Friday, July 29, 2016

Everything Matters to Jesus

Serving as pastor of a local church in the United States of America has given me a unique perspective on the world, perhaps provoking more questions than answers. One question which is of timely importance during this presidential election season is, What is the role of pastors when it comes to discussing politics? What is legally permissible for them to say publicly and what is practically wise?

Legal guidelines are fairly clear: pastors/ministers/clergymen, like the staff of other 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations, are not allowed in the exercise of their official roles to publicly endorse candidates for public office. However, such individuals cannot be legally prevented from sharing their opinions, even publicly, as individuals distinct from the organizations they serve. High-profile pastor and author Max Lucado, for instance, has been very public in his opposition to the nomination of Donald Trump for president and has incurred no legal liabilities for himself, his church, or his writing ministry.

However, many still question the wisdom of pastors speaking about politics. It's unavoidably divisive, often passionately so, particularly during tense election seasons. Some say politics or the election of public officials is of little concern to ministers of the gospel, who should be preoccupied with "heavenly concerns" rather than earthly ones. Why risk gospel witness for the sake of fallen, temporary institutions such as government? After all, Jesus said His kingdom was not of this world, right? (Note that "of" does not mean "in," as Jesus makes clear in John 17 and Paul in 1 Cor. 5:10.)

For Pastor Lucado, the public reputation of God and His gospel is precisely the reason why he felt compelled to point out the absurdity of evangelicals' support of Trump in the 2016 presidential election. In his opinion, Lucado's pastoral vocation required him to correct what he believed was a misrepresentation of genuine Christian values and principles by Trump and his so-called evangelical supporters.

Lucado is just one of a huge percentage of evangelical Christian pastors who opposed Trump in the primaries. According to a survey by LifeWay Research whose results were published back in January, a mere 5% of evangelical pastors supported a Trump presidency compared to a much larger percentage of the overall population of laypeople who self-identify as evangelicals. In the words of former research director Ed Stetzer, "When it comes to Mr. Trump, there seems to be a huge gap between the pulpit and the pew." Might such a gap indicate that pastors are not doing their due diligence to shepherd their flocks in matters where the Christian faith informs political issues?

My intent in writing this is not to make a case for or against a Trump presidency, but rather to raise the question of what matters to Jesus. As Christians, we're called to value what Jesus values--no more and no less. If Jesus values the products and/or processes of political engagement, then we should too. However, if He isn't the least concerned with these things, then perhaps we shouldn't bother with them either. I think most of us believe that politics make a real difference in the world, for better or worse, and that we ought to be responsibly engaged in the process to the degree that we're able.

A robust biblical theology would reveal that God is indeed concerned with the affairs of humankind on earth, down to the smallest minutiae. There is no segment of our lives that is irrelevant to God. Everyone and everything matters to God. Your work, your hobbies, how you spend your time and your money, what you eat and wear--it all matters to the One who created the heavens and earth and every living thing that animates them. No less is God concerned with human culture, society and government. In everything, there is a way to honor as well as dishonor Him, to bear His image or obscure it.

If this is so, then it stands to reason that pastors, as followers of Jesus ordained to help God's people love and obey Him more fully with their whole lives, have an obligation to speak responsibly and prophetically to the political issues of their day. As citizens, they must do all in their power to stand for goodness, truth and justice. But like Jesus, they should do so with utmost respect and wisdom.

A Quest for Rootedness & a Request for Support

It's been a while since I've posted here, but I think now's a good time to share with you some upcoming changes for the Stephens family while reflecting on our recent journey to this point. Many of you know that in October 2014, I moved my family from Shawnee, KS to Branson, MO to serve as Lead Pastor of Harvest Evangelical Free Church. In the Lord's providence, we were allowed to serve in this capacity for a year and a half before realizing that it wasn't the right fit for us long-term. Shortly after resigning, after much prayer, conversation and counsel, we decided that we should return to the Kansas City area as soon as possible.

My aim for this post is to frame my calling (sense of purpose, direction, goals) for this next leg of my life's journey. As I seek out employment opportunities in the Kansas City area, I hope this post will help explain the factors which influence my vocational pursuits. I hope also to give friends and family a clearer basis from which to offer encouragement and prayer on my behalf. I'll begin by briefly unpacking our reasons for relocating back to KC. Then I'll explain the goals I have for my vocational pursuits. Finally I'll list some ways you might support us in this transition if you feel so led.

Relocation Rationale

There are two primary reasons we're returning to KC in the near future.

  1. First, we feel a call to increase our support of our extended family at this time. As a follower of Christ, and no less as a pastor, I am called to give the first-fruits of my ministry to my family--first to my wife and children, then to my parents and so on as needs and resources align (1 Tim. 5:8; cf. Mark 7:9-13; 1 Cor. 7:33-34).
  2. Second, we feel called to establish some long-needed stability for our children--a sense of rootedness. As noted in this Christianity Today article citing clinical studies on the effects of major life transitions (such as relocation, divorce, etc.) on children, too much transition can have a devastating affect on their well-being. Just this past Sunday, Bloom Church pastor Mike Carlton shared about the adverse affects that his many childhood moves had on him. Due to the presence of family and the affordability and livability of the city, we believe KC will be an ideal place to establish a long-term "homestead" in which to raise our kids.

