Thursday, October 23, 2014

Winds of Change

There are some people that are good at spotting trends. My daughter is that way. It seemed that when she was a teenager, she was able to identify and be the first to embrace emerging fashion trends. That of course meant that she was a little “ahead of the curve” sometimes -- wearing colors, belts or even hats before they were “in”. She really didn’t seem to mind making a fashion statement a little before things became popular with her friends or the general population.

The ability to keenly identify change before it is fully recognized by the rest of the populace is a great asset and something many would aspire to have. In the world of big business, people like Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and even Donald Trump have had great financial success because they were able to identify a growing trend in the general population and jumped in to capitalize on it in business.

We call these changes that appear on the scene “trends” and the people that identify and quickly embrace these trends “trendsetters”. When the winds of change are in the air, people that are alert to such changes pick up almost intuitively that things are changing and are better prepared to react and either embrace or resist the change.

In the spiritual realm, there are also times when there are “Winds of Change."  If we use the general term “trends” regarding these changes we will be apt to miss the true significance of what may be actually happening. Often what prognosticators consider to be religious trends may in fact be a movement that is ordained by the Holy Spirit.  For example, we can look at some recent phenomena such as the popularity of nondenominational and strongly Biblically-oriented churches (I try to refrain from the use of the word ‘conservative’), or the success of online discipleship tools such as YouVersion and RightNow Media using the latest technology for the benefit of the Church.  Or we could look at the growth and success of the mega churches, which are typically culturally relevant, utilize contemporary worship and often independent non-denominational churches.

If we think of these changes as simply a part of our popular culture we are apt to miss the more spiritual significance. On the spiritual side of our culture, we categorize these large developing trends that are breathed by the Holy Spirit as movements and occasionally even revivals.

Spiritual movements in general and revivals in particular are of great interests to religious historians and theologians. I am accomplished but an amateur at both of these topics; I love history and have an advanced degree in theology. I can tell you however that there are definite Winds of Change today.  People are being called to faith in Christ in record numbers around the world and in many different ways, in many different venues and in the most unlikely places.

Here in the United States its been my observation that the Body of Christ is coming together.   That may seem counter intuitive when confronted with the continuous attacks from the liberal media as well as attacks from within (the Strange Fire conferences or continuous attacks on TV ministries or even Catholic/Protestant Baptist/Pentecostal.  However, it is true nevertheless.   More and more the Body of Christ is realizing that it is in the essential we have unity. 

Another wind of change that I see is a growing number of people that are completely surrendered to God. They, like the Apostle Paul are “dead to self”, Paul said it best, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by Faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).  I daily thank God that I am meeting people in all walks of life that are not only “dead to self” but they are also embracing the “Big C” body of Christ rather than involved exclusively in their own traditions and denominations.  These are people that are only interested in serving God. They are sometimes in ministry but often are employed elsewhere. Together, regardless of their occupation are fully convinced of the reality of the Kingdom of God and they understand that their primary purpose in life is to serve God.

The Wind of Change is in the air.


Friday, October 17, 2014

Making Disciples

If you look around you can find some churches that have big buildings, cool kid programs, are technically savvy and culturally relevant.  However, if the truth be told, many are also "Discipleship Challenged".

All too often we just aren't doing discipleship AT ALL. That's a tragedy but likely also the reason that many of our churches are failing and Christianity is become less and less relevant in a world where it remains the only hope for the future.   We fail not so much by declining attendance but by becoming more and more like the rest of the world.

The Body of Christ has been given two commands, typically known as the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.

The great commandment is actually two where in the Gospel of Mark Chapter 28 Jesus said, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself. 'There is no commandment greater than these."

However it is the Great Commission that is all too often ignored by the church.  After Jesus rose from the dead he spent another fifty days teaching and preparing His disciples. Just before he ascended into heaven, Jesus gave them and us a command: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

Becoming a disciple is not the same as becoming a member of a local church like the church is some kind of Country Club where the members have benefits.   Being a believer in Jesus Christ is how one becomes a member of the Body of Christ.  Being a disciple of Jesus is not about member benefits but responsibilities.   The benefits of being in the Body of Christ are primarily eternal not temporal.    The word disciple means "to follow" and "to learn". It also has the connotation of adhering to a person and imitating a person. That person is none other than Jesus.

The early church grew because believers invested in other people and made disciples. Many churches today invest in buildings and hope that perhaps the activities, events, conferences and educational program will make disciples.  Discipleship however has always been relational and involved reaching and mentoring and teaching.  Just like Jesus!


Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Another Church Closes

Churches are closing all over the United States.   

I’m not referring to the “Big C” church, as we know that the Church is actually the Body of Christ comprised of all believers in Jesus regardless of location, race, denomination, language or tradition. Worldwide, Christianity is not only the largest religion but also the fastest growing religion.  

What we are seeing in America however is that many local church congregations, some in nice buildings, some in buildings that have seen better days, are closing their doors each year. 

According to recent reports about 4,000 church congregations close each year contrasted with about 1,500 new church starts resulting in a loss of about 2,500 congregations.  Considering a growth in the population in the United States of about .7% and if 40% of Americans regularly attend church, we need 4,200 net new churches every year.

