Monday, August 25, 2014

Three Yards and a Cloud of Dust Evangelism

“Three yards and a cloud of dust” is an old way of describing a football team’s offense that concentrates on moving the ball down the field a few yards at a time. While it is considered a rather old-fashioned approach to football, I think it can describe the evangelism strategy churches can utilize today. The three yards and a cloud of dust offense desires to move the ball steadily down the field a little at a time until a touchdown is scored. The alternative is a passing game that relies on long range so-called “hail Mary” passes which attempt to score the touchdown by throwing a long pass. The “hail Mary” seldom works, but when it does, it’s spectacular.

In earlier times, the evangelism style of choice was similar to the “hail Mary” offense. Until about 1970, many evangelical churches relied on revivals, crusades, and other special worship services where a gifted speaker vigorously presented the Gospel. Many people made the decision to follow Christ that way. In the day before cable TV, the revival was the biggest show in town for the week and many non-Christians and nominal Christians attended, and some of them made major commitments. The Holy Spirit greatly used the revivals and crusades. However, as entertainment became more accessible, it became more difficult to get people who weren’t already Christians to attend revivals. Also, while revivals and crusades saw many people respond with a decision at the meeting, most of those who made decisions did not become disciples. The percentage of decisions that led to discipleship largely depended on the quality of follow-up by church members. This meant church members had to somehow make a connection with people they may not know that would allow them to help the new believers become fully devoted followers of Christ.

As revival evangelism faltered, a different kind of “hail Mary” became prevalent. New tools like “The Four Spiritual Laws”, “The Roman Road”, and “Evangelism Explosion” enabled individuals and small groups of Christians to share the Gospel and pray with folks to receive salvation. God used this approach for many years to bring people to follow Him. Often churches would train members in the use of these tools and provide opportunities for them to use them to reach their friends, neighbors and people who visited their church. Here too, follow-up was the key to turning decisions into disciples. Many times follow-up was difficult because the person who presented the Gospel and the decision-maker were strangers and may have had very little in common.

Both of these “hail Mary” methods were very effective at times. The problem was that, like the long pass in football, both these methods needed the situation to be just right. These methods were effective where the people the church hoped to reach held the Bible as sacred. It also helped if the prospect had respect for the Christian worldview.  

Most of the people the church today needs to reach are not familiar with the Bible and are ignorant, or perhaps even suspicious, of the Christian worldview. One night at a great worship service may cause them to start thinking (if you can get them to one), but getting a commitment is very difficult in that circumstance. It is the same with the old individual methods: one conversation, no matter how well thought out, guided, and backed up by scripture, seldom brings someone to Christ.

For these days we need to use a “three yards and a cloud of dust” evangelism approach. We attempt to move our friends and neighbors toward Christ with our conversations, the testimony of our lives, and lots and lots of prayer. We must work together and pray that the persons we hope to reach will meet other Christ-followers who will also move them toward Christ. Working together we can help people toward the goal, which is salvation. As we move down the field, there are opportunities for the prospect to see Christ working in our lives, to learn the Christian worldview, and the importance of the Bible. Sometimes, using the “three yards and a cloud of dust” approach, the team moves down the field toward to the goal line fairly quickly. (The goal in evangelism is our friend becoming a disciple.) And, sometimes it takes a lot of time.

Evangelism tracts and learned outlines will be handy tools along the way, so can evangelistic worship services. However, instead of either being the strategy for evangelizing our community; they are part of the strategy. The strategy is actually based on Joe and Mary Pewsitter becoming friends with people who don’t know Christ, loving them and sharing life with them. It is seldom fast, but it has a great chance of making new disciples rather than simply getting someone to make an empty decision. Follow-up is natural, because of the relationship that has been established. It is friend-helping-friend learn to follow the Lord. This strategy is not a program of the church; it is a way of life. I think it was the way of life for the New Testament Church. It doesn’t depend on a fiery evangelist or a perfected presentation. It is all about us loving them until they become part of us.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

How Can a Declining Church Find a Turn-Around Pastor?

Are you involved in or familiar with a church that is in decline or stuck on a plateau? Often churches in either of those conditions carry on as if there is no problem. However, sometimes members understand that their church is headed in the wrong direction. They don’t want their church to die and they would love to see it thrive. They want to do something, but have no idea what to do. Many times, no one says much about the direction of the church until it is between pastors. Then, some blame the last pastor, and he/she may well have been a factor, but churches can spend a long time in decline or plateaued. Several pastors could come and go.

