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The Anxious Christian – A Sermon

The following sermon was preached on July 23rd, 2017 at the Clarksville Highway Church of Christ in Joelton, Tennessee. The sermon title is borrowed from the book The Anxious Christian by Rhett Smith (see endnote below). As with any sermon I preach I use some of the material and others I leave out. I tried to stay as close to the manuscript as I could. Grace and peace as you read this.

The Anxious Christian

It was the Fall of 2013 and we had just completed a crazy summer in youth ministry. Most summers are hectic but this one served as one of the craziest I have ever experienced. I honestly felt like responsibilities came at me in supersonic waves and before I knew it I was put through the ringer. Couple all those responsibilities with some major changes at church and I was ill-prepared for what was about to happen. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18% of the population.”[1] I remember sitting in my office one day while I was studying Scripture and a wave of dread came over me in an indescribable way. It was like a cloud of darkness suddenly engulfed my thinking and all I could think about was the pit of my peril. The anxiety manifested itself into a belief that I was dying and I became obsessed with small pains in my body that, through the lens of anxiety, seemed like signs of cancer or a life-threating illness. I Googled symptoms and things got worse. I was in my house one day and felt a sharp pain in my leg and immediately started to panic and rushed to the Emergency Room. I thought it was blood clot. After extensive tests their conclusion was that nothing was wrong with me.

I kept getting headaches and I learned that anxiety will sometimes lead into other symptoms and cause serious physical problems. Consider Job’s experience:

The churning inside me never stops; days of suffering confront me.  I go about blackened, but not by the sun; I stand up in the assembly and cry for help. I have become a brother of jackals, a companion of owls. My skin grows black and peels; my body burns with fever. (Job 30:27-30)[2]

I called a Psychiatrist because I knew something very wrong was going on with me. I didn’t grow up with anxiety problems or depression issues and so I had no language to describe what my mind was thinking. In fact, my mind kept playing tricks on me. In one month I visited the ER a total of three times, the doctor four times and various specialists two times thinking something was drastically wrong with me. I finally got my diagnosis a month and a half later: I had what was called Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I tried different medicines and eventually settled with one that helped reset the chemicals in my brain. I started to work out more, read more and with the help of God I slowly have learned to cope with anxiety.

So why am I sharing this with you right now? When I first started struggling with anxiety I felt like churches were not really a safe-haven for those inflicted with anxiety. I would talk about my struggles and people would say, “Robbie just quit worry about stuff and trust Jesus” or they would say, “Perhaps you need to pray more” as if my mental plight is directly related to how many times I pray (or don’t). Church, unfortunately, was not safe space for me. So I started blogging about it and droves and droves of people started messaging me describing their anxiety and how they wish the church could be more of a safe space for folks. A place of healing. A place of learning about our struggles. So this message comes to you in the audience who are currently in the thicket of anxiety and you feel like nobody is listening. This message is for you. It is also for those of us who are called to “bear one another’s burdens” which means walking with people in this difficult time. A caveat is I am not a mental health professional and so most of my message is learned from folks who poured into me to help with healing. So I have two groups of people to talk to today. The first…

To the church in general…

I think we need to do better at helping people who struggle by admitting our own.

Whether explicitly or implicitly we have made the church to look like a collection of nice folks who have it all together who meet a few times a week for a “pick me up” by singing a couple of happy songs and sharing in on a positive message. The closest we get to talking about our problems is quoting Romans 3:23 saying “all are sinners” but rarely does our struggle sharing delve deeper than that. The result is people simply go elsewhere with their problems or worse; they don’t even address them at all. I remember sitting in an AA meeting one time and the topic of church came up and one particularly disgruntled man said about his alcoholism, “We can’t talk about this stuff (he used another word) at church. There’s no place for us there.”

Church if we are not helping the brokenhearted and struggling people then we are simply setting up shop and wasting our Lord’s time. I read the pages of my New Testament and there were some pretty messed-up folks that our Lord loved. When it comes to anxiety I didn’t know where to turn and people from church didn’t seem to resonate with my struggle.

I think we as a church also need to work on good ways to help but also understanding bad ways to help folks with anxiety.

People simply are just not educated about how to help so sometimes they say the best thing that they know about at the time.

  • Quit worrying…I wish I could. It is not like a microwave that has a power button.
  • It’s all in your head…of course it is. I need to deal with it though.
  • Doctors are just trying to shove meds down your throat, don’t take them…But what if I need them? Shouldn’t a professional make that decision for me?

You want to know how a person can help folks with anxiety? Presence. Not an answer. Not a formula for getting rid of it. Simple presence. Someone who advocates to the father on your behalf and is willing to pick up the phone when you are having a tough time. I once thought about starting a support group for those with anxiety and calling it something unique like AA 🙂 or something but I have yet to do it.

We need more support.

We need each other.

Now a word or two to those in the audience who are struggling with anxiety.

First of all, anxiety is a gift.

I read a book in 2013 during my struggles that changed my thinking. It was called The Anxious Christian by Rhett Smith and in that book he shared a couple quotes that I will not soon forget. He said:

  • Anxiety can often indicate to us that there is something constructive happening within us, beckoning us to follow it in order that our lives may be transformed.[3]
  • Anxiety reminds us that we are alive, a feeling that is important in keeping us from going numb and withdrawing from the life God desires for us.[4]

In the moment of angst when the world is spinning around it is hard for us to fathom that what we are struggling with is a gift. Curse is more like it. But gift? Yet through my anxiety I have been able to know God deeper than ever before. Paul said, “We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5).

