Category: Church Growth

Desegregating the Church

Audio Resources

  • My sermon on HARMONY Sunday (20 October, 2013) HERE
  • Don McLaughlin “Jesus Teaches the Unclean” (9 March, 2013) HERE
  • Dan Rodriguez “Multiracial & Multigenerational Ministry in the 21st Century” (9 March, 2013) HERE

Do you know that only 8% of all churches in the United States meet the definition of multi-racial churches? THAT’S EIGHT PERCENT!! (Yes, I’m shouting that in shock and horror.) I’m blessed to serve one of those 8% but we need to keep reminding ourselves of the value of our racial makeup. It’s far too easy to take our racial harmony for granted.

DEFINITION: According to George Yancey a multiracial church is defined as “a church in which no one racial group makes up more than 80% of the attendees.

Racial harmony is not the Gospel of Jesus. Racial harmony is a powerful response and witness to the Gospel of Jesus and the power of God.

HARMONY Sunday 2013On Sunday our church celebrated it’s 4th Annual “HARMONY Sunday”. This special day celebrates God’s work not just in bringing two racial groups together 20 years ago, but on keeping them together for 20 years. Today our church consists not only of Anglo & African-Americans, but some Hispanics, and several other nationalities. We have members raised near the Gulf of Mexico, and others in the Dakotas. Undoubtedly, the Holy Spirit is the glue that keeps us together.

Our church forms part of the Restoration Movement. This group of churches has spent the past 200+ years calling the broader Christian community back to the forms and teachings of the first century church as described in the New Testament. This mission has been carried out more successfully in some areas than in others.

One aspect of the earliest church that the restoration movement has given little acknowledgement is the area of race relations. The pages of the New Testament are filled with examples and teaching relevant to Jew and Gentile relationships, but little application has been made to contemporary racial tensions. Churches of Christ are still as segregated as any other denominations in the United States.

I love God’s vision of his church as described by John in Revelation 7:9,

I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.

God’s kingdom is multi-national, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-lingual. That crowd at the throne of the Lamb is our goal and destination, and there’s only one building. (See also Rev. 5:9-10 and 14:6) If it’s Jesus prayer, and it is, that “God’s will be done on earth as in heaven” then this vision of God’s throne, must be part of our vision for God’s church.

One of the problems churches encounter is that our vision for the church is too one-dimensional. We focus on doctrine over practice. Where we do focus on practice we often limit it to corporate worship. It’s interesting that throughout Revelation the throne scenes don’t describe a liturgy (order of worship), but they take considerable time to describe those present and worshiping.

HARMONY Sunday 2013-02That the church in eternity appears as a unified body should not describe those of us who’ve studied the first century church. Acts 2 describes how the crowd on the Day of Pentecost, which became the first church, consisted of at least 15 language groups. Although they held Judaism as a commonality, one can only imagine various cultural customs and values this crowd brought with it from across the Roman Empire. It’s no surprise that one of the first church arguments involved the distinct cultural groups of the Hellenistic and Hebraic Jews. But they didn’t split!! They didn’t form distinct Hebraic and Hellenistic churches. That came years later. Rather, they worked to find a solution to the issues at hand.

God’s vision for a racially inclusive kingdom and therefore a racially unified church is found throughout the Bible. Here’s a just a few passages to consider:

  • Genesis 12:3 All peoples on earth will be blessed through you. [A messianic promise made to Abraham]
  • Psalm 67:2 May your salvation [be known] among all nations.
  • Isaiah 56:6-7 My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.
  • Matthew 28:19 Go and make disciples of all nations.
  • John 3:16 God loved the world so much…
  • Acts 11:17 If God gave them the same gift he gave us… who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way? [The apostle Peter after baptising the Roman, Cornelius]
  • Galatians 3:8 Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith…
  • Revelation 7:9 I saw a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language…

Perhaps the greatest challenge most churches face is overcoming indifference with intentionality. Most churches I’ve visited will say “Blacks, Whites, Indians, Chinese, Hispanics… Anyone’s welcome here.” But this is a very passive statement. What most of these churches don’t realise is that they’re really saying, “Any Black, White… person that comes here and fits into our existing culture is welcome here.”

diversity 01Hispanics may be welcome, but we’re not printing anything in Spanish anticipating their arrival. African-Americans may be welcome here, but we’re not learning any Gospel songs or celebrating Martin Luther King Day. Chinese Christians may be welcome here, but we have no clue when Chinese New Year is, and little interest in learning much about it.

