Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Behind the Scenes

There are several issues that we are facing as a church family. Our very future in Harrisburg is at stake. We have less than a year remaining on our lease in the United Church Center and due to our inability to build capacity I haven't made any steps in searching for another facility. This is not a lack of faith. I served as my brother's administrator for 17 years. Along with a presiding team of elders, we had the spiritual, moral, and fiscal responsibility to operate according to basic principles of wisdom. That's what I believe I’m doing, even today as the senior leader of Urban Life Church. So we have a literal countdown set before us.

Churches across the country are making dramatic cuts in their staffs, services and programs. Similarly, we had to cut back the schedule after our sons moved away. Now we have to consider closing the ministry when the lease comes to an end.

This month, we had a tremendous boost in our income and we are extremely grateful. Even before I started my fast, God had already responded. It was wonderfully encouraging even though the deadline still looms ahead of us. We're not trying to guilt-trip anyone into giving or doing more. We're just keeping it real and making you aware of what's really happening behind the scenes. We're not complaining because many churches are going through far worse than us. Yet, something has got to change.

So, this is what I have set before the Lord during this season: "Lord, How can we continue if we can't build capacity in Harrisburg?"

More than ever, we need the wisdom of God. The only way we know how to handle the next few months is to go into that secret place with God. I'm not going to go online or stand at the podium and make a scene by fussing, screaming or begging, like many church leaders have done in the past. We're going to keep gathering on the FIRST and THIRD Sundays at the United Church Center and we're going to keep taking the matter to God, behind the scenes.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Closing for Repairs

Twenty three years ago, Carol and I were being prayed for by a group of pastors and leaders from across the country. We were attending a special conference called The School of the Prophets. It was a conference for pastors and their leadership teams, including their administrators. During this conference, they set aside time to pray for everyone.

Having accepted the role as my brother's administrator, this was an extremely important time for me. Carol and I had been married nine years. Christopher was only four years old. Our twins were only five or six months old. Even though many things were spoken concerning our future ministry and our marriage, the most profound thing I took away from that session was the prophetic word about how my life and ministry would be perceived.

The word went something like this: “You will appear to be drab because of the way you will disarm yourself and use your weapons to benefit others.”

I have never forgotten that exhortation because it has always given me perspective about the way people would perceive and respond to our ministry, even to this day. Today, in America, you must be bold, strong and forceful to attract people to your business, organization, institution or church. Yet, I've had to deal with the fact that God said that I would appear to be drab.

Drab has definitions like: boring, dreary, drudging, ho-hum, humdrum, mind-numbing, monotonous, numbing, old, pedestrian, ponderous, slow, stale, stuffy, tedious, tiresome, tiring, uninteresting, wearisome, and wearying.

It doesn’t seem very encouraging to have the Spirit of God tell you that your ministry is going to appear to be drab. However, this word has served me very well through the years because it anchored me to not be surprised or get too discouraged by the responses of people. Honestly, that is still a challenge for me.

I have watched our peers experience ministries that were exciting and explosive, while our ministry was more like the day to day, regular life stuff that happens in a family. There wasn't a lot of hype. We weren’t charismatic, possessing magnetic personalities that draw crowds of people. Carol and I were, and always have been just a mom and a dad serving in the role of pastors. So perhaps that is part of the reason we haven't grown very much in Harrisburg. This city seems to desire the next new and exciting thing. However, the various types of people that God sent us to serve; all of them seemed to need a steady, no nonsense kind of ministry leadership.

Part of the reason why we appear to be drab is because we keep it real behind the scenes. Carol and I don’t believe in putting on a show or performing to impress people. Our most powerful moments take place in private counseling sessions in our church office or in our home; in our living room or sitting at the kitchen table. We had some great times in weekly church gatherings and annual conferences, but the bulk of what we are about is what takes place when there is no big crowd to observe it.

To this day, my wife and I still prefer sitting on our sofa, holding hands, talking and sharing our deepest thoughts with one another; rather than standing on a stage or in a pulpit performing for a crowd of people. The secret place is the only place that matters to us.

When our children were home, we had weekly or monthly family meetings and we talked openly and frankly in that setting. Therefore, our sons (preacher's kids) had no need to try to publically prove anything to anyone outside of what went on behind closed doors in our home.

Most recently, when our youngest son got married, Carol and I had a private moment with him a few minutes before the wedding ceremony. When it came time to share publically during the wedding reception, we didn’t say very much because we had said what we needed to say behind the scenes. We felt no need to impress anyone publically.

Publically we may have appeared to be drab, but we didn’t mind that. What we had to say, we said it to our son privately and personally. So that’s a big part of why our ministry can appear to be drab publically. It’s because we keep it dynamic and real behind the scenes.

I share this with you today because I have started another season of personal consecration, fasting and prayer to help me deal with this perception of our ministry in Harrisburg. As our long-time Urban Life members know, I have done this on many occasions in times past and we are in a position where I feel the need to do it again.