That leads me to my next point…

God is not absent in our anxiety but right in the thick of it.

Psalm 94:19 in the Common English Bible reads: “When my anxieties multiply, your comforting calms me down.” Rhett Smith is again informative in his book:

One of the reasons we experience anxiety is that God is persistently trying to move us through the wilderness, because it is in that wilderness that we are most dependent upon Him. It is in that wilderness experience that God shapes us into the people He desires us to become.[5]

I remember coming home from work early one day wondering why I could not shake this anxiety deep within me. At one point I remember running into the boys’ room, locking the door and I started balling like a baby. Uncontrollable sobbing. With my hands clinched I punched the bed and yelled, “Why God? I have everything I could possibly imagine and I still am miserable.” I couldn’t hear God then but slowly I started getting an answer from him. He said to me, “You’re right Robbie. You do have everything. A loving wife, a nice home, a wonderful job, beautiful kids. But you don’t have me.”

In my worries and angst I had neglected reading of Scripture, praying and God was there even in the midst of all of that. When I look at many of the characters in Scripture I see a lot of humanity in turmoil. Death, financial hardship, frustrations, anguishes is all part and parcel for the course of life in this world. The dream God has for us is not the same as the American dream. Folks, if all we get is God then we have gained the entire world.

Dear friend, in your anxiety God is with you.

Thirdly,

You are not alone.

When I endured this I remember thinking that I was the only one feeling this way. What made it worse was that somehow in this struggle I felt like less of a man. I remember apologizing to Heather a lot because I was not the man she deserved. In one particularly weak moment I remember calling my dad trying to explain to him what I was feeling and not having the right words to say so I just inaudibly cried while trying to talk to him.

After walking through my struggles with a counselor I remember feeling a sense of peace when she assured me that I was not alone and that many men feel this way. Then soon my friend began to struggle this way too and he and I began to journey together.

Friend, I am not sure where you are at in anxiety. Perhaps you worry about the future and it paralyzes you from making decisions. Maybe you have anxiety because of some physical ailments that leave you weak or disabled. Maybe your anxiety stems from chemical imbalances in the brain. Maybe you are afraid of something happening to your family and anxiety keeps you from letting them mature like they should. Maybe anxiety has led you to cope with life’s difficulties through alcohol, pills, drugs or some other coping mechanism.

I don’t know where you are at but I do know one thing.

You are not alone.

Here’s the thing, God wants you to open your eyes to him and in the midst of your struggle to hang on with him. I am not promising your anxiety will be gone as mine comes and goes. It may become more difficult before it gets better. I am not promising an easy solution that God is going to miraculously take your anxiety away (although I pray for that).

What I do promise is God’s unwavering presence in your plight and you will have my arm around your shoulder in the midst of this. Then my prayer will be that others will look at your struggle and will come to one conclusion and one conclusion: How great is our God.

 

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[1] https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/any-anxiety-disorder-among-adults.shtml

[2] All Scripture comes from the New Revised Standard Version.

[3] Rhett Smith. The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? (Kindle Locations 383-385). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[4] Ibid., (Kindle Locations 387-388).

[5] Ibid., (Kindle Locations 541-543).

 

12 Years of Youth Ministry: Some Thoughts.

Twelve years ago today I started full-time ministry at the Main Street church of Christ in Springfield, Tennessee. A lot of pounds, four kids, balding hair and two dogs later, I am still in youth ministry. I wanted to share what I have learned in this post and I hope you can learn from it in a way that will bless you.

#1 – Humility is the Key

Humility is something that you either incorporate in your ministry or God will force it upon you. I thought I knew everything when I first started ministry. From bullet-pointed theology to my-way-or-the-highway activities I tackled ministry knowing I had the solution to everything. The problem is that my thinking was a load of crap. I was continually forced into situations where I simply did not know what to do and it made me a better person because of it. I learned to apologize, listen and to ask for advice. James was right: “Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord and He will lift you up” (4:10).

#2 – Ministry is a marathon, not a sprint.

I know that sounds like a motivational speaker’s comment or something you would hear at a conference but it is true. I ran so hard for so long that I did not pace myself like I should have. Churches should allow their ministers to take sabbaticals for renewal but even if they don’t a minister should take mini-sabbaticals to recharge and refuel. It is impossible to pour into a church when you have nothing to pour.

#3 – Hard work will trump talent any day.

I never had all the bells and whistles when it came to ministry. I am not good at creating cool backgrounds or coming up with the best game. I often didn’t have a clue when it came to titles for class or retreats. Yet, I worked hard at ministry and was able to write most of my curriculum for classes because I just refused to throw my hands up and say, “I can’t do this.” I visited hospitals, ate awkward lunches at school, went to recitals and ball games, washed buses and church vans, swept and mopped floors. I did whatever I had to do to help the church and serve the people.

#4 – Elders need the benefit of the doubt.

