Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Tread carefully

Have you ever had a situation where you thought, “I’ve seen something, I’ve found something. Something that I have to tackle. I have to speak now”? A word of Advice. Take a second look, and tread carefully.

Recently, I had that experience. I deferred my taxes due to some of the things going on in our family’s life. As I was slogging through the paperwork, what I was finding was that the numbers were not adding up. I looked at them, I looked at them again, and as the night went on, I just kept staring at it, not sure what I was seeing, thinking it was bad.

I eventually gave up and went to bed frustrated and a little scared. I thought I had to speak to the church leadership and say that the churches 72 year old secretary and treasurer (whom I have come to love deeply) had made a major, potentially job costing mistake. No one wants to do that. After all those years of service, she should get the privilege of retiring gracefully. But it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. As I looked at it, it seemed that there was a difference of several thousand between the pay documents and my 1099.

The next morning, I kept studying the documents. Thinking, I must have missed something. Then it hit me. I was looking at the debit column, showing what came about and came to me, but there was also a credit column, where mistakes that had been made, were corrected. Money out, money back in. I looked, and looked again, started to breath, got out my calculator, and carefully tallied everything up. They all lined up. Hallelujah, thank you God, crisis averted. She had done her job right.

As I breathed easier, I started to thank God for his blessing. Can you imagine what would have happened if I had taken this to the board and accused and then been shown wrong? First, I would have looked like an idiot who couldn’t read a document. Second, I would have unwittingly slandered an innocent person. Third I would have damaged a relationship that I care deeply about. Fourth, I would have critically damaged my reputation as a leader and a trustworthy voice on anything. But finally, I would have critically wounded my church. Factions would have formed, sides would have formed, before the facts were looked at, and when they were, so many would have been hurt emotionally.

But I also started to ask, what can we learn from this? What can you and I learn from this. Tread carefully. Be slow to assume, examine and re-examine, and always think before you speak. When you think you see something, be completely sure. Analyze the facts carefully. What you see may not be the real situation. So often we think we see something and then we charge ahead. This is the basic approach of most of the news media, create a narrative, build hype, "Who cares about what really happened?" Go with the story. Whether you are a business leader, a church leader, someone who works in a factory, a teacher, whatever you are, before you speak, you need to really know the facts. You need to try to get the facts nailed down cold before you put your finger on something. Christians are called to “be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry (Jam 1:19 NIV)”. But additionally, you have the responsibility to use wisdom and discernment, to be wise as serpents and innocents as doves, and part of that is carefully examining the facts, to seek the Lord’s leading, and only then, if the situation warrants it, speak. 

Along with this, there is a lesson on attributing motives that may or not be there. We have to assume the best intent, and then wait for the evidence to come down one way or the other. When we think we find something. We can’t fly off the hand. We can’t causelessly assume the worst and attribute ill motives. We can’t do that. It’s a failure to love. A failure to see people as ones made in the image of God and loved by God, and therefore, worthy of our respect. If we attribute ill motives, we will take ourselves into a pattern, and find that we are living in a place of constant mistrust. Assume the best in people. Give them every chance to succeed. If you do, they might surprise you. 

I’m thankful that I kept looking. I’m thankful that it turned out that the secretary and church treasurer did her job well. I’m thankful that I looked and analyzed the situation. But most of all, I’m thankful that God protected me. My hope and prayer is that we all have the wisdom to continually take the steps necessary, and tread carefully.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Heartbreaking Celebration

On Saturday, I attended the 350th anniversary of First Baptist Boston. I left with a broken heart. It is the 3rd church founded in Boston, the 5th Baptist church ever planted in America, and one of the most historically important churches in the nation, and it is literally falling in on itself. The experience of visiting the church was absolutely heartbreaking. When you walk in you are immediately captured with the grandeur of the front of the sanctuary. It’s amazing. The organ towers upward and you are transfixed with awe. The stage is amazing, beautiful, and everything you’d expect in a great, historic church that has faithfully proclaimed the gospel and stood for century upon century.