Vocational Aspirations

What this means for me vocationally is that my call to serve God and His church with my pastoral training and gifting will likely require some flexibility and patience on my part. (Doesn't it always?) But that won't stop me from pursuing my goals vocationally! Here are the big ones:

  1. Continue to serve. With or without financial compensation, my desire is to steward my gifts and experience where I can make a genuine difference in a local church whose beliefs and ministry philosophy I can support. If a staff position opened up for me in such a church, I would gratefully consider it. However, I am not limiting my employment search to church ministry alone.
  2. Do good work. As a person who excelled in nearly every subject in school and someone who passionately pursues excellence in everything he does, I consider myself a jack of many trades. Although my degrees are in Communication (B.A.) and Divinity (M.Div.), the value of my skill-set and work ethic applies well to many professions. Having worked in nonprofits, social service, manufacturing/technical sales, and church ministry as an adult (after years of farm labor and lawn care as a child and teen), I've proven that I am able to work effectively in a variety of environments. Besides my strong work ethic, my success depends on my ability to make the most of my strengths while expanding on them. (Hint: I'm most effective at work which requires attention to detail, quality and efficiency. I'm also a creative problem solver, strategist and artist.)
  3. Generate sufficient income. Short-term, I am willing to work part-time, while my wife works full-time. However, long-term we hope to reverse this arrangement, provided that our combined income is sufficient for the needs and goals of our family. At this time, I'm limiting my search to hourly or salaried, rather than commission-based, positions.

Your Support

Among the most valuable life lessons I've learned is the fact that none of us achieves much of significance purely on our own. We all lean on each other in more ways than we often acknowledge. Here are a few needs I have right now as I enter this transition:

  1. Prayer. Please pray for the Lord to give me clarity regarding my goals and the means I pursue to achieve them. Certainly, I will achieve nothing apart from His will and provision! Pray also that I would not lose heart or become distracted by non-essentials. Pray that my commitment to love and holiness remain at the forefront of my heart and mind every day.
  2. Networking. Without a professional degree for a specialized career (such as my wife's accounting and finance degrees!), searching and applying for jobs by conventional means is like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. For me to land a good job, I need an "in" through someone who knows my character and strengths well from firsthand experience. Would you please keep your eyes and ears open for opportunities in the KC area that might align with my stated vocational goals above? If you don't know of anything directly, would you be willing to introduce me to someone you know who might know of something up my alley?
  3. Opportunity. Do you represent an employer who might be able to offer me a position at your company or organization? Would you be willing to sit down for lunch, coffee, or even a phone call, to discuss my fit for a potential position?
To those of you who have read up to this point, thank you for your kind consideration. Just like you, God has placed me on this earth at this time for an important purpose. Let us help one another fulfill the purposes He has for our lives! What better investment could we possibly make?

To learn more about my professional experience, education, and strengths, please visit my career profiles on LinkedIn or Branded. Chances are I'd be happy to connect if we haven't already!

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Tozer's Critique of Modern Evangelicalism: As Relevant Today As Then

In the 67 years since the original publication of pastor-theologian A.W. Tozer's classic book, The Pursuit of God, the world including and perhaps especially the great land I call home, the USA, has undergone monumental changes culturally and economically. But as I reread Tozer's timeless words of wisdom, it is apparent to me that much remains the same in the culture and economy of the evangelical church to the present day.

As a passionately committed evangelical and pastor, the health and maturation of the church is one of my foremost occupations and preoccupations. As a shepherd, when I see God's flock going astray (I speak here not specifically of my own congregation but of the American Christian movement in general) the Spirit compels me to take up my staff and lead the flock back toward the green pastures and quiet waters of God's grace.

In this spirit, I am moved to share at length an excerpt from Tozer's book which I perceive to be as relevant to our Christian context today as it was nearly seven decades ago. Reflect on these words and ask yourself, Do I succumb to these temptations? Is my congregation, my denomination, association or other institution guilty of perpetuating them? Take an honest inventory and share your thoughts with a trusted friend, even here in the comments of this blog.

In answering the question, what was it that has set the great saints of old--as well as great saints in the present--apart from the life of the average Christian, Tozer suggests that "the one vital quality which they had in common was spiritual receptivity... that they had spiritual awareness and that they went on to cultivate it until it became the biggest thing in their lives... They acquired the lifelong habit of spiritual response" (p. 63). He went on:

"Receptivity is not a single thing; rather, it is a compound, a blending of several elements within the soul. It is an affinity for, a bent toward, a sympathetic response to, a desire to have. From this it may be gathered that it can be present in degrees, that we may have little or more, depending upon the individual. It may be increased by exercise or destroyed by neglect. It is not a sovereign and irresistible force which comes upon us as a seizure from above. It is a gift of God indeed, but one which must be recognized and cultivated as any other gift if we are to realize the purpose for which it was given.
Failure to see this is the cause of a very serious breakdown in modern evangelicalism. The idea of cultivation and exercise, so dear to the saints of old, has now no place in our total religious picture. It is too slow, too common. We now demand glamour and fast-flowing dramatic action. A generation of Christians reared among push buttons and automatic machines is impatient of slower and less direct methods of reaching their goals. We have been trying to apply machine-age methods to our relations with God. We read our chapter, have our short devotions and rush away, hoping to make up for our deep inward bankruptcy by attending another gospel meeting or listening to another thrilling story told by a religious adventurer lately returned from afar.
The tragic results of this spirit are all about us: shallow lives, hollow religious philosophies, the preponderance of the element of fun in gospel meetings, the glorification of men, trust in religious externalities, quasi-religious fellowships, salesmanship methods, the mistaking of dynamic personality for the power of the Spirit. These and such as these are the symptoms of an evil disease, a deep and serious malady of the soul." (A.W. Tower, The Pursuit of God, pp. 64-65, emphasis mine)

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Laboring Unto the Lord: A Reflection on the Pain of Loss and the Joy of Surrender

A few moments ago I received news of the passing of a son of a fellow minister of the gospel in my denominational district. Though I was not acquainted with this family, I am nonetheless acquainted with the losses that are common to us as human beings sojourning in a foreign and broken land. After praying on their behalf, acknowledging God's solidarity with them in their grief and asking for the Great Comforter to remind them of this, I was reminded of Paul's exhortation to the believers in first-century Colossae: "Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ" (Col. 3:23-24).

