Tuesday, March 31, 2009

On Faithfulness and Fruitfulness: Part II

On Faithfulness and Fruitfulness: Part II

A week or so ago I wrote upon the importance—perhaps even the necessity—of faithfully working at that which God has called you to despite the lack of fruit generated from it. At that time, I had intended to write a second post on the subject just a few days later. But in an interesting turn of irony, my efforts to do so proved unfruitful. So here it is about a week later, I’ve had a few more days to dwell on the subject, and I believe I’m ready to shed some Godly wisdom on this.

Before we get any further, I want to take a ½ step back and talk about fruit. I made a pretty big deal about working even when you don’t see fruit last time, but I realized something important: Fruit’s not always what—or where—you think it is.

Picture that you’re a farmer or a gardener: You begin with a hope, a dream—some might even call it a vision—to grow a certain kind of fruit. To make those hopes into reality, you develop a plan. You begin to work that plan; cultivating the soil, planting the seeds, giving the seeds nourishment and sunlight and just the right amount of water. You’re attentive to the needs of the plant as it begins to grow, but you’re careful not to smother it. In short, you’ve done everything a good leader—whoops! I mean farmer or gardener!—should do to ensure that you get some good fruit at harvest time.

So, you’ve done your preparatory work and you want to see fruit. What are the possibilities that could happen? What might spoil your perfectly laid plans for fruitfulness?

1) You could be looking for long-term fruit in a short-term timeframe.

When I was a teenager, my family lived on an orchard for a period of time. I learned a good deal more about fruit trees than I knew existed! And one of the things that I learned is that a brand-new fruit tree will not produce fruit for 3-4 years.

If you planted a peach tree, that news would be a BIG shock if you expected to have fruit in the fall, wouldn’t it? Similarly, in your ministry you could be looking for fruit that takes a long time to develop (like discipleship, changed attitudes about giving, hearts radically committed towards mission), but you’ve only allotted a short span of time in which you thought you’d see it. Think a little more deeply about what kind of fruit you want to see, and then ask yourself, “How long did that change take to produce fruit in my own life?” I think you’ll find that you’ve most likely underestimated the time it takes for a particular fruit to develop.

2) You could be looking for the wrong kind of fruit.

Most ministry leaders know very well that the old, old warning to not compare apples to oranges also stands true in ministry. But I know that I myself have been duped on a number of occasions into looking for oranges when what I truly planted in the first place was apples!

Let me explain: Specific ministry actions are intended to produce specific ministry results. No doubt that you, as a ministry leader, have specific results—or “fruits”—that you want to see from a given ministry. But have you done the work to ensure that what you want to harvest is actually the thing you’ve planted?

Take, for instance, the worship leader who sets out to rejuvenate and enrich the worship service. His grand vision, the one constant imperative that drives him constantly forward, is to make the service a place where God’s people can grow deeper, broader, and richer in worship. He comes up with a number of—let’s admit it—flat-out fantastic ideas to enrich the worship service. And then, to justify the changes he’s made, he commits to the church board to faithfully tracking worship attendance.

Now what’s that ministry leader just done? He’s decided that the best way to confirm to himself and others that he’s accomplishing what he wants to accomplish (deeper, broader, richer worship lives) is by looking for a different kind of fruit, namely counting rear ends in the chairs and pews. While worship attendance is a good thing to know, it won’t tell the worship leader (or church board!) anything meaningful about whether or not the goal of rejuvenating and enriching worship has been met! In short, he’s planted apples but counting oranges. The worship leader will continue to work hard at his new, exciting worship services, but until he learns to look for the kind of fruit he expects to harvest, he will be almost always disappointed.

3) You could be missing the fruit because you’re always looking at weeds.

One time, many years ago, my wife wanted a vegetable garden. The trouble was, she was pregnant and didn’t believe that she’d be able to keep up with the work such a garden would require. So I, being young, foolish, and a rather na├»ve romantic to boot, declared my undying love for my wife and to demonstrate, I would plant the garden and care for it myself.

Well, the garden was indeed planted, and if I recall correctly it was weeded . . . for a time. I lost interest, however, and very soon after that the weeds began to grow, and grow, and grow! When harvest time came I looked sadly at that garden—a thick, overgrown, patch of 3 foot tall weeds—wishing that I could undo the damage the weeds had done and mourning the loss of fruit.

