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Jesus Cares More about Addiction than Your Church Does

Mar 23, 23
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America is turning to substances to mask the disillusionment of a society without substance.  Campaigns by politicians, professors, and publications to eradicate Christian influence from America’s history are having exactly the effect we would expect.  Rooting identity in self and happiness in materialism is leading to record levels of depression and dependence.  Not surprisingly, of the 46.3 million people with a substance use disorder in 2021, the highest percentage falls between 18-25 years of age.

Churches and Christians are the sole purveyors of absolute, eternal truth.  God’s Word is the only firm foundation in a shaky, post-modern world.  Therefore, we must engage and even lead the way in stemming the rising tide of addiction in our nation.  The only question is how best to assist in prevention, intervention, and recovery.  Our approach should differ based on whether the individual is willing to come clean, get clean, or stay clean…

  • Eric is an alcoholic but doesn’t think there’s a problem and has no interest in recovery.  He delusionally believes no one else notices but his lame excuses for missing events, work, and church aren’t fooling friends, colleagues, or pastors.  Living in denial, Eric doesn’t recognize how his addiction is causing others to suffer while also putting his career and relationships in jeopardy.  Awakening Eric before it’s too late will require an intervention.
  • You’d never guess Valerie was once the life of the party.  She was outgoing and engaged in school, work, and church.  An abusive boyfriend and death in the family sent her into a downward spiral that cost her good friends and a great job.  Now living alone and isolated, Valerie wants to get sober but an overwhelming sense of hopelessness makes her hesitant to even leave the house, much less reach out to those she disappointed and seek the help she so desperately needs.
  • Frank is married with two young children, works as a financial advisor, and serves as a deacon at his church.  However, all is not as it appears.  Frank tried for years to hide his addiction to opioids stemming from knee surgeries after playing college football.  Dependency and deception had been eating at Frank, keeping him from being the dad and husband he needs to be.  So he proactively sought counsel and willingly started treatment to avoid losing everything, before hitting rock bottom.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”  Eric, Valerie, and Frank are enduring and causing pain that could lead them and their loved ones closer to the Lord, but only if Christians don’t miss the opportunity to point them back to Him.

What Churches and Christians Do Today

Despite the critical role churches could and should play in America’s substance abuse crisis, few are raising awareness, experiencing awakening, taking action, or enforcing accountability…

  • Addicts like Eric, in the Precontemplation stage, rationalize and justify their usage.  With nearly 17% of Americans struggling with alcohol or drug dependency, how many sit each Sunday, undetected, in the pews of our churches?  However, even if pastors were trained to recognize the warning signs, contemporary church growth models discourage confronting sin within our congregations.  Scripture calls us to keep the church holy by holding each other accountable.  Yet despite church leadership’s suspicions for months that Eric had a problem, it was his coworkers who finally mustered the courage to surface the obvious.
  • Valerie was in the Contemplation stage, open to recovery but not ready to walk the path.  Years ago, when she lost her job and ran out of money, she asked her church for assistance.  They paid an electric bill to keep her power on but offered nothing further, and no one followed up to see how she was doing.  Now alone and seemingly forgotten, Valerie has no intention of asking that church (or any other) for help with her addiction.  At this point, a church would have to go to Valerie on a search and rescue mission, venturing out into “Judea and Samaria” (the community) to “seek and save the lost”.  But no call, email, or text ever came.
  • As a deacon at a church with alcohol consumption stipulations for leaders, Frank felt shame and the stigma of his opioid addiction.  It never occurred to him to confess his substance abuse issues to pastors or other leaders there.  He knew them well enough to anticipate their response – compassion, but little understanding of how to help.  Opioids are about pain alleviation, and Frank’s physical ailment had evolved into emotional and spiritual suffering.  His church should have been able to bring healing in those areas, but addiction was seen there more as a sin to avoid than a problem to address.  So when Frank reached the Action stage of his recovery journey, he turned elsewhere for support.

In 2018-2019, I led strategic planning for a collaboration between the University of South Florida and Humana (as part of its Bold Goal initiative) designed to engage faith leaders in the mounting opioid crisis in Tampa Bay.  We made headway in awareness building but had limited success in convincing churches to work (at some level) with addicts rather than quickly refer them to external agencies.

Why Don’t We Do More?

Why didn’t those churches step up to help Eric, Valerie, and Frank?  Pastors are shepherds and caretakers for their flocks, responsible for their congregation’s spiritual health.  Yet few take a holistic, integrated view of “health”, instead decoupling the spiritual from the physical, mental, and emotional.  The pain those hooked on alcohol or drugs are trying to remedy involves all four of those receptors, with spiritual health impacted by physical or mental anguish, emotional health dependent on spiritual and physical illness, etc.  In other words, churches should be concerned about and attend to all four dimensions of their members’ welfare.

However, that’s rarely the case today due to the prevailing definition of church as a place (not as you and me), and therefore members are treated as “customers” to attract and retain, not Kingdom “employees” to train and deploy.  Customers shop, coming and going as they please – if some become problematic (i.e. addicts), churches may not mind if they take their “business” elsewhere.  But employees are under contract, mentored, given health insurance, and held accountable for performance.  If their (spiritual, mental, emotional, or physical) health suffers, so does the church’s “productivity”.  Employees are expected to be loyal to the mission and tasks given by the Boss (Jesus).  They wear the “company” brand proudly and act as a united team, doing what’s in the best interest of their fellow “colleagues”.  All rally around a “coworker” suffering pain or addiction because the relationship is long term, the church has invested heavily in that individual, and there’s an important job to get done.  On the other hand, “customers” are expendable, as long as the revolving door keeps spinning.

What Should Churches Be Doing?

Churches are in a unique position to provide addicts what no secular organization can – alleviation of the pain of hopelessness and loneliness behind the escapism that fuels substance abuse.  Hope in Jesus Christ and community in a family of believers aids in addiction prevention, intervention, and recovery, as well as reconciliation and redemption…

  • Jesus extends the offer of forgiveness to those like Eric who live in denial.  He pursued Peter to give him the opportunity to repent – professing his love for Jesus three times, once for each denial.  Since Eric (and many congregants like him) suffer in silence and conceal sin, his church should follow Jesus’ example…
    • Understand the facts, share statistics, and discuss dangers in today’s world
    • Address addiction more often and openly given its prevalence
    • Survey members to assess the extent of substance abuse in their families
    • Train staff and lay leaders to notice the flashing lights signaling addiction
    • Track challenges members endure that cause physical or emotional pain (e.g. surgery, divorce, death) and proactively get ahead of the issues
    • As loving, trusted confidants, ask the hard questions when no one else will
  • The Bible says Jesus “had” to go through Samaria as if He were on a mission to meet a woman deep in sin and ostracized.  Valerie fits that same description and likewise wants liberty from her lifestyle, but won’t pursue recovery unless it meets her where she is.  Valerie’s former church and other local churches should…
    • Conduct an Awareness Sunday service addressing the crisis biblically
    • Equip members with resources to assist coworkers, friends, and neighbors
    • Appoint an (internal) leader for this cause and issue a call to action
    • Convey the message to the (quietly) hopeless that healing is possible
    • Offer a Celebrate Recovery program to the community onsite at the church
    • Serve as a compassionate “family” and community for those in recovery
  • Jesus healed many demon-possessed people who were having seizures and convulsing, not unlike those overdosing on opioids.  Frank was addicted to painkillers, but didn’t have the comfort or confidence to approach his church to exorcise that demon.  Rather than shun or refer elsewhere, his church needs to…
    • Remove the stigma of addiction, encouraging confession and transparency
    • Foster a new perception of churches as a “safe”, trusted place to seek help
    • Be prepared to counsel and walk alongside members to the extent possible
    • Provide practical support to families in crisis as a result of substance abuse
    • Research and maintain a vetted list of providers to refer when necessary
    • Acknowledge overcomers and share success stories of recovery journeys

In 2021, nearly 22% of Americans (over 12 years old) used illicit drugs and 94% of addicts received no treatment.  Given the magnitude of our nation’s substance abuse crisis, moving the needle hinges on collaboration and engagement of all churches – working together in prevention, intervention, and recovery inside and outside their “4 walls”.