If a congregation really wants to turn around, it needs to find the right kind of pastor. A turn-around church needs a strong leader: a man or woman who sees God’s vision for the church and can clearly communicate that vision. He/she should be someone who will challenge the church to do new things and make changes that are probably long overdue. The leaders of the congregation have to come to the place where they are willing to help the pastor implement a program that may seem foreign to them, but which can give the church the chance to reach its community for Christ.

The pastor cannot do it by him/herself. He must be a shepherd style leader that can lead people where they need to go (knowing it may not be where the people want to go). The lay leaders need to become lead sheep and get behind the vision. Then the pastor can outline the vision and they will help him communicate it to the rest of the congregation. That way they can help the pastor lead.

If a congregation wants to turn around, the new pastor must be a hard worker and a self-starter who will use his time to do things that will help the church realize God’s vision. The search committee should do its homework to find out if the prospective pastor has been this kind of hard working self-starter. Check not only with his listed references, but also others who may know him/her. Here is a dirty little secret:  solo pastoring at a small church can be a great place for a lazy person to be lazy. He can fake it and look busy, while getting very little done. A church has to trust their pastor to work. The key is getting a trustworthy, hard working person in the office.

If a congregation wants to turn around it must not overlook the person who is considered a bit of a “rebel.” It may be a rebel that the church needs. If people call him a rebel because he is not big on tradition, and he wants to make radical changes, he may well be exactly the person the declining church needs. The things the church has been doing have become ineffective or it wouldn’t be declining. A rebel can lead the church to rebel against decline.

The congregation that wants a turn-around pastor needs to figure out a way to pay him/her enough so that he will not have to work another job to support his/her family. I admire bi-vocational pastors. It is very difficult to juggle two careers. (I tried to do it many years ago as a church planter.) Leading a church to turn around or get off a plateau takes the full concentration of the pastor. Sometimes, declining churches have money in the bank. They have saved it for a rainy day, but they deny it is a rainy day even as the storm rages and threatens to destroy what is left of the congregation. Perhaps, they use the nest egg from time to time when expenses, like utilities and building repairs, exceed income. Often, they are willing to use their savings to sustain the bricks and mortar of the building, but are unwilling to use it on personnel, and/or ministry programs. A declining church can survive a long time doing that, but it will not thrive. People in declining churches sometimes forget the church is not the building, but people who God is using to build His Kingdom.

If a church hopes to turn around, it needs to realize that turning around depends on competent leadership and ministries that attract people to the church and enable them to grow in the Lord. A turn-around church will pay the pastor as well as it possibly can. They will give him fair vacation times and, if they are smart, they will insist that he take his vacations. Some pastors are so wrapped up in their work that he has a hard time taking time off. On the surface this is admirable, but he needs the down time to recharge his battery. This is another reason to pay him/her enough that he doesn’t need additional employment. If he has another job, he may not be able to get vacation time from his other employer and get the rest he needs. A church that wants to turn around will realize they won’t turn around on the cheap, and the pastor’s salary is not a place to cut corners.

Declining churches, the next move you make is pivotal. The choice you make concerning a new pastor may well determine whether or not your congregation can turn around and once again be a force for God’s Kingdom in your community. Ask God to guide you to the right person and to help the right person recognize your congregation as the place He has for him/her.

Check out two other posts that deal with turn-around churches: "Potholes for the Turn-around Church and Pastor" and "The Turn-around Church Challenge: Will you take the First Step to Turn Around Your Church?" 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Potholes for the Turn-Around Church and Pastor

The dream of being a turn-around pastor comes when a pastor looks at a church that’s not producing fruit and realizes that God wants him to do something about it. Usually, he sees something in that congregation that others can’t or won’t see. It’s a glorious challenge that some pastors accept. Sometimes, he has to work hard to get the congregation to simply recognize that changes need to be made. Then he must convince the people that things can be different and that they can, with God’s help, regain positive momentum. Once the church agrees to be open to the pastor’s leadership, the temptation is for the pastor to think he’s home free because everyone is behind him and the church is on its way to new relevance, strength and growth. He thinks that since the church has decided to make the U-turn, things should be easy now. However, as difficult as it is to get a declining or plateaued congregation to agree it needs to make changes, the would-be turn-around pastor should be aware that more opposition is likely. There are potholes in the road after the church turns around.

Check out the book of Nehemiah. The project God assigned was to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem. This was the start of the turn-around for the city after its destruction by the Babylonians. Nehemiah received a vision from God. He got the okay from the king. He had every reason to believe that he would be successful, but he still had plenty of continuing opposition to overcome.

