Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Up-front relational costs: Managing resources in a small town, part 2

Relationships are as expensive as they are hard to measure in terms of financial worth.  There is no economic scale that can make relationships quantifiable.  You can’t predict how much time or effort or money a potential relationship might cost.  And yet the small town small church resources are inherently bound up in relationship.

What does this mean for the small town small church?  It simply means that there is no such thing as wasting God’s resources.   I had a conversation with some brother pastors once where we discussed how each of our churches might approach adding another worship service.  And these men—good men, Godly men, all of them—each suggested that a certain number of attendees would be prerequisite to having that service.  If X number of people would not be in attendance, then it wouldn’t be worth the pastor’s time, the planning effort, the money spent on heating/cooling the building.  It would be a waste of God’s resources.

That is “economy of scale” thinking, and for many churches in many cities it would be a good decision born from wise stewardship.  But the “economy of scale” ministry model does not work in a small town, because everything is about relationships, and relationships are expensive.  Relationships are expensive to initiate, the cost must be paid up front, and there is no guarantee of a return.  Yet in a small town that is precisely the cost of ministry.

I’ve been asked to perform a number of non-member funerals over the years.  Funerals are hard to do well, especially for someone you don’t know.  The relational investment in a non-member funeral for myself as a pastor is staggering and immediate.  The cost to my congregation is specific and measurable.  And yet both my congregation and I are willing to pay the cost.  My congregation lives for a few hours or days without the services of the pastor for whom they pay a salary and I spend relational time with the family in order to bring them God’s comfort.  To be the visible, tangible Body of Christ.  To reach out with the Gospel.

And the really amazing thing to me is that my congregation does not even seem to recognize how very odd it is to pay their pastor to be unavailable to them for a period of time.  I don’t know that it’s ever occurred to them to do anything else; to suggest that I limit my pastoral services to only those places where a return on the investment is sure to produce church growth.  I don’t think that they’ve ever considered that such a thing wouldn’t be worth our time.  I can guarantee that no one has ever suggested such ministry is a waste of God-given resources.  Why?  Because that’s just the way we do things here.  It’s the way we relate to one another in a small town.  We care for one another.  We invest into one another.  We shoulder one another’s burdens without a thought or care of whether that investment pays dividends or not. 

In a small town small church, there will always be many things that seem inefficient.  That look like money being frittered away without a investment payoff.  That look, honestly, like a waste of God’s resources.  But not to us.  To us it looks proper and right.  It looks like people come first, money comes second, and the only good use for the latter is to help the former.  That’s how small towns work.  Relationships.  Expensive investments that don’t always pay the dividends that money managers would like to see.   

Monday, June 21, 2010

Managing God's resources for ministry in a small town

As a small-town pastor, I love the people in my community.  I want nothing more—nor less!—than for them to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to believe upon it, and to be transformed by it.  Every single one of them.  But being a small church in a small town means that we have limited resources to accomplish that goal.  What to do?  How can we manage God’s resources for the greatest possible effectiveness and make a God-sized impact on our community?

The first lie in managing resources for the small town small church is that bigger equals better, that more people reached through less money spent is automatically the best use of our resources.  We have limited money, so we have to make the biggest splash that we can with that money.  Big events.  Big worship.  Big advertising campaigns.  In other words, do it like the big-city churches do.

In industry that’s called “economy of scale,” and it simply means that making 1 billion widgets at a time means that each individual widget is cheaper to make than if you had a production run of only 100.  And of course in industry that makes sense: design costs, worker wages, production time, advertisement . . . those are all quantifiable, unchangeable production costs that mean you can make more in a single run, you can make the most widgets for the cheapest price possible.  Economy of scale wins.

Except your small town isn’t an industry, and the people that live there aren’t widgets.  Your small town isn’t governed by production values and customer quotas, and so the rules of “economy of scale” simply get in the way of  your efforts to try and reach out to them.