But then you look around. The woodwork has not been maintained and is decaying. The stained glass is coming apart in places. There is evidence of water damage everywhere you look. At least one of the pillars is massively decaying. The ceiling shows signs of leaking in dozens of places and the sections of the ceiling are gone, exposing bare wood. The walls are all wracked with water damage, and you can see the lathes behind the plaster in many places. Nowhere is this more evident than when you stand in the pulpit and look out and see a gaping hole where the plaster is peeling back. The floor is no better. The carpet is decaying and threadbare, and the marble under the pews is cracked and broken. All around, there are signs of decay. Historic paintings have been damaged by water. The side chapel reveals more peeling paint and decaying plaster. On and on it went. I’d estimate that the damage I saw is in the 10’s of millions. In short order, you feel like you are standing in the presence of death, while the (paid) choir sings on.

But, by and large, that’s secondary to the true problem. When you look around, you realize that the building is a reflection of the state of the congregation. There are not many people there. There were less than 50 people there for the 350th anniversary of one of the moist historically important churches in the country. The membership has dwindled, and so has the impact of the church on the community, and the American Baptist Church of Massachusetts.

What I left thinking is that "this is what happens when a church loses sight of its mission. Its mission is to make disciples. Its mission is to proclaim the gospel and bring people to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and lead them to live for His glory. And when it doesn’t do its mission everything else rots. What I saw at First Baptist Boston is a great love of the church. There is something laudable in their love for their church. One gentleman lived in Florida and still comes back every other Sunday because of his deep love of the church. I truly enjoyed my conversations with the members of the church But there is also real decline. It is clear that the church has become inwardly focused. They are not making disciples right now. Everything that I heard was about the history, what we have done rather than what we are doing. It sees itself in light of its history, rather than who it currently is. Like the church in Sardis, which lived in a city that loved its history but did not see that it is already dead, and reflected the heart of the city in its thinking, FBC Boston is shaped more by the past than the present. This was illustrated when someone quietly told me that “they don’t call pastors, they hire them”. The difference is everything. One is calling someone to lead them to be a church faithfully proclaims the gospel and glorifies God. The other is hiring someone to do what you tell them. When people insinuate that this is your approach, and when the stories they whisper about you are about power plays and the church being like a non-profit you’re in trouble, because you’ve lost sight of your task to be a gospel centered, disciple making, God glorifying church. 

But, just as in Sardis, that is not the last word. I left heartbroken. I also left hopeful. The president of the ABC, Donald NG, spoke on two passages. He spoke on Ezekiel 37 where Ezekiel sees the valley of the dry bones and is commanded to prophecy to it. He also spoke on 1 Peter 2, and how we are living stones, living stones that can be built up once more. And as I look at it, therein lies hope. The hope of the gospel. Because the church is living stones, built up, with Christ, the living Stone, rejected by men as its corner and capstone. We are built up in Christ.  
As I was reflecting on Doctor NG’s sermon, I couldn’t help but think about what Jesus says to the church in Sardis. After delivering blistering news that they were dead, that they needed to "wake up and strengthen what remains, remember what you have heard and keep it, and repent”. He also says, “You have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels”. What Jesus is saying is that some in Sardis needed to repent. They are Christians (that is the implication of the fact that they “have not soiled their garments) but they need to repent. But some are not. They have soiled their garments. To them He says, become Christians. “He who overcomes will, like them (the unsoiled), be dressed in white”. He makes them an offer to come to Him. For all those reasons, I am hopeful. I am hoping that God can and will move. 