When a ministry appears to be drab in a city or community, the number of people attending and supporting can remain small. It has been nearly impossible to establish a ministry team and a support base. In the business world, they call it building capacity. That basically means that it takes a certain minimum amount of staff, customers and investors to sustain a company or organization. 

To date, we have never been able to build capacity in Harrisburg. The past few months have required that we cut back our weekly schedule because we simply didn't have enough capacity to sustain or expand the ministry. There's no blame in that statement. That's just where we are in Harrisburg. I'm not talking about having a building that's filled to capacity. I'm talking about the number of warriors it takes to stand and advance.

So we're about to close for repairs and reconstruction. We're going to reset the ministry and make a fresh start. We don't know how all of this will take place, but it is absolutely necessary. It's time for some prayer and fasting. It's time for some weekend shut-ins and spending time with a new team of people that can be a part of a new ministry launch. Stay tuned. There's more to come in the next few weeks.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Increasing in Wisdom, Stature and Favor

A couple of weeks ago, I was reading my morning devotional from Oswald Chamber’s ‘My Utmost for His Highest’. I’ve been reading this particular book for many years, but it’s still amazing how God can speak something new into my heart each year that I go through it.

This particular day’s reading led me to a profound thought. The Holy Spirit of God reminded me of the words of Jesus when he was twelve years old. You can find his response to His parents, who had been searching for him for several days. Luke 2:49 records his response to them: “Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” The Bible goes on to say,”.…they did not understand His statement, but then He went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them, but His mother kept all these things in her heart."

After this, the Holy Spirit reminded me of Jesus’ words when He was a thirty-something year old man. In John 5: 19 He says: "Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner.”

The twelve year old Christ was full of zeal and ready to go forth with God’s work, but He had a process to go through. The thirty year old Christ shows us the result of going through this process.

As a human being, Jesus had to learn obedience. The almighty God of the universe, while dwelling in human flesh, subjected himself to earthly, human, flawed parents.

We must go through the same process. There are many 'twelve-year old' adolescents in the Body of Christ, who are out on their own, having pulled away from their spiritual family, and they are trying to be about God’s business. But like the boy Jesus, they need to go home. They need to submit to spiritual leaders and parents, who are human beings, with flaws and failings.

Many adolescent Believers are in rebellion because they discovered the flaws and failings of their leaders. They felt that this discovery gave them the right to leave them and start their own church or ministry. They felt it gave them the right to ignore the counsel and guidance of their leaders.

This has led to thousands of churches starting all over America. There are often three and four church buildings in one inner city block, in neighborhoods across the country. However, many of them are merely gatherings of rebellious and naive spiritual adolescents, seeking attention and affirmation.

We believe that the trials and tribulations of these last days will filter out the adolescents from the adults. There will be a distinction between the immature and the mature. The mature ones will be those who have submitted to the process and progression of Christ.

After submitting to His parents, the only thing the Bible says about the next 18 years of Jesus’ life was recorded in Luke 2:52 which states: And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.

I certainly want to be that kind of leader and I consider it an honor to oversee people who desire the same.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Contemplative Approach to People

A few years ago, one of my colleagues labeled me ‘the contemplative pastor’. He said I was always approaching issues and problems with thoughts and perspective that are not very important to most people, but they are keys for introducing understanding into any situation.

I didn’t know how to take that statement at that time. I thought I was a straight forward, in your face, kind of minister. However, as I look back over the past nine years, I can see how the Lord has led us on a path that has required us to look beyond the surface of every negative issue in our hearts and homes.

A couple of days ago, someone posted a five minute video clip of a pastor publically correcting various men in the congregation. One was a young man who wanted to get married, but he told the brother, “You don’t even attend church, and now you want me to perform your wedding?” Then he looked at his fiancée and asked, “Do you want to marry a man who doesn’t come to church?”

Next, he publically corrected the young man in the video room because apparently he allows the youth of the church to gather in that room to socialize instead of making them go out into the auditorium.

One thing that caught my attention was that the pastor said he was ready to quit and go start again with a small group of people who really needed help.

Needless to say, most of the comments regarding the video were all about abusive leaders. However, one person said this pastor’s rant was similar to the way Jesus talked to religious people in His day. The video was stirring up quite a debate as people began to throw scriptures back and forth to support their positions. Some felt the video segment demonstrated correction in love. Others felt that it was abuse.

Well, you guys know me. I jumped in and said it was impossible to draw a conclusion to the video because it was only a five minute clip from an entire sermon. I shared that it’s impossible to make a judgment based upon five minutes of what seems like a pastor going off on the congregation. I asked: What was said before those five minutes? What was said after the five minutes? The pastor may have apologized afterwards. What happened after the service? We don’t know, so we can’t make a determination.

I added that I felt it was wrong for the pastor to do this publically, but I also stated that we don’t know what led up to this moment. We don’t know what level of rebellion that may have been present in this congregation.

