Restoring Intentionality in Ministry

jn_2In our overly busy day, we are more prone to succumb to the winds of whim and the tyranny of others. It is very easy to drift or to lose our bearing entirely. Therefore, we must purpose to be intentional Christians. Pastor John Neal of Covenant PCA in Midlothian, Virginia encourages our intentionality in this interview.

UCH: What do we mean by intentionality?

JN: Living intentionally means to live self-consciously on purpose. It carries with it the idea of being purposeful in what we do. We are always doing something for some reason whether we are consciously aware of that reason or not. In Tit. 3:8, Paul exhorts Titus in summary of all he has been saying, “I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. The word translated devoted by the ESV or be careful to, as most other modern translations is literally take thought to do good”. He doesn’t just say, insist on these things, but for them to take thought to do them. There is a common human tendency to fail to give much thought to what we do, or plan to do the good we do know we should do.

We tend to suffer from what I call fuzzy thinking. Our lifestyles will reflect our degree of intentionality. If we just aren’t thinking very far ahead and we don’t plan to do what it takes to get there, we will not likely make much progress in the good we know we should do and even want to do.

In contrast, living intentionally is living with clear goals in mind, and thinking through what we must do to reach those goals. It means taking the time to prepare our hearts by preaching the gospel to ourselves daily, and to be doing the little things daily that are necessary to accomplish the bigger things. It means, making a plan and sticking with it, not necessarily rigidly but consistently. This idea is summed up in the Pr. 21:5 The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty.”

UCH: What should we be intentional about?

JN: Here is where preparing our hearts comes in. First, we should be intentional about our hearts as we seek to be intentional about our good works. The Macedonian Christians were a great example of being intentional about the right things. In 2 Cor. 9, Paul wants to give the Corinthians time to prepare to give the gift they had promised, not only the money but their hearts, as he says in verse “so that it may be ready as voluntary and not as an extraction…or as in verse 7 not reluctantly or under compulsion. The reason he offers is that God loves a cheerful giver. It takes some time and effort to get our hearts in the right frame, not just for giving money, but for any good service for Him in our lives. We, of course, should take our goals from scripture. As followers of Jesus, we should take our priorities from Jesus. He makes clear to us the importance of those priorities reflecting the heart-level motives as he defines them. What is more, we should be intentional about living by the heart level motives through the means he provides, and that is specifically by faith in Jesus.

UCH: Why should we be intentional about it?

JN: We make much use of a couple well-worn sayings in our church that reflect the biblical principles of scripture. The first is, “If you fail to plan you’ll plan to fail.” The second, “If you aim at nothing you will surely hit it.”  Everyone knows that accomplishing goals does not happen by accident. We are not likely to stumble into them. This flows out of what we are as Christ’s disciples. The root of “disciple” is imbedded in the word “discipline”. Without the discipline of intentionally giving thought to what we do we are not likely to be faithful disciples, which if we are in Christ we will want to be. Paul often used the metaphor of an athlete to help us understand the training involved in the Christian life. He exhorted Timothy, “Train yourself to be godly, for physical training is of some value but godliness is valuable for all things, holding promise for this life and the life to come.” Indeed, spiritual training has great value for God’s glory and our joy but it requires intentionality.

UCH: Who should be more intentional?

JN: Simple answer, every one of us. NO one is exempt from its critical importance. Not even the apostle Paul was exempt, but rather, as he told the Philippians, this one thing I do (that’s intentionality) forgetting what is behind, I press on to the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. He kept his eyes intentionally and continually on the prize. This is so important if we hope to obtain it as fully as we are called to. This is the essence of living intentionally. All of us are admonished in regards to enduring and completing our own personal race to, fix our gaze on Jesus the author and finisher of our faith. We all need to intentionally look to Jesus because he has already conquered and we stand in his victory! (Rom. 8; Eph. 6:10-17)

UCH: What are 3 simple ways to be more intentional?

JN: 1. Make a simple plan. Write it down in a journal that you will keep notes in and review daily. Include thoughts about scripture and books you are reading.

2. Talk to someone else about your goals and ask them to hold you accountable and give them permission to talk about your heart struggles and practical struggles in keeping to your goals.

3. Know how to and continually, daily, preach the gospel to yourself daily, and Pray for help

Check out John Neal’s book, You Are Ministers, available in the UCH Bookstore.

