Programs, Missions, or Vision? Where Do We Start? What Do We Do? How Do We Do It? Part 1

Why We Need To Allow Church Programs To Die

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(Note:  This is the first of a 5 part series around the issue of Programs, Missions, and Vision of the local church)

I know that the very title of this first of five blogs will offend many long time faithful members of local churches.  And if you are one of them, I simply ask that you follow this to the end.  I am not asking you to agree with me, nor do I expect you to change your mind about this subject.  But I am asking you to engage in deep thought, reflection and prayer before you dismiss me as either anti-church, a para-church lunatic, or in some cases, the Anti-Christ.  (If this is your first time to read one of my blogs, get to know me by reading “About Me”.)

I grew up and was trained in a church that believed, invested in and promoted top quality church programs as the key to growing the local church.  To be honest, I cannot remember all the training events I have attended since 1974 that promoted a variety of programs that promised to radically transform the direction and attendance for the church I served at the time.  And I confess before God and to you that many of those programs I bought into and promoted in those wonderful places I had been appointed.  In some cases there would be some change happen in the local church, but it did not last.  Churches were changed, but not transformed.  And being the well-trained pastor who believed that it was all in the programming, I kept trying more programs.  I looked to what was called “successful” churches and tried to adapt their programs to fit our situation.  I was smart enough to know that I could not imitate “their” programs but vainly believed that if I adapted them into our context, the church would grow.  (But at the time, I wasn’t smart enough to see the big picture.)

Most pastors and local church leaders have some type of definition for what constitutes a “church program”.  Allow me to share my definition and hopefully it will give some insights into where I am coming from and where this series is going:

Church Programs are those activities and events that we plan, design and implement in order to maintain the vitality of the local church and which we believe will lead to sustainable church growth.

We all know that the key phrase in this definition is “sustainable church growth”.  Here is one of the Top 10 Understatements of all times:  Without Sustainable Growth The Local Church Will Die.  And for a few decades, this model of sustainable church growth seemed to be working.  For a season we could do what the voice told Kevin Costner to do in the movie “Field of Dreams”:  “Build it and they will come.”    But it became a competition to build the best to reach the most.  Since then, mainline churches have for the most part either maintained a plateau (meaning no sustainable growth) or started to decline.

For many congregations it became a blame game.  “We don’t have the right programs.”  “We don’t have the right staff.”  And my favorite excuse, “We’ve got the wrong pastor.”  And pastors who long for sustainable church growth have their excuses.  “It’s the denominational leaders fault.”  “I’m not at the right church.”  And my favorite excuse from pastors, “They won’t listen to me.”  It is futile to believe that the right programs, right staff, right pastor, or right church is the answer to the decline of the church in the United States.  There is something much deeper that we need to consider.

I have found a verse in the Bible that may well explain the current malady in many churches.  Normally I opt for the more modern translations, but this is a time when I think the King James Version says it best.  The passage is Proverbs 29:18-

Where there is no vision, the people perish; but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.

Instead of the word “perish”, other translations use phrases such as “they run wild” (NLT); “they stumble all over themselves” (The Message); or “cast off restraint” (NIV).  The Hebrew word means all of these but the word “perish” is a word that ought to grab our attention because of the current condition of the church in the United States.  When we run wild, stumble all over ourselves, or cast off restraint we step off onto that slippery slope where one thing that kills and prevents sustainable growth leads to another.  And so we scratch our heads wondering why all these wonderful programs and leaders are not resulting in vibrant congregations producing sustainable growth.

Well, let’s go back to the first part of this passage:  Where there is no vision (emphasis mine).  This point is really clear, but I think that if we look at it from The Message, we find some light and deeper understanding.  It goes like this:  “If people can’t see what God is doing” (emphasis mine).  Vision is about seeing what God is doing while programs are about seeing and measuring what we are doing.

