Counting Attendance Can Kill You

design-17It’s Resurrection Week and church leaders all over the world are headlong into a massive ministry week. Most dream of capacity crowds and are focused on either filling their buildings or a specific numerical goal. While this is reasonable and usually honorable, the focus on “counting” can become deadly.

Allow me to explain.

God cares about numbers, so much so that He wrote an entire Book in the Bible called “Numbers”! But there are serious considerations in the Bible when leaders focus on numbers – when they should be focusing on obedience.

King David counted his military troops in I Samuel 24. This wasn’t the first time the troops had been counted, but this time was different. God was angry with Israel and some versions of the Bible says He incited David to count the men. F. LaGard Smith says that the problem may have been with David’s motivation for counting. “Selfish ambition for aggressive expansionism” is a possibility. Regardless of the motivation, God was not pleased and Israel paid a heavy price.

Listen, God is not against us counting our influence and impact. We are expected to know how many people attend our services and it is an important part of fulfilling our Mission. But God is against us trying to make a name for ourselves, competing with other ministries, manipulating God’s work to advance our reputation, or simply trying to make ourselves look good.

Thankfully, we are now under grace and God rarely acts in such harsh ways (at least perceived as harsh) when He punishes us. But this makes us wonder if we are being punished nonetheless.

This Easter, let’s keep track of numbers for the right reasons. We want to make progress; we must bear fruit. But let’s not fall prey to trying to impress anyone – except God.

Blessed Easter!

6 Reasons Why Easter is So Hard for Pastors

(and what we can do about it)

design-16I’ve never been fond of the references to Easter as the “Super Bowl of the Church”, but it has some validity. Most ministries are very active during Holy Week as they build up to a Resurrection Sunday Celebration. Excitement is high and we all hope for a great season. But for some pastors, the season is very stressful. There are several reasons for that.

  1. High expectation: most people realize that Easter is the highlight of the church year and they demand that the church be firing on all cylinders. There is little room for subpar ministry.
  2. Comparison: The advent of social media has unfortunately fueled competitive flames among ministers as many tout what an awesome day/service they had.
  3. Guests: we all know that some folks only go to Church on Christmas and Easter (CEOs). This places a lot of pressure on a minister to reach these people in the very little time that they will be in church.
  4. Critical culture: Pastors are being critiqued as never before. People watch famous television preachers and expect their pastor to “perform” on a similar level.
  5. Visiting family and friends: when people bring their family to church, they don’t want to be embarrassed. Preachers feel this pressure.
  6. Concern for souls: Pastors care deeply about the spiritual condition of the people in their Easter services. While we know we can’t save anyone, if we blow this opportunity, there could be eternal consequences.

What can we do to help our Pastor (or ourselves) to find some relief during Easter?

  • Pray for your pastor, especially this week.
  • Don’t place unrealistic expectations on yourself or your pastor. Billy Graham has gone to heaven so let’s not expect that kind of effectiveness.
  • Don’t criticize a pastor. Instead, encourage them. A note card or quick text expressing appreciation and prayer support can have a huge impact this week.
  • Distribute expectations. While Easter is the big week, taking a longer view of ministry will help to balance things. While we want the church to be full on Easter, we really desire long-term growth in our ministries.
  • Prepare ahead of time. Pastor, work early on your sermon. Try to be finished early in the week so the last few hours can be spent in quiet reflection and rest.
  • Don’t compare! In fact, stay off of Facebook on Easter Sunday afternoon.
  • Give God the glory for the privilege of ministry, even in stressful seasons like Easter.
  • Take Monday off!

Easter is all about the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s not a performance or production. Keep it simple; don’t try to impress people. Relax, and worship the Risen Lord!

Blessed Easter 2019!

 

 

 

Hiding Behind Servanthood

IMG_5262About 20 years ago, my father in law was visiting our church. We had a meal event after the service. As the meal was finishing up, I grabbed a broom and started cleaning up. He called me aside and told me that I shouldn’t be doing that, I should allow others to do the clean up. I told him that it was important for me to exemplify servant leadership.

But here’s the thing: I wasn’t being a servant leader, I was hiding behind servant leadership.

I am an introvert, so my first preference is to do something other than engage with people. I called it servant leadership, but in reality, I was in my comfort zone.

Servant leadership is not necessarily doing what others don’t want to do; it is doing what you don’t want to do, but need to do.

My father in law was correct (as usual). It wasn’t that I was too good to sweep up, it was that I was more needed interacting with people.

How will you serve? My advice is, find something that really needs to be done but you don’t want to do. Then serve.

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

Where Are The Young Leaders?

IMG_4998-1Moses raised up his replacement, Joshua. But Joshua did not raise up his successor, and the people suffered as a result. Let’s not make the same mistake.

We have a problem brewing. For a variety of reasons, there seems to be a lack of leaders coming up through our churches. Of course, there are some young women and men who are preparing themselves for productive leadership in their churches. But considering the great need that we have for leaders, the number of new churches that must be planted, and the age of many of our current leaders, we need many more young leaders! We are experiencing a decline in the number of young people that are entering the ministry; this trend must be reversed.

