Monday, November 28, 2005

A Crisis in Church Leadership

I recently received a newsletter from a ministerial association that I'm a member of that contained some startling statistics. Compiled from sources like Focus on the Family, Ministries Today, Charisma Magazine, Christianity Today and others, these numbers present an unsettling reality for many of our churches and its pastors.
  • 1,500 pastors leave the ministry each month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or contention in their church.
  • 4,000 new churches are planted each year; over 7,000 churches close each year.
  • 50% of pastors' marriages will end in divorce.
  • 80% of pastors surveyed spend less than 15 minutes each day in prayer
  • 70% said the only time they spend studying the Word is when they are preparing their sermon.
  • 38% said they have had an extra-marital affair since beginning their ministry.
  • 33% of those surveyed look at pornography on-line more than once a month.
  • 80% of pastors' spouses feel their spouse is overworked.
  • 90% said the hardest thing about ministry is dealing with uncooperative people.
  • 80% of pastors' spouses wish their spouse would choose another profession.

I don't know about you, but these numbers concern me greatly. There could be any number of reasons why these realities are present, but I would like to offer one perspective. Oftentimes, there can be an overemphasis in Christian circles placed on outward gifts or abilities. As a result, those that are gifted orators, have natural leadership abilities, or are blessed with a good singing voice get encouraged at a young age to pursue vocational ministry. At times there seems to be little focus placed on their inward, spiritual development and Christ-like qualities like servanthood, humility and sacrifice are de-emphasized.

More important than anything else, the Christian worker must have a strong personal walk with Christ. They need to spend daily time in the Word, have a vital prayer life, have others hold them accountable and deal with their sin on a moment-by-moment basis. When these critical disciplines are not present, the slide into spiritual compromise comes swiftly. When we place higher importance on our competence in ministry rather than the character within, we open ourselves to pride, self-importance and self-reliance.

I've met too many young people that have been placed into significant leadership positions within their church without anyone ever discussing with them their personal development and growth. As one who evaluates applicants wishing to join our ministry full-time, I frequently have conversations with young adults who have significant areas of sin in their lives that their pastors and spiritual leaders do not know about. The sad reality is that if the numbers listed above are true, many of these pastors deal with these same issues.

Quite frankly, the ministry I work with places little importance on how well a new applicant can share their faith, preach the Word or lead a Bible study. As long as they're open to learning how to do these things, they can easily be learned through proper training. But an individual that lacks character or that places little importance on their spiritual walk and personal development...that's much harder to teach. Too many of us have a relationship with our ministry instead of a relationship with God and we set ourselves up for failure and disqualification from ministry.

All of us in vocational Christian ministry are vulnerable to any of the issues listed above. It is only through God's grace and our obedience to walk by faith in Him that we can walk with God for a lifetime. May I encourage you right now to pray for your pastor and that God would continue to soften his/her heart and that their relationship with Jesus would be the utmost priority in their lives. Pray that they would deal with the sin in their lives on a regular basis and that God would surround them with people that would encourage and strengthen them.

In fact, why don't you take a moment right now to send an e-mail or write a note to your pastor to them know how much you appreciate them and that you're praying for them? I know they'll appreciate it and hopefully it will help them to stay in ministry for the long-haul instead of becoming another statistic.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

A Thanksgiving Message

My childhood memories of Thanksgiving are pleasant ones. I think of my family -- aunts and uncles and cousins -- all cramming into my grandparents little house. I think of succulent turkey, Stovetop stuffing, pecan pie, my Gramma's deviled eggs, and my Grandpa's French onion soup. I think of the Detroit Lions, our hometown team, getting to play on national t.v. so that everyone in the country could see how pathetic they were.

The pleasant aromas wafting from the kitchen and the laughter experienced as family jokes are shared are common to many of us when we think of Thanksgiving. But when you get down to it, what is Thanksgiving about? Is it really just about turkey and watching the Lions blow a fourth quarter lead? Or is it something more? What are we really giving thanks for and, more importantly, to whom is that thanks directed?

Just last night I watched a little bit of the American Music Awards. As is common practice at many awards shows, many of the winners gave thanks to God "who made it all possible." And just what did He make possible? For them to shake their booty in videos watched by pre-teens on MTV and BET? For them to make millions of dollars so that they can buy homes and cars and jewelry while many live below the poverty line? When we give thanks to God, shouldn't there also be something in our lives that reflects that thanksgiving? Or is it really just enough to give thanks verbally though we live our lives any which way we choose?