Turnaround pastors can learn from Nehemiah that even with assurance of success, you can expect opposition when you strive to fulfill God’s dream. It’s easier to deal with a pothole if you know to expect them. Here are some of the things you can expect to hear:
-        “This is not the right time.” These folks will say they agree that the church needs to change, but this is just a bad time to make those changes. They will point to any one of a number of things as evidence—from a bad economy to the wrong time of year. Delay is their goal.
-         “It will take too much time.” Those in opposition will say they don’t really believe it can be done because they believe either the pastor or the people will lose interest or become exhausted before the job is done.
-        “Your dream is too expensive.” This point of view may well have contributed to the decline or plateau the church has experienced. These people have yet to realize that turning the church around is the most important thing the church spends money on.
-        “Your results will not be done well.” This may imply that the speaker doesn’t believe the pastor is smart enough or competent enough to lead the church to turn around. Or it could be that the speaker has no confidence in the ability of their people doing things effectively.
-        Some who oppose may be crass enough to use ridicule to try to demoralize the pastor or the people, so that they will just give up.
-        Elements of the opposition may try to find ways to halt renewal efforts by finding obscure bylaws clauses or parliamentary procedures.

The turn-around pastor must then anticipate opposition and find ways to counteract the influence of the opposition. Either he can steer around the pothole or brace himself and his supporters for them.
-        First of all make sure you stay close to the Lord. God will give you the assurance and encouragement you need.
-        Make sure you spend time with people who encourage you.
-        Listen to encouraging words and music. Fill your mind with good stuff.
-        Don’t just be a consumer of encouragement, but also give encouragement to your supporters whenever and however you can.
-        Prepare well. Make sure you know as much about what you’re doing as you can. Be ready for questions. Have answers.
-        Work hard. Let your effort show the way.
-        Do all you can do and trust God! Do your best. Remember that is all you have to do and all that God expects of you.

It seems that there will always be negative people. Some of them think that their purpose is to cause potholes in your path. They have no dreams and resent the fact that you actually think you can achieve yours. Do your best not to let them bother you, because when it comes down to it, what do negative people win?  All they win is a jeering laugh at the expense of the person who is trying to make the dream come true. On the other hand, what does the dream achiever win?  Usually he achieves the objective, and win or lose, he always receives God’s approval.

Remember that turning a church around is difficult. Admit that. Know that. Deal with that. Let the congregation know that turning the church around will be tough, but keep reminding yourself and them that, “It is not the things we fail at that shame us, it’s the things we should have done, and could have done, but never even tried.” In football they tell players to “leave it all on the field”, which is to say, don’t hold anything back. Turning a church around is your SuperBowl. It is the ultimate test for the pastor and for the people. If God is calling you to be a turn-around pastor, don’t let potholes scare you away. It’s worth the risk. It’s worth the effort. Go for it! 

Click here Check out my post, "The Turn-around Challenge: Will You Take the First Steps to Turn Around Your Church", from February 18, 2014

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Please Father, Steal My Show This Sunday

Last Sunday I was bopping down the road with a contemporary Christian radio station on and was blown away by a Toby Mac song I had not heard before: “Steal My Show.” The lyrics are basically a prayer before a concert asking God to take over the “show.” Here are the lyrics of the chorus:

If you want to steal my show
I’ll sit back and watch you go
If you’ve got something to say
Go on and take it away.

It reminded me of my prayers when I first started preaching. I was always very nervous and I would ask the Lord to calm me and take over, because whatever I did or said was His show and I felt Him remind me that if I truly made it His show, He would not sponsor a flop.

Thanks, Toby Mac, for giving me such a great reminder. In recent years, production values have become much more important in morning worship. Not that we didn’t try to do our best back in the day, but now there are so many more things at our disposal: worship bands, music videos, illustration videos, funny videos, etc. And sound systems are now unbelievable in their complexity as well as their quality. Teaching pastors and worship leaders, even in relatively small churches, spend a lot of time with the production of the service. This is not a criticism. Worship should be the best we can make it with what we have. But, the pressure these days to “put on a good show” is tremendous.

I guess it was always like that. In the past, the pressure was on the choir director to get his group to make a harmonic sound, and the organist did her/his best to make the old instrument sound worshipful, but now the emphasis is a bit different. Sometimes leaders feel like they’re in competition with the church down the street. That may be true, but only for a few church s-hoppers—not for the majority of prospects. Our competition for them is an easy Sunday morning in bed. So, we still need to make sure we do our best.