I spoke from this text last night at my church's annual leadership dinner about our motivation for serving in the ministries of the local church. Paul addresses various members of Christian households (husbands, wives, parents, children, masters, slaves) with exhortations relevant to their working relationships with one another. These exhortations are based on the principle that when we do our work as "unto the Lord," not merely for humankind (and certainly not for the sake of accolades), we are rewarded by God for our good faith efforts regardless of whether we see positive results in this life.

As I tried to imagine what this family must be experiencing in their souls, I considered the tragic nature of death--that the loss is not primarily physical, but ultimately relational. Even as this family trusts their sovereign Heavenly Father to preserve their loved one for eternity, they grieve the loss of relationship. They grieve the loss of potential--what could have become of us life if the Lord would have granted him more years. I can also imagine them feeling at some point anger over the fact that they invested so much into the life of this boy-become-man, only to see his opportunity to bloom and bear fruit cut short.

With how much I invest into my children--especially emotionally--I am often motivated by hope that I will see them flourish in their love for God and neighbor, that they will be courageous and contagious disciples of Jesus, that they may even become great contributors to God's kingdom in this world. But I am reminded that my efforts would not be in vain even if I were to lose one of my children just as these parents have lost one of theirs. God sees our good work and brings fruit for His kingdom even in circumstances such as these. The labor of faith, hope and love is never in vain. When we acknowledge the providence of God which transcends our understanding, surrendering the results of our labors to Him, only then may we find joy in the midst of otherwise tragic loss.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Reformed vs. Missional Ecclesiology: Contrasting or Compatible Definitions of Church?

Interesting find in my review of the EFCA "Welcome to the Family" membership course module #2, EFCA Ecclesiology.  In a discussion of the ordinances, a footnote on p. 16 notes the following:
Cf. the Lutheran Augsburg Confession: “The Church is the congregation of saints in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered” (Art. VII), or the statement of John Calvin: “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists” (Institutes 4.1.9).  Later Reformed tradition included a third mark: the proper exercise of church discipline, though this could be seen as simply an extension of the second. The administration of the ordinances generally separates a church from a parachurch organization.
This begs the question, Is the EFCA movement out of sync with its theological leadership (at least those tasked with producing this membership guide)?

I don't ask this sarcastically, but as a long-time dialogue partner in the "missional" conversation, which if you are familiar with it will recognize its substantial departure from the classic Reformed ecclesiology quoted above.  Though many of my conversation partners would likely advocate a missional ecclesiology at odds with that of Luther and Calvin, I would advocate a hybrid of the two.

What Luther gets right:
  • Ecclesia (Gk. word often translated "church") means "gathering" or "assembly", not (as some have surmised) "called out ones" (as I've explained here).
  • The orthodox (true, accurate, original) Gospel is fundamental to the Church's existence and mission.  Hence its faithful and fervent proclamation and defense is one of the most essential aspects of the Church's mission.
  • The sacred ordinances have always marked the Church as a distinctive community following the Way of Jesus Christ the King.
What Calvin gets right (in addition to points of agreement with Luther):
  • Emphasis on declaration/proclamation (not just instruction) of God's word as absolutely true and authoritative for the Church and the believer—i.e., the mark of fidelity to the gospel.
  • Acknowledgement that the True Church is comprised of believers (those who hear God's word "purely").
What they miss:
  • The distinctive mark of Christian, brotherly love (John 13:35).
  • The Great Commission of Jesus to His Church (Matt. 28:19-20; Acts 1:8).
  • Other associations of the Church with the "People of God" theological ethic of the Bible, which is far, far more comprehensive than its corporate worship gatherings!
Without doubt, they address these issues elsewhere in their writings.  However, a true summary definition of the Church ought to make a clear reference to the above characteristics of an authentically Christian Church.  No?

Bottom line: IMO, our ecclesiology and missiology should be much more integrated than the original Protestant Reformers articulated.

Agree?  Disagree?  Related thoughts?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Describing Discipleship to Jesus


Discipleship to Jesus is a whole life enterprise, involving all of our thoughts, affections, actions and relationships.  It will be, I believe, extraordinarily valuable to summarize and categorize the various spheres of discipleship, to bring us out of the general and abstract into the actual and particulars of life.  Point granted that this exercise is abstract, yet it should move us from the general to the particular without losing sight of the big picture.  In other words, to help us think comprehensively about life as a disciple of Jesus.

Here are some of my initial thoughts.  Recognizing that these spheres are in many ways interrelated, it is nonetheless beneficial to look at the Christian life from these various viewpoints.  I invite your contribution to this discussion!  Help me in the process of categorization, if you will!

