Posted tagged ‘ministry’

Advocating for The Program-less Church

May 1, 2016

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                            May 1, 2016


I’m about to walk on thin ice with lead boots, but here goes!

I’m advocating for a church that has no programs! And just so we’re clear here, I’m not simply going to substitute the word “ministry” in place of program. We do that quite often to make it sound legitimate.

I’m not saying that programs like Awana, Frontier Girls, after-school programs, senior fellowship groups, Bible Quiz Bowl, Royal Rangers, Young Adult ministries, spring rummage sale, church softball teams, and church bowling leagues have no merit. They do…kinda’!

My concern, as one who has created programs/ministries and trumpeted their merits for three and a half decades, is that programs start driving the cart instead of being the cart that follows the horse.

In case you’re confused, the horse is God, and his ways and purposes…and ministries and churches are following in his trail in the cart.

Sometimes churches create programs out of a sense of “spiritual impatience.” We are over-caffeinated people (I’m sitting in a Starbucks as I write this!) who have a very difficult time waiting upon the Lord, and I would say even “being with the Lord.” We get into the “I need to be doing something!” mindset.

This is not meant to be a blanket statement, but many times programs/ministries get adopted by congregations who get tired of waiting upon the Lord. The Methodists down the street are getting a monopoly on a ministry to seniors, so the Lutherans jump into the fray to get part of the market share. The Assembly of God church has a rockin’ praise team so the Baptists look to upgrade.

Another dilemma sometimes happens when the program becomes what is worshiped. If it is drawing a crowd it is suddenly seen as being anointed by God. Like the crowd following Jesus as he sat down on a hillside and gave a series of blessings and teachings, programs often create followings of the devoted. Conflicts in churches happen, more often than not, over programs. I rarely see conflicts in churches over God!

I’m wondering if a church should do a “program moratorium” and let God guide the wagon. What would that look like? The picture in Acts 2, 4, and 6 would help us figure that out. It seems that what rose to the surface in the beginning days of the church was the caring of one another, the proclaiming and teaching of the gospel, worship, and prayer. The Body was built on the strength of relationships knitted together. Acts 6 shows the development of a ministry to widows, the forgotten group.

The saints would gather together, check in on one another, encourage one another in a time when there were more reasons to get discouraged. And the Holy Spirit moved in their midst!

What would happen if the only thing on your church’s schedule this week was the gathering on Sunday morning or Sunday night? Would you love your brothers and sisters enough that you’d connect with them in other ways during the week? Coffee at Starbucks? An evening walk in the park with a friend? Going with a couple of others to see a sick friend? Calling a young mom and seeing if there is anything you could pick up for her at the grocery? Praying together?

Congregational vitality is based on our connection to who is driving the cart, and commitment to one another.

What connects you to the Kingdom of God?

Reaching and Reality

April 16, 2016

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                    April 16, 2016



      I remember my seminary days of studying theology, talking about it in non-personal ways, and writing papers about it that connected with my mind, but not my soul. A minister friend of mine recently referred to that period of our lives as “reaching for our theology.” That is, we reached for books on library shelves and wrote various statements in essays that were a mixture of what someone else believed and what we thought we believed. In those days, we were not adverse to do some name-dropping in these papers of theology. If a quote from Moltmann’s The Crucified God could be nonchalantly inserted into the pages we would go for it…whether we understood the run-on sentences or believed the doctrine.

Like flying in a plane at 35,000 feet and describing what Kansas is, our words were often “reaches’ for a grade, and not heartfelt beliefs. I confess…I was often in that place of reaching.

And then many of us upon graduation took positions on church ministry staffs and we soon discovered that there is a difference between “reaching” and reality. What we seemed to be able to stay a safe distance from- the actual experiencing of our statement of beliefs- suddenly moved into where we lived.

We went from explaining grace to having to live out grace in our ministries. We went from “reaching preaching” to “preaching from our life experiences.” In many ways it was good, but in some ways it was to uncomfortably close to home.

John Piper is a well-known author and, until 2013, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. I have several of his books in my personal library, including Desiring God and Future Grace (I just name-dropped, didn’t I?). In 2010 Piper took an eight month leave from his position for what he called “a reality check from the Holy Spirit.” He sensed that he had a growing disconnect between what he wrote about and who he was.

A reality check from the Holy Spirit! Many times in my years of ministry I sensed the Holy Spirit nudging my life. Sometimes I faced up to it, and other times…I just kept flying over Kansas!