Put a few men together as leaders and sooner or later they are going to make decisions that you disagree with. I hear ministers speak about living in a glass house but the same could/should be said about elders. Just like us, they are sinners in need of the grace of God. Freely we have been given God’s grace and freely we need to dispense it. I would hate for us to get to heaven together and look at each other and say, “What was it we fought about again?”

#5 – Disgruntled Parents and Students can leave.

If a parent or student didn’t like what I said or did I would bend over backwards for them trying to appease their idiosyncrasies. If they said, “We are going to leave the church if you don’t __________________ (fill in the blank)” then I would wear myself out trying to earn their favor. Now I just don’t even worry about it. If I am doing the right thing and accomplishing the right tasks and if their opinionated disposition does not like what I am doing then they are just going to have to get over it. If they threaten to leave then there are plenty of other churches for them to get involved with. I have had students and parents hold grudges on me for some of the silliest things. If you want to do kingdom things together then we will at times disagree but iron sharpens iron and so this will happen. But, if you start acting like a 45-year-old kindergartner then I don’t have time for that.

#6 – Pour into your ministry staff

I have worked with some amazing ministers in Joe Rushing (Main Street) and Greg Smith (Clarksville Highway). Nobody knows the ebb and flow of ministry like your fellow ministers. We should go above and beyond to help them succeed. Offer to preach for them when and where you can. Maybe you can take some of their hospital visits (really elders should be doing this but that is another blog) away from them. Offer to write for the bulletin or do one of their radio spots.

#7 – Treat your body well

A healthy body will help keep your mind healthy. I have done this on and off for years. Pizza at 22 digests differently than pizza at 35. Just saying. Eat smart and workout. Maybe ask that the leaders provide your families with a free gym membership as part of your package.

#8 – The gospel is something shared

We need to share the good news of Jesus with folks in our community and a regret I have is that our activities were not funneled enough with evangelism in mind. Speaking of evangelism, I began thinking it was more about getting people baptized than it was getting them to submit to the Lord. Baptism is involved yet now I think about people treating Jesus as king of their lives now more so than punching a ticket to heaven.

#9 – God will provide

Time and time again Heather and I would be at the end of the month with no money and bills coming in left and right. I remember one time looking at my bank account and it was $-640. God shows up though and has helped us out tremendously. Sometimes it would be in the form of a random check in the mail or it maybe some friends needed help with their work and I could go and labor with them for a check. God provided a child for the 100-year-old Abraham so that through him his name would be blessed but also God cares about a little youth minister in Robertson County.

#10 – Relationships make it all worth it.

This became evident to me when so many of my former youth group kids asked me to do their weddings and pre-marital counseling. They wanted me to be a part of their moment not because I am an excellent speaker but because of our relationship. Looking back I can see just how blessed I am. To see a youth group kid go from not being involved, to being involved, getting baptized, plugging in, discipling others, going to college, getting married and having a family of their own is something words cannot describe.

12 years. Thanks Main Street and Clarksville Highway. Thanks Heather for putting up with me but also being my biggest cheerleader. Thanks Kaleb, Amelia, Madelyn and Samuel for sacrificing time with daddy so that he can serve teenagers and their families. Thanks Mom and Dad for giving me a foundation to work hard. Thanks to the many moms, dads and others who entrusted me with their son or daughter.

I am blessed.

 

 

Ministry and Loneliness

A brief disclaimer to start: I am not looking to draw attention to myself or I do not desire pity from this post. My desire is that after reading this you will pray for your ministers and appreciate them more. I simply want to paint a picture for you on what really happens behind the scenes.

Ministry is a lonely vocation. I know that seems strange reading that as we are always around people. It might seem normal for one to say that a mortician is a lonely vocation or perhaps even a janitor might seem like a job on an island at times. Yet show me one of your ministers and I will see one of the loneliest people in your church. “No way, Robbie,” you say. “My preacher talks to so many people and always wears a smile on his face.” My response to that is your preacher probably thinks he or she gets paid to do that and more than likely he or she has such a selfless desire to serve that they do not want attention to be on them rather the attention is on God.

“Why are they so lonely though?” It is complicated and hard to define especially when you are unfamiliar with the job itself. But I think multiple issues are involved.

We are still employees. Ever tried to be good friends with your boss? Some of you have done it but many in the corporate world keep business and personal separated. Ministry is a weird form of business because our bosses are actually those who are not in full-time ministry. Elders, at least in the autonomous set-up Churches of Christ typically have, have their jobs elsewhere but still serve as the bosses of ministers. It is a weird dynamic. Don’t believe me? Talk to a minister who has been at a church for many years and then leaves or gets fired. Ask how the friendships are going.

We can’t really share our struggles. By the time we share what is going on most of the time it is too late. Many ministers wrestle with anxiety, depression, burnout, hopelessness, doubt, anger and full range of other emotions. Look inside our heads and you might think we have major psychological issues but they are no more than what you have. We just can’t really disclose much.

We struggle at what we could do outside of ministry. What would happen if I no longer were in ministry? Could I provide for my family? Could I put food on the table? What about all the bills I have? Many companies would look at my 100+ hours of graduate school and chuckle as it has nothing to do with the corporate world.

We are lonely because many of our ministry friends leave the ministry. When I started youth ministry there was five of us who were close and recently started our ministries. Out of those five, I am the only one left. Even then I quit for about six months.