There are a few legitimate reasons for the decline in young leaders, but some of the reasons must be addressed and turned around. Some young people feel that there is no place for them in the church. They feel unwelcomed and unneeded. They are not included in the life of the church. Their participation is not encouraged. They are told that they must wait their turn. They are ignored. Brothers and Sisters in Christ – these things should not be.

While most of us love the young people in our communities, we can inadvertently drive them away from the church. When we criticize a generation for being different than us, we drive them away from the church. When we refuse to allow them a voice in the direction of the church, we drive them away. When we refuse to change anything in the church, we drive them away. When we look to the past more than we look to the future, we drive them away. When we disrespect a generation, we drive them away from the church.

God help us to turn this tide!

We all agree that God loves the young generation and wants to include them in His church. We simply must do whatever it takes to engage these young people as leaders in training. Here are a few practical things you can do:

  • Pray for the young people in your church and community.
  • Purposefully engage young people in the life of the church.
  • Build personal relationships with young people in the church.
  • Strategically identify young people with the gift of leadership.
  • Develop a plan, formal or informal, to develop the young leaders in your church.
  • Share leadership responsibilities with young leaders.

If the current trend continues, we will not have enough leaders to lead our churches and churches will close. If the current trajectory of many of our churches continues, they will close within the next 10 years – simply because no one will be leading or attending. Of course, we plan to change this course.

When I was a teenager, some leaders in the church pursued me and encouraged me to engage in the church. They recognized leadership potential in me and affirmed me. This changed my life. Can you do the same for a young person in your church?

Let me state: we value all people, young and old. The church family is made up of multiple generations. We cannot focus on one generation to the detriment of another. So let’s change the current direction. Please, young lives are at stake and the future of the church hangs in the balance.

God, help us to raise up a generation of young leaders!

Leadership Empathy

design-10What do good leaders know about the emotions of those they lead?

Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman write and talk about the emotions of everyday people, leaders included. Goleman’s book, On Emotional Intelligence is a highly recognized and invaluable resource for today’s leaders (I believe it should be required reading for every pastor).

In a recent article, Goleman and Ekman detail 3 ways that a leader can sense what another person is feeling. Leaders who have a developed social and emotional intelligence are far more effective at leading others than those who do not. This concept is especially important to those of us who work closely with people who struggle or experience crisis. I found the information helpful in the continual honing of my leadership skills.

The first trait listed is “cognitive empathy,” which is simply being aware of how the other person feels and perhaps what they could be thinking at that time. Most people are able to read the emotions of others. Verbal and physical cues provide most of the data needed in order to identify the emotional state of others. However, leaders must be aware that, in some situations, being aware is not enough. This skill is appropriate when negotiating a deal or brokering a transaction. But in especially sensitive circumstances, others can perceive cognitive empathy as cold hearted, detached or non-caring. Depending upon the nature of the issue being addressed, cognitive empathy may not be enough.

When dealing with people in crisis, leaders should also display “emotional empathy.” Emotional empathy is when a leader feels the emotions of those they lead. It provides the ability to sense AND feel what is happening in the people around us. This is a vitally important trait for those in ministry, in helps industries, and especially for parents. Any married person had better master this skill! Of course, there are times when emotional empathy can hinder the effectiveness of a leader. An example may be a pastor who must provide care to a grieving family. If the minister cannot compose herself long enough to conduct a funeral service, they won’t be able to help the family much. There is a time to cry and laugh along with people, but there is also a time to maintain composure.

Ekman identifies a third element: “compassionate empathy,” which Goleman calls “empathic concern.” This type of empathy takes a leader beyond awareness and sensitivity – to action. We are moved to get involved. Once again, in crisis situations, this trait can be invaluable. Unless and until leaders regularly experience and express compassionate empathy, they are lacking a Christ-like attitude about leadership.

While we are not the Messiah, the Lord calls Christian leaders to not only be aware of and experience the emotions of those we lead, but at times, we are compelled to engage in helping to heal the hurting. James 2:15-16 provides thought: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (NIV) Not every situation requires a leader to have empathetic concern (we would be in a mess if they did), but leaders must never lose the ability to feel and take appropriate actions.

As the world becomes more complex, the responsibilities of leaders follow suit. It is necessary for us to be aware of emotions, feel along with those we lead and know what action to take and when.

It’s not as easy as some people think. So let’s work on it.

What are we going to do about Illinois?

IMG_4837Rest assured. My wife and I love Illinois. It is an honor to live here and a privilege to serve the great people here. This is precisely why I ask the question above.

Those who live here will admit, Illinois is experiencing some real challenges. Recently, there has been a lot of talk in the news about the reducing population here. At the bottom of this article are some links that discuss the problem and they are the resources for data I used.

A few details shared are:

Illinois’ population has fallen for the fifth straight year. The state lost an estimated 45,100 people in 2018. In 2017, around 33,700 people left. That means more than 11,000 more people left the state in 2018 than in 2017.