Your small town is a network of relationships.  In your small town relationships are king.  If that weren’t true people wouldn’t stay.  But instead you have in your small town 2, 3, 4 generations of a families that have lived there all their lives.  Because of relationships. Not because of slick advertising slogans.  Not because of production values.  Not even because of amazing opportunities.  Relationships.

How would you change your approach to ministry if both you and your small town, small church could understand and articulate that truth?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Growth by taking away

 There’s something hidden at work when we come to church.  Something underneath the surface.  As we speak the words of the liturgy back and forth to one another, something else is going on.  As we hear the Scriptures read, there is an underlying reality.  As pastor preaches, someone else is speaking.  As the Sacrament is received, we get something more than wine and bread.

The hidden “thing” at work of course isn’t a thing at all, but rather a He.  God hides Himself away even in our worship, working silently but surely through His Word as it is spoken and heard.  Working according to His promise through His Sacrament.  We sometimes think that we have come to church to praise God and to add to His glory.  The reality is that through worship He adds to us.

The thing that intrigues me, then, is when well-intentioned people suggest that perhaps we could grow as a church if we were to just take something away.  Cut down on the sermon time.  Don’t serve communion every week.  Take away some of the more difficult portions of God’s Word, the more difficult doctrines, and we’d grow.

Hmmm . . . they might be on to something.  So let’s try an experiment.  We’ll take two plants.  Both are planted in a pot full of rich, fertile soil.  Both will receive the proper amount of water for plant health, and at identical intervals.  One we’ll put in a nice, sunny spot . . . and the other lock in a dark corner of the basement.

No . . . no.  You're right.  It doesn't work that way, does it?  Growth comes not for people nor plants by robbing them of the Light.  Rather than hiding away the light and robbing people of its growing powers, we uphold the things that give us His light, boldly and cheerfully and without hesitation encouraging others to see Christ’s light in action and to praise God for when it shines.

A good friend of mine puts it this way, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

In worship, Christ gives His light through many different words and actions, and through each of those actions His light gives holy illumination to everyone in His house, both neighbor and family member alike.  Don’t be fooled by the lie that by dimming His light we will grow.  Rather let’s give His growth-giving light of forgiveness and life every opportunity to shine forth.  For ourselves and for others.  

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The race that is never run in vain

I’m preaching on Galatians for the next few weeks, and so in my regular devotional reading I’m in the book, too.  Some might think that practice is combining work with my personal spiritual growth and excuse it because, after all, a pastor’s life can be difficult.  But I find that as I mine for gold in God’s Word, He tends to give me both nuggets for myself and for the congregation, as well.

But today—this morning—it was for neither.  It was for a friend of mine.

Paul drops a big pastoral bomb in chapter two.  One you never hear a pastor say in front of his congregation (and, truth be told, you rarely hear it even just among pastors), but it is one that every pastor worries over.  Paul confesses a fear that he had been running his race in vain.  He says that there was a moment, a season, a time when everything he knew and did in ministry was called into question.  That perhaps all the hard work, all the preaching, all the discipling, had been for nothing.  That maybe the cost had been too great and the dividends too little.

And this is Paul speaking.  Paul, who writes half of the New Testament.  Paul, who traveled thousands of miles on foot to expand God’s Kingdom.  Paul, who had been beaten and stoned and left for dead because he dared preach the name of Jesus Christ.  Paul, who after those things stood back up and looked up to Heaven and headed back down the same missionary road he had long traveled because he could not help but preach Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

Paul . . . who wonders, “Was it all worth it?”

And the thing is, he never really seems to answer that question.  He could point to souls saved.  He could point to churches planted.  He could point to Spirit-inspired letters of encouragement and exhortation written and circulated from Christian to Christian.  But he doesn’t count numbers.  He doesn’t even seem to count the cost.

But he does say, “God was at work in my ministry.”

For just a moment, the fog of worry cleared from Paul’s head and he saw the brilliant light of Christ shining down on him.  And suddenly the important question was no longer, “Was it worth it?”, but the important question was, “Was God working His ends through me?”

