Practical Thoughts on Ministering to Neighbors, Part 3

Person Doing Shopping For Elderly NeighbourPart three: Be Willing to be Taken Advantage of

Read part two here.

My sweaty neighbor was standing in my garage asking to borrow a drill. (It had something to do with his daughter’s swing set). Turns out, the battery to my Ryobi cordless drill was dead as a doornail –as usual. But then, I remembered that I had another drill, a much better drill. A Craftsman electric drill to be exact. I was about to offer it to him when the thought hit me, “Will I ever get it back?”

While I don’t believe for one moment that it was in my neighbor’s heart to take advantage of me, was I willing to suffer loss in order to demonstrate the gospel through this act of kindness? Let’s suppose this neighbor’s motives were of a devious nature. Let’s also suppose that I even knew he had the type of project that could cause harm to a drill, and although he had a drill, he chose to ask to use mine in order to save the wear and tear on his own drill. If you were in my situation, would you still loan it out?

Perhaps the issue is not loaning. Perhaps there’s resistance to simply give something away. Or, perhaps the situation calls for you to buy something for them that you feel pretty sure they could buy for themselves?

I remember a moment when a neighbor needed cat litter. (I don’t have cats, but have you ever checked into the price of cat litter? It isn’t cheap!) Can I afford to spend $ 50 on cat litter? Was I willing to do it whether or not he paid me back? If we’re honest, in our worst moments, we do these mental calculations.

No one wants to be taken advantage of. But are we willing because we will be taken advantage of—eventually. Jesus was willing to be taken advantage of. He fed thousands of hungry people who came for the bread, but not the Bread of Life.

Jesus was willing to go far beyond being taken advantage of; he died for us, the Bible says, “while we were still sinners”. When Jesus died, he was shown absolutely NO sense of appreciation by the people he did it for. He knew this and did it anyway…and did it with joy.

If we’re going to reach our neighbors for Christ, we need to be willing to be taken advantage of. It is as we first find our own joy in what Jesus has fully accomplished for us, despite how we’ve taken advantage of him, that we will be willing to serve others, at great cost to us.

Called to Someone… Everyday

Funny businesswoman with stress isolated. High angle view fish eye like image of stressed young woman in suit, Isolated on white background.

“The Primary purpose of the church, before mission, before healing, before transforming the culture; the first purpose of the church is to give a ravishing vision of who Jesus Christ is and let him draw people to himself. But we are not presenting Jesus Christ, we are presenting mission, or we are presenting transformation, we’re presenting healthy marriage or healthy family. And so, people come for reasons other than Jesus himself…Until we get the Gospel right, we shouldn’t be surprised that young people are walking away…Before we are called to something, before we are called to somewhere, we are called to someone.”

-Skye Jethani, Senior Editor, Leadership Journal

Yes, we need to be called to Jesus; not once, but every day! Whether or not Jethani meant that exactly, I don’t know.  But what does it really mean? let me offer an example.

I had a conversation with one of my children the other day. This child was dealing with an idol of control which evidenced itself in angry, frustrated, fearful behavior. It took 45 minutes of relationship-required conversation to get to the nub of the issue: she needed to see that her happiness in life was not tied to her ability to control a certain situation she was facing. She did not need therapy. She did not need to be at the church building on Wednesday evening at 7:00 pm.

She needed the person of Jesus.

She needed to see that her happiness in life was not tied to her ability to manipulate events to the end of her own liking. She needed to discard the wrong, idolatrous belief that she could achieve happiness by controlling the situation. Rather, she needed to see that even if the situation did not go the way she wanted it to, she could still be happy (i.e. satisfied)–and obey the Lord– simply because Jesus is.

Because she is “in Him” (Col. 3:13); because he himself is her life (John 14:6), because in his presence she can experience pleasures forever (Ps. 16:11) she could in fact be happy and did not need to control the situation. This was my message to her…and she took it to heart.

Our need every day is to see Jesus in all of his glory. We need to become intimately familiar with who we already are in him; and we need to intentionally dwell (2 Cor. 3:18) on Him. By dwelling on Him, we are better-equipped to expose and defeat the idolatrous lies of the Devil. We are also motivated to greater obedience; obedience which glorifies God because it is obedience that is done out of joy in God first and foremost, not duty, or an attempt to gain brownie points with God.

I suggest that this is how we must understand being called to “Someone”. It is a calling that we are to intentionally remind ourselves of every day, and not just once.

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.

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.

How the Gospel Simplifies Ministry

How the Gospel Simplifies Ministry

simple ministryOne way that the Gospel simplifies ministry is that it reminds us that every possible ministry endeavor has a common focus: the heart.  Therefore, equipping should focus on helping people to do heart-level ministry.

In Matthew 15:18-19, Jesus tells us that it is what comes out of the heart that defiles a person. Whether the issue is parenting, finances, sex, homework, a flooded basement; or whether the issue involves  married couples, youth, children, singles, etc., etc., etc. the issue is always heart-related because the heart is always behind the choices we make. The Apostle James [in 4:1-2] agrees.

Therefore, it is futile to address most of the issues we are faced with without addressing the heart.  Yet, we miss the heart when we limit our treatment of problems to techniques and lists of dos and don’ts which deal only with outward behavior.

When the heart is addressed the result is that the outward problem often takes care of itself.  This is because the problem is often not in not knowing what to do, but in not wanting to do it—which is a heart matter.

Example: a couple is struggling with finances. They come to you for help. Since this is the third couple who has approached you recently for financial counsel, you decide that the church needs to provide instruction on how to handle finances in a biblical way. People go through the class, may actually experience some success, but still fall into the same overspending patterns. WHY? Perhaps because the heart was not addressed (only the symptoms of the heart condition were). Techniques appeal to the flesh because they can often be done in our own strength often without ever addressing the heart which requires the gospel applied by faith.

No financial system (by itself) is going to fix the idolatry that is at the heart of the desire to live beyond one’s means. Even with a great financial system, the area requiring greater attention is the heart behind the financial decisions.

The key then in ministry is to equip people to know how to minister on a heart level. If people learn how to do this, then they will be better equipped to help each other with whatever problem(s) they face. For example, consider how valuable this could be in the ministry of a head of household to those in his home?

Admittedly, there will always be those times when the leaders need to step in and help. But consider that if the fundamental goal of equipping is to minister on a heart level, then many cataclysmic problems could potentially be nipped in the bud at the garden variety level.

Do we fundamentally pursue equipping the saints with an eye towards the heart?  Do we see that equipping people, all people, for the work of ministry is not so much about specialized techniques as it is helping them discern and apply the gospel to the heart behind the behavior? This greatly simplifies ministry by equipping people to address the common denominator in life’s issues: the heart.