April 2011


Jesus said, “Go and make disciples.”  You’ve heard it.  You’ve studied it.  You’ve preached it.  But, have you ever defined it?  What, exactly, is a “disciple”?

May I suggest that, for all practical purposes, a “disciple” is synonymous with an “ideal church member.”  Or, at least, it should be.

If you agree, then try this exercise with your church leaders: List the qualities of an ideal member of your congregation.  How should such a person act?  What should he say?  How should she feel?

Once you have listed the qualities of a disciple, examine your church’s programming to see how—or if—you are helping people reach this ideal.  After all, it seems reasonable that church activities should lead people toward some goal…

Here are nine characteristics I suggest could begin your thinking about the characteristics of an ideal member in your church …

An ideal (assimilated) member:

1.   …understands and identifies with the goals of your church.  Goals are what church leaders have determined to accomplish in the coming year.  How many of your constituents could list at least two of your church’s goals for the coming year?  (Perhaps a prior question would be, “Does your church actually have specific goals for the coming year?”)

2.   …attends worship regularly. It’s hard to imagine an assimilated member who is not in worship regularly; it’s a key part of being part of the body of Christ.  And, by the way, a change in worship attendance is the first sign of a person beginning to drop out of church.

3.     …feels a sense of spiritual progress.  The Christian life is like Pilgrim’s Progress…journeying toward the goal of being  like Christ.  Members who do not feel a sense of spiritual growth will begin to wonder whether the benefit of being involved in church is worth the cost.

4.   …has taken a formal step of affiliation with your church.  While some churches are de-emphasizing formal membership, there are good reasons for people to make a public commitment to Christ (i.e., baptism) and to His Church (i.e., membership).

5.   …has friends in your church.  On average, active church members have over seven friends in their church; drop-outs had less than two (before they left).

6.   …is using his/her spiritual gift.  From an assimilation perspective, giving one’s time and talents to Christ through the church is even more important than giving one’s money.  Plus, a role or task in the church provides a great opportunity to make friends (see #5).

7.   …is involved in a fellowship group.  The facts are clear: people in small groups seldom drop out of church.  Groups are one of the best ways to build strong bonds among members.

8.   tithes to your church.  “The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being” (Lk. 12:34  The Message).  Assimilated members are financially committed to the ministry of Christ’s Church through their congregation.

9.   …is witnessing to friends and family.  As we saw in last month’s post (“The Disciple-Making Silver Bullet”), the Gospel travels best through social networks of friends and relatives.  An ideal church member and Christian disciple is regularly and intentionally sharing God’s love with people in his/her oikos.

Now what? 

Here’s how to increase the number of people in your church who demonstrate these characteristics:

1.  Create your own list.  Discuss with others, pray, and then decide what ideal (and measurable) characteristics you would like to nurture in your members.

2.  Review and re-design your new members class around this definition.

3.  Evaluate your present constituency through the lenses of your definition by using a chart like this:

IDEAL CHARACTERISTICS

Our Church Members

#1

#2

#3

#4

#5

#6

Jim Adams

X

X

X

Trisha Burns

X

X

X

Hal Carter

X

Kelly Danielson

X

X

Josh Eckstrom

X

Rebecca Gardner

X

     etc., etc.

4.  Develop plans for the coming year that will move your members and attenders toward this ideal.

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I’ve been thinking about …

Resurrection!

I know, I know.  It’s not Easter yet.  But I think about what I think about.  Those of you who know me know I think about the resurrection a lot: I preach about it regularly it’s a recurring theme in my writing, and it’s the topic of my dissertation (personal indulgence alert: which I defended this Tuesday).  But I’ve just been bombarded by resurrection talk lately.  Allow me to relay three such instances.  They sparked some truthful and useful reflections for me, especially concerning the delicate interplay between past, present and future in resurrection faith.  Perhaps these will spark something in you as well.

(1) A student in the Seminary’s Worship course selected the following topic for her Integration Paper: “What acts of worship/sacraments ought to be performed for the dying/dead?”  What a great topic!  Together we built a bibliography that engages the relevant biblical texts, the history of last rites and other acts associated, and theological debates over immortality of the soul and resurrection of the body.  Especially intriguing were the biblical text she selected: Ezekiel 37:13, John 5:28, Romans 8:38-39 and 2 Corinthians 5:8.  All of the NT texts, but especially John 5:28, speak of resurrection as both a future hope and a present reality. Yes, Jesus Christ was raised at Easter. And yes, we will be raised at the End. But in the meantime resurrection life is at work among us. Our future is already present, for Christ himself is present.  So resurrection hope is not just hope deferred, but a new way of perceiving and living in the present!