One of the most difficult elements of ministry is connecting what we believe with why we believe it. It’s the knowledge getting married to the intimate, the distant God that we realize is close at hand, the words of God now being experienced with the breath of God.

In my “reaching days” I could quote from Moltmann’s  Theology of Hope, but the reality of ministry is standing by the bed of a hospice patient and talking to him about the hope of the resurrection and what it means for each one of us.

There is a difference between preaching on forgiveness and being forgiving to the person who has purposely told a lie about you that has resulted in deep emotional pain.

I had many excellent professors back in my seminary days. One that I will always be indebted to was a theology professor named Tom Finger, not because I took pages and pages of notes in his classes, but rather because he kept asking me the hard questions:

“Why do you believe what you believe?” “

“What does that mean to you and for your life?”

“What difference does it make?”

He took me from flying over Kansas to having my feet in the dirt. People like that are God’s uncomfortable blessings upon our lives, because they help us figure out life. We see their handprints upon us as we gradually transform from “reaching preaching” to “preaching from our reality.”

Small Churches Are Not a Bad Thing!

March 17, 2016

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                          March 16, 2016


Andy Stanley made the news last week as a result of something he said in one of his weekend messages. Since then he has tried to do a rewind of what he really meant, but it is similar to trying to rewrap the toilet paper after it springs loose and rolls down three flights of stairs. You can’t quite get it back to where it was. (I don’t recommend you try it! It won’t turn out good and people will stare at you.)

Andy, who I’ve heard speak several times, and have a lot of admiration and respect for, made a reference to parents being selfish if they keep their teen children at a small church. This came right after a weekend youth conference that was attended by about 3,500 youth from Stanley’s church, and, I’m assuming, other churches.

He didn’t mean to make a dig at small churches, but that’s what was heard. Andy’s church runs around 20,000 each weekend…give or take a few thousand! Obviously, his church is doing a few things right.

His church is the spiritual Walmart that draws customers to the happy faces signs.

Last Sunday I spoke at a church in a small rural town to a gathering of twelve. There are less people in this town than will be seated in Andy Stanley’s overflow room at one weekend service. And yet “The Twelve” allowed me to experience community. After the service instead of a rush to the parking lot to be directed out into traffic by off-duty police officers, at this gathering of the saints we stood in the center aisle for twenty minutes talking and sharing. No one rushed out. They didn’t want to. This was a foundational part of their week.

I read Andy’s interview that was meant to be damage control. Believe me, he’s not totally wrong…and he’s not totally right. Sometimes small churches get set in their ways and become hospice centers for the dying, but other times small churches bring a depth of caring and fellowship that mega-churches should take notes on.

Our culture is drawn to “mass”, to quantity. We overindulge at Chinese buffets and super-size at McDonald’s. On Black Friday we get in line early at the “big box” stores, and we flock to ocean cruise line ships that are like floating cities.

Those things aren’t necessarily bad (except the Chinese buffet part), but they should not be seen as what will meet all of our needs either.

There are places at the Lord’s table for small churches and large churches, and every church in between. This doesn’t need to become a finger-pointing event between the student bodies of two arch rival high schools, shouting across the gym at one another.

On Easter Sunday I’ll be back at that small gathering of God’s people to preach about new life, new hope, and a new day. They will nod their heads in agreement, because they believe that their church is in the midst of the story. Then we will stand in the center aisle and talk about life as it is, and life will is coming.

Sitting In The Back Row

January 4, 2016

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                            January 3, 2016


     Today I was a guest at the church that my head basketball coach and her husband are a part of…first Sunday as a visitor…first Sunday not as a pastor. It was the first Sunday that I’ve sat in the back row of a sanctuary…watching.

My head coach, Kasey, and her husband, Vance, are of the Church of Christ (non-instrumental) persuasion. It was interesting to worship in a different setting. The Church of Christ is a little different than American Baptist. Or…the Church of Christ would say that American Baptists are a little different than the Church of Christ. Let’s face it! We’re all different!

Greg, the preacher, (Kasey and I will have to have a conversation about why the term “pastor” isn’t to be used!) shared his heart for the community his congregation is located in. He sounded like me, except with a deeper voice and beard. The emphasis in my ministry was very much about the community, constantly irritating the congregation with the question “Why are we located here in this community?” and the even more irritating question “If we weren’t here would people notice?”