Without a clearly defined vision of what God is doing we elevate our programs, at the very least, as a substitute for what God is doing.  Or we do something even more sinister-we ask God to bless our efforts as a means to seek God’s approval, or in many cases, as an attempt to change God’s mind.  I want to share with you 3 key reasons why maybe, just maybe, we need to allow “our church programs” to die in order to find what will produce vitality in our congregations along with sustainable growth:

 1)  Church Programs rely on human skills and strengths.

We want the best Children’s Director.  We want the best Youth Pastor.  We want the best Preacher and Pastor.  Why?  Because these are the things that programs tell us that we need.  Take a moment to think this through before you tar and feather me and burn me at the stake for being a heretic.  Sometimes programs take on a life all their own, outside the activity of the Holy Spirit.  So much so, that to suggest changing a program will almost create a riot at church business meetings.  And, if a program is faltering, then the answer we think is to fire that staff member or pastor and get new ones.  I will admit that for a season, these so called “right staff members and pastor” can create some excitement that resembles congregational vitality and will produce seasonal growth.  But the sickness returns and they will not provide the long-term sustainable growth that reveals the presence and Kingdom of God.

2)  Church Programs put a drain on our limited resources.

Once programs take on a life of their own (meaning they become sacred and are protected from any changes), then our limited resources must be used to sustain the programs.  Please notice I said “our limited resources”.  Typically church governing bodies see their resources as financial, people, buildings, and time.  When these are seen as our only resources, then there is a limited amount of said resources.  So, if someone senses that God is moving in a new direction and calls for changes the almost immediate reaction is, “Where is the money going to come from?”  “We don’t have the facilities for such a thing.”  “We’re already asking so much of our volunteers, they don’t have the time for something else.”  When programming reigns supreme, then our limited resources have to be dedicated to that and anything else will just have to wait, or worse–be ignored.

3)  Church Programs rarely, if ever, align with what God is doing.

Without a clearly defined vision of what God is doing, our programs may or may not align with what He is doing.  When they are aligned, it is either accidental or coincidental.  Again, please frame my context properly.  I’m talking about when there is no Vision of what God is doing.  The focus becomes sustaining the programs at the expense of experiencing vitality and sustaining growth that transforms the hearts of lives of people.  When Programs become the “thing”, we assume that it is of God.  When we make this assumption it will neither maintain vitality nor produce sustainable growth.

What I am offering in this series of blogs is that there is another way for vitality and sustainable growth to happen in any local church of any size and in any location.  It starts with the Vision–The Vision Of What God Is Doing.  Many congregations may have a “vision” or even a “vision statement” but a careful examination of it might reveal it is just another way of sustaining our programs–programs that rely on human ingenuity, effort and strength.  Next week I will being looking at what real “Vision” looks like, by looking at what “Vision” isn’t.  Are you ready to tar and feather me and run me out of town (or pray that I never become “your” pastor)?  Please remember my opening comments:

I am not asking you to agree with me, nor do I expect you to change your mind about this subject.  But I am asking you to engage in deep thought, reflection and prayer before you dismiss me as either anti-church, a para-church lunatic, or in some cases, the Anti-Christ.

Love God with all your heart.  Love others the way God loves you.  And make sure all the glory goes to Him.

God Bless America? Really?

One of my deepest concerns about Christians in the U.S. is that we have made patriotism and our Discipleship equal. Or we have done something even more sinister–we have replaced being Disciples with being Patriotic–that somehow they are one and the same. They are not.

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Why I Will Not Say It, And Maybe Why You Would Not Want To Say It

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(Warning:  Due to the mature subject matter, some may find this post offensive.  Therefore, viewer discretion is advised before reading it all the way through)

     I have made a prayerful and very intentional decision to stop saying “God Bless America”.  I am not demanding, suggesting or even hinting that you should do the same.  This is a decision I have made out of deep reflection and conviction because I am first a Kingdom Citizen, and second a Kingdom Pastor.  Before you label me something I clearly am not, please read my opening lines in a previous blog, The Americanization Of The Gospel.  This particular blog has been working its way through my heart and mind for some time and at first I wasn’t going to write it, but I kept coming back to it.  I wondered why I was reluctant to frame these words and it hit me.  I was “concerned” that someone might misinterpret or downright dislike these thoughts.  It was then I realized that I must write.  So here goes…