Are Church Programs the Problem?

twinkies-150x150If I were  to eat a box of Twinkies each week, would you be surprised if I gained weight by the end of the year? I would think not.

What would you think if someone shot and killed a teller in the midst of robbing a bank and then pleaded in court that the gun shot the teller, not him? Most people would rightly consider such a claim as lunacy.

Twinkies don’t make people fat and guns don’t kill people. In both cases, the Twinkies and the gun are merely passive tools in the hands of a heart that is seeking to use those tools for its own selfish ends, rather than the glory of God.

And, so, with that introduction we take a look at church programs.

Blame the Program
It seems that much of the debate these days about the dire condition of the church and home centers on church programs. In the eyes of some, the very real problems of youth rebellion, parents divorcing, singles feeling like second-class citizens in the church, etc., etc. are laid at the feet of these programs—or lack of these programs.

Making the programs the issue is a tragic distraction from the real issue that continues to miss our attention.

Programs Don’t Transform Hearts
Our hearts as church leaders, as parents, as children, as brothers and sisters in the Lord are desperately in need of transformation. Jesus tells us that heart transformation is not an outside-in pursuit, but an inside-out pursuit that is the ongoing work of the application of the Gospel in our hearts every day.

Church leaders can add/change/delete programs all they want, but if the heart is not the focus and the Gospel not the means it makes little difference. When I speak of church programs, I speak mainly of youth ministry, children’s ministry, men’s ministry, women’s ministry, singles ministry, and senior ministries.
Definitely Examine the Programs
At the Institute, we support each church’s examination of church programs to see how they are helping/hindering the work of the Gospel message applied to life through relationships.

Programs are commonly abused when people rely on them to do the work that they should be doing in their relationships. Examples include elders who don’t shepherd because they assume that the programs are meeting those needs. Same with parents don’t disciple their kids at home and husbands and wives who are not living in an Ephesians 5 way.

Another abuse occurs when the people who run the programs give little thought to the role of God-ordained relationships in the lives of those who are served by the programs. For example it is not uncommon for parents to be overlooked. Or worse, some of these ministry leaders consider parents as counter-productive to what they are seeking to accomplish in their ministry.

Relationships are More Important
In my 20 years of working with church leaders I have seen churches where real, gospel-centered heart-level transformation is taking place and programs are a real help—as they should be. But this is because it is clear in the minds of leaders and members that relationships, particularly those in the home, are more important.

I have also seen churches where the leaders have concluded that programs were “not biblical” and acted quickly to get rid of them. This action caught unprepared and ill-equipped households off-guard. In these cases, people were not given a vision for achieving greater heart-level transformation by the Gospel as the reason…because in many cases it wasn’t the reason. It was just that the programs were not specifically prescribed in scripture.

Keep the Main Issue The Main Issue
At the Institute, in coaching church leaders, we do not make programs the main issue because they are not the main problem. After laying the vision for transformation by applying the gospel to the heart through relationships then we help church leaders evaluate programs to see how they help or hinder this vision. We make recommendation as needed for how to modify programs so the programs remain servants, not usurpers of relationships.

Programs and relationships must work together. It has been my experience that when church leaders are successful in equipping the body to minister through relationships, programs can become superfluous and be discontinued. This will likely be good news for many church leaders who are burning out trying to keep the programs going. God’s plan is always best and the more faithful we are to follow it, the more fruit we should expect to see.

God’s Discipleship Pattern in Scripture

discipleship_patternThe latest research reveals that 75% of the children raised in evangelical churches are leaving the faith. It appears that the church is hemorrhaging its children out into the culture. Did Peter know something that we don’t when he preached, “For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off…”(Acts 2:39)?

Having been a children’s ministry leader, and having met many children’s and youth ministry leaders over my 21 years of ministry, I can say that the efforts of the men and women who faithfully and lovingly serve on staff are not in question. In fact, the problems we see cannot be laid at the feet of these programs.

I submit that perhaps there are biblical principles that we’ve lost sight of. A renewed focus on these principles could make the difference in seeing Peter’s promise move from elusive dream to reality.

On one hand, Children’s and Youth ministry leaders increasingly are saying, “We’re doing all we can, but we can’t disciple children in one hour per week. We need parents to step up to the plate.” On the other hand, parents are maxed out, stressed out, and sometimes checked out of the daily process of making kingdom disciples of their covenant children.