It’s Your Turn…

How else could pastors get involved in reducing stigma, offering acceptance, equipping churchgoers, mitigating risks, and serving families impacted by America’s addiction to drugs and alcohol?

Jesus Cares More about Single Moms than Your Church Does

Mar 09, 23
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Nearly 30% of single moms live in poverty, five times the rate of married couple families.  Whether through divorce, death, or desertion, they confront the challenge of raising children and maintaining a household alone.  Broken or “stolen” relationships leave many single mothers with nowhere to turn in a crisis, which seem to arise daily…

  1. Michelle grew up in a Christian family but against her parents’ wishes married a non-believer she prayed would come to faith.  Instead, he drifted further from her and the Lord, leaving Michelle with three young children and an empty bank account when he succumbed to the lure of alcohol and another woman.
  2. Emily was married for 17 years before losing her husband to cancer.  Dealing with grief was difficult enough, but she also faced a mounting pile of bills with no life insurance and two pre-teen daughters desperately needing her emotional and financial support.
  3. Olivia became pregnant with an unexpected, but not unwanted, child as a senior in high school.  Her boyfriend broke up when she refused to have an abortion and her mom, also a struggling single mother, was unable to provide much assistance beyond child care so Olivia could find a part-time job.

Who better than churches to step into the gap for single moms like Michelle, Emily, and Olivia?  Following Jesus’ example and call to provide comfort and compassion to the “least of these” should be central to our mission.  Plus no government agency or charity can serve as an extended family and introduce single mothers and their children to a heavenly Father who will never leave or forsake them.

What Churches and Christians Do Today

Yet few churches offer dedicated programs or services for single moms.  Whether she’s a church member or local resident, churches do not serve the materially poor effectively on the front end (relief), as they get back on their feet (rehabilitation), or as they work toward long-term solutions (development).  Instead, church assistance tends to be transactional without follow-up or a game plan to help single mothers rebuild the fractured relationships (with self, others, God, and creation) at the root of poverty…

  1. Michelle had been attending church regularly, wanting her kids to grow up around Christian leadership their dad was not providing at home.  He rarely came to church with the family, a CEO (Christmas and Easter Only), but even though few knew him there, Michelle still felt guilt and shame about returning after the divorce.  In addition, when she had spoken previously to pastors about her marital issues, they had encouraged her to make the marriage work despite his infidelity and alcoholism.  Her discomfort with their advice and inability to follow it, along with the stigma of now being a divorcee, made her even more reluctant to come back.  She also remembered years ago when the church (which had beautiful facilities and state-of-the-art worship services) told her they did not have benevolence funds to help when she and her husband were barely making ends meet.  So now that she was a single mom and in even worse financial shape, what was the point in asking them (or any other church) for support?
  2. Emily’s husband endured a short illness but throughout the ordeal church friends and pastors had been attentive, bringing meals, visiting in the hospital, and conducting the funeral.  In their eyes, after his death the crisis was over, but for Emily it was just beginning.  He had always managed the household finances but unfortunately he had neglected estate planning since he was only in his mid-40s.  Without life insurance, a lost income, and not much in savings, Emily couldn’t afford to keep her house and didn’t know how to maintain it anyway.  With family in other states and not in a position (geographically or financially) to be of much help, she didn’t know where to turn.  The phone had stopped ringing and emails were no longer arriving from the church checking in on Emily and her daughters.
  3. Olivia had been to church a few times as a child but didn’t know Jesus as her Lord and Savior.  Her decision to go through with the pregnancy went against the wishes of her boyfriend and mom, but should have been applauded by Christians and churches.  Yet Olivia felt judged around believers for the sin of having a baby out of wedlock.  Nevertheless, Olivia’s desperation to feed and clothe her son convinced her to walk into a local church that clearly had resources based on its size and buildings.  With her three year old by her side, she told the attendant at the front desk her story and asked if the church could provide assistance of any kind.  The response was polite but definitive that the church did not offer services or funds to people in the community, just occasional outreach events and funding for local ministries that serve the “poor”.  The church referred Olivia to a couple of those ministries and invited her to attend a worship service, an invitation she had no intention of accepting given its apparent lack of compassion for single moms.

Michelle, Emily, and Olivia are dealing with long-term challenges requiring enduring relationships and support, but those churches supplied short-term “answers”.  Church was the first place people came for help for 1900 years but has abdicated that front line role.

Why Don’t We Do More?

The Bible is imminently clear about the critical importance of caring for the poor, mothers, and widows.  Whether through divorce, death, or desertion there is no group of individuals more deserving and in need of hope than single moms.  Given their plight and Scripture’s unmistakable commands, why do so few churches offer ministries to assist single mothers?  How could any church lack empathy for Michelle, forget about Emily, or turn away Olivia at the door?

One possibility is “discomfort” with improprieties that may be associated with their situations.  Divorce violates God’s law and the sensibilities of legalistic Christians (even when it’s for reasons condoned by Jesus).  Unwed pregnancy goes against the Lord’s plan for families and is frowned up by self-righteousness believers guilty of other sexual sins.  Maybe the stigma often sensed by single mothers in church is real and their fears justified.

Self-centeredness may also be at the root of the Church’s neglect of single moms.  Pastors and members typically choose to serve the (materially) poor across town or overseas, for a day rather than year-round.  Arms-length, distant and transactional compassion reduces the risk that people with significant problems will fill the pews, change the culture, look different than “us”, frequently ask for assistance, and contribute little to the coffers.

Or maybe the dearth of concern for single mothers has a less sinister but more endemic cause – church growth strategies and priorities driven by a definition of members as “customers” to appease and not Kingdom “employees” to deploy into ministry (to the biblical target “customer”).  Given how labor intensive and costly it is to attract and retain today’s church “shoppers” (who have little appetite or capacity for “community service”), few churches have enough time or budget left over for ongoing, relational work with destitute single moms.

What Should Churches Be Doing?