     I have many reasons why it has become difficult, actually downright impossible for me to think, write or say the words “God Bless America”.  (Even now as I type this phrase, I am very uncomfortable.)  When I say “God Bless America”, now this is me and I am certainly not asking you to feel this way, I feel like I am asking God to bless things that are not a reflection of Him; that do not honor Him; and certainly does not represent the life that He calls all of us to live.  I believe that I am asking God to bless a culture that is the antithesis of the Kingdom of God.  One of my deepest concerns about Christians in the U.S. is that we have made patriotism and our Discipleship equal.  Or we have done something even more sinister–we have replaced being Disciples with being Patriotic–that somehow they are one and the same.  They are not.  I am patriotic and I am a Disciple but being a Disciple trumps being patriotic every time.

     When I say, “God Bless America”, I feel like I am asking Him to bless a culture that is most often selfish, and this selfishness reveals itself in so many ways.  Some live with a sense of entitlement.  Others live like they are victims of anything and everything, and as such diminishes the pain of real victims.  Some live without regard for the consequences of their choices, words and actions.  Some live thinking that the values of the Kingdom of God are outdated.  Some live with hatred and anger in their hearts.  Our political system is corrupted to the max.  Self serving is esteemed higher than self-sacrifice.  And I could go on and on.  This is what I feel like I am asking God to bless because these attitudes and so much other “stuff” have become deeply entrenched in the American culture.  And deep down in my heart, I know that God would never bless any of this mess we have created.  I feel like I am asking God to change His mind about His Plans and Mission in the world.

     I also see this as symptomatic of another issue–our prayers to ask God to bless other things we do as Disciples.  I wonder if some people need to ask for God’s blessing as a sign that He approves their plans, at the cost of His plans.   Again, this is me thinking to myself–but should I have to ask God to bless the things I do IF I am doing the things God wants me to do?  I am not even suggesting or thinking that we should presume anything about the blessings of God.  But this verse has been in my heart and mind for some time.  It’s from John 13:17 (NLT)…

Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them.

     These words of Jesus come on the heels of one of His top 5 most incredible acts when He walked His creation as one of those He created.  Jesus had just washed the feet of a group of disciples knowing that one would betray Him, another would deny knowing Him, and the rest would abandon Him.  He had set the pattern for what it would mean for them in the future, and for us today, to be a real disciple of His in this fallen and messed up world.  It would be a life of self-surrender to something much bigger than themselves and a life of self-sacrifice where following Him any day and every day would cost us something.

     When we make a personal vow and commitment to a life of self-surrender and self-sacrifice to the Kingdom of God, the blessing comes without us ever asking for it.  I am not
being arrogant or presumptive with this statement.  I am simply trusting in the promise of Jesus.  bless america3And in this profoundly simple act of trusting, I am absolutely blown away by the power and depth of His grace and mercy to me; that God would use for His Honor and Glory, someone like myself.  And I find myself blessed beyond words–and I never asked God to bless what I was doing.  I simply “left my boat immediately” and followed Him.  Rather than seeking a blessing for what we are doing (or for who we are, Americans), let’s walk into those places and situations where God is already blessing.  Let’s walk into those places and situations where God is wanting to bless because people are needing to experience life as He intends and as only HE can provide.  However, if you still feel the need to ask God to bless what you or your church is doing, could it be you are asking God to accept something less than what He calls us to be and do?  I cannot answer for you but as for me, I will do whatever God wants, wherever God wants it done, and whenever He wants to do it.  I know I will still miss this mark sometimes, but it doesn’t change my aim.  Just because I miss the target doesn’t me I change the targets; I change ME by changing how I think, feel and what I do!

     At the age of 60 I am finding out that I have learned much more about God and His Kingdom in the last 5 years than I learned in the first 55 years, and am looking forward to learning even more.  And one of the things that He has taught me is that I do not have to plead or beg or even ask for His blessing.  All I need to do is to be where He is blessing and where He wants to bless.  Truth is, God is not blessing this nation–but He is blessing wherever people are committed to and living in something much bigger than themselves–The Kingdom Of God.  You will not hear me say “God Bless America”, but you will find me where God IS blessing and wants to bless people, and situations with His love, grace and tender mercies.