From July 2017 to July 2018, more than 114,000 Illinoisans left the state, a total population decline of more than 45,000 people.

The population loss is intensifying.

Illinois is the only state in the Midwest that saw a population loss. More than 43,000 people moved to Minnesota this year and more than 30,000 moved to Indiana.

The most important numbers in the new federal statistics involve domestic migration — the number of people leaving Illinois for other states, such as Texas, Indiana and Wisconsin.

Since Illinois’ population decline began in 2014, the state has shrunk by more than 157,000 people. That’s equivalent to losing the entire city of Joliet, Naperville or Rockford.

The primary driver of Illinois’ outmigration crisis is prime working-age residents (ages 25-54) seeking opportunity.

The most important factor in Illinois’ migration problem is the labor market, which has been crushed by the state’s unfriendly tax policy and business climate.

A Southern Illinois University at Carbondale poll from 2015 showed that half of the Illinois residents polled would leave the state if they could.

The result of all of this data and information is troubling for those of us who love the Land of Lincoln. We are concerned about the future. We’re not sure what the future holds. And we regularly encounter people who are somewhat hopeless about any chance to turn the state around.

I realize, this is all fairly negative. But we believe in transparency: it is what it is. But hang in there; we’re about to turn a corner.

We believe that we are right where God wants us, and that changes everything!

What do leaders do when times get tough? They fight for what is right. When we discuss our issues, we’re not whining, where strategizing. Max DePree says that, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” Illinoisans are not stupid – we know full well what is happening.

But there are times that the answers may not be as easy to identify as are the problems.

Of course, we need tax reform. Businesses need a break in order to compete. We must clean up our corrupt politics. We have to change the narrative about Illinois. We’ve heard enough of the complaints. We’re committed to develop solutions!

We’re developing a strategy to rescue Illinois. Sounds grandiose, doesn’t it? Too ambitious? Naïve?

Here’s the thing: we are convinced that our presence here is God’s strategy. He has a solid record of positioning people where they are needed. The good folks in our faith family are not accidents. They aren’t here by chance. God placed them as missionaries to a culture that is in great need of their ministry. A good many of them love their state deeply and wouldn’t leave (regardless of what the SIUC survey reveals).

If God put us here, He has some expectations of us. His idea is not for us to work toward tax reform or to clean up politics. His idea is for us to be representatives of His Kingdom in a place that really needs it. God sends us where we are needed most. If our communities were perfect, we wouldn’t be needed. If Christians abandon the tough places, hope will be lost.

We consider Illinois to be our Mission Field.

As such, our plans center around a few key ideas:

  • Act redemptively. Rather than moan and groan, we will talk answers. We have identified the reality, now we plan to change the reality. We won’t run away from the problem, we will run toward it.
  • Create positivity. Life is more than luxuries and comfort. Our intention is to make life better for people. Where there is a need, God will enable us to meet it. The culture and atmosphere will change.
  • Invest in the future. This investment is not necessarily in the industries of the state; this investment is in our most valuable resource – young people.
  • Intentional inclusion. Our leaders will commit to purposefully and strategically include not-so-likely leaders in our leadership processes. Those who have been marginalized or put on a shelf for a later date will be encouraged, even compelled to lead.
  • Create an atmosphere of hope. Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said, “Hope is a passion for the possible.” We will be authentically passionate about the good things that are possible for Illinois and its people.
  • We are recruiting difference makers. While some want to leave, others want to be problem solvers. While most people run out of a burning building, there are always heroes who run in. Illinois is not burning, but it’s in trouble. It will take some very courageous and passionate people to rush in. I’ve signed up and believe many more are prepared to do so.

I’m extending an invitation. If you are currently living in Illinois, let’s join forces to make this state as awesome as possible. If you used to live here but left, the door swings both ways. Consider coming home to help in the renovation. If you’ve never been here, if you drove through one time, if you know a lot or very little about this great state, we invite you to be a part of something remarkable.

Anybody can jump on a winning bandwagon. It’s easy to ride the coattails of others to easy street. It doesn’t take character to inherit the fruit of others’ labor. But only a chosen few experience the thrill of helping to redeem and rebuild a really struggling state that has endless potential.

We have a team of gifted and impassioned women and men, young and old that is committed to do whatever it takes to save and redeem our state. They know that this is their mission field. They don’t expect it to be easy and they know it won’t be quick. They realize that they are desperately needed. They have zero intensions of quitting. You can join us.

What are we going to do about Illinois? We’re going to turn it around! Who is with us?

https://wrex.com/category/2018/12/19/data-shows-more-people-are-leaving-illinois/

https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/editorials/ct-edit-illinois-population-loss-madigan-exodus-20181219-story.html

https://www.illinoispolicy.org/illinois-population-loss-worsens-for-5th-straight-year/

https://foxillinois.com/news/local/45000-people-left-the-state-of-illinois-in-2018-12-20-2018

https://www.ilnews.org/more-people-leaving-illinois/article_5fec216e-0ae3-11e9-a136-7bd1db46ea6f.html