The Word of God Provides The Solution In a Simple Pattern

What does God’s word tell us about how He expects us, through the power of His Holy Spirit, to establish covenant faithfulness in the home? I begin with a short story.

I remember one Christmas Eve getting quite frustrated with putting together a toy for my son. I finally, humiliatingly, after two hours of exasperation, found the directions and actually read them to learn that I had missed an important step. I imagine anyone reading this has had the same experience at some time or another. In some cases, the pieces are all there, but they aren’t put together in proper order. Either way, successful completion of the project remains elusive, until we read (or re-read) the directions.

What we need to do is “re-read” the directions for making disciples.
Very simply, it looks like this:

The Simple Pattern for Covenant Faithfulness in the Church and in the Home

1. There is a presupposed pattern in scripture, submitted to, pursued, and applied for God’s glory and our good, which rightly applied is not two but one central motive.

2. The aim of this pattern is heart-level obedience. (True godly desires verses bare-legalistic duty-oriented behavior).

3. Heart-level obedience is lived out through heart-level relationships with God and one another (“You shall love the Lord your God…and your neighbor”) which are the ultimate end to which we are all accountable.

4. This heart-level obedience and these relationships are not indiscriminate but maintained along covenantal lines (e.g. marriage and family).

5. The primary methodology of growth in regards to heart-level obedience and heart-level relationships is speaking the truth (the gospel) in love within these relationships, for which we are all accountable to know others and to be known by them.

6. This growth, otherwise referred to as sanctification or renewal in the likeness of Christ, involves putting off the old man with its lusts and putting on the new man (Christ in you). The love that comes from Christ to God and others, being rooted in the accomplishment of Christ and applied by faith, makes covenant faithfulness not only possible but expected, and not a burden but a joy.

7. God’s design is for each household to have a spiritual leader or ‘head of household’ (husband, father, single mother, or woman unequally yoked to a non-believer) who is tasked with the responsibility of overseeing this heart-level transformation for their households.

8. Overseers (elders) are men assigned to see to it that this transformation is being faithfully maintained in the broader Household of God (the Church). Practically speaking, overseers accomplish their jobs primarily by equipping and graciously holding responsible those (heads of households) whom God holds accountable.

How to Re-emphasize This Pattern

I will begin by stating what this pattern does not require. It does not require a jihad against church programs. Truth is, these programs can actually help facilitate the re-establishment of this pattern. But let’s be clear, absent this simple pattern being vigorously, intentionally, and faithfully maintained, these programs carry a load they were never intended to carry and as we have seen cannot fabricate covenant faithfulness.

What this pattern does require. Required is the vigorous, intentional, and faithful maintenance of this pattern because it represents what God has already clearly revealed in His word to guide us.

The place to start is with the establishment of this basic pattern of covenant faithfulness in the entire body of Christ. The big picture is beautifying the Church: the Bride of Christ. Do we really believe Ephesians 4:15-16? Are we building each other up by speaking the truth to one another in love? Faithful shepherding—and accountability—by the elders of the heads of households to fulfill their role is a clear biblical element that must be re-established if we are to accomplish covenant faithfulness and produce kingdom disciples.

Equipping spiritual heads of households to pursue covenant faithfulness in the home is not a ‘nice-to-have’, but a primary, foundational and absolutely mission- critical element in the church’s ministry.

This represents an exciting opportunity for elders, ministry leaders, head of households.
Scripture has given us a simple pattern that we must live in order to see Peter’s promise realized in our time…and beyond.

How the Gospel Moves Us to the Frontlines of Ministry

manatsunsetThe gospel helps church leaders with one of their toughest challenges: that of moving people (husbands, wives, singles, youth, and children) from the sidelines to the front lines of ministry. Here’s how.

What is Ministry?

First, what is the “ministry” that we want them to be engaged in? Ministry is much more than merely teaching a Sunday school class, or showing up for a project. Ministry is the application of the gospel to life, in life. This is in fact what we see in Jesus’ example and it is the overwhelming picture of ministry that we glean from most of the New Testament. We may not all be called to teach a class, but we are all called “to speak the truth to one another in love” (Eph. 4:15-17).

Our Ministry Confidence is in the Gospel Itself, Not Our Abilities, Plans or Programs

We begin with Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 1:17+18; 2:4-5.