     Please remember that this is ME, how I am thinking and feeling.  I’m not asking you to agree with me.  And I am certainly not asking you to join with me.  This is how I feel.  What about you?  How do you feel about this?  Share your thoughts in the comments section below.  Love God with all your heart, love others the way God loves you, and make sure all the glory goes to HIM!

The Americanization Of The Gospel

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     Before I begin sharing my heart I must, in all honesty, begin with a warning and a disclaimer.  The warning is that due to the subject matter, some may find this offensive, even to the point of labeling me something I am not.  The disclaimer is that I am NOT being unpatriotic.  I fly our country’s flag at our home.  I stand at attention with my hand over my heart when the national anthem is being played.  I am very patriotic for many reasons–I appreciate the many freedoms we enjoy and I have a son and son-in-law who are combat veterans and they continue to serve in defense of our wonderful nation.  I am very proud of Matthew and Michael and every day I pray they will never have to go back into harm’s way.  With this being said, I want to share something with you that has been troubling my heart and mind.

     I am acutely troubled by the emotional climate that exists in our nation in this current election cycle.  I am seeing and hearing a lot of conversations that are soaked with frustrations, anger and fear, especially around this current Presidential election.  My deepest concerns are the words I see and hear from the “Christian” community.  Many of my friends are saying that this is THE sign that Jesus is about to return if the wrong person is elected.  Others are saying that America is doomed.

     I am left wondering, “Why so much concern about who sits in the chair behind that desk in the Oval Office?  Why does that thought create such anger or even fear?”  Regardless of who sits there, God is still God.  He is still sovereign.  He is still in control.  The waves and the winds still know and obey the voice of Jesus.  In a recent sermon it was something I said that both moved the congregation and inspired this blog.  It came from a series based on Ecclesiastes, that book where Solomon shares all the things he tried to find a life with meaningful purpose that would give us that deep and abiding peace with joy.  Of the many things Solomon tried one was the political process.  He described putting our hope on the political process was like “chasing the wind.”  During that message, here is what I said:  “The hope for the United States is not about who sits in the chair behind the desk of the oval office, but rules on the throne of your own heart.”

     I listen with all respect to the passion of the many voices who spend their time and energy on their desire for the United States to become once again a Christian nation.  There seems to be a lot of passion and energy as well as fear being expended in this idea that God, and thus the Gospel, wants us to create a Christian nation.  Now comes the offensive part so brace yourselves for you have been warned.  Jesus never asked us to follow Him in order to set upon this earth a Christian nation.  God hasn’t called us or anyone to create a Christian nation.

     If you, the reader, are among the many here in the United States that sincerely believe that God wants us to create and maintain this Christian nation and are now offended (and maybe even labeled me a heretical liberal), I have one word for you:  Good!  About a year and a half ago God turned my theology and understanding about the collective gathering we call the church on its ear.  Well, actually He helped me move from upside down to right side up, by reminding me the work of the collective body called the church is not about what we call church work, but Kingdom Work.

     Out of this has God has brought me back to a familiar verse from which directs my thoughts and words in this blog, and why I do not think God wants us to be so adamant about this being a Christian nation.  It is from 1 Peter 2:9-10 and I want to share it from both the New Living Translation and from the Message:

For you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.  10 “Once you had no identity as a people; now you are God’s people.  Once you received no mercy; now you have received God’s mercy.” (NLT)

9-10 But you are the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people, God’s instruments to do his work and speak out for him, to tell others of the night-and-day difference he made for you—from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted. (The Message)

     The call of God is about more than a piece of real estate.  Notice Peter’s carefully selected word:  YOU!  We, who have been called out by God only because of His grace and mercy, are to be royal priests that are to be collectively formed, under the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, to be this holy nation.  It is just like the church.  We never, ever go to church if we are doing it right.  WE are the church, not a piece of real estate.  The real church never has a single address, nor does it exist within multiple campuses.