Now, not all ministers feel lonely and many have learned to adapt. Before I close I want to share that many of us knew this before we got into the ministry. We signed up for this. Good, bad or indifferent this is the job we chose. Also, many of us find friendship elsewhere to help combat our loneliness. Facebook groups have helped me tremendously deal with some of the issues in ministry. Looking at what fellow ministers struggle with all I long for are two simple words: ME TOO. Shepherds all across the globe also help their ministers tremendously. They delicately balance being both shepherd and employer. This helps the ministers immensley.

Do me a favor would you? Right now pray for your ministers by name. Pray for their families. Pray for their physical and mental health.

Blessings.

Ministry and Loneliness

I don’t know if you have taken the Myers-Briggs Personality Test but in describing myself I am an ENFJ. I am the “Protagonist” and believe strongly in helping other people. I do have a weakness though and the website linked above describes it very well:

ENFJs are vulnerable to another snare as well: they have a tremendous capacity for reflecting on and analyzing their own feelings, but if they get too caught up in another person’s plight, they can develop a sort of emotional hypochondria, seeing other people’s problems in themselves, trying to fix something in themselves that isn’t wrong. If they get to a point where they are held back by limitations someone else is experiencing, it can hinder ENFJs’ ability to see past the dilemma and be of any help at all. 

In short, sometimes what other people go through I see into my own life as if I take on that problem as my own. I have learned self-reflection and boundaries in my ministry so I rarely struggle with this but it is possible.

I share my personality with you because it lends itself to one major hindrance in a ministry: loneliness. Ministers are some of the most lonely people because (in part due to our personalities) of the nature of the job.

Why are we so lonely?

We are never really a part of the church family. Many churches make their ministers feel at home but as long as they pay our salaries the relationship is more like a business than it is familial. That is not necessarily a bad thing as it is important for an outsider to speak to some things that insiders would not have known otherwise. On the flip side though it can be damaging when a tenured minister leaves a church and finds that he or she does not have mane friends.

We are lonely because we have been burned before. When Heather and I first started dating we were both reticent at going forward quickly. We both had experienced relationships that did not work and, especially on Heather’s side, we both had been burned before. It is hard to lean into relationships when you get burned. Churches sometimes treat ministers like crap. That’s not nice to say but it is the truth. The churches I have been in have blessed my life but I have heard some horror stories of churches and how they have rallied to get a minister fired. Also, some churches got burned by ministers who simply used them to climb the ministry ladder to a “bigger” and “better” church.

We are lonely because we give yet often do not receive. Part of my job as a minister is to show up at hospitals when folks are sick and check on them when things are not going well. More often than it should there is no reciprocity in a church setting. Meaning, churches often do not check on their ministers. When was the last time you checked on your minister to see how he or she was doing? If they recently had a newborn baby did you go visit them in the hospital?

So what can be done about this?

  1. Ministers must find a ministry friend(s) who are like them.
  2. Ministers must seek out a mentor who is older than them (I had this but did not do a good job of sticking to it).
  3. Ministers must incorporate their spouse. Thom Rainer said, “Many pastors are reluctant to involve their spouses in the messy details of church life. I would hope that you view your spouse as your best friend with whom you can share the good, the bad, and the ugly” (Source).
  4. Ministers must know themselves. Take a personality test or an Enneagram Test. This will help you understand how you handle certain situations.
  5. Churches…check on your minister and love them.

5 Things Church Bashers Have Taught Me

In the last six months within the Churches of Christ I have seen a number of different issues that seem to garner much attention over social media. The pattern (though not always) seems to go in this order:

  • Controversial issue[1] occurs at a church
  • Issue finds its way to social media channels
  • Ensuing social media discussion follows
  • Bashing of churches (or people) usually in a derogatory way.
  • Further polarization.

Church bashing is nothing new and I am sure this occurs in denominations all over the planet. I can only speak from what I have seen in my small little corner of the world which, admittedly, is very limited. I want to share 5 lessons I have learned from those who bash churches but I want to first give a disclaimer.

DISCLAIMER: There is a difference in “bashing” a church and speaking truth to a church. I understand many are hurt by various churches who have either misused their authority or have appeared very much like the Pharisees Jesus spoke against. Jeremiah and a host of other prophets called the people of Israel to radically change their lives to pursue a more authentic walk with God free from hypocrisy. Church bashing is characterized by those who are more concerned about their “rightness” instead of helping churches become filled with God’s “rightness.” All churches need prophetic nudges at times but the bashers are those who seem to speak out of anger rather than love.

So here is what I have learned from those who bash the church…

#1 They have lost their focus

I talked with a baptist minister recently and the topic of differences between us came up and what he said was, I thought, very wise:

“To be honest Robbie I don’t have time to focus on all of our differences when their are so many people lost out there who need Jesus.”

Thinking about what he said I wonder if all of our efforts to talk about what this church has done or that church has done is akin to us shooting ourselves in the foot. In the animal world they call this type of thing filial cannibalism where animals eat their own kind. The Hebrew writer (whoever she is…) told us to “fix our eyes on Jesus” (Heb. 12:2) and if we are doing that we know that his focus was to “seek and save the lost” (Lk. 19:10).