A nation that is unchurched

It’s becoming increasingly clear that each year a greater percentage of Americans are now ‘unchurched’.   While the reasons for this are varied the undisputed fact is that as Christianity has become less relevant in the eyes of the average American.   As a result more and more local churches are faced with very difficult decisions regarding their continued operation, their ability to attract new people and their continued role in the community.

While they are still meeting and the lights are still on, these congregations have the opportunity to revitalize their ministry and to again be an important part of the fabric of their community.  The Great Commission of making disciples of Jesus Christ is not just about reaching new people groups or something that growing and sprawling mega churches do, it’s the basic and the essential mission of every local church.

There is hope!

Rather than abandoning these ministries and hoping that either the buildings can be sold, torn down or otherwise recycled, we need to remind ourselves that there is hope.  Not only is Jesus still the Lord and Head of the Church, we as the Body of Christ likewise can come alongside these churches and provide them with opportunities to rejuvenate and rebirth their congregations.

My observation is that these local congregations start spiraling down and get caught in a number of ultimately fatal traps.   Unless the leadership of the congregation recognizes the trends and understands that unless things change radically, their fate is sealed.  The congregation, the building, the legacy and the local Christian witness will vanish.

The challenge is that the change that is necessary is often very difficult to initiate.    In every generation local churches have struggled when they make even minor changes in worship, preaching style, the environment, attire or service times.    Recently many churches have stepped away from the traditional service patterns of Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Midweek as American culture has become busier and attendance has been declining.

If your local church is thriving and prefers more traditional worship and midweek services, God bless you.   Many congregations believe their culture and traditions are very closely related to their doctrinal beliefs and would rather be satisfied ministering to a declining and likely aging population.  However, they and the community they serve may be missing out on an opportunity to understand and witness first hand that the Gospel is not limited by tradition and culture.

The example of Jesus and Paul

Today more than ever we need more of our leaders to be like the Apostle Paul.  While Paul was a great church planter and was used by God to bring the Gospel to the gentiles in Asia and Europe he was also interested in strengthening and revitalizing the existing churches.  In the book of Acts we see Paul and Barnabas returning to the churches to “see how they are dong” (Acts 15:36).”   Paul was not hesitant to address moral or theological issues, heresy or problems in leadership.

Jesus through His angel sent messages to seven churches in the Book of Revelation.  These churches were all unique and each needed to hear a unique message regarding insights into their ministry.  Some were commended while some were severely criticized.   They all had the opportunity to be faithful to the ministry that they were given.  For most of them however that meant they had to make changes.

The bible is clear that we are the Body of Christ and that when one member suffers, we all suffer (1 Cor. 12:26).  We are all too familiar with the scandals that spread when a minister falls because of moral failure.  Likewise, churches that begin to embrace the very sin that so easily entangles very quickly bring shame, dishonor and confusion within the Body of Christ.

In the same way, churches that close their doors, sell their buildings and abandon their calling indicate failure.  Their failure means that the message of the church, the life-changing opportunity to embrace Jesus as the Christ, to have sin forgiven and provide a message of hope is somehow irrelevant.

I mentioned earlier that many of our local congregations are spiraling down and get caught in a number of ultimately fatal traps. Often before a church can be revitalized, it has to be pruned and closed temporarily for some major remodeling.   Like an airplane that goes into a stall and starts spiraling down, the very deliberate but often counter intuitive maneuver of pushing the nose down is the only thing that can stop the spiral down.

Six changes to make!

Here are the major things I recommend these congregations look at to make the changes needed:

1) Sever the denominational ties! If you can’t completely depart from the denomination change the name on the building so that the message is clear that the purpose and mission of the local congregation is not about denominational differences but about the essential message of the gospel.

2) Focus on the local community!  Local congregations are designed to serve the local community.   People within a few miles of the church need Jesus and having a local church provides great opportunities for fellowship and true communion.

3) Worship!  All too often we worship our worship rather than worship the Creator.  There has been more hand wringing and arguments over the style and type of worship in a church than any other issue.  Worship preferences are rarely doctrinal issues and Christians have worshiped God in many different manners over the past 2,000 years.

4) Preach the gospel!  As churches become smaller the preacher assumes that since the remaining people already know the gospel, they need to be given other lessons in stewardship, parenting, ecology, history, social services or other useful but nonessential messages.   It is the gospel that brings spiritual rebirth and it is the gospel that people need to hear.

5) Evangelize! Evangelism is not a program nor an annual outreach, nor even an option; it is a command.  Evangelism is just another term for our part of the Great Commission, as it was Jesus that said to go and make disciples.   We go, He brings the Holy Spirit.  

6) Pray!  It is Biblical and it has also been show historically that there are no second generation Christians.  Every believer begins his or her walk with the Lord individually.   Christianity is about prayer, self-sacrifice, humility, discipline and the development of a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  

Jesus said..

Jesus said that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Church. With that we have to understand that there is a very significant spiritual component as we lead and determine the appropriate actions to take to revitalize our congregations.  We pastors also need to always remember that its not our efforts but each member that contributes to the vitality of the local church.  In Ephesians chapter 4 the Apostle Paul says, “As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing. …” (Ephesians 4:16b, NLT)




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