But some sense of duty prompted me to dive into the weedpatch and see what I could find. And in the thick, dense, cover of weeds I began to find tomatoes. Small cherry tomatoes. Larger Roma tomatoes. Beefsteak tomatoes. So many tomatoes, in fact, that because of our garden’s abundance I was forced to give many away to my neighbor, who eventually even came and begged me to stop! The fruit was there all along! All there, all growing, all ready to harvest . . . but because I only had eyes for the weeds I could not see it, and therefore I could not rejoice in it.

Weeds are ugly. They are distracting. And they are even (regrettably) Christ-like; they are with you always even unto the end of the world! But although weeds can and do choke the life out of some fruit, they cannot kill it all. Learn to look past the weeds, find the fruit, and rejoice in it.

So, there you go. I hope that what God has been confirming to me brings some benefit to you, as well. But with all that God’s been teaching and showing me on fruitfulness and faithfulness, it appears that I’m going to have to write a third part of my two-part blog posts. Look for another post soon on knowing when fruitlessness means it’s time to move your ministry elsewhere.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The pastor's cat

--Found this old story in my computer files, got a chuckle out of it, and figured I'd share.

A pastor had a kitten that climbed up a tree in his backyard and then was
afraid to come down. The pastor coaxed, offered warm milk, etc. The
kitty would not come down. The tree was not sturdy enough to climb, so
the pastor decided that if he tied a rope to his car and drove away so
that the tree bent down, he could then reach up and get the kitten.

That's what he did, all the while checking his progress in the car. He
then figured if he went just a little bit further, the tree would be
bent sufficiently for him to reach the kitten. But as he moved the car a
little further forward, the rope broke. The tree went "boing!" and the
kitten instantly sailed through the air-out of sight.

The pastor felt terrible. He walked all over the neighborhood asking
people if they'd seen a little kitten. No, nobody had seen a stray
kitten. So he prayed, "Lord, I just commit this kitten to your keeping,"
and went on about his business.

A few days later he was at the grocery store, and met one of his church
members. He happened to look into her shopping cart and was amazed to
see cat food.

This woman was a cat hater and everyone knew it, so he asked her, "Why
are you buying cat food when you hate cats so much?"

She replied, "You won't believe this," and then told him how her little
girl had been begging her for a cat, but she kept refusing. Then a few
days before, the child had begged again, so the Mom finally told her
little girl, "Well, if God gives you a cat, I'll let you keep it."

She told the pastor, "I watched my child go out in the yard, get on her
knees, and ask God for a cat. And really, Pastor, you won't believe
this, but I saw it with my own eyes. A kitten suddenly came flying out
of the blue sky, with its paws outspread, and landed right in front of

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

On Faithfulness and Fruitfulness: Part I

Every pastor I know has struggled with these twin issues. Every seminary professor I’ve talked with and interacted with has had trials with this. Every committed church member in whom I’ve seen God birth a passion and zeal for a new ministry I’ve also seen struggle with the same form of soul-searching, gut-wrenching angst.
It’s the issue of faithfulness and fruitfulness. In essence, it’s the struggle between being faithful to what God has called you to do and the nearly all-consuming desire to see fruit produced through it. And it can eat God’s people alive.
I want to devote this first of two “Faithfulness and Fruitfulness” posts to encouraging faithfulness even in the absence of fruitfulness. Why? Simply because faithfulness—in this case, especially faithfulness to God’s calling—is a prince among virtues. Enduring faithfulness embodies courage, steadfastness, unyielding commitment, and far-reaching vision. It acts in the moment, looks for tomorrow, and lives rooted in eternity. Faithfulness is a product of having clearly heard God’s voice and responding with all of your heart and soul and mind and strength. It is nothing less than life-transforming.
The Scriptural examples of faithfulness to God’s calling even in the absence of fruitfulness are numerous and span both the Old and New Testaments. But the one story that caught my attention earlier this morning was the story of Joshua and the fall of Jericho as it is told in Joshua 6:1ff. If you would, please take a few minutes right now and review that story before you continue reading. I promise I’ll be here when you get back . . .