#2 – They have forgotten the beauty of church autonomy

One of the reasons I love the Churches of Christ is their firm belief in the autonomy of local churches. Each church is governed by a local eldership made up of a few men who meet the principles found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. One of the unspoken maxims is that the Church of Christ has no creed but the Bible. I like that. But I also like the Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Creed but I digress. When someone comes up to me and says, “Robbie, did you hear what Church A has done?” my usual response is, “Who cares? Church A is not your church so let their eldership worry about it so we don’t have to.” If there is serious error in the church then it is biblical to sit down with their elders and discuss things but that is about all you can do. Even doing that might be a bit of a stretch. Calling them out in public forums and putting them on Brotherhood Watchdog lists does nothing but feed the belief that we actually are not autonomous.

#3 Church bashing comes from all sides

It is tempting for some to think that “legalists” are the ones who bash churches but I have seen it from all over. These are actual statements I have seen or heard:

  • “That church just started using praise teams. Bunch of liberals.”
  • “You don’t want to go to that church as they preach with the NIV.”
  • “Their youth group goes to Winterfest. Pretty soon women will start preaching for them.”
  • “Why don’t you come to our church. That other church is stuck in the 1950s.”
  • “Nobody cares about that church. They are irrelevant and will slowly die off.”

All of this is church bashing and it comes from those who are progressive and those who are more conservative. This leads me to a very important point…

#4 Church bashing lacks humility

When I get to a point where I have to prove to someone just how right I am I might need to read Philippians 2:1-11 again and do a serious heart check. I would say that humility is a Christian discipline par excellence and that when we do not have the interests of others in mind then we find ourselves wanting in regards to humility. I certainly do not possess a corner in the market in terms of understanding the best position a church could be in theologically or otherwise but who does?

So…

#5 Church bashing comes from different views on how we interpret Scripture.

“I can’t believe that would do such a thing like that! Can’t they see it is plain as day in Scripture?” The short and less complicated answer to that is, “No.” Practicing some humility is it not healthier to say that maybe the method we use to interpret Scripture might not be the most accurate or theologically helpful way? I think there are plenty of things in Scripture that are “non-negotiables” but I also think there are plenty of things that are negotiable. How we arrive at those conclusions is very important but admittedly the tension arrives because we often use different systems to get there.

In the end I think it is biblical for other churches to confront churches that are in error but to bash them in a way that is demeaning, self-serving and free from love is something, I believe, the Lord is displeased with. I have done this before in previous posts years ago and I fully believe I did this with arrogance and no humility in me whatsoever. It is easier to bash something you don’t understand than to try to wrap our brains around it. I want to be known when Christ comes again not for poking fun at the bride of Christ but by making every effort to being peaceful with both those I agree and disagree.

IMAGE CREDITS: United Methodist Communications

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[1] When I say “controversial,” those who are not associated with the Churches of Christ (or Stone-Campbell Movement) might be scratching your heads thinking to yourselves, “What is he talking about?” Some of the controversial issues in our context are (but certainly not limited to): women in leadership, instrumental music, praise teams and open fellowship.

5 Signs That Your Church’s Mission and Jesus’ Mission are Out of Sync

We were interviewing at this particular church for a youth ministry position. The church was large with about 900 or so members and a youth group of almost 150. During the interview process and in conversations over the weekend they bragged about the facilities and the various projects occurring. Talking with the senior minister in his office he unrolled blueprints for a massive building expansion and at the point I knew it was not a good fit for me. This church seemed concerned more about building the church (literally) than growing the church.

You see there is nothing wrong with a building or expansions as they serve a function for the church. Yet it seems sometimes the church gets lost in mission and loses focus of what’s most important. I am reminded of the church in Ephesus that went from being such a vibrant family to them abandoning their first love (Rev. 2:4).

So how do you know if your church’s mission and Jesus’ mission are out of sync? These responses come from a desire for us to revive our effort in the communities to become a more externally focused church. It is my prayer that we change and do so for the sake of the unchurched.

You know your church’s mission and Jesus’ mission is out of sync when…

The majority of the church’s activities are inwardly focused.

Take a hard look at your church’s calendar and your youth group’s calendar. Are the activities focused inwardly or outwardly. Read this carefully: the growth of the church is directly correlated to how often your membership spends time with the unchurched. If most of the church’s activities function to serve only its members then our mission is not in line with the mission of Jesus. A side note tangent I want to emphasize: gospel meetings as they stand now are antiquated and function mainly to focus on the membership and not the unchurched. I dare you to make a list of the activities of your church and prove how they are externally focused. Go ahead. From worship to classes to bulletins to announcements to meeting times all seem to have the same subject in mind: inward not outward.

There is no real growth in the church.

I hear of churches that are growing and upon further investigation most of the growth that has occurred is from members leaving other churches. If Satan ever had a good distraction tool it would be pseudo church growth. How many baptisms have you had from unchurched members in the past year? I am not talking about sons or daughters of attendees but I am talking about people from your community where members from the church have poured into them with intense discipleship.

The church is distracted with inconsequential issues.

Look at the ministry of Jesus and the ministry of Paul and nothing distracted them from spreading the good news. Paul said, Have nothing to do with profane myths and old wives’ tales. Train yourself in godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7). Jesus was truth and a church that focuses on issues more than Jesus himself is one that is out of sync with the mission of Jesus.