And the answer was—and is!—“YES!”  Yes, God was at work through him then.  God was at work through him now.  God was leading, God was preaching, God was healing, God was saving and rescuing and delivering.  God in Paul.  In Paul’s ministry.  In Paul’s life.

Is ministry worth it?  I don’t think that’s the right question to ask anymore.  I’m sorry to say that the answer to that question changes with my mood.  But was God there?  That I know for sure.  Wherever He has been in the past, He was at work.

And where He is today, let me be there also.

“My dear Lord Jesus,
Thou art mine; therefore, I wish to be Thine.

All that I possess,
 my body and my soul,
my strength and my gifts,
 and all that I do,
my entire life,
shall be consecrated to Thee,
 . . . to Thee alone. 

Lay on me any burden Thou pleasest,
I shall gladly bear it. 

Lead me anywhere,
through sorrow or joy,
through good fortune or misfortune,
                        through shame or honor,
through favor of men or their disfavor,
 grant me a long life, or should I die an early death,

 --I shall be satisfied with anything. 

Lead the way, and I shall follow.”

-C.F.W. Walther, Law and Gospel

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Being true in leadership

For every pastor and church leader, there are three simple rules for being the best leader you can be:

1)  Be true to God and His Word
2)  Be true to your people.
3)  Be true to yourself.

The first two are simple and straightforward.  Study the Word to show yourself a workman approved.  Love God and love others.  I suggest that if pastors and church leaders would do those two things and do them well, 90% of church problems and issues would resolve themselves without much effort.

It's the third one, though, that seems hardest.  God has made you to be you.  With your talents, your strengths, your gifts.  He has made you to be as you are, and not as someone else wants you to be.  When you operate from within your God-given strengths, you are working from within the framework God has established for your life.  When you try to please others by attempting to become something you are not, you are working against the very person God has created you to be.

The solution?  Stop trying to please others and start loving them.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

When all the world’s a stage, only actors play a part

Sunday was one of those days when I felt bad that God really had to carry the ball in worship.  I wanted things to be better, to run more smoothly.  I wanted the sermon to communicate more effectively.  I wanted more impact from that day.  But there’s a simple fact of life that happens in worship, and that is this:  You can’t manufacture the presence of the Holy Spirit, no matter how sincerely you try.

So it happened that I received a compliment after church that has haunted me for a few days now.  One gentleman—a visitor—thanked me, said he appreciated the worship service, and said, “You’re very sincere.”

“Sincere.”  That’s the word that stuck itself inside my mind.  It’s an attitude that I’ve chosen to deliberately convey every week: “I really believe this Jesus stuff and want you to believe it, too.”  It’s an attitude that reveals itself in the honest unveiling of my own weaknesses and struggles as I walk with Christ and my utter dependence upon Him and His cross.  It’s shown in a choice to worship with the congregation, not to just lead them through it.  The open acknowledgment that the words God speaks are intended not only for them, but for me too.  So yes, I was quite pleased to hear from a visitor that he sensed my sincerity because, after all, the only reason I do the work of a messenger is because I sincerely believe in the message.

But here’s the thing.  You can’t manufacture the presence of the Holy Spirit in worship, and you can’t manufacture genuine sincerity.  Genuine sincerity is born from deeply held convictions—what we Christians call “faith”—that are in turn born from the testing of fire.  Hardship nurtures sincerity when it is honestly endured.  Sincerity is nurtured through the periods of doubt and questioning that dig deep and find bedrock.  The courage of conviction cannot be held by a man who has never had his world turned upside-down, who has never had to sustain faith in the absence of evidence, who has never endured the long, dark night of the soul.

I have endured the torturous nights of my own soul and found time and time again that God’s promises are trustworthy.  That His presence is continual.  That His strength is incredible.  And that though His ways are inscrutable, His wisdom is unimpeachable.

God has taught me that though the night seems dark, His ways always lead to light.

And so I trust, and trust sincerely.  Because God is trustworthy.