II Corinthians 9:10-12 has this to say about thanksgiving:

"Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God. This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God's people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God."
Did you catch what it says there? When we are generous towards others we are also expressing our thanks to God. Admittedly, it can be hard to show God that we're grateful for all he has done for us. Afterall, we can't see Him and He really doesn't need anything we can give. So, is a short prayer before a gluttonous feast the fourth Thursday of each November really enough? How can we really demonstrate to God our thanks to Him?

I think that II Corinthians 9:12 gives us the key. By being generous towards others -- through our time, our talents and our treasures -- we are showing our thanks to God. I think that God takes great joy when we serve others in His name. It could be leaving a nice tip for a waitress that is having a rough day. It could be serving your spouse or roommate by cleaning up the house when they're not expecting it. Or maybe you take the initiative to share with a friend how they can know God in a personal way.

I'm fairly convinced that God is most pleased with us when we demonstrate our thanks to Him through our service to others. I just don't think that He is that impressed with our public thanks to Him when our private lives are full of selfishness and greed. Our true thanks to Him is displayed through a life of selflessness and humility (see Philippians 2:1-13).

In light of all that God has done for us, let's seek to demonstrate our gratefulness this Thanksgiving through serving others. Extend some grace to that cousin that usually gets on your nerves. Give a few bucks to that uncle that's just getting back on his feet. Help your Gramma out in the kitchen. And you can help me out by praying for a Lions win...they certainly can use it :)

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

What to do with Harry Potter?

The new Harry Potter movie, Goblet of Fire, opens this Friday and the release of yet another Potter movie has once again stirred the debate of what Christians are to do with this literary and cinematic success. As one who has read each of the Potter books and seen each of the movies, I'd like to offer a perspective on it.

As Christians, there are a couple roads that we can take when it comes to secular literature, films and music. One way is to make the choice to have nothing to do with these mediums and engage in activities like book burnings, picket lines outside theatres, and steamroll CD's. And then we can create our own little Christian subculture where we produce our own overtly Christian products. Realistically, burning books has never seemed to attract the non-Christian to consider Christ and oftentimes our Christian movies have not produced the quality product that people have come to expect. Just because it says Jesus doesn't necessarily make it good. If dialogue is cheesy, the acting is bad and the plot stinks, people are not going to see it.

The second road we take is to seek to redeem the culture by being salt & light (see Matthew 5:14-16). I am more inclined to pursue this route. Instead of letting the world create quality books, movies and music and then throwing rocks at those that produce them after they've become popular, why don't we create books and movies and music that is better than what the world offers? Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia series and Switchfoot's The Beautiful Letdown are some examples of Christians that have produced wonderful works of art that non-Christians have enjoyed and been challenged by.

So...what do we do with J.K. Rowling's mega-popular Harry Potter series? First, please don't comment on what's in the book if you haven't read it. I've heard too many folks speak with absolute certainty about whether the Potter books would be good to read when they don't even know a Muggle from a Mudblood or can't tell you the difference between Quidditch and Dumbledore. The fact is many kids have found a new interest in reading as a result of these books. This is a good thing. There are themes of good vs. evil, love over hate, sacrifice, bravery, etc. that are strewn throughout these books. We can take these Christian themes and discuss them with our children. It's good to stand up to injustice. It's good to be courageous for what is right. Sacrificial love is worthy to live out. However, when there are things that we don't want our kids to think is alright (e.g. lying to get ourselves out of jams), we can discuss these things with them and share why it's wrong.

As Christians, we need to realize that films are our modern parables. Films have the power to affect how we see history and current realities. This is not going to change anytime soon. Instead of just producing cheesy Christian movies, why don't we have more godly Christians who write, produce, direct and act from a Christian worldview? We can take popular films to discuss Christian themes of love, forgiveness and redemption. The Matrix, The Green Mile, and Cider House Rules are some examples of movies that can used to platform a dialogue with non-Christian friends about faith.

Lastly, let's be sure to also back movies like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which will be coming out December 9th. As Christians, we can vote with our wallets to support quality movies that are family friendly that contain biblical themes. I think by being aware of what is being discussed in popular culture will help us in using popular movies, books and music to share Christ with others. And by encouraging Hollywood, publishers, and record companies to produce products that are done with excellence AND with quality themes, we will continue to see more and more popular forms of entertainment that can be used for God's glory.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Please comment...

Friday, November 11, 2005

Pat Robertson speaks up once again

Once again televangelist Pat Robertson has offered his opinion on a controversial subject. Robertson was troubled by those in Dover, Pennsylvania who voted out members of their school board who favored teaching "intelligent design" in their public schools. Robertson even went as far as to warn the residents there that a natural disaster may occur as a result of this vote.