. . . Now that you’re back, I want you to pretend something. I want you to pretend you’re just another Israelite army grunt. A member of the rank-and-file. And you’re on your 4th day of marching around Jericho. You know nothing of God’s promise to Joshua, you’re just following orders. And those orders are beginning to sound pretty . . . well, pretty dang stupid by this time, aren’t they? You have no victory in sight, just what has become the day-to-day grind of marching around in circles. So what are you going to do?
It’d be easy to cut and run. Give old Joshua the finger, pack up your bags, and leave muttering under your breath about the lack of leadership, the questionable battle tactics, and even whether or not God’s promise of a land for Israel was true. What’s more, it would be perfectly logical to do so. It’d be human nature. And you’d probably even convince a few to leave with you.
So why stay? I’m not even going to try and use the “because you’d miss out on the victory in the end!” argument. Remember . . . you’re only on Day 4. There is no victory. So why stay? Why keep at it? Why should anyone keep faithfully working when it’s not producing any fruit?
1) Keep at it because sometimes faithfulness is a matter of character, not convenience. It’s convenient to leave because things aren’t exactly as you dreamed. But character—good character—demands sticking to task even when it seems logical, or easier, or even better to just ditch it. In a culture that absolutely fawns over convenience, character boldly stands out against the status quo.
2) Keep at it because faithfulness is catching, and others are watching. People everywhere are looking for two things: a reason to quit, and a reason to keep going. They want to know if there’s an easier way out, but they also want to have inspiration to keep walking the path. And nothing, N-O-T-H-I-N-G, is as inspiring to watch as a person of unquestionable character sticks faithfully to task. You keep at it, and they’ll be inspired to follow.
3) Keep at it because faithfulness is its own reward. You want praise? You want accolades? You want huge crowds of followers hanging on your every word? Then—and hear this very well—you’re working for the wrong reasons. You’re after glory, not ministry. You want to impress, not to bless. Seek after those things, and you’ll sometimes get them . . . but you’ll be disappointed and disheartened when you don’t. But seek God first, endeavor to be faithful to Him and His calling, and you will always have the reward of knowing a job done faithfully and to the best of your ability.
4) Finally, keep at it because you can. If it was just your strength you had to work from, then when your strength failed so would you. But “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” The incomparable, immeasurable grace and mercy of God given to you personally through Jesus Christ carries with it a promise: God will never leave you nor forsake you. He is with you to the very end, through thick and thin, forgiving your shortcomings, loving you as you are, and empowering you to do that which is good in His sight.

You know . . . there’s one more thing yet to add, and that’s this: The “fruit” end of the deal? That’s not your business. Never has been, never will be. It’s natural to want to see fruit grow as a result of your faithful work at what you’ve been called to do. There’s nothing wrong with you if you desire to see people’s lives impacted, to see hearts and minds transformed, to see entire communities and regions and even nations shaped and molded and reborn through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. You want to see people changed and grow in Christ. I commend you for that.
BUT . . . the thing about fruitfulness: it’s not your business. It’s God’s. You’re the sower that plants the seed. You’re the farmer that harvests the grain. But the One who causes the seed to grow, who makes the plant shoot forth and bear glorious, wonderful fruit? That’s God . . . and God alone.
Working for God involves what is, for many, a terrifying truth: He births an idea in your mind, a passion in your heart, calls you to work faithfully at that idea and passion . . . and then demands that you leave all the results up to Him. That takes an enormous amount of faith, for He may choose to never grow fruit in others from your work. It takes an enormous amount of trust to work faithfully and still believe that it’s not all in vain. But what I said above is still true: God is with you. In Christ He strengthens you to put your hands and heart into your work, and gives you the faith that can still entrust the results to Him. In Christ, you can be faithful even in the face of a lack of fruit.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Check out my friend Dave's blog post on the recent news story regarding the imminent demise of Christianity in America:


Dave says, "This is why, after all the calamities proclaimed in the articles I linked to yesterday, I am not afraid for the future of the Church. The future of the Church is not dependent or locked in a cause and effect relationship with the culture.The future of the Church is completely dependent on the power of God. And He is able. Exceedingly abundantly able. To do. To do more. To do more than we could ask.To do more than we could ask or imagine."

That deserves a BIG amen. Dave, thanks for the reminder that the Church shall remain according to God's promise and power!

