most important and direct their resources and energy in that direction. The mandate of Jesus was and is, “follow me in a life of discipleship.” Not, join a church and become like them. The standard must be higher, not harder.

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In a recent poll released by Gallup, American church membership has declined to below 50% of the population. The study cites that in 2020, only 47% of U.S. adults belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque. That’s a 20 point reduction since the turn of the century (1999). The survey states the following reasons for this steady decrease.

  1. There is a decline in religious affiliation, due in part to the increased number of churches that have eliminated formal church membership.
  2. Values have shifted through generations. With each generational stage comes a decline, which should come as no surprise.
  3. No demographic sub group is unscathed. The decline in membership is non discriminate toward race, gender, socio-economic status, political affiliation, etc.
  4. While the pandemic certainly didn’t help the numbers, it didn’t cause the numbers. The pandemic revealed the trend that was already underway.
  5. While estimates remain unclear, it is certain that many churches will be forced to either close or form mergers in the coming years in order to remain sustainable.

What are the options, then, in the face of this trend?

First, churches need to re-evaluate their values toward formal church membership in favor of committed participation. Regular attenders may never formally join a church. At the same time, these same attenders may provide stability through volunteerism, leadership, and financial donations. If a church is narrow at this point, it may miss opportunities to disciple people and fellowship with them.

Second, churches need to immerse themselves in their communities to find the needs that are present instead of “just guessing at it.” For example, the Gallup Poll cites a 2017 poll among church goers which details the major reasons people attend a particular church. The results are interesting.

Reasons for Attending Church or Other Place of WorshipMajor factorMinor factorNot a factor
%%%
Sermons or talks that teach you more about scripture76168
Sermons or lectures that help you connect religion to your own life75168
Spiritual programs geared toward children and teenagers642115
Lots of community outreach and volunteer opportunities592713
Dynamic religious leaders who are interesting and inspiring542817
Social activities that allow you to get to know people in your community493614
A good choir, praise band, cantors or other spiritual music383625

Three things immediately stand out. First, participation in a particular church or denominational brand is not listed. Brand loyalty is a diminishing value that may not be persuasive. The second is the placement of worship style as number seven out of seven. So guitars and drums do not guarantee growth. Again, becoming immersed in your community will enable churches to discover the needs of people and design strategies accordingly. No, you don’t have to “guess at it.” The third and final observation is that people have a desire to be involved, but not necessarily in the way churches are designed. Take, as an example, a congregation with a heavy committee structure. It is not uncommon for a church to have 6-8 standing committees, in addition to a governing board, elder board, or deacon board. These committees may have 6-9 members each. At that point it’s a math problem. Six committees with six members each equals 36, not counting other leaders, officers, or staff. For most churches in America, that’s a substantial percentage of their adults. And because churches value membership, you can’t serve on a committee even if you were willing. Younger generations may not have their grandparents values, where membership included service to a committee. Service? Yes. Committees? Pass.

These statistics can lead us to do one of two things. One is to throw our hands up, give up, and close up. The other is to allow God’s Spirit to lead us to think about church in ways we haven’t thought before. We don’t have to give up. But we may have to let go of some things that we have gripped with white knuckles. As Corrie Ten Boom once wrote, “I’ve learned to hold on to things loosely, because it hurts too bad when God has to pry them from my hands.”

You can find both surveys at the following link: https://news.gallup.com/poll/341963/church-membership-falls-below-majority-first-time.aspx

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Apr
04

Is The Window Closing?

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When John F. Kennedy ran for President, he often stated in campaign speeches that the Chinese word “crisis” was a combination of characters that combined the words danger and opportunity, yielding the meaning of “dangerous opportunity.” Since then, many leaders of business, education and popular culture have quoted this sentiment. But in actuality, the Chinese word weiji is composed of two words: dangerous and change point. Though typically misinterpreted, the principle remains the same. Crisis points yield moments of decision. What we do at that change point is risky. To choose wisely can create opportunities. To choose incorrectly can bring disaster. But worse, indecision can be fatal.