Given Jesus’ heart for single mothers and their children, it’s time for Christians and churches to repent and consider what would happen if we treated them like He did…

  1. Jesus sought out and invested in the Samaritan woman at the well who had divorced multiple times.  In contrast, Michelle felt diminished when seeking advice about her marriage from pastors and dismissed when asking for help after the divorce.  Michelle’s guilt and shame could have been turned to joy and hope if her church offered a ministry for single mothers with biblically-based affinity groups, a liaison (guide) to walk alongside her, and benevolence funding for (verifiable) urgent needs when her ex-husband failed to pay alimony and child support.
  2. Paul instructed the church to care for widowed single moms who didn’t have family available to share the load.  However, soon after Emily’s husband passed, it seemed the church’s attention quickly transitioned to other concerns, assuming she could turn elsewhere for help with the girls and funds for living expenses.  Emily wouldn’t have felt abandoned if the church had built sustainable circles of support around her, a network that could include not only her church friends but a home maintenance volunteer team to handle repairs at no cost.
  3. Jesus told those who hadn’t sinned to cast the first stone at the woman caught in adultery.  Despite not possessing Jesus’ holiness, many Christians (unlike Him) have an uneasy feeling around young unwed mothers.  Rather than judging or referring Olivia elsewhere, what if that church (and others across the nation) provided free child care and job readiness classes?  The Church could be the answer to America’s affordable child care problem that keeps so many single moms from working to feed their families.  By leveraging vastly underutilized (church) facilities and members as volunteers, offering free child care and career coaching for single mothers would have minimal impact on church budgets.

With nearly a quarter of U.S. children living in single parent households, more than three times the average of the rest of the world, moving the needle will require collaborative and proactive outreach, rallying multiple churches around that critical cause.

It’s Your Turn…

Does your church deal relationally and compassionately with single mothers like Michelle, Emily, and Olivia, realizing the lifelong challenges brought by divorce, death, and desertion?

Revitalization of a Dying Church

Feb 23, 23
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In this final chapter of Pastor Daniel’s story, he faces the decision that will determine how it is written.  Will he continue to succumb to the temptations of a growing church or recognize the signs of a stagnating congregation and discover hope in the midst of its (spiritual) decline?  Daniel’s story is not uncommon – in fact, it’s retold whenever a church plant committed to life and community transformation compromises that external focus due to mounting internal pressures once there’s much more to lose.

With Daniel’s leadership team and staff split over whether there actually is a problem, and most members content with the status quo, rocking the boat by calling for a return to the original GC3 vision (Great CommandmentGreat Commission, and Great Calling) would likely stop the church’s momentum and growth in its tracks.  With everyone comfortable in their existing roles, would asking all parties to confess, repent, and reverse roles amount to congregational malpractice?  Was it too late to reposition pastors as servants, staff as disciple-makers, and members as “employees” to equip and deploy (not “customers” to attract and retain)?  These are the questions and prayers that kept Daniel up at night, running through the possible scenarios, knowing once he started down one of the following two roads there would be no turning back…

The Sure Thing: Certain Growth

Confronting such well-entrenched resistance would be futile, so double down, attending conferences and hiring consultants to learn how Daniel’s church could improve in the each of the following areas:

  • Hospitality – Appear more welcoming by upping the ante on greeters, signage, foyer décor, and follow ups with visitors
  • Energy – Step up enthusiasm in message delivery, announcements, music, and staff excitement in all interactions with attendees
  • Engagement – Push for more volunteers and create more leadership opportunities, committees, social events, small groups, and other church activities
  • Leadership – Consume many of the countless books, articles, and presentations addressing leadership weaknesses, principles, and practices for leading better
  • Generosity – Be less bashful about teaching from the pulpit about giving and launch new financial management group studies
  • Loyalty – Strengthen connections between members to make church “sticky”, offer more need-based programs, and advertise frequent membership classes
  • Innovation – Increase capabilities and quality of online church services and upgrade communication, giving, and church management platforms
  • Facilities – Improve appearance and functionality of campus buildings and grounds to enhance curb appeal and comfort level of members and visitors
  • Marketing – Mail invitations to a new message series, offer the most exciting youth ministry in town, and conduct branded “outreach” events in the community
  • Serving – Organize seasonal compassion projects, like meal packing events on site at the church, and celebrate our kindness via the stage and videos

Daniel knew those strategies are guaranteed to work if the goal were membership growth, but he was equally certain they wouldn’t create member growth.  Doing more of the same, just better, also made Daniel uncomfortable because each closely resembled tactics businesses leverage to drive scale and profits.  However, leadership, staff, and members would applaud each of those improvements since they were widely recommended, “proven”, and non-controversial, requiring no material shifts in anyone’s roles and responsibilities.

The Gamble: Recommitment to GC3

Reclaiming Daniel’s original vision at this point would be throwing caution to the wind, an act of radical faith, trusting the Lord would somehow rescue the church from the mass exodus sure to follow:


  1. ConfessionAdmitting we’ve lost our first love, putting churchdom over Kingdom
  2. Repentance – Praying like never before, collectively seeking God’s wisdom and will
  3. Revival – The current Asbury Revival, like others throughout history, reportedly began on the heels of confession and repentance


  1. Purification – Before moving forward toward a new dawn, “clean house” of any proud and unrepentant members
  2. Reorientation – Disclosing that this may no longer be the right fit for everyone, like cultural Christians and church “consumers”
  3. Accountability – Expecting observable and authentic life transformations


  1. Restructuring – Next, curing diseases that have infected the church (e.g. by decentralizing to redistribute GC3 responsibilities and flatten hierarchies)
  2. Retraining – Reallocating substantial staff time from weekend service prep to full-time adult/youth prep (i.e. for discipleship and evangelism) throughout the week
  3. Fellowship – Whoever is left in the congregation after Daniel “preaches it down” will be sold-out Christ-followers who share all things and truly love one another


  1. Multiplication – Making disciples who make disciples that are worth replicating
  2. Planting – Planting churches may lead to more disciples, but making disciples will always lead to planting more churches
  3. Transformation – Spirit-led life change spills over into neighborhoods and workplaces, uniting the body of Christ in collaborative, year-round compassion

Going against the grain, contradicting conventional church and business growth wisdom, could jeopardize all that Daniel’s church had worked so hard to build.  Busy, lukewarm members wouldn’t tolerate “unreasonable” demands like enduring intensive discipleship, serving the (materially) poor regularly and relationally, or risking social capital and job security by coming out publicly as ardent Christ-followers.  Daniel worried he would someday be forced to shut the church’s doors if leadership divided, splits occurred, and giving could not sustain its (now substantial) financial obligations.

The Irony: Revitalization

Not all is as it seems.  In Jesus’ Church, what looks safest to the world carries the most risk.  In our Father’s eyes, obedience to His perfect plan is the best bet, no matter how counterintuitive it may appear.  In God’s economy, His supply far outweighs our demand, even when churches pursue strategies deemed by the “experts” illogical and sure to fail.  In the Lord’s math, multiplication of disciples always wins over addition of churchgoers.