 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ, be emptied of its power.

 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

 My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

 Paul’s message was the gospel and his confidence was in the gospel message itself, not his skills and abilities, to bring about the desired goal – the transformation of people’s lives to God’s glory. In other words, Paul believed in a fully sufficient gospel.

Christians are on the Ministry Sidelines Because They are not Placing Their Confidence in the Gospel

Because so much ministry is centered on Sunday and people with teaching gifts (Sermons, Sunday School, Programs), rather than every day life, people have completed their self analysis and concluded that they have nothing to offer…and sit in exile on the ministry sidelines as a result.

Such cases reveal a dependence on their own abilities (or lack thereof) for ministry effectiveness. But  God calls us to minister. We are a kingdom of priests (1Pet. 2:9)! We are to speak the truth to one another in love (Eph. 4:16). We are a house of living stones (1 Pet. 2:5)! And Paul reminds us in Romans 1:16 that the gospel is, “the power of God for salvation” (justification, sanctification, and glorification). We are all, A-L-L,  gospel ministers.

A heart that truly believes the all-sufficient, powerful gospel and that seeks to help people apply the riches of our redemption in Christ to life will minister effectively because it is the Holy Spirit who actually takes our applications of the gospel truths and makes them efficacious in the life of the believer.

How to Move People’s Confidence From Self to the Gospel

1. Teach people what ministry really is: It is not merely teaching a class (something which they may never do), etc., but it is proclaiming the gospel to one another in life so that we grow up into Christ as individuals and as a local body. This ministry is everyone’s responsibility.

2.  Equip people to do number one above. Teach them how to apply the gospel to the heart by faith in life.

3. Teach and remind people—often—that it is the gospel that makes them sufficient to minister. The gospel calls them, the gospel equips them, the Holy Spirit uses the gospel to bring transformation in His time.

4. Publically highlight and develop a greater emphasis on the everyday life ministry that is taking place. Most people view “real ministry” as that which is done by professionals, not what THEY do in their relationships. This is a hard change for people to understand and act on. It takes a very intentional effort to make the change.

5. Examine your own example as a leader. Is your example one that clearly demonstrates that you believe that “the little guy” can do real, effective ministry? Are you always in the spotlight? Do people see you minister through your own weaknesses that find strength in the gospel? Or are you always seen as the guy for whom ministry is effortless and the guy who never struggles?

6. Begin to graciously and patiently hold people accountable for doing this ministry.

7. Remind them that the gospel is their strength.

Four Ways Small Group is a Catalyst for Relationship Building

Erfolgreiche Studenten in einer Reihe halten ihre Daumen hoch

Do you have a small group ministry?

If you have small groups, great! Consider the following points as a way to evaluate and perhaps improve their effectiveness.

If you do not have small groups, please consider the following 4 ways that small groups foster relationships.
1. Small groups help build relationships by connecting people who would not otherwise connect. 

The church is God’s household. It is made up of people at different stages of life including nuclear families, singles, youth, children, and seniors. Effective small groups reflect this diversity and provide a natural way for all of these gifts, needs, abilities and interests to connect for mutual benefit. Without small groups (especially in churches with a fair number of individually-focused programs) these connections would scarcely be made.

2. Small groups provide a natural way for elders to equip household leaders.

God’s ministry blueprint puts a significant emphasis on the leadership of elders and heads of household. Small group ministry provides a natural context for elders to establish relationships with the heads of household for the purpose of equipping, encouragement, and accountability for leadership in his home.

3. Small groups provide a way for the elders to ensure that each person is being cared for.

With all of the individualized activities taking place it’s easy to assume that everyone is connected and being nurtured. But this often leaves us with a false sense of security. Something bad happens with a particular person. Yes, he was involved in programs, but apparently out of relationship and thus on his own. Tragically, people in this situation just slip through the cracks. Small group ministry provides a way to faithfully oversee the entire body. For regular discipleship and when a person is facing a challenge, everyone, most especially the other leaders, know which elder is responsible for helping the person or being sure that the person is getting the help they need.

4. Small groups increase full participation.

Small groups should not be just another program on the ministry buffet that people can take or leave. Given their purpose, participation should be expected by everyone. On this point, Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer PCA in New York City once said, “Small groups are not a program of the church. They are the church (emphasis added).” Keller understands what’s at stake: real transformation in the life of the believer to the glory of God. This requires relationships. There is no way around it. Note: when the culture of the church prizes and emphasizes relationships like we see in the Bible, participation becomes a natural decision.