If existing churches are to represent the kingdom of God as seen at the throne of the Lamb they must learn to be become aware of different cultures and cater to them. We must admit that our way of doing things is not the only way of doing things, even if it’s the way that makes us most comfortable.

WE MUST BE INTENTIONAL.

What does intentional look like? Mark DeYmaz describes how in the early days of Mosaic Church in Little Rock they were starting to attract Hispanics. They began printing their church bulletins in Spanish as well as English. One week a well-meaning volunteer separated the different language bulletins to different sides of the entrance. Yes, this is only a small thing but DeYmaz notes, “Think about it: two separate tables, two separate groups.” That’s intentionality.

I love that as chapter 21 of Revelation (v1-5) describes God consummating his relationship with redeemed humanity, there are no longer any nations, races, people groups or languages. Rather, God’s dwelling place is simply “among is people” and “They will be his people, and God himself will be their God.” The only distinction among people are those with God in his dwelling place and those outside his city who rejected the forgiveness he offered.

Now there’s a vision for the church.

Why Don’t WE Pray for the Lost Enough?

So many books, seminars and DVD series exist on the topic of evangelism. Most of these resources describe mindsets, motivational pep talks, and above all else a wide variety of techniques. I want to suggest that in the midst of all these voices we often overlook the most productive evangelistic practice: PRAYER.

Last Sunday I was blessed to speak at the Center Road Church of Christ in Kokomo, Indiana. They asked me to address the topic of evangelism, so I did.

A significant part of my sermon focused on the benefits of prayer in the evangelistic process. I’ve provided a summary below.

5 Reasons to Make Prayer Central to Evangelism

  1. Prayer involves God in our circumstances. The Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20) begins with Jesus’ statement, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore…” Our evangelistic mission emerges from the fact that Jesus has all power! When we pray, we request the holder of all power to act on behalf of the lost in our  lives. This single function of prayer is 99.5% of the reason prayer should always be central to evangelism. The power of God that we request through prayer is real!
  2. Prayer reminds us that it’s not our expertise that’s on trial, we’re just joining God on His mission. Closely related to the previous point this reason just shifts the focus. If all power belongs to Jesus, then we need to remind ourselves that we’re just His tools. I suspect the #1 barrier to sharing our faith is that we take complete responsibility for bringing people to Christ. When we do that we subvert the work of God and the Holy Spirit in a person’s life. Yes, we have to meet people, speak to people, express our faith, but we also need to give God space to work.
  3. Offering to pray for (unchurched) people is a a super non-threatening way of expressing our love for God, our love for the individual, and God’s love for that person all at the same time. It is amazing how people will open up when you ask if you can pray for them.
    One of the first time I asked a waitress if I could pray for her when I gave thanks for my meal she nearly burst into tears telling me how her cat was suffering and about the surgery it needed. Now I’m not a cat person, but I prayed for her cat (can’t remember its name) as I gave thanks for my meal. I was at a conference that week, but if that happened in Rochester, I’d have gone back to that restaurant to ask that lady how her cat was. I’ve gotta think that lady hated being separated from her cat while she was at work that day, but that God was able to give her some encouragement through my question.
  4. Offering to pray for people leads to spiritual conversations. How often do we psych ourselves out of speaking up for God because it just seems inappropriate. But when a stranger asks you to pray for something specific, they’re having a spiritual conversation with you whether they realise it or not. They’re asking you to approach God with a need on their behalf. Then as the above story demonstrates you can come back and ask how God responded to that prayer. Before you know it, you’re talking about God with a stranger and they’re viewing you as a conduit to God.
    Or you could just walk up to people and ask them if they know where they’re going to spend eternity. Try that with your waiter and see how it goes. 🙂
  5. When prayer for the lost is part of church gatherings it raises the awareness of the members. One of the few specific things that Jesus commanded his followers to pray for was workers to spread the Gospel. Do you remember this passage from Matthew 9:37-38 “Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” When is the last time you heard this prayer at your church? Church leaders will often lament about church growth and evangelism, but are we praying as Jesus instructed us to pray?

