Why Some Churches Die

design-15I’m Palm Sunday sermon prepping. Of course, included in the Biblical texts of Passion Week is the little understood phenomenon of Jesus cursing the fig tree. If you are not a Bible scholar, this “cursing” has nothing to do with inappropriate language. Jesus cursed the tree, in essence, killed it with His words, because the tree was not producing fruit.

Here is the Biblical account as provided by Mark:

“The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. 13 Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. 14 Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it. (Mark 11:12-14) “In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. 21 Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” (Mark 11:20-21)

There is an obvious application to the religious leaders of Jesus’ time. Though perhaps not as obvious, there is a possible connection with this obscure event and today’s church.

Jesus expected that this fig tree should produce fruit. The purpose of the tree was to produce fruit. While it may serve other purposes (shade, nice to look at), without figs hanging on its branches, the tree was a failure. It was good for firewood.

Fast forward 2000 years. Many churches produce no fruit. The fruit of churches is Christ followers; disciples. Churches are supposed to produce more churches. While a church may serve other purposes, bringing people into the Lord’s Kingdom is its primary purpose. Jesus expects us to produce!

Could it be that Jesus has cursed some churches as He cursed the fig tree? There is no indication in the Bible that the fig tree represents today’s church. But there are indicators that if we don’t produce, we will be cut down. See: Matthew 7:19.

Of dying churches, Thom Rainer says, “Between 6,000 and 10,000 churches in the U.S. are dying each year. That means around 100-200 churches will close this week. The pace will accelerate unless our congregations make some dramatic changes.”

I contend that churches that decide to stop producing new Christians are dead already, regardless if they are still having services. But maybe the final death knell is the Lord drying the church up until it withers away – closes its doors. Maybe it’s a “chicken or egg” proposition: do churches die first and then stop producing new fruit or do churches stop producing new fruit and then die?

We may never know. But let’s learn the lesson provided. Let’s remain productive and fruitful. Let’s be purposeful and intentional about bringing people to faith in Christ through our churches.

p.s. Let’s not avoid the little statement in Mark 11:13 “it was not the season for figs.” Adam Clarke says, “It has been asked, ‘How could our Lord expect to find ripe figs in the end of March?’ Answer, Because figs were ripe in Judea as early as the Passover. Besides, the fig tree puts forth its fruit first, and afterwards its leaves. Indeed, this tree, in the climate which is proper for it, has fruit on it all the year round, as I have often seen. (Adam Clarke’s Commentary).

So there you go.

 

Hope for Dying Churches

It’s Time for Christians to Lead

designThis is the time for Christians to lead.

Our culture is suffering the effects of deficient leadership. The bar of expected decorum and etiquette has been lowered to the ground. Integrity and common decency are passé. There is deep division racially, politically and economically. Ideological rhetoric is drowning out reason. Few are naïve enough to trust authority, and skepticism about religion is at an all time high. Many are too jaded to even hope for hope. The world needs help, now.

This is the time for Christians to lead. We say we have the solution; His name is Jesus.

Step up.

Does Servant Leadership Create Entitlement?

Does Servant Leadership Create Entitlement carterNo one can argue with the insistence that leaders be servants. Jesus modeled it and Greenleaf made a million writing about it. But there may be an issue.

Is there a connection between the rampant entitlement mentality that we see in our culture and leaders who humble themselves to serve others? I think maybe so.

Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. It is unthinkable that the Creator of all things stops to wash the crusty smelly feet of 1st Century fishermen. Unless you fast-forward a few days and observe Jesus hanging by nails on a cross. He did all of this for the purpose of serving the people He loved. They needed a Savior and He volunteered. Notice, He did not volunteer to do something they didn’t need. It would have been pointless for Jesus to offer to stay on earth to keep walking on the water or turning water into wine. They didn’t need that. But they sure needed a Savior.

We may have some indicators of the issue we are facing.

  • I believe that some servant leaders are serving in ways that are not really needed. Leaders who show themselves to be willing to do anything for the people they love are an inspiration. People are impressed when leaders sacrifice their own good for the good of those they lead. But if this sacrifice makes no difference, what’s the point? Example: The pastor of a church may refuse to be paid a salary in the interest of the financial constraints of the church. I have seen this happen. It may be a good thing. But it may result in people who renege on their financial responsibilities. By serving in a way that is not needed, the servant leader may be doing more damage than good.
  • I believe that some servant leaders are serving themselves. It’s tough to admit but some of us like the attention we get when we “serve.” People are beholden to a leader who is in the trenches, on the frontline. Independent people who can carry the load alone are heroes to many. But there are two problems here: the focus is on the leader and the people are taught to become dependent – they aren’t needed in the process. Healthy organizations involve multiple people. A servant-leadership approach that has ulterior motives is damaging to everyone involved. True servant leaders serve with pure motives.
  • I believe that some servant leaders are doing more harm than good. Mono-personality leadership is unscriptural. Lone leaders who do all of the work choke out the operation of Spiritual Gifts. Leaders who spend all of their time waiting on people while never moving them forward do God’s people a disservice. It is possible that a wrong perspective of servant leadership can severely damage an organization.
  • Some “servant leadership” is a veil for a leader’s weaknesses. Because of my introversion, I sometimes find it easier to mop the floors after an event than to speak face to face with people. Real servant leadership is sometimes just to be with people.

The goal of servant leadership must be to create more servant leaders. The goal is not for people to feel sorry for us or for people to talk about how noble we are. Leaders serve like Jesus because people need it.