Four Small Changes to Men’s Ministry, Part 2

casualmanLast time, I mentioned the first two (of four) changes that if made to Men’s Ministry can make a huge difference. You can read the full article here.  As a review, they are:

First, change the name of the Men’s Ministry to Head of Household ministry.
“Men’s Ministry” connotes male issues, individuality and segregation, along with isolation. “Head of Household Ministry” keeps the focus on relationships and the head of household’s role in ministering through his relationships at home.

Second, teach heads of household (and then remind them over and over and over and over again) that the gospel makes them adequate to fulfill their role.
The gospel by virtue of what it is: the divinely powerful message of salvation (i.e. justification, sanctification, glorification), is alone sufficient in the hands o

f all men, including ordinary men, and made effectual by the Holy Spirit to do the work of transformation in the lives of people.

Third, stay focused on equipping men to apply the gospel in their own lives and in the lives of others.
Relationships that move wives and children toward Christ are an overflow of the transformation that God is accomplishing in the heart of the head of household (HOH). Paul says that the love of Christ compelled him (2 Cor. 5:14). In other words, his ministry was an overflow of Christ’s love working in him rather than his mustering up the will-power to do it himself.

Are HOHs experiencing transformation that overflows into service? Tragically, men can know their Bible, and even lead their households using biblical principles but still not know Jesus , love Jesus, or know the fundamentals of how to “put on Christ” everyday. Consider that many hearts are lost while the HOH is busy growing in greater knowledge of the Bible but failing in his relationships.

Equipping HOHs to apply the gospel involves teaching them skills such as how to discern the heart (i.e. motives, desires) behind their actions, how to identify and put off idolatrous desires that rule the heart, how to put on Christ, and how to repent of sin on a daily basis. Becoming more proficient in doing these things is maturity.

For example, at my church’s monthly Head of Household Meetings, we do not teach on other subjects such as finances, sex, work, eschatology, etc., etc. (That is not to say that those subjects are unimportant. However, they are usually abstracted from the gospel and easily become the sole focus overshadowing the more important, ongoing, daily heart work which requires constant attention. The secondary issues can be addressed more individually as need arises.) We have one topic: the gospel and it applied to heart and life to the glory of God. Sometimes this comes in the form of our pastor teaching. In other cases, it comes through testimony and mutual building up of brothers.

This ardent focus provides absolute clarity in the minds of us as elders and the HOHs about the nature and priority of our work.

Forth, the leaders of the church need to provide accountability.
The covenantal leaders of the local church (Elders) need to lovingly, graciously, and patiently hold the covenantal leaders of the home (HOHs) accountable to fulfill their calling of applying the gospel in their home. This involves much more than group meetings. It involves relationships between the elders and the HOHs where trust is built and intimate knowledge can be shared.

I am reminded of 1 Peter 5:5 where Peter, after talking about the shepherd role of elders adds, “You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders…” (NASB) Who were these “younger men”? Given the historical context it would be a stretch not to believe that they were predominately HOHs.

It is easier to teach a class than it is to have a deeper conversation.

Some might conclude that this is just too hard to do, or that it’ll never work for them. Perhaps there is a better, i.e. easier, more efficient way? (There isn’t).

This is a challenge. How do we meet it?

There are a number of practical ideas that I could offer here. However, I don’t think the problem really is knowing what to do. The following question cuts to the heart of the issue. Think of the costs of not doing this. For some, we will not have to think beyond people we know who are in trouble that could have perhaps been avoided if they were in accountability relationships.

This requires personal evaluation. What do our daily choices reveal about what (or who) is most important to us? Are we willing to meet the challenge and trust that God’s Holy Spirit is going to work through us—weak and feeble though our efforts be? We ourselves need the reminder of where the power is (point #2)! We also need the overflow (#3 above) that enables us to make the necessary sacrifices.

Church leaders who pay the price of equipping heads of household enjoy a tremendous return on investment in a healthy crop of men (1 Tim. 3:1-7) who rise to leadership in the church and who are able to help younger heads of household faithfully live their covenantal role in the home. Further, heads of household who rise to the level of maturity in this role are qualified for eldership.