Yeah, I know I cheated and there’s some overlap between those points, but I’d love for you to add to this list. Please leave a comment below.

And many thanks to Kairos Church Planting for helping me focus on prayer as the locus of evangelism.

Did the Apostles Disobey God?

I find the Apostles’ apparent reticence to leave Jerusalem after the ascension of Jesus perplexing. I don’t know if they were disobeying God, just misunderstanding Him, or carrying out their role just as He intended. In this post I want to lay out one perspective that makes me wonder if they weren’t disobeying God. It also seems that racial issues have a lot to do with it.

In Luke 24:45-49 the resurrected Jesus tells the apostles “repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem…. stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Then Luke begins the book of Acts by again noting the instructions “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised…. you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” But the apostles seem to stay in Jerusalem long after the Holy Spirit arrives. What’s going on?

The Holy Spirit arrives with power in Acts chapter 2. Peter preaches a great sermon and the first mega-church is born. (2:41)

The story (and the apostles) then stays in Jerusalem until Acts 8:1.

On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. (tNIV, emphasis added)

The Gospel has begun to spread. The movement is on. It started in Jerusalem and now it seeps into Judea and Samaria. But the Apostles stay put! Eventually, in 8:14 after the Samaritans begin accepting the Gospel the apostles Peter and John travel to Samaria where they stay and preach before returning to Jerusalem.

Chapters 9-11 revolve around God convincing the apostle Peter that it was okay to baptise Gentiles. God convinces him by gifting Cornelius and his household with the Holy Spirit: A sign Peter could not reject. Then Peter has to return to Jerusalem and convince the church there that God allowed Gentiles into his kingdom. The Jerusalem church still wanted to exclude Gentiles.

dandelion floatWhile the Jerusalem church and the apostles were struggling to come to terms with God’s admission of Gentiles into his kingdom, other Christians were busy spreading the Gospel to everyone. In 8:1 we learn that persecution scattered many of the Christians from Jerusalem, but 8:4 notes “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” One of the places they went was to Antioch, the third largest city in the Roman Empire at the time. Acts 11:20 tells us that “Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.

When the church in Jerusalem learned of the Gentile Christians in Antioch they sent Barnabas (not an Apostle) to investigate. Barnabas was excited about God’s work in Antioch, but instead of returning to Jerusalem he traveled further north to find Saul and brought him as partner in teaching the Gospel in Antioch.

Then over in Acts 13:1-3 the church in Antioch blesses Saul and Barnabas and sends them on a journey to spread the good news of Jesus throughout the Roman Empire.

At this point one might think that the racial and religious tensions between Jews and Gentiles would be resolved. One might also expect that after the Apostles in Jerusalem had accepted Peter’s experience with Cornelius and heard the reports of Barnabas and Saul that certainly the Jerusalem church had worked through this issue. But in Acts 15:1 we find Christians traveling from Jerusalem to Antioch and demanding that Gentile Christians submit to circumcision. Basically, they were teaching that Gentiles needed to become Jews before they could become Christians! Paul and Barnabas strongly disagreed with this teaching.

So everyone travels to Jerusalem for the Apostles to make a ruling. (Yes, they’re still there.) In 15:6-7 the elders and apostles meet to consider the question, then the text says, “After much discussion“. This still wasn’t a straightforward issue for the church. Finally, the Apostles Peter and James give speeches stating that Gentiles were not required to be circumcised or to observe the Mosaic Law. Acts has 28 chapters and it takes until chapter 15 for Gentiles to be accepted in the Jerusalem church.

