Tuesday, March 25, 2014


   Some of this may or may not be applicable to all church plants, but here I specifically discuss those churches being planted among the poor or difficult populations. 
    What is reasonable in the continuation of support for a church that doesn't seem to be moving quickly to being self-supporting?   We have a persistent model for church plants among middle class folks.  The larger the core group the faster they move to self-sufficiency, the larger the core group the more internal resources they have, and the more attractive they are to planting networks.  Success breeds support.

    Many of these middle class church plants rely on transfer growth, beginning with a committed core that from the beginning already gives a planter..."church."   A group to which to preach, volunteers ready to work, a congregation ready to disciple and lead.  The sense of momentum in a peer generation church with urban ambiance, professional quality music, child care, parking, and facilities, and a competent if not excellent communicator seems to be a guarantor of success. 

    Along with this is the benefit to the church planter of a pretty secure financial package.  If the planter is part of a percentage network where he can begin with a hefty investment from outside, plus whatever he raises, plus whatever a sizable core group can give he won't have to be worrying about money all the time, and in fact can invest the surplus in staff, equipment, facilities, and marketing.  Pre-support breeds success.

    What happens when the target of this new church plant is the poor?  What happens when there is no core group, or a very small one?  What happens if and when there is some outside support but as the ministry nears the three to five year window there is still not a strong enough financial base or core to continue the work without continued outside help?  What happens if middle class folk, who already know Christ, who already believe in tithing refuse to align themselves with such a work?  Can it survive?

    What happens when a planter goes to an unreached or non-believing group that aren't immediately drawn to something called "church.?"  What happens when he tries to gather people who don't know what giving sacrificially means as they are trying to survive financially already?   What happens if that pastor is so committed to this neglected community that he is willing to be bi-vocational, but loses the respect of his peers for not being able to make a go of it like normal churches do? 

    If our metrics are materialistic that says something I believe about our values.  Not that growth is in anyway wrong, in fact growth is what we want, but from what source?  When Peter preached and three thousand were saved, I think it must have meant new conversions, not three thousand former members of Southern Baptist churches that had old music.  When Paul planted a church among the pagans, or the heathen, or just people who had never heard of Jesus, I wonder where he got his core group from and how he made it financially?  Maybe he made tents or something, maybe he was sent gifts from churches that were established already but knew how to share, maybe he took risks and lived by faith.

    If we are going to succeed in preaching the Gospel to the poor, and in planting churches among them (and not just using them for our mission and mercy experiences) I think we will have to change our metrics.  We will have to support church planters for at least ten years, we will have to give them that help from outside of the communities they are trying to reach and it will have to be not only adequate but meaningfully sufficient.   And we will have to send in talented, competent, and passionate men because the harder work takes the greater man, not the lesser.

    Or, middle class churches in the city will have to learn to really reach the poor and include them in their new congregations, make them welcome, disciple them out of poverty, and raise them up in leadership.  Either way, I think we will have to be radicalized about what the Gospel means, and we will have to stop working from the same old materialistic expectations and start moving toward spiritual ones.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


    One of the precious resources of a congregation is its energy.  A Biblical term for this might be "zeal."   Energy is a combination of both the time members have to give and their passion and tenacity to engage and finish the work.  Pastors have to be the stewards of that energy.  Part of the pastor's job is to protect his people from expending their energy in ways and places that give them no spiritual profit, and no profit to the Kingdom of God.

    It should become obvious to the leadership of a church when that energy is flagging.  Members give less time, they are less than enthusiastic to participate, and things that pastors and leaders wish would get done, don't.

    Pastors give various answers to why this is happening.  Sometimes it is seen as disobedience, just plain spiritual rebellion or a lack of faith.  Sometimes it is seen as ministry overload, the people have been trying to do too much; which can be caused for various reasons, such as competitive ministry leaders, bad "works' type theology,  church traditional activities which are unecessary.

    Members can give other answers, such as the pastor and leaders are simply piling up too many obligations and activities.  Sometimes members see it as a justified rebellion against spiritual manipulation, whether using guilt or appeals to love Jesus more.  Sometimes members see it as poor leadership that gives them no meaningful or believable motivation.  Most times I don't believe members see it at all, they just react with their feet, which either move or won't.