For Daniel’s church, reclaiming the GC3 vision would have achieved what church growth models never could:

  • Revitalization – which requires revival, which requires confession and repentance
  • Health – by dropping excess weight rather than putting on a few more pounds
  • Impact – such that the community would miss the church if it were no longer here
  • Influence – with local church, charity, business, government, and school leaders
  • Perception – a reputation that reflects Jesus’ love, humility, and servanthood
  • Footprint – of disciple-makers and church plants dotting the city’s landscape

Doubling down on “Church as We Know It” eventually produced what Daniel feared most:

  • Stagnation – going through the motions without miraculous moves of the Spirit
  • Lethargy – on spiritual life support, dependent on pastors for prayer/care/share
  • Ineffectiveness – belief without surrender and faith without transformative works
  • Anonymity – numbers and activities (inputs) without noticeable fruit (outputs)
  • Burnout – consumed with leading the church, not leading in the community
  • Isolation – a “skyscraper” where people gather but not taking up much ground

Daniel’s story is a familiar one and concludes like those of nearly all church planters in America today.  Ambitious pastors travel the well-worn path from idealistic vision, to external focus, to rapid growth, to temptations, to internal focus, to compromise, to stagnation, to decline – and from there to either revitalization or demise.  Few take the road less traveled when it appears continued growth hinges on usurping GC3 responsibilities that most Christians are happy to abdicate.  As a result, the Church is no longer the lifeblood and heartbeat of cities across America, the first place people turn to for help in times of need or for hope at a time in our nation’s history where it’s in short supply.

It’s Your Turn…

Does your church need revitalization or are your members unusually active in personally leading people to the Lord, making disciples, and serving the poor?

Hope for a Church in Decline

Feb 09, 23
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When idealistic church planters like Daniel succumb to the inevitable temptations confronting pastors of a growing congregation, it typically takes more than stagnation to convince them to take a stand and reclaim their original God-given vision.  By that time, all stakeholders (leadership, staff, and members) and fixed costs (buildings, salaries, and programs) are heavily invested in the status quo.  A readily observable, possibly precipitous, decline in consumer-driven KPIs like attendance and giving may be required to reach rock bottom, the place where repentance typically occurs.

Given Daniel’s upbringing in a missionary family, he was more attune to less tangible measures of a church’s success like unity, discipleship, evangelism, and compassion.  Looking back on the past decade, Daniel understood how far his church had strayed from its initial BHAG (“big hairy audacious goal”) of radical life and community transformation.  Complacency had set in throughout the church’s ranks, but upsetting the apple cart at this point would likely jeopardize all Daniel and his team had worked so hard to build.

The only factors in Daniel’s favor, ironically, were the cultural dynamics of our day threatening “church as we know it” (where church is seen as a place Christians gather on Sundays and members are treated like “customers” rather than Kingdom workers).  In America’s post-Christian, postmodern society, even long-time members were attending less frequently and youth who’d grown up in church were becoming “Nones” (no religion) and “Dones” (with religion), only partially replaced by non-Christian visitors, who tend to serve and give far less at a time when the need for volunteers and funds was increasing.

Daniel knew the steps for leaving a life of sin, for an individual or a church, are Awareness, Awakening, and Accountability.  His entire church body first had to understand they’d diverted from the biblical definition of church and Jesus’ prayer, care, and share mandate.  Then each member would have to awaken to the imperative to turn from that disobedience and be held accountable for personally embodying “church” Monday through Saturday.

The Realization: Awareness

A decline in discipleship always results in a decline in church member growth but not necessarily a decline in church size.  In fact, the opposite is often true in America’s consumeristic culture – the more out of line with God’s will a church is today, the larger its congregation and budget may become.

Daniel allowed himself to be convinced by consultants, books, and conferences that if he didn’t make his church appealing he’d never get people in the door – and would miss the opportunity to teach them the importance of GC3 (the Great CommandmentGreat Commission, and Great Calling).  So lowering the bar in the short-term on intimidating tasks like discipleship, evangelism, and compassion would presumably allow him to raise the water level for more congregants in the end.  Unfortunately, that’s akin to expecting newly-elected U.S. Congressmen to maintain the ideals for which they won office when they compromise those ideals, acquiescing to the wishes of a political party in exchange for support in future elections.  By the time those Congressmen have significant power on Capitol Hill, they’ve lost touch with their ideals.

At Daniel’s church, lowering standards for GC3 had the same effect it always does – redefining and even reversing the roles of everyone associated with the church.  The following roles and responsibilities are those found within congregations like Daniel’s in a state of decline (in the Lord’s eyes), even if they are large or growing numerically:

  • Pastor – Daniel bore the weight of flipped expectations, not equipping members for their Kingdom jobs but assuming their (evangelism and discipleship) responsibilities as a “paid professional”.  He felt like a program manager, as if any tasks other than preaching, overseeing operations, or managing internal issues were to be done on his own (unpaid) time (e.g. Bible study, disciple-making, networking with city leaders).
  • Staff – Rather than preparing and launching the body into a week of ministry, the church’s employees were burning out trying to please a fickle audience expecting a spectacular weekend service, first rate programs that meet their family’s needs, and support for life’s challenges and events.  Any complaints from “customers” threatened their job security, so they hesitated to rock the boat, affirming pastors for doing far more than they should and members for doing far less than they should.
  • Members/Attenders – Viewing “church” as a building, pastors, and staff abdicated GC3 and reduced the congregation’s role to Invite, Involve, and Invest.  Passion for sharing about Jesus outside the “4 walls” diminished as churchgoers were simply asked to invite friends to services.  Excitement for worship inside the church waned as those who don’t love the Lord filled the pews.  Parents’ expectations were that the church would raise their children in the faith.  The primary role of lay leaders were “church chores”, underleveraging their capabilities and potential as “pastors” of their neighborhoods and workplaces.  Even most elders and deacons believed their obligations to serve the church fulfilled their responsibilities to serve the Lord.

Daniel recognized those role reversals but feared they were too entrenched to unwind.  Yet he knew awareness was a prerequisite for confession, and eventually repentance.

The Confession: Awakening

Daniel began to share his concerns and observations with his leadership team, but only those who had been with him from the beginning saw a problem.  If newer leaders were highly resistant to change, then new staff and members likely would be too.  Returning to a decentralized model of intensive discipleship, year-round poverty alleviation, and evangelism training where members are empowered and pastors are servants would almost certainly drive away cultural Christians and church “consumers”.

Daniel’s dilemma was the cost-benefit of making the entire church aware of its misalignment with the Lord’s will if there was little chance of an awakening.  Like Paul who saw no value in his letters if they only led to remorse but not repentance, Daniel’s church hadn’t made enough disciples to arrive at a consensus that the church was in a state of decline when “customer” satisfaction, acquisition, and loyalty appeared stable.  Daniel couldn’t envision any scenario where his church would collectively confess:

  • Life and community transformation are not taking place
  • Member comfort, staff job security, and church survival are too highly valued
  • Pressure was mounting for pastors to perform and portray a public image
  • Past challenges and splits had convinced leaders to assert more control
  • Members don’t care as much as Jesus said we should about the (materially) poor
  • We’re too critical and distanced from those who don’t look or act like “us”
  • Sermon and small groups aren’t making disciples – only disciples make disciples
  • An event mentality has infiltrated our church’s culture (e.g. worship, outreach)
  • Our spending and borrowing habits have made us too concerned about money
  • We’ve come to see church as the harvest field rather than our city as a mission field
  • Too many treat faith as a hobby, engaging in it and sharing about it when convenient
  • Most leaders and churchgoers are making prayer their last resort, not their first

No matter how aware Daniel was of those shortcomings, without widespread recognition and admission, repentance (a radical reversal of roles) would never occur at his church.