Momentum and the speed at which it can be switched

When I read the big-name church leadership or church transitioning books, one thing that seems to stick out in my mind is the concept of momentum. You know, the concept borrowed from Newtonian physics (there called inertia: “a body in motion tends to stay in motion”) that insists once an organizational structure gets moving down a path it is almost certain to stay on that path. The leadership books then pick up on that and counsel that if you put the church on the right path, it will not only stay on that path but also pick up steam and speed and begin to grow. Something like a snowball rolling down a mountain. They make it sound so easy.
I had a recurring dream as a kid. Well, more of a nightmare, actually, because (for some reason I’ve never understood) it was intense and frightening. That dream was always the same: A dark and shadowy background with me on a rocky ledge. I would push a huge, heavy, tar-like ball. Constantly rolling it slowly over and over and over. My hands would stick into it and threaten to trap me in it. My body would strain against the ball unceasingly but I would accomplish almost nothing. (As an aside: if you’ve seen the movie “The Incredibles” and recall the part where Mr. Incredible is captured by the guns shooting the black, viscous, expanding goo, then you can almost understand my dream. I very nearly freaked out when I saw that.) My dream was the opposite of momentum.
Every church has some form of momentum. But I am recognizing more and more that each church has its own natural speed of momentum, as well. That speed has very little to do with size, a fair bit to do with structure, and a lot to do with the church’s own culture. Simply put, some churches can switch momentum fairly quickly. My friend David likes to brag that his church can “turn on a dime and still give nine cents change”. There’s a church that can speedily switch their momentum and head in a new direction quite quickly! Other churches, like my own, are just as able to switch, but the process is slower, and so every step becomes more obvious to leadership and the congregation as a whole and yes, like my dream, that process can be frightening.
To any pastor, the practicalities of this should be obvious: Genuine change only comes at the maximum speed allowed by the individual church’s culture. Try to make broad, sweeping, fast changes in a slow-momentum church and the church will by its nature not respond to those changes. It will reject them. Not because the changes are bad or unnecessary—in fact, oftentimes the church recognizes the need for the change!—but simply because the culture of the church is not equipped to handle change at that speed. In contrast, implement a five-year plan of slow change in a fast-momentum church, and they will get bored and—you guessed it—reject the change.

One more word for the especially inquisitive and insightful: You’re now asking, “Yes, but can’t I change the culture of the church to switch momentum at a different, more healthy, rate?” The answer is, of course, yes. Even church culture can be shaped and influenced and, over time, the rate at which momentum is switched can be changed. The caveat, however, is that changing the church culture is a slow and deliberate process. I personally think that a good rule of thumb would be to take your church’s normal rate switching momentum and cut it at least in half, probably more.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Freedom of planning

In my mind, one of the most compelling things about having a church plan is the freedom that comes from not having to make decisions. That may sound odd, because after all the process of planning is positively rife with decisions that must be made: decisions of policy, decisions of practice, decisions of implementation and process. Many, many decisions must be made, so why do I say that it’s the freedom from decisions that I enjoy so much?
Let me explain: each one of us lives with a filter that regulates the amount of sensory data that we absorb. Major things like a hand on a hot stove or the pained cry of your own child are routed through that filter with top priority. Minor things like the white noise of a fan or the constant barrage of billboards are filtered out and relegated to a much lower status. With the near-constant stream of information the modern American is faced with every single day, without a filter the mind would be overwhelmed within minutes of waking up in the morning.
Depending upon what’s important in your life, your filter is preset (by your nature, your personality, your upbringing, your religion, etc.) to be triggered by things that you consider important and file away mostly everything else. This is why I—as an admitted geek—might notice a news story on a new smartphone or other piece of gadgetry, but my wife might filter out the same story and instead notice one on the challenges of homeschooling. The filter prevents us from having to make thousands of constant “Is this important?” decisions throughout the day, because we have already made one large decision: to preset our filters for what matters to us.
This is what’s so great about a plan! A plan is like a filter, only for a church instead of an individual. In a plan, we do the hard, hard work of deciding ahead of time what will be important and, in a sense, pre-set the organization’s filters to pay attention to those particular things. Which, in turn, then gives the church a marvelous amount of freedom because it no longer has to occupy itself with endless “Is this important to us?” questions because it already has a plan. It already has focus. It already has clarity. It already has decided what’s important, and can focus on doing those things.
That’s the kind of freedom that I really like: the freedom to act on what’s important.