Of course you guys know that I was not justifying abuse, but (being the contemplative pastor) I could not dismiss the obvious frustration, discouragement and possible depression this pastor may have been wrestling with in that moment.

I share this with you today to remind you to not be so quick to judge the flaws and failings in people. We don’t know the history behind a sudden outburst of rage or anger. As we have learned from our first Life Ministry lesson about mental illness, some people are battling with issues that are not obvious from the outside. Some people are on medication, and even though the medication is helping their brain chemistry, the side effects can produce agitation and anger.

We just don’t know the whole story behind the things that people say and do.

Many Believers don’t realize that there are hundreds of pastors who are being abused by their congregations, board of elders, and overseers. We only tend to think of pastors being the perpetrators of abuse within a congregation. It’s sort of like the way we view domestic abuse as always being a man beating on a woman, but believe me, there are countless cases of men who are being abused by their wives. They don’t say anything in order to protect the children or because no one will believe them.

It is my prayer that as we grow in grace and in the knowledge of Jesus Christ, that we will develop hearts of compassion and understanding. There is far too much judgmentalism in the American church. 

Friday, July 5, 2013

Reality In Your Own Church Community

Reality In Your Own Church Community

Several of my Facebook friends have posted very serious commentaries about a crop of reality TV shows that are about to hit the American masses about mega-church pastors and gospel music artist.

Most of the comments were very insightful, noting very serious concerns about how each ministry will be presented from an industry that edits the raw footage and manipulates the scenes to present a view of these ministers that can possibly be completely different from who they are in real life.

Other people, like us, were very concerned with how church leadership will be viewed after watching these shows. Since most Americans outside of the religious community already have very little respect for ministers, we don’t see how these shows will improve their perception. There is a saying in the media industry: Perception is reality.

As unfair as that statement may be, it is a fact in America. That’s why so many producers and directors of television and film are such masters of the art of manipulating reality. They know that in today’s world, whatever people perceive a person, place or thing to be, that first impression becomes set in their minds like hardened concrete. It is nearly impossible to change their thinking from that point forward.

It doesn’t matter how many statistics and examples that are placed in front of them; even if genuine, humble, hardworking pastors and singers are set before them, they will ALL be viewed through the lenses of that first perception that was received from the ‘Reality TV’ show. In all fairness, some of the shows may turn out to be very good. A few weeks ago, we saw one that was very tastefully done by the Sheards, a very famous gospel music and ministry family.

Since we’re very familiar with what goes on behind the scenes, we still view these shows with caution because there is always a bit of ‘staging’ that is taking place. The audience tends to forget that they are viewing the show from the perspective of a camera, lighting and audio crew that is setting up the scenes. We must also remember that people in front of the camera are being compensated for the show. No matter how much is shared, we will never get the entire story.

So having said this, we want to say that the best Reality show of a church and its leaders is the experience that members are sharing with the pastors in their own local church. One of the dangers of these new TV shows is that thousands of people will begin to judge the validity of their pastors and the mission of their home church, based upon what they see on these weekly TV packages.

Everything from the size of the congregation to the décor of the sanctuary will be judged and compared to what is shown on television. People will see where these folks live, what they wear and what they drive. Then they will look to see where their pastor lives, what they wear and what they drive. They will begin to set new standards in their own hearts to determine if whether they should support their pastor or find a church that’s more like what they see in these TV shows.

At the risk of sounding like we’re promoting ourselves and our ministry, we must share what the Bible has to say. We go to the Bible on this issue because we know the power and victory of a Word-filled life.

Did you know that the Bible already has a criteria set for how to know if whether you have good and solid pastoral leadership?

In 1 Timothy 3:1-10 the Bible gives us an easy-to-understand list. It says,
 “This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop (church overseer), he desires a good work. A bishop (overseer) then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.”

Also look at the qualification list found in Titus. Titus 1:6-9— “….if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination. For a bishop [overseer] must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.”

If anyone can proclaim these things about their pastors and church leaders, then they are definitely in a good place. It has nothing to do with the size of the congregation, the type of facility they meet in, where the pastors live, what kind of car the pastor drives, what they wear, their outgoing personality, or their gifting to sing, preach or teach. It all comes down to what the Bible says about them.

So, REALITY should be found in your own church community. In other words, you want to be in a church where the pastors are setting an example of how to deal with everyday life. You need more than examples of how to perform on a stage two or three times a week. You need examples of how to be a husband, wife, father, mother, co-worker, or student. What are the leader’s attitudes in adversity? How do they face disappointments? How do they deal with success? Their lives need to be so REAL that you can learn how to fight for your family just by watching them.

If all they are getting is a weekly performance on a stage or in a pulpit, they may need to consider getting in touch with a REAL church family. We’re not saying we’re the only church like that in Harrisburg, but we are saying that we are one that believes in this kind of ministry.