Now, back to the original question: Is entitlement connected to servant leadership? Possibly. Many people feel they deserve something for nothing. The world owes them. We’ve got to combat this ideology. The best way to do so is to serve like Jesus served. Wash their feet; but teach them to wash the feet of one another. Otherwise, they think your job is to keep their feet from stinking. While someone needs to do that, it’s not on the leader.

Don’t Give Up On Justice

justice

Don’t give up on justice (even when it doesn’t come)!

But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” Amos 5:4 (NIV)

We don’t need another Martin/Zimmerman commentary. Apparently we could use a primer on hoping for justice. In light of the recent verdict, and the resulting turbulence, I’ve heard so many people comment that they have simply given up on the idea of true justice in our world. This is a dangerous position to assume. If we lose hope of the possibility of justice, our morality will deteriorate, and quickly.

How to keep justice alive:

  • Understand that only God can be truly just and we can’t expect humankind to behave like Him.  We are the same people who crucified Jesus, how dare we think that we will treat one another any better? We must have a realistic expectation. It has been this way from the beginning – people have been mistreating one another since Cain murdered his brother Abel in Genesis 4.
  • We must be redemption oriented. We have to work to provide a way to heal what has been broken. We must work toward wholeness, though it is slow in coming.
  • Forgiveness must be offered even when justice is refused. Lack of forgiveness turns to bitterness which turns to destruction – both of the victim and the perpetrator.
  • Have a Kingdom of Heaven mentality. Until we get to glory, all of this will continue. Look beyond today to what will come. This is hope that lasts, in spite of prevailing injustice.
  • Practice it. Justice must be for all, including you and me. Treat other people with equity and respect and humility. This is the Spirit of Christ at work within us.

Don’t give up on justice; it’s attainable, even if only by a few. And God alone knows justice – we can count on Him to make all things right one day.  Fix your hope on God!

Don’t Blame Me, I’m Just the Leader

don't shoot me

Hey leaders, when something goes down within your organization, don’t let people blame you.

Step up and blame yourself!

That’s right. Leaders don’t run from blame and they certainly don’t blame other people. Leaders accept the responsibility for the need for change and they lead it! That’s what leaders do.

Leadership guru John Maxwell says, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.”  There have been times in my career that I have hated that adage. When things are going poorly and the team is not producing, I want to point at someone else and take the pressure off of myself. But it’s my job to lead the team into success. With certain qualifiers, as goes the leader, so goes the team. There will be times when someone else messes up. As the leader, we must be strong enough to shoulder the blame and do what it takes to correct the direction.

I heard a ministries consultant take another angle: If you’ve been at your current appointment for at least 3 years, you own every problem. You can no longer place the blame on your predecessor.  You’ve been there long enough to address it. As the current leader, it’s your duty to deal with it and fix it. We can’t exonerate ourselves from it or abdicate our responsibility.

Let’s use Jesus as our example:

In John 18:10, Simon Peter cut off the ear of Malchus. Jesus rebuked Simon and healed the guy’s ear! He explained that His kingdom was not one of violence.

In Matthew 17:24-27 Peter commits Jesus to paying taxes without consulting Jesus. Again, Jesus fixes the problem.

In Mark 9:14-29, Jesus’ disciples failed to remove a demon spirit from a boy. Jesus took care of the issue and set the boy free.

Notice something – not only did Jesus accept responsibility and fix the problems, He also showed His disciples how to prevent the problems from being repeated. He utilized them in the solution, training them for the future.

I love that! Real leaders are willing to meet a challenge head-on. They do whatever it takes to correct the crisis. They utilize the problem to train their team. And as a result, the team grows in its abilities.

So once again, when something breaks in the organization, don’t find someone else to blame. Just lead the change. That’s what leaders do.

Pastor, There is a Target on your Chest!

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Pastor, you are being targeted. It is no secret that if the enemy can take you out, many of your followers will also be taken out.

In Matthew 26:31 Jesus informed His disciples that they would scatter when He was attacked: “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written “‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ He was referencing the prophecy in Zechariah 13:8 which detailed His brutal death.  He was also telling them that none of them would be there for Him in His darkest hour.

If you are a spiritual leader, make no mistake; the devil is zeroed in on you. He has you in his crosshairs.

Should you be afraid? No, but you should take some precautions:

`Surround yourself with a prayer covering – both from yourself and from other people. This needs to be more than casual. Intentional and strategic prayer is needed.

`Don’t take unnecessary risks: don’t go where you don’t belong, stay away from the things that tempt you, avoid people that pull you the wrong direction.

`Maintain your spiritual disciplines. It is in prayer and meditation and fasting and the Word that you remain strong.

`Stay accountable. While solitude is important, too much time alone is unhealthy. Be close to your spouse, your family and your friends.

`Stay close to God – it is in Him that you are secure.

There is a target on your chest! Don’t underestimate your vulnerability and don’t undervalue God’s protection.

The problem isn’t those who’ve never heard of Jesus. The problem is those who refuse to tell them.

An age-old theological conundrum is: What happens to the people that die who have never heard the Good News of Jesus?  Does God hold them responsible for something they have not heard? We know that those who reject Jesus will not spend eternity in heaven (Acts 4:12 “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”). But will God send people to hell if they lived in a place where the Gospel has never been preached?

Without diving into a theological debate, we can rest in the fact that God is just and loving. He will do whatever is righteous and fair with these people.

Considering our cultural context, I think there is a more pertinent issue at hand:

The problem isn’t those who’ve never heard of Jesus. The problem is those who refuse to tell them.

I wonder what God will do with those of us who refuse to tell people about Jesus. What about those who are called to go to the parts of the world that have never been reached? What will God do with them (us)?

While we can’t say what God will do with those who have never heard, we should be concerned if He has asked us to tell them, and we refuse to do so.

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