     The church exists wherever you happen to be at that moment, that is, if you are have some clarity about the nature of the church.  And within our collective body our work is to be Kingdom Work.  Kingdom Work is about restoring people to what Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert describe in the book When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. . . and Yourself as the 4 key relationships God intended in creation for us.  They describe these 4 key relationships as relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation.  Poverty exists when 1 or more of these relationships are broken.

     One way that I see that we have Americanized the Gospel is in how we define and treat poverty.  In their book, Corbett and Fikkert point out because of our American bias, we define poverty as the lack of material substance.  So we treat poverty with material substance.  And be honest, how has this worked out?  IF poverty is the lack of material substance (which it’s NOT), then we should have solved the problem a long time ago.  Instead of solving the problem, people continue to live in broken relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation.  Even we who call ourselves Christians experience poverty in one or more of these relationships.

     The Work of God’s Kingdom ever since the Fall of Adam and Eve has been to restore His most loved part of creation to those 4 key relationships.  It is in these 4 relationships that we reflect His nature, His heart, and His glory.  And it is within these key relationships that we begin to live out our created design and purpose.  And here is where I believe that we “American” Christians have forgotten something that should never be forgotten.  I am convinced that much of our dysfunction as a nation (notice I did not say “Christian Nation”) is that we have chosen to ignore this absolute truth.

     God calls us to proclaim the Kingdom right smack dab in the middle of the Enemy’s Kingdom.  Albeit the kingdom of Satan is temporary, still at this time he rules it.  Do you remember what Jesus said to Pilate when questioned about being a King?

Jesus answered, “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom.  If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36 NLT)

     If Jesus wasn’t interested in establishing an earthly kingdom, meaning “a nation”, then why are so many of us obsessed with having one in the United States?  Here is my thought:  We have forgotten that God has placed us in the middle of enemy territory for the purpose of spiritual warfare (and remember this warfare isn’t against people, corporations or governments, but the Evil one) to reclaim those whom God created in HIS image, but have been disfigured with the image of the Enemy.  I’m sitting here wondering if Christians in places like Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Indonesia, and a host of other nations ruled by petty despots, are wondering, “Why are those Americans so up in arms about that election?  Every day we live under the threat of imprisonment and death and it hasn’t slowed the Kingdom down one little bit.  Truth is, God’s Kingdom is growing here but declining there.”

     I want to challenge you stop insisting that our job as Disciples of Jesus Christ is to make sure this great nation with so many wonderful freedoms turn back to becoming a Christian nation.  You may think I am dishonoring our Founding Fathers and their desire and intent.  Are you aware that some of our Founding Fathers were Deists?  Deists believe in a divine creator but not in the Trinitarian God.  Though they rejected the idea of Jesus, they understood the importance of freedom of thought, speech, and yes, religion.

     Let’s stop trying to “make” this a Christian nation and instead BECOME the nation God has called us to be.  A nation that exists, not on real estate, but a PEOPLE who faithfully live out as His priests, Royal Priests!  Forget Republican or Democrat priests–let’s be Royal Priests who serve not a political ideology or party or even flag, but The King of all Kings!  Would you love to see a culture shift in the United States?  A culture shift that moves away from political ideologies, from greed and selfishness, from that sense of entitlement, and from the idea that as Disciples of Jesus we are supposed to establish a “Christian” nation?  Then remember where your citizenship lies and under whose command you serve.

     Stop freaking out about Donald and Hillary and instead focus on your own brokenness in the 4 Key Relationships–God, self, others and the rest of creation.  And then step into the Territory of the Enemy and share your brokenness with others who are broken and say to them, “Let’s walk together out of our brokenness towards the only One who can restore us to who we truly are.”  Don’t worry about the nation–BE the Nation of people called out by God to walk through the Enemy’s territory with the light of His love, grace and mercy.  I was reading the other day but unfortunately I did not write down the source of it, but here are my closing words:  95% of Christians pass the test of adversity but 95% of Christians fail the test of prosperity.