Saturday, December 27, 2014

Is Your Church Asking the Right Questions?

Questions are keys to growth.  A coach always thinks about whether he or she is asking good questions.  Good questions energize and encourage; poor questions lead to lack of focus and uncertainty.

As you begin the New Year, what questions are you asking?  We ask questions of ourselves as individuals, setting priorities and goals for the coming year and planning how we will reach them.  We do this because we want to be better than we are now.

Churches often ask questions about the future as well.  Especially at the end of the calendar year, church leaders—both clergy and laity—stop the think about what is happening or failing to happen in the life of congregation. In my experience, however, churches are often asking the wrong questions, questions based on survival rather than mission.

In committee meetings and leadership groups, churches will commonly ask questions like:

Will we subscribe the budget for next year?
Are we spending too much on external ministry?
Is our pastor (student minister, music minister, etc.) spending enough time in the office?
What's the cheapest bid on our roof repair?
What's our Sunday school attendance?
How many are we baptizing?
Will our church survive?

Our perspective on church and mission might be different if we asked these questions instead:

Where is God at work in our community?
Are we spending enough on external ministry?
How are members growing in Christ?
What is the growing edge of our ministry?
How are we--staff and laity--calling out and equipping new leaders?
How are we releasing congregants to minister in the world?
How are people being changed as the result of our ministry?

The primary difference here is between an internal versus an external focus.  I understand the need to have some internal focus to provide for necessary ministries that serve members, but too often we stop there and do not think about where we are called to make a difference—in the world around us.

Stop and think a bit about the questions your churches is asking.  How can you help to change the focus in those conversations?

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

In Memoriam: Vern B. Powers

Vern Powers passed away last Saturday.  In his 94 years on this earth, Vern impacted the lives of many, beginning with his own family but also touching the lives of many others as well.  I was fortunate to be one of those.

Vern pastored eight churches, served as the director of Protection Plans for Tennessee Baptists for 20 years, and then spent 14 years as denominational relations director for Baptist Hospital in Nashville for 14 years.  He was an active member of First Baptist Church, Nashville, and served there in many capacities—he was reelected as an active deacon at the age of 90!

Vern was a denominational leader in the days when that involved uniting Baptists rather than dividing them. Although a man of conviction, he showed respect and love to those who disagreed with him.  A Christian gentleman with a servant heart, Vern always sought to resolve misunderstandings and conflict with grace and love.

If you wanted a listening ear, as I often did when we were colleagues at the Executive Board of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, Vern was the person to see.  He could listen, ask good questions, and encourage a person to make wise choices.

He was a man who radiated both personal warmth and deep conviction without alienating others.

Vern was one of the “good guys.”  I will miss him.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Cutting the Strings

We recently received an end-of-the-year letter from friends who serve in an Asian country.  One of their comments particularly caught my attention.  They wrote, “Our national leaders are making disciples, bringing transformation to their communities, and raising up new missional leaders without dependency on outside support.”  Although all of these actions are important, the last item stood out.

When we talk about the missional church, we emphasize the idea that every believer is a missionary. No matter what one does for a living, he or she is on mission in that vocation—embodying and articulating the Christian mission in the marketplace.  To put a different twist on this, how important is it to equip and empower individual Christians to have a vocation and be self-supporting? 

During the colonial missionary period, missionaries often referred to “rice Christians.”  These were native believers who participated as long as the free food lasted.  Once it was over, they were gone.  We have learned a lot since then.  Missionary efforts are more likely to develop ways for indigenous people to help themselves rather than tying them to Christian work with gifts.

One example of this might be to train an indigenous believer to repair bicycles and then provide a microgrant of a few hundred dollars (which would be repaid) for this person  to buy a few bicycles, rent them out  for a profit, and become self-sufficient as a productive member of the community (as well as a well-connected witness).  (This is not my idea but one that I know has happened.)

In a webinar I attended recently, coach educator Jane Creswell talked about lessons she learned from a missionary.  One of these was “make a positive impact on the economy.”  Although missionary movements have done this in the past through providing education and health care, perhaps the greatest impact can be made by helping believers to become self-supporting and contributing members of society.

We often talk about empowering leaders in our churches, but empowering indigenous believers to be financially independent and community developers takes this to a new level.  In fact, it certainly ties in with my missionary friends’ comments about developing disciples, transforming communities, and being independent of outside support.  In so doing, they are developing sustainable missional frameworks.  Even if they have to leave the area where they minister, the mission Dei will continue.  Sounds biblical, doesn’t it?

Thursday, December 04, 2014

The Intergalactic Computer Network

Walter Isaacson’s book The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution is an informative story not only about the science of the digital revolution but the artistic side as well.  As he introduces those who influenced the movement, Isaacson notes the frequent intersections of art and science in the quest.

One example is J. C. R. Licklider, a man who might well be called the father of the Internet.  Both thoughtful and playful, Licklider began referring to his vision with the “intentionally grandiloquent” phrase “the Intergalactic Computer Network.”  He often spent hours just studying the brush strokes of paintings in order to understand the artist better.

Isaacson notes, “[He] felt that his love of art made him more intuitive. He could process a wide array of information and sniff out patterns. Another attribute, which would serve him well when he helped put together the team that laid the foundations for the Internet, was that he loved to share ideas without craving credit for them.”

Licklider saw computers not has artificial intelligences that would replace humans but as tools to enhance and expand human creativity and decision-making skills

Like Steve Jobs and others whose imaginations gave birth to the wonders of the digital age, Licklider understood that the humanities and technology inform and enrich one another.  We should not have to choose between the two.  This is a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” situation.

As educators put more emphasis on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), they might consider adding another letter and addressing STEAM (science, technology, engineering, ARTS, and mathematics) subjects in order to develop a truly creative generation of leaders.

For Such a Time as This: Ministry in the World

In recent years, I have become aware of people in our congregation who have significant ministries in the communitythe lawyer who volunteers with the domestic violence center, the former heart patient who spends time each week visiting heart patients and sharing insights about how to live with their disease, the busy mother who tutors at-risk children, the business person who finds himself the “chaplain” in his workplace. This is what missional Christians do; they serve in the world. These are not church sponsored activities. These are ministries they have identified and pursued.

In Missional Renaissance, Reggie McNeal notes: “People don’t go to church; they are the church. They don’t bring people to church; they bring the church to people.” Wherever a believer is, there the church is present. For some reason, we have erected an artificial dividing line between “sanctioned” and “unsanctioned” ministry.

The challenge for the church is to give members the permission to seek out and pursue their ministries in the world. We value what people do within the walls of the church through recognition, training, and encouragement, but we fail to do that for those who are doing Kingdom work outside the walls. In fact, we sometimes make members feel guilty if they are using their gifts elsewhere! The traditional church needs to find ways to bless and commission those who undertake ministries in the larger community.

Missional faith communities, on the other hand, start out with this approach as a basic premise. They expect their members to be engaged in ministry in the world. They may be focused on being the presence of Christ in their neighborhood, their workplaces, or in a common ministry that all members of the group support. Very often, missional faith communities form around a particular ministry or a specific neighborhood in order to make a difference there.

Let us remember that God is always at work in the world and invites us to join in that activity. Whether we are part of a traditional congregation or a missional faith community, we are called to an external ministry focus.

(This is an excerpt from For Such at Time as This:  Aligning Church and Leadership for Missional Ministry from Pinnacle Leadership Press.  Copies are available from in paperback and e-book formats.)