People in the community don’t really talk about the church

Everywhere Jesus went people talked about him (despite his efforts to remain quiet). Both the naysayers and the followers probably had endless discussion at the dinner table about this new movement. Fast forward to now…

Do people in the community talk about your church? “Hold on just a minute,” you say. “There are so many churches in our county and so many people and not everybody is going to talk about the church.” True but I am not talking about everybody. I have said this before in another post but in our county there are a couple of churches that I always here people talk about. They are involved with this program and that school and this addiction recovery and that recreational league. Here is a fact…they are growing and it reflects in how active they are in the community.

Divided Leadership

Jesus prayed,that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). The point of unity is for others to see that God sent Jesus. When our leadership is divided and loses track of vision (or does not have one) then our mission derails from the mission of Jesus.

What else would you add to this list? It is certainly not comprehensive.

On Jealousy

It probably started late in elementary school and started blossoming in middle school.

Jealousy.

There was this one girl that I was in love with since the first time I saw her in sixth grade. She was gorgeous and I was absolutely enthralled with her every movement. I vividly remember the first time I mustered up the courage to ask for her phone number and call her. We used to talk on the phone a lot during middle school (I still have her phone memorized) but we never became boyfriend/girlfriend. She seemed to go out (a term that was synonymous with dating) with guys that looked better than I do or were a lot better at sports than me. I was jealous of them and secretly I wished bad things to happen to these guys.

Thankfully, they never did.

Jealousy is the posture we get when we look at others and become dissatisfied with what we have or… Click To Tweet

Stephen Covey said in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “Isn’t it kind of silly to think that tearing someone else down builds you up?” By funny he probably means sad. That is what jealousy does to our hearts though. Andy Stanley in his book It Came From Within (Now called Enemies of the Heart) said that our jealousy issue is not a problem we have with other people or even ourselves but with God.

Who is your real issue with when you’re jealous or envious? God. God owes me… Your problem is with God. You think God ripped you off. God owes me that kind of wealth… those kinds of parents… that level of IQ… that opportunity to succeed… those kinds of kids….

That hurts Andy.

I look at my own broken soul and the chords of jealousy ring loudly toward God. I get jealous at:

  • …people who minister better than I do.
  • …people who preach better than I do.
  • …people who seem like better fathers or husbands than I am.
  • …people who have better homes, vehicles, vacations than me.
  • …people who are more spiritual than I am.
  • …people who are in better shape than I am.

The Proverb writer is true: “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot” and “Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?” (Prov. 14:30 and 27:4). Jealousy has a way at eating your own soul that works a lot like mold does on wood. It starts small then grows and then consumes the entire piece of wood until there is nothing left. Joseph Kennedy said, “More men die of jealousy than of cancer” and I tend to believe him (see James 3:14-16; 4:2-3 for a sober reminder of the fruit jealousy yields). Jealousy comes from an inferiority issue that people who lack self-esteem or have a poor self-image usually struggle with. Find me someone who is bitter and lashes out at people and I will assure you they struggle with jealousy.

So how do we address this issue?

I am not sure there is a step by step process but I think it starts with looking to God and saying: “Lord, I am struggling with looking at what everyone else has but I want to let you know that you have given me everything and I am learning to be content.” Insert a little Pauline theology: “Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have” (Phil. 4:11; NLT). Having done this and worked on our own hearts Andy Stanley suggests that instead of being jealous with others we rejoice in them.

Reading that I bet you got ticked off a little bit.

Seems counter-intuitive for me to even type that.

How can we truly be a community of believers if we can’t celebrate what God has blessed others with? He didn’t bless me with all of those things I am jealous about because he chose not to. He is sovereign and I am not. Celebrating the success of people will do two things: 1) It creates satisfaction in what you have and 2) draws you closer to other people.

Let it go man. Rejoice. It is a whole lot better on your soul to look at someone and saying: “God thank you for gifting them with that and also for gifting me with the things I have.”

How do you address jealousy?

 

 

5 Questions to Ask Before Leaving a Church

One caveat: What I discuss in this post is leaving the local expression of the Church and not leaving the faith altogether. 

I love the Church. I am unapologetic when it comes to advocating that all believers must participate in a local church in the neighborhood in which they live. I do not believe you can “get your church” (whatever that means) sitting on your couch watching a preacher deliver a message. Yet I am also realistic understanding that not every expression of the local church is doing what Jesus intended for them to do. Corinth had her issues, Thessalonica was not unscathed and Ephesus lost passion along the way and so churches have struggled to embody Jesus and to become participants of the reigning kingdom. Churches will always struggle as long as we are on the wrong side of the Fall.

Along the way though I hear some people say something to the effect of, “I can’t take this anymore. I am leaving this church.” Some reasons break my heart and I understand why they leave while other reasons show a sign of immaturity and, to put it bluntly, selfishness.