Discipleship to Jesus is:

1.  Personal: devotional life with God, personal habits/disciplines, self-care/self-management
2.  Filial: relationships with nuclear family (spouse, parent/child)
3.  Ecclesial: relationships with local church family
4.  Occupational: economic relationships and culture-shaping (work, compensation, stewardship of time/talent/treasure)
5.  Local: relationships and roles within one’s geographically local community
6.  Societal: relationships and roles within one’s region, nation, and/or sociological niche/co-culture
7.  Global: relationships and roles within the global community

Discipleship is an integration of spirituality (disposition & relationship to God; prayer, worship, contemplation, engagement w/ Scripture), ethics/morality (disposition & relationship to self and others; justice/righteousness orientation), and stewardship (economic relationship toward self, others, and culture/society at large).

Thanks in advance...


Monday, July 13, 2015

Spiritual Formation: An Individual Thing or a Communal Thing?

I'm about halfway finished with a book that's been sitting on my "to read" stack for a few months: James Thompson's The Church According to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ.  I pulled it off the stack and blew the dust off after our preaching team of elders decided to do a 13-week series on the Church this Fall.  The first couple chapters had me "amen-ing" all over the place, but as I've moved through it I've grown impatient with the narrowness of the author's position on the nature of Christian discipleship or spiritual formation.

Having left the book at home, I can't quote Dr. Thompson verbatim; so I'll have to summarize his argument according to the best of my memory.  The arc of his argument is roughly as follows:

  1. The Church finds its identity and being in Christ.
  2. The apostle Paul addresses (primarily) whole churches, not individuals in his scriptural letters.
  3. Authentic Christian spirituality / discipleship is a thoroughly communal endeavor; therefore, any attempts to relate to God as an individual are inappropriate and counterproductive.
While I heartily affirm his desire to move western Christians away from an overly individualized, anti-communal form of discipleship, I'm afraid he is throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.  The dichotomy between relating to God as an individual and as part of a community is, I believe, false.  While God has absolutely formed us in His image (as relational Trinity) as intrinsically relational beings, to argue that we are only relational, only part of a community, and only related to God through the Church (a historically Roman Catholic position) is reductionistic and unhelpful.

There are several reasons I think and feel this way, but Peter Scazzero in his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality pinpoints one of them.  Interacting with some of the great, Christian mystics of the contemplative tradition, Scazzero comments, "Silence and solitude are so foundational to emotionally healthy spirituality that they are a theme repeated throughout this book.  We observe this from Moses to David to Jesus to all the great men and women of the faith who have gone before us" (p. 86).  Healthy, Christian spirituality lies in a proper balance of togetherness (community) and separateness (solitude).  Overemphasize one or the other, and you run into trouble.

Unhealthy individuals create unhealthy communities, and unhealthy communities form unhealthy individuals.  It cuts both ways.  The path to sustained health requires proper attention to both the communal and individual aspects of spiritual formation.


An Open Letter to Marlene McClurkin-Mason Regarding Her Recent Facebook Post on "Missing" Bible Verses

I submitted this letter to Ms. McClurkin-Mason via Facebook Messenger a few moments ago and thought it worth sharing with those of you who may have encountered the same questions she has raised.  I commend her for her concern for the precious gift of Holy Scripture, but believe that the misinformation she has shared will ultimately undermine the cause she wishes to uphold.  Please read if you are genuinely interested in learning.  Dialogue is appreciated, but disrespectful or off-topic posts will be deleted.



My wife forwarded your post to me and asked if it were true. I'm a conservative, evangelical pastor with knowledge of the original biblical languages (Greek and Hebrew). I hold fast to the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. I'm an MDiv graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, the seminary of the EFCA.

I would encourage you to read this Wikipedia article regarding the issues you've raised in your post. Likewise, please know that the translators of modern translations such as the NIV and ESV are not trying to pull wool over anyone's eyes. The omissions exist in the hardcopies as well as the electronic copies of the text, and are noted in the footnotes. A good study Bible (like the ESV Study Bible) or scholarly evangelical commentary (e.g., Word Biblical Commentary series, Pillar Commentary series, NICOT/NICNT, BECNT) will walk you through the textual evidence serving as the basis for the translators' decisions.

The simplest answer to your question is that the KJV was translated from a Latin translation of the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. Modern translations use the original manuscripts as the basis of their translations, and there are a number (though not significant) of variations between them.

I hope you will follow my advice and conduct some of this research, and publish your findings to your Facebook friends. What you have written is misleading and will only serve to undermine the Gospel and mission of Christ if it is not corrected.


Matt Stephens

Thursday, April 30, 2015

How to Optimally Mobilize Your Congregation for Ministry

This article is primarily for pastors/elders, but would be beneficial for deacons, church administrators, ministry staff, and ministry area leaders as well.  It is a call to take seriously the teachings of the apostle Paul regarding the missional importance of equipping and mobilizing our local expressions of the body of Christ (i.e., churches/congregations) for maximum Kingdom impact.

The needs and nature of church ministry are so varied and numerous, it is easy for pastors and other leaders to become bewildered and disillusioned by the burden.  Some simply can't handle the psychological weight and opt for less stressful careers.  Others try to reduce the scope and complexity of ministry by fixating on a particular, isolated aspect of God's mission and making that everything.  But if we are to remain faithful to the call of God to shepherd and equip His people, we need a comprehensive vision and framework for church ministry that accounts for the rich diversity of gifts and callings that exist among the body of believers He has entrusted to our care and leadership.  In the following paragraphs, I would like to propose a model of vocational stewardship for the local church that has revolutionary implications for how we organize ourselves for ministry.