That emphasis dates back to when I was the Associate Pastor at First Baptist Church of Lansing, Michigan, located a block from the state capital. Chuck Landon, Senior Pastor, was an exceptional leader who saw the need to do ministry in the center city area. He was the only caucasian pastor invited to be a part of the gathering of African-American pastors. That didn’t come because he won a lottery drawing, but rather as a result of years of developing relationships with the pastors of that group. A young woman in the congregation had a vision for a neighborhood summer outreach program and Chuck encouraged her and supported her in the launching of S.O.A.R. (Summer Outdoor Activities and Recreation).

Bottom line! He modeled a church ministry aimed at the community. Preacher Greg spoke of that this morning, and it was good to hear of that desire to lead a church into being the helping hands of the community.

Today may have been the first Sunday in years that I was a receiver of communion as opposed to the presider of communion. Church of Christ grape juice tastes the same as Baptist grape juice. The bread, however, was a little different, but still qualified.

Church of Christ children make just as much noise as Baptist kids…and nobody seemed to mind! The smell of coffee, to be served after the service, drifted by my nostrils and through the sanctuary.

Being a guest makes you see things, appreciate what you’re experiencing, and drawn you towards the One you’ll urged others to worship all these years.

The first Sunday of a new journey…that is a little scary, and yet good…I think!

The Why

August 17, 2015

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                                    August 17, 2015


Most of the things I do each day are done out of habit. The way I brush my teeth, when I brush my teeth, and how I brush my teeth…regardless of what my dental hygienist tells me…is done out of habit. Some habits become a part of our life because of a situation that we go through. For instance, I always read at bedtime. Sometimes I read a few pages, and sometimes I read for two hours. The root of my bedtime reading goes back to when I had a herniated disc in my back and I was mostly bed-bound for a couple of weeks. I would read between pain pills.

Habit is a powerful life stabilizer. We hang our hat on it. It’s also why bad habits are hard to break. We shape our lives around them. Good habits, bad habits, routines…even rituals.

Many of our habits are done without a clue as to why.

I take a shower in the morning…every morning! Why? Because…that’s all I can say. I didn’t always take a shower in the morning. Goodness gracious! When I was growing up we didn’t even have a shower! So at some time in my life I decided that a morning shower sounded like a good idea.

“The Why” is a question that gets covered over. Why do I do what I do? If you were to ask me that question while staring at me there is good chance that you’ll get this glazed over look staring back at you.

Why am I a pastor? Because God placed a calling on my life that became defined my senior year of high school. I was clueless about a lot of other things my senior year, but I was clear on my calling.

“The Why” is a question that gets forgotten as we journey. A young lady I’ve known since she was born about 24 years ago, Allison Perrine, just completed a seventy day 4,000 mile bicycle journey along with 30 other college-aged young adults from across the country. I’m sure that when Allison was pedaling across Kansas she may have had moments when she asked the question, “Why am I doing this?”

Kansas has a way of doing that to people!

She was doing it to raise funds for cancer awareness programs. (She raised over $22,000.) But, really Allison was bicycling from baltimore to San Francisco because of her mom who lost her battle with cancer and her Aunt Marie who is a cancer survivor. That’s the real why behind the journey.

The church is often negligent of revisiting the why question. Why do we do what we do? Why do we give of our financial resources to the church and to missions? Why do we volunteer our time? Why do we pray for people? Why do we help our neighbors? Why are we passionate about ministry? Why do we clap when someone is baptized?

What is at the core of our purpose? Why do we care?

When we remind ourselves of the why we stay grounded in the cause.

It even helps us get through Kansas.

The Hardest Part of Ministry

May 11, 2015

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                                     May 11, 2015


Two weeks ago three of us from our church- my wife Carol, a woman named Kathy, and myself- went to check on a lady who hadn’t been at worship that morning…which was out of character. After finding the hidden key that Kathy knew about, we discovered her body in the house. Even though it was a difficult thing to discover, we were glad that we were the ones to discover her passing instead of her daughters.

The next Sunday afternoon we had a gathering in our sanctuary to celebrate her life. Eulogies and letters were read that honored her. The service was a mixture of laughter and tears. Death is a peculiar subject for Christians. Our faith is rooted in a death experience- the death of Jesus on the cross, and then the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The words “death”, “dead”, and “dying” are used over eight hundred times in the Bible. Death is unavoidable for each one of us, but it’s also unavoidable as you read the story of God’s people and Jesus’ followers.

