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

God’s Discipleship Pattern in Scripture

discipleshipThe 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

How the Gospel Moves Us to the Frontlines of Ministry

family ministryThe 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

Four Ways Small Group is a Catalyst for Relationship Building

small groupDo 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 that Make a Huge Difference

Four Small Changes to Men’s Ministry that Make a Huge Difference

mens ministryEquipping men to be leaders in the church and home is challenging. Just ask any men’s ministry leader! But by changing four things about men’s ministry, we can better meet the challenge. Here’s how.

First, change the name from “Men’s Ministry” to “Head of Household Ministry”.
The problem with much men’s ministry is that it focuses too much on, well, the men and their individual walk with God. You might think, “AND WHAT is wrong with that?” Let’s step back.

The ultimate goal of all ministry is the recreation of God’s glory in the hearts of His people. Said another way, the goal is making Christians true worshippers of God which in practical terms means that we increasingly defeat idolatry in our hearts by finding our ultimate joy and satisfaction in him alone at all times. This is the result of our hearts being continually transformed by the gospel which is sanctification. Helping men do this is of course an excellent and necessary goal. But there’s more.

“Men” have been singled out by God to have a vital leadership role in the home (and the church) in accomplishing this goal. Fulfilling this responsibility requires much more than the typical fare that is dished out in men’s ministry.
Men are heads of household. This is a covenantal role which in part means that God holds men accountable for a specific task: to oversee the transformation work in their wives and children extending out into the church and through the church to the community and world.

The original version of the Westminster Confession of Faith included an introduction that was written not to “men” or “ordained preachers”, but to “Heads of Families” imploring the fathers to teach these things to their wives and children. Why? Because the Westminster Divines knew how vital this covenantal role really was in God’s redemptive plan.

Consider further that single men are heads of their own household even though it may only be a household of one. Perhaps they have a child -not all that unusual anymore? Perhaps they envision marriage? If so, they are heads of household in training and are/should be involved in relationships where this equipping can help them. Even teen boys, as future heads of household need the opportunity to learn and aspire to the examples of godly heads of household.  Single Moms, as spiritual heads of household, need equipping as well, except their equipping and accountability will look a bit different. (That, though, is a topic for another day.)

Changing the name from “Men’s Ministry” to “Head of Household Ministry”, and actually beginning to refer to men as heads of household in normal conversation, are small but profound ways of raising the bar of expectation to where God puts it.

Second, teach them (and then remind them over and over and over and over again) that the gospel makes them adequate to fulfill their role.
Many men run—at increasing speed—away from leadership because their definition of leadership is based largely on a scholastic leadership model, not the shepherding, i.e. relational model which comes out of the gospel and that is clearly assumed and taught in Scripture (Acts 20:17-36; 1 Cor. 4:15-17; 1 Tim. 3:1-7; 1 Pet. 5:1-5). No wonder then that many men shy away from leadership because they do not perceive themselves as having enough knowledge or being a good speaker. 

Compare the scholastic model with its emphasis on a higher, “more mature level” of knowledge and rhetorical skill to 1 Cor. 1:17-2:5 where Paul speaks simply, plainly—and thus powerfully—so that people will see only the power of the cross. The message of the gospel itself is powerful whether people swoon when they hear it or not. Do we really believe that? Do we teach that? Or does God’s Word NOT return void (Isa. 55:11) ONLY when it is spoken by a pastor or well-respected teacher?

When one stops and really things about it, it is a great struggle and it tests our sincerity when we proclaim (with gusto of course) that the gospel, the Word of God, is “sufficient”. Do we as leaders and do we as heads of household really believe that the gospel is sufficient? Do we teach heads of households about how the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture has direct bearing on their role? Or is this just something for those with “know” more, like seminary graduates?

The message of the cross is intended for life, to be spoken by all (Eph. 4:15-16), most especially by church shepherds (Eph. 4:11-12) and home shepherds (Eph. 5:22-6:4).