First and foremost, our worship is supposed to be aimed at God. The object is not to glorify you, but to glorify Him. After all the hard preparation work, worship leaders and pastors should take a moment and remember why they worked so hard to produce an excellent time of worship. Make sure the focus is on our Lord. (I spoke at one church where the worship band was in a stage pit instead of front and center. It was a brand new church auditorium, so it was by design to keep the focus of the service on the cross, not on those serving in leadership.) He gave His best for us, His Son, so He deserves our best. Any applause should be for Him, not for us. This should be obvious, but is it always?

Second, in our time, at least in America, Sunday morning worship has become the receiving room for the church. A healthy church will offer many doors to prospective Christ-followers: small groups, children’s ministry, student ministry, recovery ministry, sports ministry, to name only a few, but for most churches gathering together for worship is the main event. So, we need to do our best.

Third, Sunday morning worship is still a vital part of winning a prospective Christian to Christ and discipleship. It should not be all that we do, but it is an important part.

Fourth, Sunday morning worship reveals our priorities. Is God really the reason we come together? Are we interested in new people? Do we want newcomers to understand the Gospel? Therefore, we need to do our best.

But, all we can do, in this case, is not all we can do. We MUST submit our efforts to the Lord. We must ask Him to not only use what we have prepared, but do more with it than we can imagine. We must, as Toby Mac put it, ask Him to “steal my show.” After all, it’s not our show. It is His. It is for Him, from Him, and because of Him.

Please, Father, steal my show!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Fickle Holy Week Crowd – Fickle Congregations

The crowd in Jerusalem was a fickle bunch. On Palm Sunday they welcomed Jesus as a new king coming to lead the Jews to throw off the oppression of Rome and establish Israel as God’s great kingdom on earth. By Friday morning they were yelling for Pilate to crucify Him. How could they change so fast? I know the easiest answer is that the Sunday crowd and the Friday crowd were not the same. Maybe that’s true, but if it is, what happened to the Sunday crowd? Why didn’t they show up on Friday when the heat was on Jesus?

Actually, this kind of sea change is often seen in congregations. Pastors are welcomed with great fanfare. They are invited to lead the congregation. The church believes that he can get the congregation off a plateau or bring it back from near death. The people can’t wait to see their church return and perhaps surpass its glorious past. They are sure that soon things will right themselves and it will be just like the good old days. This pastor is a leader and they know if they just have a leader their congregation will succeed.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem the crowd were sure He was the king they wanted. Even though they were greatly outnumbered by the Romans, a King Jesus could heal their wounded and restore their dead to life. If their supply lines got thin, Jesus could multiply rations like He did with the loaves and fishes in Galilee.

It didn’t turn out that way. Instead of rousing the crowd against the Romans, He went to the temple and deliberately irritated the temple authorities. He even went so far as to disrupt their money-changing operation. When He should have been getting people mad at the Romans, He criticized the Jewish authorities that He needed to legitimize His kingship. Jesus was leading a revolution, but not the revolution they wanted. So … “Crucify Him!” “Crucify Him!”

The new pastor turns out not to be what they thought. He has some strange ideas about how things ought to be done. He makes big changes in the music. He brings in guitars and drums, and not just on youth Sunday, but every Sunday. The choir is down to singing only once a month and the only time the organ is heard any more is at a funeral. He’s got somebody leading some kind of recovery group and a few of those people have been showing up in church. Somehow he got the board to let him remodel the children’s area with all kinds of wild color schemes and decorations. It looks more like a fun area than a classroom. And there are so many kids running around making noises and messes … It’s not at all like it used to be. Sure, the attendance is coming up, but those people aren’t like us. They don’t know how to dress for church. They have tattoos and some of them smell like tobacco. He doesn’t seem to care about the way things have always been done and doesn’t think he needs the approval of the long-time lay leaders. The church may be growing, but it’s not growing the way they want. The pastor is a leader, but he’s not leading the way they wanted. Someone get up a petition; let’s get rid of him. In effect, “Crucify him!” “Crucify Him!”

The Holy Week crowd got rid of Jesus and preserved the way things were, but in a relatively few years the temple system was destroyed. The local lay leaders usually get their way too, and while they may preserve the traditions of their congregation, the church dies in a few years. Sometimes, the pastor survives and leads another congregation to growth. Too often, he’s so damaged that he decides to walk away from pastoral leadership.

Jesus was just doing what God sent Him to do, and the crowd reversed itself. In the same way, the pastor was doing the Lord’s assignment too, and the congregation turned on him. It’s a small consolation for the pastor to realize that he faced the same thing Jesus did. The congregation, like the Holy Week crowd, couldn’t trade their pipe dream of the future for God’s vision. They couldn’t submit to God.