    There are some questions I believe pastors need to ask themselves in analyzing how they are stewarding the energy of their people:
1.  What is a congregation for anyway, what is it supposed to be doing?
     If the pastor thinks their job is simply to listen more to him, to attend faithfully and give more money, one might begin to think the pastor doesn't have a very large view of the Kingdom of God.

2.  Is it a legitimate response to the need of energy stewardship to ask nothing of the congregation as a congregation, but to leave it to them if they feel they should or want to do something?
    If a pastor takes a "minimalist" strategy he should examine honestly whether he is merely justifying a refusal to lead or his own laziness.

3.  Is it legitimate to only ask the congregation to do things for themselves, for the worship service, Sunday School, music, Bible studies, etc.?
   Even here people can overwork or feel burdened down.  The call for more discipleship can simply mean more meetings and study time, and is studying the only way to discipleship?

4.  Does a congregation have any responsibility to evangelize, to do acts of mercy, to participate in the life of its community, to participate in missions?
    How does the call to do these outward focused ministries combine with the necessity of interior and sustaining work for the life of the congregation?

5.  Does the pastor know how to delegate, to help people identify their gifts, to help them discipline their lives to work where they best fit, to call them to rest and sabbath and to not overcommit?  Is he an example of not overcommitting?  Is the pastor able to help the people know the balance and combination of knowing, being, and doing?

6.  Does the pastor lay out spiritual and practical reasons why jobs need to be done?  Does he explain how ministries achieve the vision and goals of the church?  Does the leadership seek to eliminate those activities which do not accomplish the overall goals of the congregation but expend the scarce energy of the people for no purpose?  Does the leadership give the congregation missions they can accomplish and then gives them opportunity to celebrate in their success?

7.  Does the pastor know the difference between physical exhausation and burnout?  Can he see the anger in people that makes them resistant to more appeals for more work when they feel slighted, abused, and badgered.  In contrast can he appreciate the seemingly inexhaustible energy of those who are motivated by faith, love, and joy?  Can he see these things in himself?

Saturday, March 15, 2014


     Recently I had the privilege to meet a victim.  I noticed that he had a patch over his eye and I asked him what happened.  He began to explain to me that he wore the patch because people seemed to have a hard time looking at what was left.  Between what he told me and what others filled in evidently his eye had been shot out, so there wan't any eye left.  He, and the three others with him, had been coming home from church when someone opened up on their car.  Fifty gunshots later two were dead and this young man had lost his eye. Somewhere in this terrible tragedy he did catch sight of Jesus.

    He explained to me that he hadn't been living right, but now he was trying to do right by his child, his girlfriend, and the Lord.  So, he is preparing to get married and raise their child as a family.  It was all a mistake, wrong car, not who the shooters were looking for, but people were dead and wounded just the same.

    Recently one of our church planters asked for prayer because a lady that had been coming to church had just been murdered, by her grandson.  This pastor was preparing the funeral sermon, getting ready to preach to a family grieving and traumatized.   The grandmother had taken this grandson in to live with her, but they had fought from time to time and finally she told him he had to leave.  He waited until she was asleep to cut her throat.

   The Sunday after the funeral I heard a woman rise to testify that she was in church that day because of the love she witnessed from this church (the congregation that had ministered to the family, that prepared the food for the repast, that had preached the Gospel at the funeral.)  She said she had felt called by God to come.

   Violence doesn't encourage me, especially when I find it to be inexplicable.  It is probably a mark of how jaded I am that too often I just simply accept it as a daily constant in our culture. We live in a time when people live in communities where violence is a reality and a constant threat.  Occasionally I am shocked, but most often I am calloused.  There is so much violence that it just seems to make me tired, and aware of the possible play on words,  I become deadened to its shame.  We, all of us in this country, should be ashamed at the volume of violence to which we have become inured.

    The stories above however make me feel encouraged, in the context of violence.  That context is the place that most of  us want to escape from, where we don't want to live.  It is one reason people keep moving from neighborhoods that have an aura of menace, attempting to find some peaceful glen or pasture, some beatific cul de sac where tricycles can wheel unhindered, toys left on the lawn without fear of theft, and the noise of explosions is left for the Fourth of July.