Let’s remember that the people to whom the New Testament was first written were not seminary graduates, or the highest social strata, but slaves; uneducated people…and they were expected to live it. This is because it is a gospel for the people to be applied sufficiently and authoritatively in their relationships. When Galatians 6:1 tells us to restore one caught in sin, does Paul only mean ordained pastors? Certainly heads of household, perhaps more than any other individual, need to know how to restore a brother or sister, as they are surrounded by them every day at home before they ever go to work! They need gospel confidence to do this.

Equipping heads of household is a matter of helping them know this gospel: to live it and to teach it. The gospel, not their skills and/or abilities, makes them adequate. As they grow in their own living of the gospel, they become more effective communicators of it.

Continue to Part 2

Accountability- A Tool for Spiritual Growth

accountability-150x150Are you seeing spiritual growth in yourself? Your family? Your church?

If your answer to that question is…well…not what you’d like it to be, then consider that injecting accountability into relationships can make a big difference.
Accountability is a positive force for sanctification (and thus joy) in our lives
When it is important that something gets done there’s usually some form of accountability to make sure it actually does get done. We expect forms of accountability for filing our taxes, finishing a project at work, writing a report for school or even being at soccer practice. While we would certainly all agree that our spiritual growth is more important than these and many other things why isn’t there more accountability for doing it?

Accountability is just as vital for achieving spiritual goals as it is for other goals. It is ingrained in our nature as covenantal beings who are made in the image of a covenantal God. Consider that last statement again. To be accountable and to provide accountability is part of our identity and our life together as God’s family.
Accountability is woven into God’s design for his church and the home
Continuing with the covenant principle, God the Father has identified specific individuals who are accountable to Him to oversee the work of redemption in the lives of those under their charge in two institutions he has created: the church and the home. God the Son: Jesus Christ, is responsible for the entire universal Church (John 14:6, 1 Cor. 15:22). From Jesus, responsibility is vested in the elders who lead the local church (Heb. 13:17, 1 Pet. 5:5) and then the heads of household who lead in the home (Eph. 5:22-6:4, Col.3:19-21). All have responsibility and authority to oversee this redemptive work and are therefore, accountable to God to do it.

But God also expects there to be a level of accountability between members within the body of Christ. Consider that we are to instruct (Rom. 15:14), admonish (Col. 3:16), restore (Gal. 6:1), submit to (Eph. 5:21), and encourage (which here means “to come along side to help, to enable, to comfort, exhort and encourage”) one another (1 Thess. 5:11). These are all facets of accountability.
Accountability helps us live covanentally faithful lives
Perhaps you have experienced the blessings of having someone love you enough to offer some biblical counsel about a personal issue or situation you were facing, pray for you, and then come back a week later and ask about it. Knowing that the person praying was going to come back and ask probably helped you to do what you needed to do.
We are guilty of underestimating the power of deceitful desires
We are weak creatures and we often underestimate the power of the deceitful desires that lurk within our hearts (Jer. 17:9). Even if we, by ourselves, peg the real root of a struggle, we often need our families (home and in the church) to apply the remedy for the struggle that defeats sin. “Let him who stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). To think that we can grow without the help of our brothers and sisters is to not understand our condition as fallen creatures and to not understand “the exceeding sinfulness of sin” as Jeremiah Burroughs puts it. It is also not to understand the remedy for sin which is the work of the Holy Spirit applying the gospel through the ministry of God’s household “speaking the truth to one another in love”…which includes accountability.
Accountability requires relationships
Loving, gracious, patient, understanding accountability is not optional if we are going to see lives transformed. It is best accomplished as one facet of a relationship with a person where real life is shared and the motive for accountability is demonstrated in love. Otherwise, it comes off as legalism or as Paul would say, “a noisy gong or claiming cymbal”.
Accountability is vital
Accountability is to be a vital aspect of who we are and how we are to function as God’s covenant people. Yet, how much “coming along side” for the purpose of accountability is an intentional part of the ministry plan at your church or in your home?