The apostle Paul writes to the church in Ephesus:
"And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love" (Eh. 4:11-16, ESV).
That is Jesus' mission statement for church leaders just as much as the Great Commissions of Matt. 28:18-20 and Acts 1:8.  It would be hard to overstate the extent to which this crucial fact is obscured by churches and church leaders today.  Rather than equipping the saints and building up the body of Christ for the purpose of cultivating Christian maturity, it has become popular to construe the mission of church leaders as:
  • Cheerleaders, charged with hyping up the crowd of Jesus fans with emotionally loaded exhortations and calls to action.
  • Chaplains, charged with soothing anxious souls with simplistic, well-worn religious platitudes which change nothing but make us feel better about ourselves.
  • CEOs, charged with directing, developing and managing complex organizations via the most expedient and efficient methods, regardless of their compliance with the kind of kingdom Jesus ushered in.
Most recently, it is becoming especially popular to conflate the roles of apostle (missionary/church planter), evangelist (proclaimer of the gospel out among the lost) and shepherd/pastor/teacher.  To lead their congregations toward missional faithfulness, we are told, the pastor must avoid the grave danger of spending too much time shepherding his flock (under God) and must make sure he is investing lots of time being and sharing the gospel with unbelievers, being active in the community, and so on (i.e., performing the role of an evangelist).

As a result of this confusion, congregations are burning their pastors out through conflicting and unrealistic expectations, pastors are neglecting to fulfill their uniquely-ordained duty of "equipping the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ," and many other staff members, ministry leaders, and volunteers are burning out as well.  This is a recipe for long-term ecclesiastical and missional disaster.  And it's not the way God has providentially designed the Church.  He has designed us—individually and collectively—strategically for partnership in His mission.  There are four steps you and I can take to align our churches with this "divine design".

The first step to optimally mobilizing your congregation for ministry is to clarify and fulfill the unique role God has given you as their pastor (i.e., shepherd/elder/overseer/teacher).  If God, you, and your congregation are not on the same page regarding the nature of pastoral leadership, the fruits of your (collective) ministry will be stunted and eventually may disappear altogether.  The health and effectiveness of churches rises and falls on leadership (not just the senior pastor, but the collective leadership of the congregation).  So this is where ministry revitalization begins.

The second barrier I've found to optimal mobilization of our congregations is poor stewardship of the God-given gifts (e.g., spiritual gifts, natural abilities, expertise, personal strengths, personalities) of the other leaders, staff, and members of the congregation.  Rather than fitting talent to task, we make the mistake of appointing willing people to responsibilities for which they are not well-suited.  We view most people as essentially "Jacks of all trades" or "utility players," assuming that willingness and faith are all that's required for effective, or fruitful, ministry.  We create staff positions that cover broad ranges of responsibilities which require a broad range of strengths that would be extremely rare for any one individual to possess.  Once again, the result is burnout of the staff member and stifled ministry effectiveness.

The second step, therefore, to optimally mobilizing your congregation for ministry is to recognize that ministry is most effective when organized primarily according to gifting, rather than "ministry area."  By "ministry area," I mean, for example, Children, Youth, Adults, Worship, Small Groups, Outreach, and so on.  The ministry area is the sphere or realm we seek to influence.  It's "where" and "whom" we serve.  It's often defined by objectives, times and locales rather than tasks. The model of mobilization I am proposing is one in which ministry is divided primarily according to task rather than objective.  It's a radical shift that I am confident will produce radically more effective and fulfilling ministry.

Let me illustrate an example of what I'm talking about.  You have a youth ministry, and you are trying to recruit people to serve in that ministry.  What's your pitch?  In the "ministry area" model, you would appeal to people's sense of obligation or compassion toward this particular demographic in your church (or community, if it's outreach-oriented).  You would try to attract fun, "youthful", energetic people that have time to devote to attending weekly (or more frequent) youth gatherings.  You would ask them to be and do a variety of things: to be an extroverted relator, an excitable game-player, a skilled discussion facilitator, an empathetic counselor, a wise and knowledgeable Bible teacher, etc.  However, in the "ministry task" model, you would identify all essential tasks or duties needed to facilitate effective ministry and you would recruit a uniquely-gifted individual for each of those unique task areas.  By employing people in exercising their greatest strengths, you empower them to make an optimal contribution to actual ministry needs, thus contributing to superior results and a greater sense of fulfillment for each servant.

The third step, then, to optimally mobilizing your congregation for ministry is to help each individual in your congregation assess their areas of greatest strength.  There are numerous tools available for this, ranging from "spiritual gift" inventories to personality inventories like Myers-Briggs (MBTI), work style assessments like the DiSC, and general strength assessments like Gallup's Strengths Finder 2.0.  My professor and faculty adviser at TEDS, Dr. Phillip Sell, had his students take each one of these in order to get a well-rounded understanding of who God had providentially designed us to be.  Whether a staff member or a lay leader, you would do well to find someone in your church who is qualified to administer these assessments and make this a primary ministry role for them.