    I am encouraged because in the very place that most of us with sense would want to flee, Jesus has come.  He has come through his people, through his Church.  Violence in this world usually makes no sense, there was always another way, another option.  What does bring sense in the midst of nonsense is love, care, kindness, compassion.  It resettles the world, it redirects the grieving, the victims, the wounded.

     If the church is not there, close by, with its people not present to be the Body of Christ, then what is left for those neighborhoods, those families, except rage, despair, hardness, revenge, emptiness, and life unexplained? These stories happened in neighborhoods of Tulsa and Durham, but the violence is repeated in so many marginalized and depressed communities around our nation.  What is not always repeated is the witness of a church that came because others have left, and came for just these kind of folk. May their tribe increase, and may the Prince of Peace extend his reign to bitter places. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


Sometimes I feel like people put you in a box, specifically me.  I feel this way when it seems they think I can only speak about the poor, or pigeon hole my ministry as one that is a song with only one note.  I am not insulted that people might look upon me as an advocate for the poor, or for justice.  I am indeed thankful to be thought of in that way, but it would be a mistake to think that somehow that flows from some sense of altruism in myself, or even anger from my own background.

    If I love the poor, and I want to do that, it is because Jesus loves me.  His love for me has created a passion inside of myself to love him.  Non-believers might find that hard to contemplate as they try to penetrate the passions of religion, but for Christians the idea of loving Jesus is a very intimate, personal, and real experience.  I love Jesus, and consider him to be real and personal and interested in my life; every part of my life.  I love Jesus because I believe he died for me to rescue me from the just wrath of God for my sinful self, and his death delivered me from the bondage I was in to my own sins.  I love him because I believe he defeated death and has given me eternal life.  He has given me a lot, and everyday since he came into my life I have experienced the love and faithfulness of God in taking care of me.

    I don't think Jesus made me lucky, I think he is far more personal than luck.  His blessings don't mean I will never catch a cold or cancer, that my loved ones won't die, that I won't have trouble.  I think, and know from my experience, that his love means he will always be with me whatever comes.

    As I read the Bible and learn more about Jesus, I know that he loves and cares about the poor.  This is so important to him that he even equates himself with them when he outlines the judgment in Matthew 25.  He calls those who didn't treat the poor as if they were him "goats."  Then he casts them into hell.  He teaches us there that when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison, that we are doing it to him.  So, if I love Jesus I have no choice but to care for the poor.  Not if my love for him is real and genuine.

    I read one interpretation of Matthew 25 as not applicable to Christians in this present age.  This of course was presented with absolutely no textual evidence from that passage at all but as part of a broader scheme of interpreting the Bible.  I just imagine a big slap in the back of the head from Jesus to whoever wrote that.  I shouldn't be surprised when some try to interpret Scripture so as to rob it of any conviction in our lives and practice today.  It did make me angry.

   I don't love the poor because they are innately loveable.  I certainly wasn't when I was poor.  I was stealing, lying, greedy, selfish, and uncaring about others, even my own family.  I desperately needed Jesus to change me, and he did.  I still struggle with my own sins, but I know who I belong to now, and I do love him, and want very much to be faithful to him.

    I know that I cannot motivate people toward justice just because I make them feel bad about injustice.  I know that I cannot make them love the poor, or move into the neighborhoods of the poor, or dispense mercy to the poor, or create industry or jobs that will employ the poor, or practice medicine among the poor because I somehow touch their sympathy and compassion.  The truth be told our self interest often wins over against our feelings of compassion.  What can change us?  More appropriately the question is, "who can change us?"

   His name is Jesus, and my passion to help bring about justice, reconcilation, and mercy comes because I love him, and know how much he loved me, and how he satisfied the justice of God for me, and gives me mercy everyday.  So, my appeal to folks is not some cause, not some constant banging of a drum for what I think people ought to do.  It is what Jesus is about, and if you don't love the poor the real and present, and the real and future, question is,  "how can you say you love Jesus and not show mercy to the poor?"  What evidence is there that Jesus is living in us if we can't see Jesus in the lives of our poorer brothers?