When is the right time to leave a church? I saw a few helpful articles that cite numerous passages about knowing when the right time it is to leave the church. Most of those center around leaving when biblical mandates are compromised. For example John MacArthur gives six reasons to leave a church (source):

  • If heresy on some fundamental truth is being taught from the pulpit (Gal. 1:7-9).
  • If the leaders of the church tolerate seriously errant doctrine from any who are given teaching authority in the fellowship (Rom. 16:17).
  • If the church is characterized by a wanton disregard for Scripture, such as a refusal to discipline members who are sinning blatantly (1 Cor. 5:1-7).
  • If unholy living is tolerated in the church (1 Cor. 5:9-11).
  • If the church is seriously out of step with the biblical pattern for the church (2 Thess. 3:6, 14).
  • If the church is marked by gross hypocrisy, giving lip service to biblical Christianity but refusing to acknowledge its true power (2 Tim. 3:5).

I get what he is saying and agree with him but before you even consider leaving I wonder if there are some questions we could ask that might probe us deeper. I have come up with five questions to ask that would help me were I considering departing. My concern here is motives for leaving.

Let me know what you think?

Will Christ be glorified with my departure?

Is this about you or is it about Christ? Sometimes leaving a church is the only way you can give glory to Christ but sometimes it also means staying.

Is this a matter of preference, personality or precept?

In other words is my departure about a particular worship style? Is it about a particular minister on staff that your personality does not jive with? Or is it about a fundamental truth that is cast aside that is clearly a fellowship issue.

Will my departure cause division?

This is a big one for me. I understand that if there is a huge doctrinal issue then division will happen but there is a difference between dividing biblically and being divisive. One looks to glorify Christ (see question #1) and the other looks to glorify self.

Have I exhausted every logical possibility?

“I can’t stand that preacher and if I had to listen to one more sermon of his I was going go crazy,” said one man after leaving a church. I asked him, “Did you talk with the preacher about it?” “No,” he touted. “Did you discuss this with the eldership?” He looked at me as if I was an idiot and he said, “A couple of them knew how I felt.” Ok…we are done here. Make sure to exhaust all possibilities.

Have I sought discernment from the Spirit?

Have I wrestled with the text and sought coouncil from the Holy Spirit through prayer and meditation? Have I sought the advice of Spirit-filled counselors who are seeking to faithfully Christo-centric in their journey? Then in wrestling through prayer, fasting and conversation what word from the Lord have I heard?

I know this is not a complete list but what are your thoughts on it?

Are nursing homes a waste of your church’s time?

Her name was Jewel and she was a resident at a nursing home in Henderson, Tennessee. I was an undergraduate student at the time at Freed-Hardeman University and for some reason I decided to visit a nursing home once a week on my own. I remember randomly going into a room and meeting this lady named Jewel and talking with her a while and began to develop a relationship with her. We met every week and I would read the Bible to her and pray with her. She would talk about her family and point to the collage of pictures she had taped to the wall. “Miss Jewel,” as I called her, knew me by name and asked about how my classes were going. She really cared about me. I had to go home for the summer and so I said my goodbyes and the summer months passed away quickly.

I returned to Freed in August and made my way over to the nursing home to catch up with my new old friend. I went to her room and there she was. I said, “Hey Miss Jewel!” She looked at me with a blank stare and said, “Do I know you?”

Miss Jewel had Alzheimer’s and did not have a clue about who I was. We talked for a bit and I checked in on her one more time and she was catatonic at that time and could not speak. I wondered if it was even good for us to have met at all. Fast forward a few years and I found myself taking the youth group once a month to lead services at a nursing home. We did that for close to a decade until people from the church stopped showing up at the nursing home and eventually the ministry ceased.

People seem to get fired-up (as they should) about evangelistic meetings, campaigns to feed the poor, helping out with youth ministries and a host of other things but when it comes to helping out with nursing homes that seems to fall down the list a bit.

Why?

A couple reasons come to mind. First of all this type of work is not glamorous. One time we went into the nursing home and underneath a lady on a wheel chair was a fresh puddle of feces that had seeped out of her diaper. She had no clue. Another time we went in and a lady vomited all over herself and the table and she was waiting to get cleaned up. She had no clue either. Every nursing home I have visited has some of the worst smells this earth can muster and it is disgusting. Plus many of the residents do not communicate well (they can’t) and so worship (on the surface at least) seems to be one way. Secondly it is hard to see tangible results from the work that is done. Most of these residents are here for one purpose: to finish the course of their lives with dignity because they can no longer take care of themselves. These people will never make it to church. You will not see their money in a collection plate. You will not see their pictures on social media or the website and so the bottom line for churches is that this type of work could be seen as a waste of time.

So here is my question: Are nursing homes a waste of your church’s time?

I believe they are NOT for three very important reasons.

1. We are commanded to in Scripture.

“True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us” (James 1:27; CEB). Some might say, “Well what if we do not have any members in the nursing home?” James did not qualify the widows as Christian widows and Christian orphans. He just said widows and orphans. Just about every nursing home resident is either a widow or widower and we should reach them in their need. If there is ever a people who are the “neglected” in our society I would say those in the nursing homes are those people. The psalmist wrote, “The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble” (Psa. 9:9). Isaiah shared, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isa. 1:17). Moses shared Yahweh’s command in Torah: “You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:32).

2. We practice the Golden Rule

“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12). When Heather was in the hospital with each pregnancy I often thought that I never knew how important nurses were until we needed them the most. It is easy for us not to want to go to a nursing home because we have other things to do on a Wednesday or Sunday. Yet, if we could fast forward the hands of time and imagine, if you will, YOU as a resident and think about what it would be like. Your family can only come so much because they have to work. Who could blame them? Your suite mate does not talk and so you are left to watch hours of boring midday TV while eating plastic meals. Wouldn’t you long for some worship? Some attention? Some cards? Some prayer? Some bible reading? I know I would.