It appears that despite the instructions of Luke 24 and Acts 1 the Twelve struggled to accept first that God wanted Gentiles to receive the Gospel of Jesus and enter his kingdom. Second, they appear slow to recognise that Jesus’ command to go into all the world applied to them.

The Good News

I don’t intend to write all this just to criticise the Apostles. What’s fascinating about all this is realising who really helped kick start the church in carrying out the Great Commission. It wasn’t the Apostles or even missionaries sanctioned by the Jerusalem mother ship.

Some Jewish Christians from remote parts of the Roman Empire initiated the Gentile mission and the struggle against legalism and prejudice. Acts 11:20 doesn’t tell us their names, but notes that they came to Antioch from Cyrene (northern Africa) and Cyprus. Later the Cypriot Barnabas joined the work and he recruited Saul, a Roman citizen from Tarsus in Turkey. This diverse group of Godly men opened the doors of God’s kingdom to “all nations”.

This encourages me that I don’t need to be the lead minister at a big city mega-church for my ministry to have profound influence within the church and the world. I hope it likewise encourages you that God can use anyone to take giant strides for Him. The rag tag group of Christians in Antioch understood the mission of God in ways that the Jerusalem church never seems to wholeheartedly embrace. They just loved their neighbours enough that they couldn’t keep their life changing good news to themselves. Through this church, God changed the world.

diversity 01

God used persecution of the church to send Christians into the world preaching as they went (8:1).  But the Apostles remained in Jerusalem.  I wonder if God didn’t finally use the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD as the ultimate endorsement of the Gentile mission and to force the Apostles to leave Jerusalem and spread His Good News with the world.

I’d love for you to share your thoughts with me.

  • Did the Twelve have good reasons to remain in Jerusalem?
  • Is the Jew-Gentile conflict in the early church comparable with racial prejudices in our society and churches?
  • KEY VERSE: I didn’t reference Gal. 2:9 in the discussion above. Does it change your perspective on this discussion?

Hospitality: Making Room for Others

  • Read Luke 14:15-23 here.
  • You can listen to this sermon here.

Hospitality. You know what I’m talking about. It’s that dreaded word that makes every Christian feel guilty for not keeping up with our housekeeping. It’s the word that says I’m a failure as a Christian if:cooking housewife traditional

  • “I don’t have all the kids toys picked up 10 minutes after they’ve finished playing with them.”
  • “I don’t host a small group every year.”
  • “I don’t have home made cookies just coming out of the oven when someone happens to drop by.”
  • “I haven’t had a church member over for a meal at least once a month.”
  • “My house isn’t always available for people to drop by, whether that be my next door neighbour or long forgotten ‘friends’ from out of town looking for a bed for a couple of nights.”
  • “My kid doesn’t want to share toys when you bring your kid on a visit.”
  • “I attend a cookout at someone else’s home, but never “fire up the barbie” myself – regardless of how many chips and drinks I bring.”
  • “I can’t fit the entire church youth group in my living room.”
  • “A guest spots a speck of dust I missed while frantically moving all the papers on the counter to a drawer as her car pulls into the driveway.”
  • “My TV isn’t big enough for five people to watch ‘the game’ at the same time.”

The word “hospitality” can strike fear in the heart of the best housekeeper… let alone the worst. But I have GOOD NEWS for you. 🙂

“Hospitality is all about the heart, not the house.”

Since Jesus didn’t even have his own house, it can’t be about the house. The biggest question a study of hospitality raises is this: “Do you have enough room in your life for another person?” In the parable of the Great Feast in Luke 14 God keeps sending his servants out looking for guests until his house is full. Each time the guests already present could be excused for thinking, “but we already have enough people.” Or, “I’m just getting to know these folks and you want to go get more?”

Christian hospitality means Christians wear a t-shirt that says, “I genuinely want to be your friend.” We bring this attitude to new converts. We make the effort to meet new faces in our Sunday assemblies. We particularly wear this shirt when we’re out in public interacting with the world. We let people know that we have room for them in our lives.