The fourth step to optimally mobilizing your congregation for ministry is to establish a two-tier system of teamwork.  On the first tier, you would organize individuals into task-based teams according to their areas of gifting/strength:
writers, encouragers, child caregivers, teachers, musicians, audio/visual production technicians, graphic designers, web designers, social media / electronic marketing experts, craftsmen, accountants and other businesspeople, visual artists, interior designers, cooks/chefs/bakers, educational administrators, biblical scholars/theologians, strategic planners, public speakers, groundskeepers, housekeepers, those gifted in hospitality, project coordinators, event coordinators, worship planners, worship leaders, IT/CIS technicians / programmers / developers... the list could go on!
Each of these gift-based teams would be given responsibility for the development and execution of common tasks needed throughout a variety of ministry areas.  For example, instead of having your Children's Ministry Director produce promotional pieces for Children's Ministry initiatives and your Youth Director produce promotional pieces for upcoming youth events, you have a Communications Director and/or Team, with skill and expertise in current marketing, editing, and design best practices, produce promotional material for all ministry areas after soliciting the vision and raw information from the Ministry Area Leaders.  The Ministry Area Leaders then may devote themselves to discerning and developing vision; aligning volunteers and/or lower-level staff with the mission; recruiting, equipping and managing staff and volunteers; and maintaining their own focus on the big-picture.

Recognizing this diversity of strengths, the second tier of teamwork addresses what the professional world calls "cross-functional collaboration."  On this tier, members of each "task/gift team" collaborate with members of other task/gift teams to address the complex needs of a given "ministry area" (e.g., Children, Youth).  The Ministry Area Leader would facilitate team gatherings for reinforcing mission and vision, evaluating the church's effectiveness at working toward those, and planning strategically how to more effectively carry them out.  Once a clear plan of action is determined (facilitated and drafted, of course, by a person skilled in strategic planning), each task-based "point person" would bring their task back to their gift-based team to work on production / implementation.

Sound too complicated?  It's actually much simpler in the long run than trying to coordinate the vast array of specialized tasks among fewer sets of generalists (whose strengths likely do not match many of the needs in a given ministry area) organized by ministry area.  The latter is easier to conceive on the front end, because there are fewer categories readily apparent to us.  But the tremendous diversity of needs/necessary tasks becomes painfully apparent during the planning and implementation phases.  And by that point, you've wasted a lot of people's time and energy, subjecting them to frustrating processes, ending with inferior results and, in some cases, shrinking your ministry reach and impact.

Now, amid all this talk of results, effectiveness, and organizational management, you might think I've gone the way of the theologically inept pragmatist.  But I am actually just acknowledging and analyzing a dynamic that was on the forefront of the apostle Paul's mind when he wrote both the Ephesians passage printed above and the 12th chapter of his first letter to the church in Corinth.  "Concerning spiritual gifts," he wrote, "I do not want you to be uninformed" (1 Cor. 12:1).  Why?  Because the health and mission of the Church are dependent upon a proper understanding and administration of Spirit-empowered gifts / strengths.

The Lord has gifted a few for the historic offices of the Church, but He has gifted the entire body of Christ to carry out His mission in the fulfillment of His vision for the world.  It is our job as leaders to teach these principles to our congregations and to organize them, according to gifting, for optimal ministry impact, to the glory of God.

Time for reflection!  
  1. Do the above concepts resonate with you?  Why or why not?  
  2. Do you have anything to contribute to the conversation that could nuance this model and make it more useful?  
  3. Do you know of any churches who are modeling it well?  
  4. Do you believe this is possible for smaller congregations who can't afford a separate staff person for every specialized task area or ministry area?  Why or why not?

Friday, April 24, 2015

A Framework for Local Church Ministry

mission    |   vision    |    process    |    boundaries    |    strategy

Every church needs an organizational framework to focus and govern its ministry.  These are some thoughts I developed shortly before accepting the Lead Pastorate at Harvest EFC in Branson, MO.  I invite your questions and reflections on these ideas, most of which should apply to any and every church, regardless of context.

I. Define the Mission: Broadly speaking, why do we exist and what is God compelling us to do?
     A. Why do we (created beings) exist?
          1. To glorify and enjoy God forever (Ps. 27:4; Isa. 26:8, NIV)
     B. What is the mission of God?
          1. To be knownrelationally, not merely intellectually (Exod. 6:7; 20:2-7; 29:45-46; Ps. 27:8; Jer. 24:6-7; Ezek. 16:59-63; 20:42-44; 37:13-14; John 20:31; Php. 3:10; Eph. 4:13)
     C. Why does the Church exist? To be, show & tell the Good News among all peoples
          1.  To be a Gospel Community who embodies shalom (John 13:34-35; Acts 2:44-47; 4:32-35; Rom. 12:9-21; Eph. 4:15-16; Col. 3:12-16).
          2.  To demonstrate a Gospel Witness through ministry that promotes human flourishing and reduces human suffering (Isa. 1:16-17; Jer. 22:3; 29:4-7; Mic. 6:8; Matt. 5:13-16; 11:4-5; Luke 4:18; Jas. 1:27).
          3.  To proclaim the Gospel Message of salvation through King Jesus (Isa. 61:1; Matt. 4:17; 11:5; Mark 3:14; Luke 4:43-44; 9:6; Acts 5:42; 6:2; 8:4; 20:27; Rom. 10:14-15; 1 Cor. 15:3-4; Jude 3).
     D. For what purpose does this local congregation exist?  To be, show & tell the Good News among the people to whom God has sent us:
          1. Primary: local impact (Branson, MO area community) 
          2. Secondary: regional impact (SWMO, northern AR)
          3. Tertiary: national impact (American society at large) 
          4. Ultimate: global impact
* Note: Mission/missions is expressed at every level of reach (Acts 1:8).
The church doesn’t have a missions program. The church is God’s missions program!
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II. Distill the Vision (the “Win”): What are the tangible results we’re asking God to produce through our participation in the gospel ministry of Jesus?
Redemption transformation shalom human flourishing
          1.  Reconciliation with God / people turning from sin and toward Jesus in faith
          2.  Reconciliation with fellow man; relational healing & wholeness
          3.  Passionate obedience to God motivated by the glory of God
          4.  Freedom from bondage to sin and addictions
          5.  Spiritual, psychological, physical wholeness
          6.  A “divine economy” in which all people can progress toward socio-economic flourishing
          7.  People engaged in meaningful, productive work
          8.  The Church as a hospitable home:
               a. Mercy for the sinner
               b. Justice for the oppressed
               c. Embrace of the marginalized
               d. Safety for the abused & exploited e. Nurture for the neglected
               f. Rest for the weary
               g. Patience with the seeking skeptic 
               h. Dignity for all
          9.  A Kingdom counterculture that shines brightly amidst the darkness of pagan culture
     B. Levels of transformation:
          1.  Individual (personal transformation)
          2.  Family
          3.  Congregation (corporate transformation)
          4.  Community (neighborhoods, Branson area at large)
          5.  Society
          6.  Any intermediate levels between local community & society
          7.  World: “filled with the glory of God”