(2) Last Thursday I went to a concert with Nate Lamb, my friend, fellow music-lover and seminary recruiter extraordinaire. The artist’s music and lyrics were just resurrection-saturated. Some occasional infelicities notwithstanding, no recent artist captures the power of resurrection in all its richness like he does. Jesus is the “man who laid death in his grave,”  the one for whom “the dead man and the cynical too are coming out of their graves,” and “I got his resurrection down inside my skin.”  The promise of resurrection is grounded securely in Christ’s resurrection, gives us hope for our future, and transforms our present.  In a word, “the love of God is stronger than the power of death.”

(3) Finally, this Sunday my pastor preached a breathtaking sermon on John 11.  Here’s the gist:  After showing up late to his funeral, Jesus declares that Lazarus is on a trajectory towards life, not death.  Martha affirms this declaration, but immediately defers this hope to the end.  Jesus corrects her by saying: “I am the resurrection and the life.”  The resurrection is not only an event, but a person. And that person is present. He brings life, not just down the road but now. The Christian life is not just a matter of forgiveness for our past and hope for our future, but also abundant life in the present. That’ll preach!

So, bottom line: the risen Jesus Christ is the one who was and is and is to come. Jesus Christ, the risen one, is the same yesterday, today, and forever. This truth can be declared in research, in song, and in sermon. But whatever the form, its rich but simple truth ring outs.

That’s what I’ve been thinking about.  How about you?

-John

The relationships between Boards in their “governance” role and staff in their “administrative” role can make or break an organization, whether that organization is a local church, a ministry non-profit, or a Seminary.

I’ve been in settings where spiritual principles and business “best practices” have been framed in a polarized manner, as if they were antithetical to one another rather than powerful when yoked together.  I’m grateful the Church I served for 30 years recognized that business done well, with the right motives and goals, creates opportunity for a greater focus on ministry.  Business matters handled poorly cause ceaseless distractions that drain needed energy from transformational mission endeavors.

The Board of Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University just completed its third meeting board in our less than two years of existence.  In addition to Board members who gathered from across North America, we were joined by Dr. Jo Anne Lyon, Presiding General Superintendent of The Wesleyan Church.  She is a visionary leader, so her feedback after the meeting that it “was stimulating and a fresh wind of forward thinking” was particularly meaningful.  She also commented on the organization of the meeting in a format approved by Board Chair Stan Hoover, with an agenda designed so Board members would…

LEARN…something new about the Seminary and opportunities it is pursuing.

SHAPE…the future direction and priorities of the Seminary

DECIDE…what needed to be approved and what needed to be discarded.

I’ve found those three components, or movements, make for meaningful Board meetings in other contexts as well.

As the LEARN update was designed for the Board, it began to unfold in a pattern that reflected Acts 1:8 – “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  The ripples:

  • Jerusalem – was geographically proximate and culturally similar
  • Judea, Samaria – still geographically proximate but cultural different
  • Ends of the earth – geographically distant and culturally different

This not only describes the spread of the Gospel, but provides an outline for the book of Acts – Jerusalem (Acts 1-7), Judea & Samaria (8-9) and the ends of the earth (10-28).  While God’s Spirit provided the power for this world-wide impact, it took persecution (its been said that it took Acts 8:1 to make Acts 1:8 a reality) to prevent them from becoming a holy huddle with limited influence.

So we shared what is happening right here in our “Jerusalem” – new faculty hired, development of our Seminary facility design, innovative adaptations to our degree programs and creation of an audit opportunity for our courses.  Then we moved on to our “Judea & Samaria” – partnerships with other educational institutions, cooperative relationships with ethnic denominations, and connecting with organizations such as the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA).  Then to the “ends of the earth” – the worldwide response to our Spanish-language M.Div. which is primarily online, and serving the Church’s educational needs as far away as the Pacific Arena (my good friend Richard Waugh, National Superintendent of the Wesleyan Church of New Zealand, says their country is in the Bible – the literal “ends of the earth” mentioned in Acts 1:8!).

The Board went on to SHAPE our services to the Church by affirming what we were already doing (Spanish-language educational opportunities and forming partnerships with “Teaching Churches & Districts” – starting with our elective at 12Stone Church June 1-7), then prioritizing from a list of “top ten possibilities” what we might pursue first in the future.  Three items rose to the top of that list – the developing of leaders for the church planting movement, exploring ways of measuring and creating church health, and scholarships for international leaders to receive Seminary education in their own context.

The Board went on to formally DECIDE what had been discussed, including making the most of our first opportunity to add Association of Theological Schools accreditation to the accreditation we already have through the Higher Learning Commission.

We left energized by both the fellowship and our vision for the future…now that’s a Board conducting “business as eternal”!

Aristotle, the Greek philosopher of the 4th century BC, wrote a ground-breaking work on communication theory called Rhetoric. In this book, he notes that it’s not just the logos, (content) of the speech but the ethos (character) and pathos (empathy) of the speaker that determines the level of audience receptivity to the speech. Aristotle highlights for speakers the importance of building rapport with the people to whom we speak. In a day when suspicions run high toward leaders in business, politics, and the church, rapport between the preacher and listeners has never been more necessary.

Whether you are the unfamiliar guest speaker at a community service event or the well-known pastor in a local church setting, there are a few practical ways you can build rapport with any group that you address.

Commend the Crowd: Parenting experts, perhaps an oxymoron, suggest that parents should be as quick to tell our kids what they are doing right as we are to correct what they are doing wrong. These experts say that commending our kids builds them up and opens them up to receive correction when we give it. The same is true for preachers when addressing a crowd or congregation. We should be as quick to commend as we are to challenge people with our message. If you are the guest speaker for an event this is especially important. Let the people know you appreciate, for example, their hospitality toward you, or the work they are doing in the community, or what they clearly value. If you are the pastor of a local church, find some good things to say about your congregation that relates to the message you are preaching. Remember to be honest (see below), creative, and insightful when commending a crowd.

Use Self-Deprecating Humor: One of the ironies of public speaking is that, more often than not, the less seriously we preachers take ourselves (within reason) the more intently the congregation listens to our message. The Apostle Paul was quick to admit his weaknesses, even humorously criticizing his lack of eloquence and poor eyesight, in order that the message of the cross of Christ might have prominence. The people to whom we preach are measuring our level of egotism. If they sniff out pride in us, it will most certainly diminish their level of receptivity to the message we proclaim. Self-deprecating humor, done naturally, wisely, and sparingly, gives the impression that we preachers see ourselves not as one above the people but as one among the people of God. Be careful not to overdo it. There is a line that can be crossed using self-deprecating humor that will actually diminish congregational receptivity to your message just as much as prideful egotism does. Our use of humor should not come from a position of insecurity but one of security in Christ.   

Be Brutally Honesty: While the Gospel of Jesus Christ is good news, it is bad news first. Before people even reach out for Christ they must face the bad news that we are sinful, broken, and needy and that life is often unfair, lonely, and empty. Unless a preacher voices the painful realities of life that humans know and endure, the hope stemming from the good news that God sent His son Jesus to redeem what was dead and to restore what we lost won’t be received with as much impact. If our preaching tends to sugar-coat the angst and suffering of the human condition, most people will quit listening to our message. They will conclude, “this preacher is living in la-la land and has no idea what it is like to live in the real world…my world.” Preachers are most guilty of this in funeral messages when we are so anxious to console the grieving that we never name death for what it is and say “death stinks!” Of course, the preacher must be just as honest about the good news too, even when the realities of the human condition attempt to veil the hope of the Gospel.

Demonstrate Passionate Conviction: One of the most essential ways to build rapport with the people to whom you preach is to communicate as if you really believe you have something important and life-giving to say. As our intimate connection to Christ increases, the more passionate love for people and for God surfaces in us. Some preachers can fake passion well; maybe they even write on their sermon notes “scream loud now,” or “pause and cry,” or, my favorite, “strain your voice and whisper so people think you have passion.” I confess there have been times when I got up to preach and felt my lack of passionate conviction about the sermon I developed. Those sermons, as you may know, are hard to preach and perhaps shouldn’t be. I have observed that the messages that incarnate good news worth living and dying for naturally creates the passionate conviction that builds rapport between the preacher and the congregation. Simply put, passion is stirred in the preacher when the sermon has obvious potential to both glorify God and liberate people in significant ways.

Scratch Their Itch: Harry Emerson Fosdick, pastor of New York ‘s Riverside Church, once said “No one comes to church to find out what happened to the Jebusites.”  Fosdick was humorously advising preachers to steer clear of our pet issues in order to address the deep questions that the people in the pews (or chairs) are asking. Preachers are often guilty of scratching in places people aren’t itching. When I ask my wife to scratch my back, she doesn’t scratch my belly. Yet, we preachers have a tendency to scratch where people aren’t itching. We commit this crime in two ways. First, we raise questions in the sermon introduction that people aren’t asking. Our rapport is diminished as people start day dreaming about stuff that really matters to them, like what they’ll eat after church. The second way the preacher commits this crime is by promising, usually in the sermon introduction, to scratch a certain human itch and then failing to actually do the scratching. This second form of the crime is worse than the first because it leads to a greater sense of disappointment in listeners whose expectations are built up and then let down. So, a word to wise preachers- make sure your sermon raises and addresses a significant human itch.

REFLECTION: Which one of the points above comes most naturally to you? Which one of these tips is most challenging for you? Why? What are some other tips for building rapport that you might list?