Robertson is known for his outspoken opinions and this comment is not unlike others that he has made in the past. When making pronouncements such as these, one must be careful, though. In a world where sin is rampant and disregard for God's laws is commonplace, who are we to say where and when God's judgment may fall? There are always going to be those that claim that certain natural disasters are God's judgment, particularly when those disasters hit people that they don't care for or that they disagree with.

I would encourage all of us to first examine our own hearts and the sin that lurks within there. We have all done enough to offend God personally for His judgment to be directed towards us. And if it weren't for His grace, then this would certainly be the case. When making claims to know the mind of God or speak for God (as Robertson seems to do quite often) we are treading on very thin ice. God did not comment directly on the people of Dover, PA or the people of New Orleans in His Word. Therefore, we should be hesitant to make blanket statements about things that our finite minds do not fully comprehend.

When Pat Robertson (and others like him) make comments like this, the unbelieving world entrenches its mindset of Christians as narrow-minded and naive. While Robertson is certainly entitled to his opinion, why does he feel it necessary to continue to make comments like this to a listening world? Does he honestly feel that commenting on this will bring those far from God closer to God? I trust that he will use greater judgment in the future in what he chooses to publicly proclaim and will choose to comment on those matters that enhance dialogue with non-Christians, as opposed to pushing them away.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Why does the word "Evangelical" threaten so many people in our culture?

I just finished reading a great article on Christianity Today's website by Philip Yancey where he details some conversations that he's had with some non-Christian friends of his. I appreciate his insights on the current state of American culture in regard to peoples' view of evangelical Christians, and as a result, Jesus.

Yancey references a quote by C.S. Lewis:

"I remembered a remark by Lewis, who drew a distinction between communicating with a society that hears the gospel for the first time and one that has embraced and then largely rejected it. A person must court a virgin differently than a divorcée, said Lewis. One welcomes the charming words; the other needs a demonstration of love to overcome inbuilt skepticism."

And this is where our society stands. Having once beem a nation where most people embraced biblical values and a Christian worldview, many are now threatened not so much by God Himself, but by those of us that represent Him to the world at large. In many ways, we evangelicals have become much more known for what we hate, than for the One we love. How sad...

You can read the rest of Yancey's article here.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Quality Time

Yesterday was a bustling day for my family. I had several meetings at the office and Lori also had a meeting at Lake Hart. In addition, she was making preparations for Brennan's sixth birthday today. As has been our custom since getting married, Lori and I like to have a weekly "date night" where we're able to go out at least once a week and just spend some time together. The plan for last night was for us to go out to a Chinese restaurant that Lori had chosen. Of course, things seldom work out as we have planned...

I was late getting home since I was at the downtown office and left later than I normally do. I barely got home before Lori had time to pick up our babysitter, Amanda. On the way to pickup Amanda, Lori had to pick something up that was forgotten at a friends house earlier in the day. This probably wouldn't have been a big deal, but Amanda's house can be difficult to find and Lori ended up getting lost on the way. So, finally at about 7:30, Lori got back and we were able to go out for our "relaxing" dinner after our not so relaxing day.

Because of the lateness of the hour (and because I hadn't had lunch), I was pretty hungry. We decided to forgo the Chinese place that was about 25 minutes away and go to a closer restaurant that we had a coupon for. After much searching, we finally found the place that the restaurant was supposed to be. There was a sign and everything! We were like, "Yeah, we found it and it's only 8:15!" But, alas, the restaurant had been shut down (gotta remember to call ahead for new places -- this isn't the first time this has happened to us :)

So, being the big spender that I am and wanting to treat my wife well, I decided on the most logical place that I could think of -- Taco Bell! And over chalupas and nachos, we shared about our day and how we're doing in life. And you know what, that was just fine with me. I really didn't care what we were doing as long as I was getting to hang with Lori. Sure, it's nice to do some real creative things sometimes or do things that are really special, but mostly, I just like to spend time with my wife. We don't really have to "do anything" for it to be fun. Just being in her presence is enough for me because I love her more than any other human being.

You know what? I think our relationship with God is very similar. I think God appreciates when we dress up nice to go to church or make a big deal to attend a conference, but my hunch is that He mostly just likes to hang with us. He enjoys when we take time out of a busy day to get away from other distractions and just spend some time talking with him. Or to just spend some time reading His love letter to us (the Bible) and learning more about Him. Just as Lori and I set a weekly time to be alone and spend time together, I think it's even more important for us to prioritize our regular times of meeting with God. And no matter what we're doing, if it's with our heavenly Father, I think we can consider it quality time.