3. If done right (and well) you can’t can actually grow the church from this.

Stick with me here. Yesterday I was at a ball game talking with a friend about how we used to have so much fulfillment out of visiting nursing homes. Then he took me over to talk with a lady and introduced me to her. She knew me and said she remembered me going to the nursing home to lead worship services. My friend was talking with someone else and didn’t even hear this and it was surely a God moment for me. If I was in insurance I would have immediately set up a time where she and I could talk because we had rapport together. Instead I could leverage that and say, “Your mom enjoyed our worship and visiting with her and so you should come to church with us and experience who we are and what we do first hand.” You won’t get a ton of people to attend and stick but if a church invests their time into my mom and dad then I like them already. It will lead others into the building and inwardly it will create fellowship and sense of mission and purpose within your church body.

I hope this makes sense and my prayer is that it either invigorates a failing ministry to nursing homes or innovates a new ministry where one was absent.

I even have a sales pitch you can make to the leadership of a church.

You ready?

It will cost the church no budget money!

Sounds like a win to me.

 

 

What Selling Life Insurance Taught Me About Ministry

I sold Life Insurance for Modern Woodmen of America for about five full months and in that time I learned so much about ministry. I know that sounds strange but going into the corporate world helped me in my skills as a minister. I want to share some ways I think sales in general helps me in ministry:

#1 – It Doesn’t Hurt to Ask

How do you know if you are going to make it in sales? If you can pick the phone up and set up appointments and then convert those appointments to sales. You do that by asking people to buy. This was so nerve-racking for me and I dreaded picking up the phone to call the next person because of the fear of rejection. Remember that feeling when you wanted to ask out that guy or girl and you stared at the phone for hours but could not bring yourself to call them? That was what the feeling was like over and over again for me. Sometimes ministers get afraid of asking people to a bible study, to a church visit or just how they are doing spiritually. What I learned is that it doesn’t hurt to ask but nothing ever is accomplished if we don’t ask.

#2 – Rejection is Not Personal

I heard the word, “No,” so many times I lost count. I had people tell me, “I’ll call you back,” and never did. I had people walk the other way when they saw me in public. I called one guy and asked for an appointment who told me, “I am somewhat of a guru in the financial field so I really don’t need your help!” I said, “Well then maybe we can get together and you can teach me a few things so I can be a better representative,” to which he replied, “I am kind of busy.” I wish he would have said simply “No not interested” so I could move on.

People told me “no” for a variety of different reasons but at the end of the day it was not about me. They could not afford it, they were already covered, their friend was in the business, etc. In ministry sometimes we take offense when rejection comes our way (there are times it is personal) but most of the time it is not personal. I am reminded when Jesus told his disciples that many people will hate them because of the very mention of his name (Mark 13:13). It’s not personal folks.

#3 – Numbers are Important

In sales I was cognizant of my ratios. How many phone calls did it take to get an appointment? How many approaches in public did it take to get an appointment? how many appointments did it take for me to make a sale? That way I could calculate how much money each phone call meant to me. Despite what you might hear among some churches numbers are important. It is biblical to want your church to increase numerically. I remember saying, “We are concerned about the spiritual growth of our ministry not so much the numerical growth.” Shame on me. The two are not mutually exclusive. You can grow numerically and spiritually. SEE ACTS 2. The people who think adding numbers to the church is not important are probably part of churches that are dying.

#4 – Win the Day

Dove-tailing on the last point my goal in sales was to win the day. Based on my ratios did I set this amount of appointments? Did I call this many people? If I did those things (and others as well) then I won the day. My regional director would often shoot me a text asking if I had won the day because he knew that if you had a certain amount of days won in the year then that would convert to money in the bank and time to spend with your family.

What does it look like to win the day in ministry?

Being on salary sometimes does not give us the thirst we need like living on commission did for me (or the fear…). To be successful in sales you have to be organized. Plain and simple. I think the same bodes well for ministers even though you don’t have to be Franklin Coveyish organized. For me it looks like this:

  • Did I read scripture?
  • Did I pray for those in ministry?
  • Did I write (with a pen) one encouraging note to a member?
  • Did I read something that challenged me?
  • Did I polish up on my classes and/or sermon?
  • Did I connect with someone outside the church?

If I did those things (and some others that are personal to me) then I, in my opinion, won the day.

Finally…

#5 Training is Essential

I was always learning during my tenure as a financial representative. An hour of my day was dedicated to learning something new. The same can be said for ministry. Learning how to preach more effectively, teach better, lead better, get organized better and all of these things are huge for ministers to grow. It is easy to get in a rut and think that we have figured it out but there is always something else to learn and the moment we stop learning, as the saying goes, is the moment we stop leading.

 

[DISCLAIMER] – I have come across ministers who seemed like salesmen instead of men of God and so I understand this issue. I have also come across salesmen who were unethical and were more concerned about making money than helping people so I understand that issue as well. I am not saying ministers need to be just like salesmen but I am saying we can learn from them like I have.