The Repentance: Accountability

Complicating the debate over how (or whether) to disclose those role reversals and deviations from Scripture was the influence of America’s fastest growing religion (Selfism) within Daniel’s church.  Selfism’s demand for independence and unwillingness to acknowledge that what makes a person happy can be wrong was infiltrating the congregation’s culture.  Confession that the church as a whole had ventured off track was conceivable, but expecting individuals to assume personal accountability and surrender fully to Jesus was a stretch in today’s self-centered world.

Would pastors, staff, lay leaders, members and attenders exchange corporate metrics like “nickels” and “noses” for personal measures of growth and godliness?  How many would leave for a more accommodating church down the road to avoid the expectation to wedge discipleship and disciple-making into their already overloaded schedules?  Who would risk friendships or careers in this politically correct society to speak openly about Jesus and His values, which run contrary to socially acceptable mores?  Do young families have time between soccer games and ballet classes to serve the (materially) poor when caring for their “own” occupies all their bandwidth?

It’s Your Turn…

Have you seen a church successfully navigate the entire lifecycle of Awareness, Awakening, and Accountability, going from consumer-driven Christianity to GC3?

Signs of a Stagnating Congregation

Jan 26, 23
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In mankind’s fallen state, success (in the world’s eyes) always breeds temptations – even for resolute church leaders like Daniel.  His extraordinary commitment to GC3 (the Great CommandmentGreat Commission, and Great Calling) led to rapid membership and member (in Christ) growth by positioning everyone as Kingdom employees trained to become “pastors” of their families, neighborhoods, and workplaces.  However, numerical growth gave rise to pressures that didn’t just distract from GC3, but directly competed with them.  Daniel’s goal had never been a large congregation, but now he had one.  That meant higher expectations, stakes, budgets, and demands for his time.  Before becoming a church planter, Daniel had been critical of pastors of his “mother” church, feeling they had abandoned GC3 – but now found himself a bit more empathetic.

During the first couple years, Daniel had the bandwidth to disciple staff members, network with local civic leaders, connect with other pastors, and spearhead compassion initiatives.  Now with 20 on staff, nearly 1,000 in attendance on Sundays, and a building project underway, Daniel’s days of personal disciple-making and community engagement seemed like a distant memory.  Yet he was still determined not to give in to powerful consumeristic forces that had stifled the growth of most American churches, if not in sheer numbers (of members) then in depth (of discipleship) and impact (on society).  Nevertheless, the train was running down the track so fast at Daniel’s church that his original vision of life and community transformation seemed to be irreversibly giving way to church transformation – speeding toward a destination he’d have to derail the train to avert.

The Cause: Compromise

Daniel meticulously walked through the church’s distinct mission and principles with each new hire.  During interviews, all expressed alignment with GC3 and its emphasis on personal discipleship, evangelism, and compassion.  However, “church as we know it” is all they had ever known.  The only way to silence competing voices within his leadership team at this point was to either reprogram or micromanage, neither of which fit Daniel’s management style.  He wanted staff to feel empowered to manage their areas of responsibility, but when the rubber met the road most “new’ ideas they brought to the table weren’t new at all – simply retreads of contemporary church growth concepts implicitly defining church as a place and members as “customers”:

  • “We need more small groups – our folks don’t have time for 1-on-1 discipleship.”
  • “If we invest in amping up fun in children’s ministries, more parents will attend.”
  • “We’re getting some complaints about services running over – what can we cut?”
  • “It would help us recruit more volunteers if your sermons had that call to action.”
  • “Young families are too busy for ongoing outreach, so let’s do seasonal events.”
  • “We should set up new committees to get lay leaders more involved in serving.”
  • “Would adding additional agenda items to prayer meetings get more to come?”
  • “Not many are signing up for evangelism classes – it seems like inviting friends to church and sharing a testimony is as far as most are willing to go”.
  • “Giving is down this month. Can we run a campaign or do a sermon series?”
  • “Our facilities and signage are aging a bit – how can we spruce them up?”
  • “Better musicians and sound systems could help rejuvenate our congregation.”
  • “Some people were offended by what you said about marriage and genders.”
  • “Pastor, we could free you up a bit if we restructure communication channels.”

The assumption underlying those suggestions is that church is in the business of making people happy.  Companies grow when they get more customers, but churches grow when members are growing.  Efforts to exceed “customer” expectations make sense for businesses but entice churches to compromise by encouraging staff to treat members like consumers and assume churchgoers’ rightful responsibilities (as Kingdom “employees”).

The Effect: Conformance

For years, Daniel’s church had been highly differentiated, not looking like other churches in town in terms of corporate and personal discipleship, evangelism, compassion, engagement, and unity within the body of Christ.  City, school, and ministry leaders had praised Daniel for his service to the community and his courage to stand out from the crowd.  However, small compromises that seemed innocuous at the time naturally and gradually infiltrated the fiber of his rapidly growing church.  Daniel recognized that mission drift but its glacial pace and his team’s (and congregants) contentment with the status quo kept him from taking drastic measures to reverse course.  Eventually, it became difficult to distinguish his church from most others, who operated like businesses in several respects:

  • Emphasizing joining the organization to secure and formalize the relationship
  • Promoting loyalty to the institution when an alternative provider is more suitable
  • Strategically presenting a friendly, welcoming face to the public (e.g. hospitality)
  • Inserting layers of hierarchy as impediments between “customers” and leaders
  • Investing heavily in technology and process improvements to increase efficiency
  • Assuming better leadership is the primary solution to a flawed (business) model
  • Reorganizing to regain momentum, akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic
  • Overpromising what (we think) people want and underdelivering what they need
  • Misrepresenting the product or service (e.g. “selling” cheap grace or prosperity)
  • Understating the commitment required, to garner interest (i.e. false advertising)
  • Measuring quantity of inputs (activities), not quality of outcomes (transformation)

Daniel had no intention of adopting any business practices when he planted his church.  However, lines blur between church and business when, for the sake of numerical growth, pastors reduce evangelism to referrals (Invite/Involve/Invest), salvation to transactions (“repeat after me”), and discipleship to small groups (which rarely make disciples).  It also likely doesn’t escape the notice of cynical non-believers how cherry-picking (out of context) the most commonly-abused Bible verses (e.g. Romans 8:28, Jeremiah 29:11, Matthew 18:20, Philippians 4:13) is similar to the misleading company ads they see on TV.

Daniel unwittingly gave in to the greatest temptation confronting founders of any thriving enterprise – becoming internally focused.  Catering to “insiders” (as if they were end customers) at the expense of “outsiders” (the real “customer) is bad business – for churches and corporations.  Yes, challenging and equipping churchgoers to live externally-focused Prayer/Care/Share lifestyles will scare off lukewarm believers – but doesn’t losing weight typically makes us healthier?