III. Discern the Process: Broadly speaking, how does God invite us to participate in His mission in the world?
     A. RECEIVE the gospel of Jesus Christ and His Kingdom.
Incarnation: God sent His Son to reveal Himself (John 1:14), to redeem us from our sinfulness, to reconcile us to the Father, to restore His image in us, to rescue us from the eternal wages of our rebellion against Him.
          2. Pentecost: God sent His Spirit to empower the Church (John 20:22; Acts 2). God continues to send Him to glorify Jesus, to thereby draw people to Himself, to then indwell each person who receives Jesus and His gospel, to encourage faith in them and to empower them for His mission.
     B. CONNECT believers to God and one another.          1. Communion: vertical and horizontal          2. Koinonia: “love one another” (in all the ways Christ & the apostles exhort us to do so, i.e., the “one anothers”)
     C. EQUIP (prepare) the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:12-16)...
          1. To serve one another (Eph. 4:15-16).          2. To serve the world (Matt. 5:14-16; Eph. 5:15-17; Col. 4:5-6). 3. To bear witness to the gospel in the world (1 Pet. 3:15).
     D. DEPLOY disciples of Jesus into the mission field (Acts 1:8; Matt 28:18-20).
          1.  God sends us, His church, into the world to show and tell the Good News to the lost (John 17:18; 20:21; Matt. 16:19).
          2.  “Disciple the nations/peoples.”
          3.  Local, regional, national, global scope of mission.
     E. SUPPORT (encourage) these missionaries in the ministries to which God has called them and the church has deployed them.
          1. Gather the resources needed to support the ministry.
          2. Channel resources to the points of need.
          3. Steward the resources wisely for the sake of purposeful and sustainable ministry.
     F. EVALUATE our efforts regularly in light of faithfulness to God’s Word and the outcomes He promises to achieve through us.
          1.  How does this ministry or initiative fit into the big picture of God’s Kingdom and mission?
          2.  What’s the likely long-term, cumulative impact of this ministry?
          3.  Is the ministry sustainable?
          4.  Is God raising up workers to carry this ministry forward?
          5.  Are we relying on God’s strength & wisdom or our own?
          6.  Are we giving Him the glory for successes?
          7.  Are we seeking His mercy and guidance in the “failures”?
          8.  Are there ways we can improve our effectiveness in facilitating this ministry?
          9.  Is this the best use of the resources (time, talent, treasure) God has entrusted to us?