The COVID-19 pandemic placed every church at the cross roads of weiji, a dangerous point of change. Unfortunately, many church leaders (pastoral and lay) have yet to seize the opportunity placed before them. Things are starting to loosen and open up, which is good. But there’s a red flag waving furiously every time I hear the phrase, “I can’t wait until things get back to normal, and we can go back to the way things were in February, 2020.” Many churches went into “sleep mode” in March, 2020, holding on for the magical day when they could go back to the way things were. The problem with that is that the world has changed and adapted, which has produced a new normal. Business has changed, education has changed, and most of all, people have changed. Business and education have changed and adapted to new futures. The pandemic has provided all of the above time to recalibrate their values and in some instances find contentment in simplicity. People who began working at home out of necessity may never go back to brick and mortar office buildings. Children who have learned virtually may never go back to the classroom. People and families alike have become more deeply connected with one another as they profited from discretionary time they never knew existed.

COVID-19 was and still is an opportunity for the church to change and adapt as well. The pandemic was a catalyst for change and adaptation for those who chose to view it through the lens of blessing and not burden. The past year could and should have been invested in observing culture and in honest self assessment. Was there something new to start? Maybe something that needed to stop? Were there new practices to learn? Or was there something in place to master?

For example, about a year ago I presented a list of opportunities to the last Church I served.* We had the capacity to live stream worship services on our website already in place so we did not need to struggle there. But there were opportunities to consider a host of things like reorganizing the staff to manage and keep pace with technology and digital communication, to enhance and promote access to online giving, the possibility to return to live worship with an additional worship service that featured contemporary music, to re-engage our growth consultant for guidance in updating our mission, values and strategy in anticipation of change to name a few. These suggestions were casually met with “when we get a vaccine, we’ll get back to normal.” Thomas Watson once wrote, “Storms will drive ships into the harbor.” And many churches responded to COVID just like that, waiting for the skies to clear and the waves to calm so they could safely return to sea.

Its late, but not too late for churches to seize the opportunity embedded within the pandemic. The future is wide open, and to paraphrase Thomas Freidman, “belongs not to those who can think outside the box. The future belongs to those who can think without a box.”

*I stepped out of the pastoral ministry on August 24, 2020. The transparent details of my personal journey from sacred to secular are forthcoming in my first series of podcasts at Out of Ur.

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Mar
21

A Church Called Tov: part 3

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McKnight and Barringer spend one half of their book discussing what Tov is not. Part 2 of A Church Called Tov outlines seven habits of goodness that shift and shape a healthy culture of goodness in a church.

  1. Tov Churches Nurture Empathy. Citing the authors, “Empathy is the ability to feel what someone else feels, to exit our own feelings and enter the experience of others. Thus, empathy is the ability to see the world through others’ pain.” Churches therefore must keep an eye on the marginalized and disenfranchised in society. (Luke 4:18-19)
  2. Tov Churches Nurture Grace. Grace is the antidote to power through fear because it is focused on mutuality, reciprocity, and giving. It is not primarily concerned with getting and maintaining.
  3. Tov Churches Nurture a People-First Culture. By valuing people as ones created in the image of God, the emphasis on people first takes precedence over the institution. People participate in transforming into Christlikeness versus conforming to the social expectations of the church. In other words, the church invites people to “come be like Jesus,” not “come be like us.”
  4. Tov Churches Nurture Truth. Again, the reader needs to hear the word “truth” through the lens of honesty and authenticity, not doctrinal purity. Disciples of Jesus Christ are called to know the truth, do the truth, and speak truth in love. A commitment to truth on all levels will provide resistance to image maintenance, information management, and spin doctoring.
  5. Tov Churches Nurture Justice. Toxic churches promote loyalty to leadership, whether they be professionals or members of the laity. This means churches must do the right thing at the right time regardless of personal loyalties in order to maintain their position and privilege.
  6. Tov Churches Nurture Service. Recognizing Jesus’ example of one who came to serve and not be served, goodness cultures focus on serving others instead of serving self. Celebrity cultures in toxic churches promote personal perks and privileges for pastors and key leaders alike. When churches are labeled “most important” in a community or denomination, it should be seen as a warning sign. Similarly, red flags should appear when pastors are labeled “visionaries” or “entrepreneurs.” No one is indispensable.
  7. Tov Churches Nurture Christlikeness. The success of any church should be measured on the growth of members in Christlikeness. Pastors have the primary responsibility of developing personal Christlikeness and to lead others to do likewise. When churches make their primary goal numeric growth, they are sacrificing their primary work for a secondary result. Remember, Jesus concluded his earthly ministry with a handful of followers. But those who became like him changed the world.

I think A Church Called Tov is a worthwhile read for any pastor, church leader, or church member. It is a prophetic call to the 21st century American church to rethink and redirect their emphasis in ministry and relationships. The goal, after all, is to please Christ, and to receive his ultimate commendation, “Tov.”