The Outcome: Stagnation

Years passed before Daniel realized member growth had stagnated, sacrificed at the altar of membership growth.  As he thought back on the early days and his ambitious plans for life and community transformation, he remembered the adage, “If you plant churches, you may not get more disciples, but if you make disciples you will plant more churches.”  In assessing the state of the union relative to his original vision, Daniel felt remorse and regret that his church had become a revolving door with too many slipping out the back exit essentially in the same condition as when they arrived:

  • Most came from other churches that offered fewer programs and amenities
  • The vast majority were rushing to their cars, leaving quickly after worship services
  • Online church had replaced in person services for many, even after the pandemic
  • Nearly all professed faith in Christ, but it seemed few had surrendered fully to Him
  • Business people were separating church life from work life, not integrating the two
  • Most were still living in the same sins, not repenting and leaving them behind
  • Even seasoned lay leaders weren’t holding others accountable for sinful behaviors
  • Few were crying out in prayer or for prayer except those facing a personal crisis
  • More non-believers were in the seats, requiring more scripted, simplified sermons
  • Engagement in worship was becoming less passionate, enthusiastic, and heart-felt
  • Few were witnessing to neighbors and coworkers, inviting them to church instead
  • Unity and diversity decreased, with the congregation looking more homogeneous
  • Factions formed, grouped in socioeconomically and racially segmented circles
  • Impoverished families met through serving were leaving the church, not feeling connected to those with more social capital
  • Giving was down but expectations were higher for pastors, staff, and facilities
  • Pastors were burning out, struggling to keep up with increasing demands
  • Volunteers expected a pat on the back for doing anything to serve at the church
  • Participation in and excitement around compassion activities had diminished
  • It felt like outreach had become “checking a box” and celebrating our “kindness”
  • Literacy partnerships with schools were losing steam as volunteering dropped

Meanwhile, all were flattering and praising Daniel for how well everything was going.  However, Daniel knew deep in his spirit that something was missing – and it was likely the Holy Spirit.  The church had lost its first love, and Daniel knew that a return to the original GC3 vision, principles and plan was the fix, but didn’t see how that was possible given the level of member resistance and fixed costs that stood in the way.  How could the church survive an upheaval almost certain to cut the congregation and giving in half?

It’s Your Turn…

As so often happens, when a church planter or entrepreneur realizes that growth led to internal focus and then stagnation, what is the appropriate response?  Considering how much more important member growth is than membership growth when it comes to churches (as opposed to businesses), what actions should Daniel take at this point?

Temptations of a Growing Church

Jan 12, 23
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With the blessing and support of church leadership, Daniel felt empowered and excited about launching the new campus.  All were aware of the risks of Daniel’s radical vision, principles, and plan, which were heavily influenced by his experiences growing up in a missionary family.  The concern wasn’t whether a strong emphasis on discipleship, compassion, and evangelism was biblical but whether adopting Jesus’ prayer/care/share lifestyle was too demanding for contemporary American churchgoers.

Daniel knew success hinged on convincing members that they were Kingdom employees and not church consumers.  Those accustomed to “church as we know it”, shopping for a church with the most engaging pastors, comfortable facilities, and applicable programs wouldn’t have an appetite for all that Daniel planned to ask of them.

The other question on the minds of leaders at the main campus was whether Daniel would stick to his guns or abandon his ambitions when he had something to lose.  It was easy to take chances and be externally focused when there were few members, a small staff, and no building.  They thought back to the early days of their ministries when they were more like Daniel, courageous but naïve about the inevitable pressures that awaited pastors when the church grew.  Most church planters can devote themselves to equipping and mobilizing Christ-followers to embody “church” between Sundays until the mounting obligations of organizing weekend services, managing staff, and catering to the demands of members pull them away from those primary, biblical responsibilities.

The Launch: Commitment

Determined to ensure that growing disciples, not a congregation, was the barometer of “success”, Daniel and his core team laid out a specific, detailed 10 step roadmap to foster life and community transformation through their church by the power of the Holy Spirit:

  1. Pray – as a leadership team and congregation for the Lord to move through our church and in our city because He controls the outcome of all our efforts
  2. Network – with community leaders and neighbors, showing hospitality, first inviting non-believers into our homes, not to a church service
  3. Listen – intently and document conversations to understand how to address the most critical spiritual, material, and emotional needs in our community and world
  4. Train – members for disciple-making and evangelism in preparation for the countless opportunities sure to arise when we minister to the broken and hopeless
  5. Respond – to real problems like Jesus did each time he encountered those hurting and lost, serving them with dignity, not through arms-length handouts but a loving hand up
  6. Engage – people in the true work of church (GC3Great CommandmentGreat CommissionGreat Calling), not just typical “chores” like greeters and ushers
  7. Welcome – those who sincerely want to know and worship Jesus, including the families our church serves, even though they may not look or sound like “us”
  8. Steward – by keeping fixed costs at bay, not falling into the trap of consumerism, which locks churches into vicious cycles of borrowing, building, and fundraising
  9. Accountability – to keep our church holy and never slip into consumer-driven, self-centered ways of conducting ourselves as a church or as individual believers
  10. Learn – through watching to see what the Lord does within our body and our city, making adjustments yet never veering from our God-given vision and principles

Many pastors and plants initially follow a similar path.  However, Daniel’s commitment was to persist in these practices indefinitely, no matter how large the congregation grew, how busy leaders got, or how risky it became to challenge families (when losing them could jeopardize the church’s financial stability in the face of rising costs).  It would take years of unwavering prayer, care, and share to restore confidence in an institution that was once the lifeblood of communities across America – our nation’s cultural and spiritual heartbeat – but is now widely regarded as a weekly gathering for those with the time and interest.

The Byproduct: Growth

Over the next year, Daniel’s church grew tremendously, not because it was the goal but because it wasn’t a goal.  Entrepreneurs succeed when they’re not focused on revenue growth but on providing great value and service.  Marriages thrive when both spouses prioritize the other’s happiness above their own.  Daniel refused to let himself or his leadership think about church growth, confident it would come as a result of reflecting the sacrificial, unconditional love of Jesus through countercultural, jaw-dropping acts of kindness.  So Daniel’s church…

  • Mentored and tutored students at two public schools in lower income areas
  • Commissioned members to serve as “pastors” of their neighborhoods, first responders in any crisis
  • Trained executives to instill Christ-centered values and chaplains in workplaces
  • Took a stand and spoke out on behalf of marginalized groups facing injustice
  • Volunteered and supported pregnancy centers and trafficking ministries
  • Conducted prayer vigils for law enforcement and victims of violent crimes
  • Rallied other churches and pastors to join them in these transformation efforts
  • Represented the demographics of the city, diverse racially and socioeconomically
  • Was recognized by media and government leaders for its compassion and impact
  • Had greater visibility than much larger churches, without advertising or mailers

Daniel was careful to ensure all local missions activities were built on a foundation of intensive, personal discipleship – not “outreach” that doubles as church marketing.  In other words, he wanted his congregation to act in a spirit of love, obedience, and desire to imitate Jesus.  Daniel knew people would see through any insincere “attractional” or seasonal “check the box” motives.  Nor did he permit a repeat of the failed “social gospel” movement, expecting actions to speak for themselves.  Daniel often said, “When our love opens ears to hear the truth, we need to speak it.”