According to one study, new members who stay beyond their first year made an average of seven new friends in the church. Those who dropped out made fewer than two.” (From a good article here.)

In my experience churches/Christians are great at being friendly to each other and guests on Sunday. Hospitality and genuine friendship takes these relationships into the week. It might involve a meal. It might mean taking the kids to the part together. It might mean volunteering for a ministry together. It might mean going to the movies together. It might mean just exchanging phone numbers or  looking someone up on Facebook.

Hospitality is the act of inviting someone else into my life.

We express our love for God by inviting Him into our lives. Similarly, we express our love for our neighbours when we invite them to share life with us. Sunday politeness is just that, politeness. Love for neighbour invests in a relationship.

  • Do you have 7 friends at your church? Do you agree that 7 is a “must have”?
  • Friendships come with many degrees of depth. What type of friendship are you looking for in your 7 people? Or what’s the minimum level for the 2? (Eg. I played golf with a couple of guys twice last summer, and that was(not)  good enough for me.)
  • Can you think of some more items to add to my list of hospitality related failures?
  • How often do you gain new friends?

Rescue the Lost

  • Read Luke 15 here.
  • You can watch this presentation here.

This past weekend I had the privilege of speaking at the Capital District Christian Conference hosted by the Clifton Park Church of Christ.  The topic of my session was “Be The Change; Bring the Lost”.  I took the opportunity to share the Lawson Rd theme for 2011, Love & Rescue, and to describe how we’ve developed our Hospitality Ministry this year.  You can read my previous posts on “Rescue” here and here.

As I reflect on my presentation, I think the most important question I posed was, “Who is the most valued person in your worship service each Sunday?”  In Luke 15 the emphasis is undeniably placed on the fact that the sheep, coin and son are all lost, but subsequently found. However, in each case, some sheep, coins and a son are never lost.  Yet the primary character gives all his attention to the item/person that is lost.  As long as it is lost, that sheep, coin and son are the most valuable, or urgent, among similar items.  How do we value the “lost” people we encounter each day?

One of the ways we’ve sought to value newcomers to Lawson Road is through the development of a Hospitality Ministry. Hebrews 13:2 reads, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (ESV)  Our Hospitality Ministry intends to make any newcomer feel valued, whether they be lost, or family.  Here are some initiatives we’ve started in the last few months:

  • Greeters stationed in the car park (with an umbrella if necessary). These greeters can then guide guests through our facilities pointing out the nursery, restrooms, etc.
  • Welcome Table. Our new foyer will facilitate this much better.  It’s our goal to have some hot drinks, OJ, and pastries available for all comers, as well as someone available to strike up conversation.
  • Childproofing. We put plugs in all our power outlets.
  • Name tags. We created name tags for our greeters, nursery staff, and elders.
  • Followup. We now make an effort to have a member write a card (that should arrive Tuesday) to first-time guests and I send an email on Monday.  This gives us a couple of days of ongoing communication.

I understand that a skeptic might argue that this is nothing but sales techniques, which is why motivation is so important.  Our Hospitality is not motivated by sales or conversions, but by humility and love.  That’s what we’re seeking to communicate.

Here are some resources we used during the launch of this ministry:

These resources all come from churches vastly different to Lawson Rd.  We have evaluated each of their suggestions to decide if it’s at all applicable to our church, and if it is, how to implement it.

We do all this work because we know that God loves the world.  The world needs Rescue.  God wants to use us to break down barriers and let the world know that He loves and values each person.

I’d love to get your feedback to these questions, or any other reflections on this article.

  • How does your church communicate love to your guests?
  • Have you ever been on the receiving end of church visit that left a lasting positive impression on you?
  • Do you agree that the “lost” should be the most highly valued among us?

Crossing the River

  • Read Joshua 4:1-9 here.
  • If you missed Sunday’s sermon (April 25) you can listen to it here soon.