And yet the hardest part of ministry is dealing with death. It’s as certain as birth, but difficult to rub elbows with. As a pastor I talk quite often about life after death, the promise of eternal life…that comes after death! We firmly believe in that promise, and yet struggle with the death part.

People say I do an exceptional job officiating at funerals, and yet I dread them with a passion. I prepare people for Glory, and yet I struggle with the releasing of the loved one. Almost all of the funerals I conduct I know the departed one deeply. I remember where they would sit each week in worship, their uniqueness, and stories that stay with me. The lady who just passed on to Glory made her own birthday cards for people, and they were always special and unique. I asked for a show of hands at her funeral of all those who had ever received a card from her. the show of hands were more numerous than the dandelions on the church’s front lawn. Those are the moments that are special.

The pastor, however, must lead the people in the journey of grief afterwards. Last week the Senior Bible Study I lead had it’s first gathering since the funeral. The dear departed woman was a part of the group. We studied the Word that morning, as we always do, but we also found comfort in being together in the midst of loss. Even as we sat in our tabled circle that day we journeyed together in our grief.

The pastor leads, but the pastor also struggles…with emotions, emptiness, adjusting to the change. The promise of Glory is a soothing embrace in the numbness of loss.

Dealing with death is the hardest part of ministry, and yet we convey the message of hope that is linked to it. Goodbyes are painful, but the certainty of their arrivals are comforting. My ministry had been blessed by preaching about eternity, and yet my ministry is burdened by the heaviness of death.

What a odd combination!

Villain Pastors and Victim Clergy

May 8, 2014

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                                May 8, 2014



I’m not paranoid…no matter what the voices behind me are saying!

Call me a “reflective observer!” Yes…I like that term. It sounds like a quiet parent at a child’s athletic contest…somewhat an anomaly, I know, but still possible.

My reflective observation, however, is in the bleachers watching our culture’s annihilation of pastors and clergy. Different arenas have different strategies for making this happen.

Last night I was watching one of my favorite shows on TV after I got home from a nice thirteen hour day of ministry. The day was a typical assortment of appointments, meetings, visits, planning, leading a study group, and getting details taken care of. As I watched the TV show (on DVR, mind you!) a “preacher” entered the picture of the episode. He was even referred to as “Preacher”, not pastor, but I don’t think our culture differentiates between those who names…and very rarely is preaching seen in a positive light any more.

The preacher in this episode put a bad taste in the midst of my popcorn-chewing mouth as soon as he entered the picture. He was loud, condescending, and superficially pious.

As the show went on the preacher’s ulterior motives came out. He was really a drug-pushing pimp using his church as a front to line his pockets with cash. It reinforced stereotypes. That is, pastors always have dark secrets in their past, or selfish motives for what they are doing in the present.

Rarely does TV convey pastors as either intelligent or faithful. Such ingredients don’t make for exciting TV. Who wants to watch someone who actually walks his talk?

Self-disclosure here: Some pastors DO annoy me and act like jerks, but those things don’t necessarily come with the territory.

But that’s not the only way clergy are getting pancaked!

In recent times a number of pastors of mega-churches are walking away from their flocks because the demands are killing them. A phrase that one pastor used was “mouse on a spinning wheel”. He was always moving ahead, but stuck in the same spot. His church was growing by leaps and bounds…as were the demands on his time. His success made him an in-demand speaker at conferences. He was being sought to write a book.

He gave it up! Spent! Used up! The red light was indicating “Empty”!

So just as the media casts a picture of the devious preacher fooling the flock, the church so often crushes pastors with their flood of issues and needs.

For many people that are involved in churches it isn’t intentional! Most people in congregations love their pastor to death. But every congregation has a section, small or large, that doesn’t care as long as they are cared for. The toll that clergy face for some church attenders is like filling the environment with styrofoam cups. Everyone knows it isn’t good ecology, but I need my coffee!

Clergy self-care is becoming a much bigger issue in pastor circles these days, mainly because a huge majority of pastors are self-less. Needs of their church attenders are held as a higher priority than the pastor’s own health…and pastors surrender. If a pastor was the only one in a lifeboat he might still jump out to safe…the boat!

Our culture, most of the time, doesn’t understand these things, and, sadly enough, very few of our congregations do either.