The Red Flags: Temptations

However, after three years, cracks began to appear in the foundation of Daniel’s church.  His leadership team and the pastors at the main campus hadn’t anticipated and weren’t prepared to manage such explosive growth.  Nor were they ready to confront the following temptations to shift their focus away from discipleship, compassion, and evangelism – the catalysts which had sparked that growth:

  • More demands for the senior pastor’s time for visitations, weddings, and funerals
  • Structure and hierarchies needed to establish boundaries and divvy up responsibilities
  • Investment in systems required to improve efficiency of internal processes like membership, communications, volunteering, and giving
  • Splits and factions due to differing views and worship preferences between generations and amongst the church’s “old guard”
  • New staff hires with critical skills but indoctrinated in prevailing Invite/Involve/Invest church growth models
  • Young families, a target audience, with little time for discipleship or compassion
  • Churches down the road with state-of-the-art children’s ministries to lure parents
  • Community engagement activities that conflicted with scheduled church events
  • Rented facilities too cramped to accommodate all attendees and programs
  • Expenses rising too fast to keep pouring 30% of the budget into local missions
  • Conservatives and progressives differing over what was “sin”, pressuring Daniel to gloss over those topics from the pulpit
  • More non-Christians at services, shifting sermons toward “milk” rather than “meat”
  • Notoriety and public recognition raising external and internal expectations for Daniel’s “performance”

Business executives serving as deacons and elders at Daniel’s church were well aware of these challenges and offered advice.  Daniel began to invest much of his time (outside of sermon prep) consulting experts in leadership, technology, real estate, and human resources.  He read books by well-known pastors and attended conferences to learn how to navigate high growth periods.  Daniel delegated new responsibilities to his leadership team and reorganized around keeping the machine running.  Church priorities, attention, and resources gradually diverted from personal discipleship, compassion, and evangelism to managing operations.

The transition seemed eerily similar to young companies who panic when their laser focus on meeting customer needs spurs demand that soon outstrips infrastructure.  They turn inward, take their eyes off the ball, and lose touch with the market.  Consequently, growth slows.  The only difference for churches is that members are not supposed to be its “customers”.  In this case, the ones paying the bills are actually (Kingdom) employees who should be trained to reach the real, biblical “customer” – those who don’t know Jesus.

It’s Your Turn…

What other temptations (i.e. to see church as a place and members as customers) does church growth (regardless of whether that’s the goal) bring with it?  How has succumbing to those temptations been responsible for the declining growth, impact, influence, and public perception of America’s churches?

Confessions of an Idealistic Church Planter

Dec 28, 22
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Born to missionary parents, Daniel grew up determined to spend his life like them.  He couldn’t imagine a more rewarding career than carrying on his family’s legacy preaching the Gospel and making disciples.  Yet Daniel didn’t feel called into international ministry to unreached people groups.  On the advice of a pastor back in the States, he decided to go the more conventional route of leading a church, hopefully somewhere near his hometown.  So Daniel attended seminary after college and became a youth pastor for a large congregation, waiting for his opportunity and the Lord’s timing to plant a new church.  The leadership team understood Daniel’s ambitions and recognized his charisma, knowing they wouldn’t be able to hold onto him for long.  They’d had their eyes on a community across town as a potential location to go multisite and expand their footprint.  Several churches had been unable to take root in that area, sandwiched between comfortable suburbanites busy with children’s activities on Sunday mornings and relatively lower income neighborhoods served by small, ethnically divided congregations.

The Vision: Life and City Transformation

Daniel could hardly contain his excitement when those leaders approached him, offering their guidance and financial support.  He had a vision – idealistically imagining his church plant transforming the community, just as he’d witnessed as a child overseas.  He began to plan, leveraging principles of the “mother church” for consistency but emphasizing areas like evangelism, discipleship, and compassion where he felt they were falling short.  Reaching across demographics and socioeconomics, engaging both the disinterested and the disintegrated, would require more than attractional programs or eloquent sermons.  Nor would first class facilities and amenities, which they couldn’t afford anyway, draw people in.  Instead, Daniel believed achieving the vision of community transformation would require:

  • meeting diverse groups of people “where they are” rather than inviting non-believers to a worship service
  • understanding key issues and concerns they’re facing, which are often quite different for “soccer moms” and single moms
  • becoming visible and active in bettering lives, including partnering with organizations who are already “moving the needle”
  • committing to that community long-term, realizing it’s where God called him
  • raising up leaders equipped for dynamic prayer, care, and share ministry
  • multiplying disciples and mobilizing teams to demonstrate God’s love to the hurting and hopeless
  • being viewed as essential, such that people in both sacred and secular circles would not only notice but be deeply saddened if his church closed its doors

Daniel knew a heavy external focus was a departure from how most churches treated members like “customers” to attract and retain, not Kingdom “employees” to train and deploy.  As a missionary kid, he wasn’t accustomed to Americanized forms of church and was determined to eschew consumer-driven Christianity.  Yet, seminary seemed to indoctrinate most graduates in “church as we know it”, not alternative models and structures.  Likewise, Daniel knew of church planters who had high ideals and were attuned to the material and spiritual needs of a community, but eventually abandoned their visions and values to tend to internal affairs.

Any pastor new to an area must network and be hospitable to create awareness.  However, maintaining that level of external orientation and challenging members to do the same (through compassion, evangelism, and discipleship) is riskier when there’s more to lose – staff, members, and buildings.  Daniel saw that same dynamic with business entrepreneurs who began laser focused on the market, resulting in exponential growth, but soon got distracted by internal expectations and obligations.  In business, executives taking their eyes off the ball leads to declining productivity and profitability.  In churches, ignoring the intended “customer” (those who don’t know Jesus) has far more serious, eternal consequences.

The Principles: GC3

With those cautions in mind and a firm resolve never to let them infiltrate his church, Daniel met with his team of lay leaders for strategic planning and brainstorming.  Several guiding principles, priorities, and next steps emerged from their first session:

  • value prayer over self-reliance, worship over socializing, and humility over status
  • operate out of an abundance (vs. scarcity) mindset yet steward resources responsibly
  • practice 1 on 1 discipleship leveraging proven tools, with Daniel leading the way, commissioning those he disciples to follow his example
  • research, survey and meet with local leaders and residents to uncover burning issues, which at first glance appeared to relate to similar underlying problems in affluent and poorer neighborhoods (mental health, substance abuse, parenting)
  • conduct evangelism training for current leaders and willing attenders
  • encourage and support promising ministries spearheaded by church members
  • realize workplaces, neighborhoods, and homes are where “church” takes place all week long, so prepare the entire congregation to be “pastors” of their coworkers, neighbors, and families

While Daniel’s intent was to serve that community, doing so couldn’t involve compromise in any of those areas.  Daniel and his leadership team understood how much they were asking of their members, and that they’d likely lose many to other churches in town with far lower expectations.  However, Daniel couldn’t reconcile anything less with what he saw in Scripture or settle for less than he’d experienced during his missionary upbringing.