The church has atrophied. I don’t know the spiritual state of those there. It may be that God has been pruning it, and is preparing it to be led by the current interim to reset and reach out in a new way, and that God uses the membership is there to reach the city with the gospel. It may be that He is bringing them to a point where they will turn and ask a young replanter to come serve, and invite that pastor to go to plant, replant, and revitalization minded churches, and ask for them to help by sending people to be part of a core team to that begins to rebuild the church, much in the way that the exiles had to gather a group to go and rebuild Jerusalem. It may be that they will not follow their pastor’s wisdom (and their current pastor is very wise- of course I'm biased, he was a professor of mine), continue to decline, and spiral to death. I don't know what God is going to do or will do in the future. But I do know that when God says to the church in Sardis, and to all of our churches, that He has not found their deeds "complete in the sight of my God", He is giving us all a powerful impetus to look at our church and ask, "What is decaying", "What is dying" And "how can we strengthen what remains in our churches, so that real whole life disciples who connect to the gospel and live out of the gospel in all of life are nurtured?" "How can we glorify God in our Church?" May we ask these questions, so that in the end, we will be living stones who are built up in Christ for the glory of God.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Sacred Programs

I’ve been thinking about the things that churches, our and all churches, have to do, and do well.

Churches needs to gather and worship- to sing, to pray, to preach, and to celebrate the sacraments. Churches need do outreach that make new Christians. This has to happen both locally and globally. Locally, it can include everything from fun or service events that just build relationships and have a long term goal of getting people to move into each other’s spheres, to events with deep and strong gospel presentations where we actively seek to see people trust Christ with their life. It also may include individual outreach, church outreach, and even the support of local missionaries. Obviously, it encompasses a great deal. Globally, it can include everything from mission’s trips to the funding of missions organizations and missionaries to something else entirely.

Beyond this, Churches need to teach and equip the saints so that they grow as followers of Christ. This is true for both adult and children. For a Church to be healthy there has to be some kind Christian education happening, so that people of all ages can connect their faith and their life. That can be done through small groups, Sunday school, youth group, new member’s classes, adult or children’s catechism, or other things. The key is that we have to be teaching people of all ages the truths of gospel and the implications of the gospel, and how to apply the truth of the gospel apply to every area of their life so that they are whole life disciples.

Furthermore, they need to care for the congregation in times of need. The sick need to get visited, people have to be met with and spiritual condition checked on. The grieving need to be ministered to, etc. Moreover, they need to develop and train leaders. Without good leadership, a church will struggle, at best.  Along with this, there needs to be real fostering of healthy community. Finally, they need to have some sort of an administrative system so that they can care for the infrastructure and the property that are owned (if it owns property), manage the finances, pay the bills, and the like.

This is a big list. There are other things that are important. But these are the most important. But while this is a big list of things, I want you to notice something. None of these are programs. Programs are forms and structures. These are functions; things that need to be done and ends that result in the great end, the glorification of God.

The distinction is important. Often, we think of programs and structures as the ends, but programs and structure serve these things, not the other way around. Programs and structures and activities come and go. They can be picked up, used, and laid aside, as long as they accomplish their ends. While we sometimes fret over the forms, they are ultimately not the thing that is primary. Sometimes we have a beloved program that we feel really strongly about. But if it doesn’t accomplish its function, it’s time has passed.

Why am I bringing this up? Because one of the things we need to understand is that as a church overhauls, it has look at everything, and do it with a baseline assumption. No committee, program, or structure is totally sacred. When a church makes a program sacred, the end is in sight, because we lose sight of what is truly important.

We can’t make that mistake. We may love a program or structure, we may have strong attachments to it, but if its outlived its usefulness, it will be replaced with something that will accomplish the function. So for instance, for the last several years at my church, we have had separate Bible studies for men and women. This developed organically and worked for awhile. This year, it floundered. What should my church do? We may need to examine another option, because in the end, the aim is the education and development is followers of Christ. The form isn’t important, the function is. As a church seeks to be effective for the glory of God, it has to keep its eyes on what is truly important, release what needs to be released, implement what needs to be implemented, and do the things that it needs to do so that it may see God glorified and lives transformed by the gospel.