IV. Draw the Boundaries (values & guiding principles)    A. Ministry should be motivated by love for God and compassion for people (theocentric, not just humanitarian).
  1. Ministry must be built upon a robust, comprehensive understanding of the gospel (cosmic, totalizing, not reductionistic).
  2. Approach discipleship as a communal, not merely individual, endeavor (not “me and Jesus”, but “we and Jesus”).
  3. Leaders should “count the cost” before embarking on something new (Luke 14:28-31, proverbial application).
  4. Specific ministry initiatives should be undertaken only after God has called someone(s) to lead them (bottom-up/empowerment-oriented, not top-down).
  5. Prefer the missional & organic to the programmatic & artificial.
    1. Where possible, empower and equip people to minister effectively where they are throughout their daily rhythms and places of life rather than creating programs that keep them busy serving “at church”.
    2. Train people to see the places where (home, school, work, neighborhood, recreational activities, etc.) and people with whom they “do life” (family, coworkers, neighbors, schoolmates, teachers, friends, teammates, coaches, etc.) as their primary mission field.
    3. Community is what happens when we do life together on mission, not primarily in special gatherings for prayer and Bible study. (Those are important, but they’re not a substitute for koinonia.)
  6. Encourage simplicity of lifestyle and ministry style.
       1. Leave “margin” so that we can...
              a. Respond to the spontaneous leading of the Spirit.
              b. Cultivate an awareness of God’s sovereign presence, so we are centered on Him always.
              c.  Give the gift of unhurried, undistracted presence with others.
        2.  Focus on what is most important and impactful.
        3.  Live “lean” to make the best use of the time and resources God has given us.
        4.  No one can (or should try to) “do it all”.
              a.  When we’re spread too thin, we’re ineffective in the short run and unhealthy in the long run.
              b.  The Church is called “the Body of Christ” for a reason. We genuinely need each other. None of us is every body part.
              c.  In humility, we must acknowledge our limitations, ask for help and resist the temptation to be “Yes men and women”.
             5. Learn the art and discipline of saying “No” to good things for the sake of the best things.
                   a. It is better to do a few things really well than to do lots of things of halfway decently.
             6.  Ministry out of overflow is more effective, authentic and sustainable than ministry that depletes our reserves.
             7.  Observing Sabbath—and rest, more generally—communicates our dependence on God, our trust in His sovereignty, and our acceptance that we are not Him.
                  a. It allows us to truly enjoy the gifts He gives us, including life itself and the relationships of those closest to us.
                  b. It refreshes and refuels us for continued service in the world. 
     H.  When granting ministry authority, weigh character more heavily than competence.
             1. Competence is more readily developed than character.
  1. Spiritual growth / character development is cultivated in the soil of authenticity.
    1. We are transformed by mercy and grace.
    2. We experience mercy and grace only as we are vulnerable and
      humble before God and one another.
  2. Encourage intergenerational ministry; discourage generational silos.
    1. Discipleship: “One generation commending God’s mighty acts to another” (Ps. 145:4).
    2. Social order: 1 Tim. 5:1-16
    3. Modeling & teaching: Tit. 2:2-8
    4. Age-based activities important, but not to the exclusion of cross-generational discipleship.
  3. Emphasize & support the family/household as the primary vehicle/context for discipleship (cf. Deut. 6:1-9; Josh. 24:15; Acts 16:31-34; 1 Tim. 3:4-5; 5:8).
        1. The family is God’s “Plan A”—the optimal/ideal environment for discipleship, especially for children, but also for couples, where possible.
              a. Marriage is designed to sanctify us, not just satisfy us.
              b. God gives parents primary responsibility for discipling their children into Christian maturity.
        2.  The family is the primary place:
              a.  Where a child’s worldview is developed
              b.  Where they are socialized
              c.  Where they are “catechized
              d.  Where they are known
              e.  Where character is cultivated
              f.   Where Christian discipleship is modeled for them most tangibly & basically
              g.  Where economics (human productivity & stewardship) are fleshed out
        3.  A strong, healthy family built upon the foundation of a strong, healthy marriage centered on Jesus is the foundation of an ethical, sustainable, flourishing society.
        4.  Church health is likewise affected profoundly by the health of its member families.
        5.  Emphasize the ideal without shaming those who haven’t fulfilled it (which is most of us!). Present it as good news, i.e., a foundational means of reducing human suffering and promoting human flourishing. Offer the hope of redemption through Jesus and restoration through the supportive ministry of the church.
     L. Support other vehicles/contexts for discipleship as auxiliary to the primary context, though no less important.
            1.  Where “Plan A” fails (e.g., severe dysfunction, abuse, divorce, death of spouse, unbelieving spouse) or during transitional periods “between families” (college years), the church must offer generous hospitality (an alternative “home”) that fulfills the role of a family to these “widows, orphans & sojourners” (cf. the above descriptors in point K2).
            2.  Through the pooling of the resources of many members (time, talent, treasure), churches can create some “economies of scale” that may perform certain disciple-making functions more effectively than any one family might be able to do on their own (e.g., education). The operative word here is collaboration (interdependence) rather than production/consumption.
     M. See my Philosophy of Ministry, pp. 7-10, for further reflections on methodology.

V. Develop the Game Plan (strategy)1:
     A. What is the shape and rhythm of mission you will aim to observe in your church 
            1.  Reach (bring the gospel into the world)
            2.  Gather (celebrate God & His gospel through corporate worship)
            3.  Restore (heal, liberate, transform)
            4.  Encourage (volitional: edify, motivate)
            5.  Equip (practical: train, resource)
            6.  Send (empower & commission for service; support w/ prayer & resources)
     B. How will you specifically facilitate and support the mission?
            1.  Pastors/elders appointed & empowered to shepherd (lead, teach, oversee & spiritually nurture) the congregation (1 Tim. 3:1-7; 5:17- 18; Tit. 1:5-9)
                 a.  Devote themselves to the ministry of the Word and to prayer (Acts 6:1-4)
                 b.  Cast vision
                 c.  Call people to obedience
                 d.  Empower, equip & resource people to fulfill their callings
                 e.  Attend to people’s spiritual needs
            2.  Deacons commissioned for “mercy ministry” to those in need (Acts 6:1-7; 1 Tim. 3:8-13) and governing the logistical aspects of ministry (facilities, communication, administrative support)
                 a. Attend to the practical needs of the “orphan and widow” and others who are unable to fully “help themselves” (e.g., elderly, disabled, ill/injured, new moms?)
                 b. Visit, encourage & pray with the sick or hospitalized
            3.  Staff for ministries requiring substantial planning, oversight & communication
            4.  Facilities suitable for the church gathered for corporate worship, equipping, fellowship, and other ministries as the Lord leads.
            5.  Raise and steward finances in support of the above ministries and infrastructure.
1 Most of the particulars will need to be fleshed out in the midst of ministry, as we learn more about each other and have sought God’s direction regarding specific ministry initiatives.