April 25th 2010 was a big day in the history of the Lawson Rd Church of Christ.  On this day the church raised enough money to allow the commencement of a building project that has been 20 years in the planning!!  Praise God.

My sermon for this occasion attempted to frame the new building as a monument honouring God.  Normally, when I hear this kind of discussion it sounds to me like idolatry.  But I was prompted to consider the account of the Israelites building a memorial to God’s faithfulness as they entered the Promised Land.  The fact that God told them to do it pretty much takes care of the idolatry question I guess.

This story reminds me that a pile of rocks (or a building) can tell a story; and we control which story it tells.  a new church building can tell a story of individual generosity, or it can tell of the years of God’s faithfulness to a congregation.  We bear the responsibility of choosing the story.

Dan Williams reminded me recently that as important as congregational history is, people don’t join a church because of its history.  People come to church because of what it offers in the present and future.  While I agree with this, I believe that churches also need to tell stories of God’s activities.  Sometimes those stories will be personal testimonies.  At other times, the stories will be of God’s involvement in congregational ventures.  The stories of God’s presence in our past provide reasons to enter the future with confidence we don’t go alone.

For the Israelites, the pile of stones reassured them of God’s commitment to them as they prepared for the enormous task of claiming the Promised Land from the Canaanites.  Likewise, for us, a completed building project should energise the church to continue their time, money and energy commitments to fill the building with people transformed by the power of the Gospel of Christ.  The building is a tool, not a trophy.

While I generally regard church buildings as a necessary evil at best, and a satanic, money and energy black hole at worst, I know that they can be used by God.  Like the Israelites we must ensure our buildings don’t become idols.  Rather God calls us to tell the story of our pile of rocks: a story of God’s faithfulness.  It’s a story that begins in a garden, climaxes on a cross, is memorialised in stone, and that transforms lives.

Because of limitations in our faith, we need reminders of God’s faithfulness and commitment to us.  I pray that we can always remember the story God wants our church buildings to tell.

  • What’s your general attitude toward church buildings?  Are they a blessing, or a curse?
  • Do you have personal memorials in your life that remind you of God’s presence and work within you?
  • Can memorials actually detract from worshiping God?  Does this apply to the Lord’s Supper?

7 Minutes to Make an Impression

So I’m reading a book which wants to tell me why people don’t come back to church after the first visit, and how churches can make it more likely that people return.  And I come across this little snippet,

Seven minutes is all you get to make a positive first impression.  In the first seven minutes of contact with your church, your first-time guests will know whether or not they are coming back.  That’s before a single worship song is sung and before a single word of the message is uttered.

Obviously your guests aren’t making a logical decision based on the integrity of the preaching, the character of the church staff or the clarity of your doctrine.  They are not weighing pros and cons of worship styles and theological viewpoints…. Instead, they are taking clues about your church’s atmosphere and the peopl’es friendliness on a much more rudimentary level.  Their subconscious minds are working overtime to evaluate their compatibility with this new environment.

Fusion by Nelson Searcy (2007), p49-50

As the quote says, this isn’t a biblical observation, it’s a lesson drawn from studies of human behaviour and decision making.  So what’s your experience?

  • When you visit a church how long does it take you to form an opinion?
  • How does the experience of getting from the street to your seat colour your expectations of the worship experience and teaching?
  • Have you ever decided within 7 minutes not to return to a church?
  • Have you experienced a church make a strong first impression on you within 7 minutes?

I certainly relate to this “7 Minute Principle”.  I enjoy visiting other churches, but when I do I’m on pins and needles constantly scanning my environment trying to make intelligent judgments.  What publications do they have in their foyer?  Do they have a powerpoint projector?  What songbook do they use?  What Bible version do they have in their pews?  Do they have pews or chairs?  How are the worship leaders dressed?  How many members carry Bibles?  Does anyone talk to me or notice I’m a visitor?  What are the demographics of the congregation?  Does it look like it’s involved in the community, or is it still living in the 50’s?

A couple of other good books that cover this topic are: