Tag Archives: Ministry

How to use What does it Mean to be a Christian? in Discipleship

I remember teaching the story of Joseph at a church-based after school program for Junior and Senior High students. When I told them that his brothers sold him into slavery, many of them were genuinely surprised. For them, the story was new and exciting. For me, it was a wake-up call that I could not assume these student would have a basic understand of Christianity I so often took for granted.

What the students thought they knew of Christianity was often skewed, or so incomplete to be unhelpful. They didn’t know how to connect the dots between the gospel and the Christian life, and many had no connection to a local church, or any understanding of why it would be at all important.

In this, and other ministry contexts, I began to see the need to have a ready outline of the Christian faith, something that would present the gospel and the call of salvation clearly, without a lot of religious jargon, that would connect salvation to the life of the Christian and the life of the church. I wrote What Does it Mean to be a Christian? as an attempt to draw out such an outline. It’s an outline, not exhaustive, but complete enough for new and deeper information to be incorporated into the unified cloth of the faith.

In my church context, I have used the content of this book in two specific ways:

  • Introduce teenagers with limited knowledge of Christianity to the basics of the faith
  • Prepare adults to take the step of believer’s baptism

What Does it Mean to Be a Christian? is split into three parts, and outlines the following topics:

Part 1: Salvation

  • The unified story of the Bible: Creation, Fall, Rescue, Completion
  • The character of God: His Divine and Moral attributes
  • Mankind: Made in the image of God, yet slaves to sin, and in need of God’s rescue
  • Salvation: The gift of God and the call to repentance

Part 2: The Christian Life

  • New life in Jesus through the Spirit: Freedom from sin, freedom to serve
  • The greatest commandment: Love God and love neighbor
  • The Spiritual disciplines: Bible reading, Prayer, Church attendance
  • Embracing the “weirdness” of Christianity, being salt and light

Part 3: The church

  • The nature of the Church: An outline of the theology of the church
  • Baptism and Communion: Essential symbols for a distinctive community
  • The relationship between the Church and the World
  • A call to participate in a local, Bible believing, church

How a ministry leader could use What Does it Mean to Be a Christian?

  • Form an outline for further curriculum development
  • Supplemental reading material for classes giving the basics of the Christian faith
  • A resource to provide to those curious about Christianity
  • A resource for new believers to grow in their faith
  • Preparatory reading for teenagers and adults preparing for baptism

Two more essential notes for ministry leaders:

  • What Does it Mean to Be a Christian? addresses sexuality when discussing the Christian life. It is in no way explicit, but it is probably not appropriate for younger kids.
  • If you’re a ministry leader interested in using this book and have questions, or want to know about a group rate, email me at steve@wpbiblefellowship.org. I would be happy to provide copies of this book at cost ($2.15/book + shipping) to anyone using it in a ministry context.

Available on Amazon

(Paperback) (Kindle)

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E, S, V, P

First, let me just say that in the past 36 hours I have come up with some of my best political one-liners ever. They were funny. But they were probably also unnecessarily divisive. I also wrote half a blog post dealing on parts of what is currently happening in Cleveland. And yet, I practiced self-control and didn’t post any of it on FB and I deleted my post. I think I deserve a prize. Mint chocolate chip ice cream sounds pretty good…

Today’s post is quite different in nature, and it is particularly geared toward preachers.

I attended a training today at my engineering job. At the start of the training session we had an ice-breaker. Each person was instructed to state their name and whether they were an E, S, V, or P. “E”s are explorers, they are people who are very interested in the content of the class. “S”s are shoppers, they are interested in some of the material. They are looking for one or two takeaways. “V”s are vacationers, they aren’t really interested in the class but it got them out of their routine and they have no better place to be. Finally, “P”s are prisoners, they are in the class against their will – their manager made them come.

On any given Sunday, there is a mix of ESVPs in your congregation. This might be helpful to recognize.

When I prepare to preach I tend to “categorize” my audience and try to gear my preaching to a broad based of listeners. The broadest category is “believers” and “unbelievers.” I try to include a call to believers and a call to unbelievers. In other words, I try to both disciple and evangelize.

I also think through people in different life stages. How would a student understand and apply this message? How would a retiree? How would someone who is feeling sad about a recent loss? Etc.

I think I will add ESVP to my lens as well. How would this look?

Explorers: Explorers in a church setting are those people who come eager to learn. They love the Bible. Even if they can’t directly apply the message to their lives, as long as you faithfully expound the Word of God, they will stay tuned. These are the easiest to preach to. A seeker, even if not a Christian, could also be an explorer. They may still be interested in the message even if they don’t (yet) agree. I’m not sure you really have to do anything extra for the explorers, but it’s good to acknowledge that some people are eager to learn Scripture. If nothing else, this should encourage the preacher.

Shoppers: Some people are not really that interested in the whole service. Some might particularly like the music, or the social aspect, or perhaps they are looking for one or two “take home” points from the sermon. You have to work a little harder for their attention. Maybe they’re not interested in the “big idea” of the sermon because it’s not what they’re shopping for. We still, if we’re going to be faithful to the text, will want to draw them in. Here’s where a good “tension creating” intro can go a long way.

Vacationers: These are people who are really just apathetic. They aren’t hostile. Church is just another thing which breaks the routine. They don’t really have a better place to be – or the cost of getting to that other place is too high. I think the goal here is to awaken their passions and to do that by passionately proclaiming the gospel.

Prisoners: Prisoners are people who don’t want to be there. They were dragged by a spouse or a parent or were pressured by a friend. They are hostile. According to preaching books I have read the best ways to communicate with those who are hostile are with humor and story (two of my weakest preaching abilities).

Perhaps it might just be good to acknowledge that we have a mix of people in the audience. It’s not all explorers, it’s not all shoppers, it’s not all vacations, it’s not all prisoners. Assuming everyone is an explorer will grant you permission to be boring. Assuming everyone is a shopper will cause you to just focus on the “takeaways” without getting to the meat. Assuming everyone is a vacationer might make you force in passion where it doesn’t come naturally, or assume everyone’s problem is that they are “lukewarm.” Assuming everyone is a prisoner will likely either make you hostile and angry or overly deferential.

Sometimes I address a particular group: “perhaps you are here and you have never placed your trust in Jesus” or “perhaps you are here and you are really struggling with a loss right now…” Maybe I could do the same with ESVP… “perhaps you are here and you feel like a prisoner, you really don’t want to be here…” That acknowledges those “prisoners” where they are at and allows you to address them directly. “Yes, that is me, what’s he going to say?”

Preacher or congregants, what do you think, is this helpful?

Questions from a bi-vocational pastor about pastoral burnout

After yet another conversation with mostly full-time pastors talking about pastoral burnout I have a few nagging questions. Since I’m bi-vocational and interact with people in some pretty stressful non-ministry jobs, it made me wonder…

Why is burnout so often spoken about in pastoral ministry but not in other professions? A lot more pastors seem to “burn out” from ministry, but I’m not sure I understand why this is the case.

In the discussion both Sabbath-rests and days off were discussed as distinct days. What’s the distinction? Do you need to take both? Do we expect the people in our churches to do both?

Which leads to burnout more quickly, more working hours or higher demands and emotional stress? From my experience in bi-vocational ministry, I work more hours but have less struggle with the burnout I hear about from those in full-time ministry.

Does the frequency of talk of pastor-burnout belittle the equally stressful work of the people in our congregation? Are we as pastors as concerned about overwork from our people as we are for ourselves?

I don’t want to minimize pastoral burnout. I’m just trying to understand why it seems to be such a pastor-centric issue. Or, maybe, I’m questioning whether it is or not. I’m open to being enlightened.

Romania Travel Journal – Principles from Ostraveni

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday was split into three acts. Act 1: Mini-conference in Ostraveni. Act 2: Visit to an Orthodox Monastery.  Act 3: Trip to Gaujani.

Act 1: Mini-conference in Ostraveni

The team – Jeremy, Jessica, Donna, and myself – were finally all reunited at the Pentecostal church in Ostraveni, a “suburb” of R.V. (we had been divided on Sunday). Ostraveni is not a village like the other places we visited but is still in a very urban setting. This was also the church that I preached at Sunday night.

We were there for a mini-conference of sorts, which really served as an opportunity for us to give a brief presentation of Attic After School. We had each brought along a jump drive with pictures of Attic After School for the occasion. The morning started with refreshments but moved quickly to the presentation.

The presentation itself was rather brief. I started with a brief devotional on the Great Commission, moved to a brief history of the program, shared what we do, and then showed some pictures to give everyone a good idea of what an average day looked at. I didn’t really think to share some of the underlying principles of ministry but as the discussion time progressed, and as I reflected further upon those conversations, I realized that our ministry is based on some core principles, even one that I hadn’t articulated until forced to explain it.

Explaining Attic After School in Ostraveni.

Explaining Attic After School in Ostraveni.

Ministry is chosen based on the intersection of call, need, and opportunity

The question naturally arises, Why do an After School program? The answer, for our church, was that the After School program met at the intersection of call, need, and opportunity.

Call: We are called to obey the great commission and our church was actively seeking ways to do this. Without this sense of call we wouldn’t have even started the process.

Need: Members of the broader community, including the mayor at the time, recognized the need for an After School program to provide a safe and positive place for teenagers between 3 and 5 pm, a time when crime and gang recruitment are at their highest. In developing the program we met a need in the community, which was not only a good in itself but has also ensured us the support of other community institutions such as the police department and the schools.

Opportunity: Finally, we had the opportunity – the resources (a newly updated “attic”/youth room), the leadership, and the volunteers – to make it happen.  I suppose with a different set of gifts and resources we may have done a different ministry.

I’m not expecting churches in Romania to suddenly start after school programs but I did challenge them to look at the needs of the community and their own set of resources. We do, however, all share the same call.

Ministry doesn’t require a lot of resources

One major concern in Romania is that the church doesn’t have many resources, or at least, consistent resources. One of our goals was to show that ministry doesn’t require it. Attic After School, especially in its beginnings, but even now, doesn’t require it. When we started we were all volunteers – even our director at the time. We had a set of volunteers bring snacks. Games and game tables were donated. Ministry doesn’t have to be big to be successful or effective.

Ministry requires broad church participation

What we lacked in resources we made up for in participation, which flowed naturally out of a sense of call. As a church we “own” Attic After School and this is true at the individual level as well. There are many ways to participate – volunteering as a counselor, bringing snacks (especially early on), ”
“adopting a student” (prayer ministry), buying a “warm fingers and warm toes” bag, or participating in a related ministry. Even those who do not participate directly in Attic After School support the ministry and, I believe, take some level of ownership for its success.

It simply would not have worked if only a select group of leaders thought it was a good idea. We needed, and we continue to need, the whole church.

If I were to go back and offer advice to the Romanian pastors we spoke to that day I would recommend they focus their attention on energizing their congregation to look for ways to fulfill the great commission. An energized congregation will participate freely and enthusiastically if they see they are meeting a need and you give them the opportunity to serve.

In Discipleship, think relationships and steps

OK, this one requires a diagram!

One of the comments we had when we showed pictures of Attic After School was this: “You put a lot of focus on games and fun, where do you put in the gospel?” There are three answers to this question. (1) We have a Talk Time which is 10 minutes of sharing the gospel directly. (2) We make an effort to share the gospel in intentional personal conversations. (3) We use Attic After School to invite kids to other programs, especially Youth Group and Sunday morning worship.

Use relationships to move unbelievers and new believers through deeper steps of discipleship.

Use relationships to move unbelievers and new believers through deeper steps of discipleship.

This final answer is perhaps the most important and effective in making disciples. Attic After School is a “wide open door”. We want to make it as open and accessible as we can without pretending to be something we’re not or removing the offense of the gospel. We could, for instance, make Attic After School more inviting by removing our “talk time” but to do so would be to take out an essential aspect of our ministry.

Youth group goes a little deeper. We include worship, prayer, and a longer “talk time.” We still have games but there is an intentional different between the after school program and the Wednesday night program.

Sunday worship is deeper still, though we still make sure that the gospel is front and center and that unbelievers or seekers feel welcome and can understand the program and the message. We move kids through the process through relationships built between our workers and the students. These relationships are key and it is through these relationships more than anything else that we have seen young men and women become believers and grow as disciples.

All three steps are needed in our context, though they may not be needed in every context. If we took out Attic After School we would miss out on building a lot of new relationships. If we took out Youth Group the leap to Sunday morning would simply be too high for most of the kids to make and the kids would never get beyond the more “surface” aspect of the after school program. If we never invited the kids to Sunday morning they would never see what adult discipleship looks like and would be ultimately stunted in their spiritual walk.

Some ministries we encountered in Romania missed some steps. Day camps offered wide open doors but never/rarely directed the kids to a local church. Others missed the wide open door and missed out on reaching many unbelievers. Some ministries were trying to find that middle step to move unbelievers or new believers from initial faith to sustained discipleship.

Ministry requires flexibility

One of the participants in the conference offered a great analogy. She said that her grandfather was a fisherman who knew that when fishing you sometimes needed to use different bate or different pole to catch different kinds of fish. You may have a favorite pole or favorite method but in order to get the desired result you may need to move outside of your comfort zone.

Ministry requires this kind of flexibility. We need to be more committed to the mission and the call than we are to our particular methodology. Different tasks require different tools and methods. The Romanian churches are in the right position to know their particular needs and opportunities and I am confident they understand and are committed to the call of discipleship. It was fun to participate with them as they brainstormed different ways to get the job done.

Why We’re Moving

Tomorrow, Lord willing, we will close on the sale of our house in Hudsonville and the purchase of our new house in Wyoming, MI. This isn’t an especially far move (15-20 minutes) but it’s not an insignificant one. A lot of people asked why we’re moving.

One exchange went something like this:

“We’re moving to Wyoming”

“Is the house you’re moving to bigger?”

“No”

“Is it in a better neighborhood?”

“No”

“So, why are you moving?”

That’s a good question. It’s more common, admittedly, for people to move “up” but, by a lot of standard markers this is a move “down.” The house is smaller (though with a finished basement it would be just about even or perhaps a bit larger) and it is in a city with “worse” schools. Based on sale prices, our new house is worth about 75% of the value of the house we are moving from. Nevertheless, we’re moving because moving puts us more in line with our core values.

The first reason why we are moving is to be closer to the church where I am a pastor. We will essentially be within walking distance (a little over half a mile away). This will afford more opportunity for ministry, especially hospitality. Additionally, I think there’s something to be said for living in the same neighborhood where you minister. It’s not necessary but as our church has shifted from a primarily commuter church to a far more “neighborhood centered” church I have begun to see more and more the ministry advantages of being a closer neighbor. Being close to the church also gives the added benefit of more time at home. I’m at church a lot and with a 20 minute commute I lost 40 minutes just traveling to and from church. On days I’m at church (which is several days a week) I’m adding 30-40 extra minutes to my day – time I can spend with my family.

The second reason why we’re moving is to increase the strategic impact of our resources. First, I am referring the resource of our house. We have a nice house in Hudsonville but we don’t, and probably won’t, use it to its full potential. It’s bigger than we really need and it’s too far away from too many people for us to use it to its fullest. Second, I am referring to the use of our money. Since this house is cheaper this allows us to significantly reduce our overall debt load (we have no debt except our house) and our monthly payment. We can use the extra money to more rapidly pay off our house debt (a move toward financial freedom) or increase our capacity for generosity or pay for Christian education and the discipleship of our children. This will also allow us to reduce driving and car/gas expenses again increasing our overall financial freedom and capacity for eternal uses of our money.

Finally, this move reduces one of the potential barriers in my life to eventual full-time ministry – the financial hurdle. We have always attempted to live within our means but a move to full-time ministry would mean a reduction in means. To allow for that possibility we need to live not only within our means, but below our means. I have no short term plans, or even long term plans for full-time ministry. I am committed to bi-vocational ministry at this time. However, I want to be open to where God may lead in the future.

There are a slew of minor benefits as well. We’ll be living within walking distance of a park. We’ll be close to friends with whom we can swap baby-sitting duties. We’ll have sidewalks. There are some downsides we well, some things I had to get over. We love our current house and it will be sad to see it go. I’m not looking forward to have a detached garage this winter. I’ll miss the third bathroom. But all in all, when we as a family looked at this move objectively we realized that this was a move more in line with our core values. It brings both freedom and opportunity we don’t have at our current address. We’re excited to see where God might use this for his glory.

Pastoral Authority: What it is and what it isn’t

Several recent discussions, one on the pastoral role in general, one on pastoral abuse, and one regarding the role of women in ministry, while disconnected in content, have brought up the question of whether or not pastors (or church leaders, elders, etc.)* have authority and, if they do, what the nature of their authority is. Since I am a pastor, this is probably something I should have a handle on and it is this topic I would like to explore in this post.

Do Pastors have authority?

I need to confess that I come to this topic with a perspective this is anti-hierarchical. I believe in the priesthood of all believers. I am wary of anyone, pastor or otherwise, who claims to speak or lead with authority. So, the first question is this: Do pastors have authority in the church?

I would argue that yes, there is a place for pastoral leadership in the church and that leadership carries with it authority. Hebrews 13:7 says, “Have confidence in your leaders and respect their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account.” 1 Peter 5:5 says “you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders.” In this context, the term “elder” is probably referring to the office (see 1 Peter 5:1-2). In the qualifications for overseers Paul says that an elder must “manage his own family well and see that his children obey him” since to do so demonstrates that he would be able to “manage” God’s church (1 Timothy 3:4-5). So, it seems, that God intended some hierarchy within the local church structure and that the members of that church should “submit” themselves to those leaders, holding them in high esteem (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13).

What is that nature of that authority?

First, we need to say what it is not. Jesus teaches an “upside down” kingdom. He instructs his disciples:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28).

Similarly in the 1 Peter 5 passage referenced above Paul says that elders should lead “not pursuing dishonest gain… not lording it over those entrusted to you.” Church authority is not a power grab. It is not coercive. Submission to authorities is not something demanded by leaders, but something given voluntarily. Godly leadership looks a lot different from worldly leadership. Godly authority looks very different from worldly authority.

Authority exercised by pastors is also not independent. It is a secondary, derivative leadership. First, pastors must act in submission to Christ. There is only one Senior Pastor (Chief Shepherd) and He will hold all other under shepherds accountable (1 Peter 5:4). Second, pastors are subject to the Word. Preaching can be described as an “authoritative” action but that authority only goes so far. The Bible is authoritative but the interpretation is not. The sermon a pastor preaches can, and should be, evaluated by the hearers to ensure that it aligns with God’s revealed Word. A congregant who comes to me afterwards and tells me they think I misinterpreted a portion of Scripture is not disrespecting my authority, since my interpretation wasn’t authoritative anyway. We are both subject to the Scriptures. If I were convinced my interpretation was correct my aim would be to convince the congregant, not simply tell them to defer to me because I am an “authoritative teacher.” Third, church leaders submit themselves to the church, in a sense, since the church must watch the life and teaching of the pastor to ensure that they remain eligible for church leadership per the requirements of 1 Timothy and Titus.**

So what is the purpose of church authority? It is given for the building up of the body (Ephesians 4:11-13) and for the shepherding of the flock (1 Peter 5). The pastor is the servant following the example of Christ (Matthew 20:27-28). Pastors are to follow the example of Christ, giving of themselves for the sake of the church and doing all this as those under authority.

How do church leaders exercise their authority?

To say that pastors are fundamentally servants does not, however, flatten church structure, it just defines the way in which pastors and elders exercise leadership. Some “leadership” activities of pastors include guarding and transmitting sound doctrine (1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 1:13-14), appointing and installing leaders (2 Tim 2:1-2; Titus 1:5), shepherding the flock, which includes feeding with spiritual food and keeping out the wolves (Acts 20:28-31). Pastors and elders also bear much of the responsibility for church discipline (1 Corinthians 5:1-5; 13, 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15; Matthew 18:17).

Perhaps the best “modern” word to describe the role of pastors is “responsibility.” Pastors and leaders have a heightened degree of responsibility since they are the primary teachers, interpreters, and guardians of the gospel. Their lives and teaching are viewed more closely and are held up as a model for right living. This means that leaders sometimes need to exercise authority for the protection of the flock as a whole.

This heightened responsibility, when faithfully carried out, makes pastors and church leaders worthy of respect, but they are never “above the law.” In fact, if I understand Scripture correctly, they will be judged more severely (James 3:1). It is wise and necessary, therefore, for pastors and church leaders to hold their position with utmost humility.

Bottom line: Pastors have been granted limited, derived authority, not to be “lorded over” others but for the purpose of shepherding the flock with utmost humility. If you’re a church member, godly leaders should be respected for their service. If you’re a church leader, don’t “demand” that respect. Instead, serve your church by appealing to the truth of the authoritative Word and pointing them to the true Chief Shepherd.

*From here on I will be using the term “pastor” to describe the highest leadership position in the church. Depending on your view of church structure you could read this as pastor/elder, church board, bishop, etc. The NT more often speaks of church leadership in general than pastoral leadership in particular. However, I use “pastor” here since it is the position most commonly associated with local church leadership. If pressed, I would probably argue that “pastor/elder” would be the most precise term but “pastor” smoothes out the language of the post.

**In a Baptist setting (like the one in which I am a part) this is formalized in church policy. The congregation votes to call pastors, appoint elders and deacons, and modify the church constitution. In a strict sense, the board is the “boss” of the pastor and the voting members are the “boss” of board. Even if, in your church, this isn’t upheld by church policy individual Christians still bear the responsibility to evaluate the life and teaching of their leaders.

A Shameless Plug

atticafterschoolFive years ago our church, Wyoming Park Bible Fellowship, started a program called “Attic After School,” an After School program for Middle and High School students in Grandville and Wyoming. We provide a safe place for kids to hang out, play games, form relationships and, most importantly, hear about and experience the love of God.

Shortly after starting Attic After School we decided to make the program its own DBA (Doing Business As) in order to broaden the scope of the ministry. We wanted to make it easier for people not directly affiliated with our church to participate – financially or as a volunteer – with the ministry. Today, about one-third of the Attic After School budget comes directly from the church and the rest from outside sources. In addition, while our church body makes up the core of our volunteers we have participation from volunteers associated with other churches. We hope to continue to expand our partnerships with other churches and believers for the common goal of giving teenagers a safe, fun, and inviting place hang out and hear the gospel.

If you’re interested in learning more about Attic After School check out the website or the attached (2013_October) October newsletter.

It’s been my joy to work both as a volunteer with Attic After School and on the Executive Committee for the past five years. God’s doing some great things in the lives of the students who come and in us who get to hang out with those awesome kids.