Holding weekend services in a school would conserve costs but mean more work setting up every Saturday and tearing down on Sundays.  Personalized, intensive discipleship would be time consuming but foster a level of authenticity and accountability rarely found in small groups settings.  Equipping and calling busy Americans to live prayer, care, and share lifestyles would be prohibitively demanding and disruptive for those not completely surrendered to Jesus.  Yet GC3 (Great Commandment, Great Commission, Great Calling) are prerequisites and non-negotiables, not optional suggestions, for all Christ-followers.

The Plan: Success in God’s Eyes

Daniel understood his vision and principles didn’t align with the typical metrics used to gauge the viability of church plants or the performance of established congregations.  Convincing his superiors at the main campus to adopt a different set of measures (than they applied to themselves) to track his progress would be a hard sell.  Nevertheless, Daniel felt metrics tied to attendance, revenues, and facilities had been borrowed from the business world and wouldn’t create the proper incentives for his staff.  Instead, he envisioned “success” not around inputs or activities, but outcomes:

  • Not baptisms alone, but evidence-based commitments to following Christ
  • Not small group participation, but the number engaged in discipling relationships
  • Not church attendance alone, but personal practice of spiritual disciplines
  • Not new members (from other churches), but new believers entering the Kingdom
  • Not headcount of guests invited to church, but people led to the Lord by members
  • Not number of verses cited to substantiate opinions, but adherence to the Word
  • Not veiled marketing through “outreach” events, but sincere unconditional love
  • Not seasonal compassion to “check the box”, but year-round poverty alleviation
  • Not independent solo city projects, but collaboration in unity with other churches
  • Not number of hours and people serving externally, but the size of the dent made in causes important to the city
  • Not square footage of buildings, but maximizing utilization of each foot all week
  • Not size of the children’s ministry, but how many lives changed, not entertained
  • Not staff and payroll budget, but degree of empowerment by flattening hierarchies
  • Not dollars given to abdicate GC3 functions to pastors, but reclaiming “ownership”
  • Not diversity for diversity’s sake, but integration and unity among the entire body

Daniel was nervous about presenting his vision, principles, and plan to the pastors who’d entrusted him with responsibility for planting the first new campus in its multisite strategy.  As experienced leaders well-versed in modern church growth models, they considered Daniel’s plan idealistic and naïve, but couldn’t deny it was biblical and liked his approach in theory.  Despite the risk, they appreciated Daniel’s heart, passion, and capabilities – and were curious to see how his church’s members and the community would respond to such lofty ambitions and expectations.

It’s Your Turn…

We’ll continue telling the story of Daniel’s church during the coming weeks, tracing its progress through the cycles and stages experienced by nearly all churches in America.  Based on your observations and involvement with churches in the past, what do you think happens next as Daniel and his team begin to implement their vision, principles, and plan?

Sin and Hopelessness: The Cause and Cure

Dec 15, 22
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Merry Christmas!  There, I said it – not “Happy Holidays” or “X-mas”.  Many Christians are offended by the secularization and commercialization of Jesus’ birthday, unaware they may be complicit in campaigns to take Christ out of Christmas.

Over the past few weeks we’ve discussed how America has become more divided, consumeristic, stingy, and stressed out not despite Christianity but in large part because most Christians lack unity, act like (church) consumers, don’t share Jesus’ concern for the poor, and fail to exercise unwavering faith.  Similarly, our culture is becoming more decadent and depressed largely because people look elsewhere for answers to life’s most pressing questions when Christians don’t enthusiastically celebrate and speak up about the forgiveness, freedom, hope, salvation, and sanctification that only Christmas can bring.  In other words, if our Christmas spirit were fueled by the Holy Spirit, we’d possess the wonder and joy of the three wise men and help America rediscover the reason for the season.


America rejects the best Christmas gift of all (redemption), believing there’s no need for justification because there’s no such thing as sin, when Christians and churches don’t take (their own) sin seriously enough.

  • Acting self-righteous, hypocritically pointing fingers at non-believers for committing that exact same sin (i.e. presuming their own righteousness)
  • Keeping a distance rather than pursuing “sinners” at close range like Jesus did
  • Speaking out about what we’re against, rather than exhibiting what we stand for
  • Applying our moral standard to those who do not follow our Standard-bearer
  • Conforming to culture such that culture sees little need to conform to church

“The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” (John 1:29)  If Christians are less cognizant of their sin than the sins of others, why would we expect people to understand what Christmas is all about?  In other words, if we’re less transparent it’s harder to see Jesus through us.  Dutiful churchgoers can start to believe their own press, less aware of their need for grace now that they cuss less and serve more.  Ironically, we wonder how non-believers can squelch their consciences while ours atrophy.  Christmas will continue becoming more about Santa than our Savior unless Christians fully recognize the value of the gift they’ve been given.


America rejects the true freedom the Father offered us that first Christmas, believing Christianity represents the opposite (restraint and oppression), when churchgoers are legalistic and dogmatic the rest of the year.

  • Clinging to our “free” ticket to heaven instead of freely sharing our good news with others so they can be liberated from sin too
  • Fighting for our religious freedoms by politicizing faith and backing church-friendly candidates, only to discover any short-lived victories incite a backlash against perceived imposition of Christian values when secular leaders regain control
  • Growing large, prominent churches that invest more in buildings than discipleship (in times of peace and prosperity), whereas the Church in persecution tends to decentralize, take ground, and make disciples

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)  Given attempts by activists and educators to associate slavery with Christianity, ostensibly to remove the shackles of Christian heritage and morals from American culture, it’s challenging to make the argument that those who’ve removed Christ from Christmas are enslaved to sin.  Yet without repentance and redemption, no one is free from the lure of temptation and the burden of guilt.  Contemporary society threatens to curb the rights of Christians to speak and practice freely in order to protect their rights to sin freely, without reminders of or remorse for their actions.  Christians and churches shouldn’t go through the motions at Christmas but truly celebrate the emancipation it can bring to anyone humble enough to recognize their captivity (to sin).


America rejects the only source of enduring hope, settling for the traditions of the Christmas season without the hope it brings, when Christians appear to be subject to the typical holiday concerns and stressors.

  • Running from shopping malls to family gatherings, worried about racking up debt and seeing relatives who were more easily avoided the other 364 days
  • Cleaning up our act, careful not to reveal our true selves, making God seem less accessible to those with a more realistic (and honest) view of their depravity
  • Engaging in the religious activities, cards, and decorations of the holidays yet not truly putting Christ back in Christmas by living a prayer, care, and share lifestyle

“Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.” (Ephesians 2:12)  We live in a nation where young people who’ve been pressured by professors into renouncing their parents’ faith aren’t being given any satisfactory alternative sources of hope.  It’s only a matter of time before most realize they’ve been duped, unable to find any enduring purpose or meaning in things of this world – all while edging closer to their eventual demise, fearing those in whom they entrusted their eternal fate were wrong.  However, attempts to point people back to Christ at Christmas will fall on deaf ears unless Christians are unusually loving, selflessly compassionate, and oddly calm in the face of adversity.


America rejects the arrival of our Savior, trusting instead in governments and economies to save them, when they don’t see convincing evidence of the supernatural or transformation (in keeping with assurance of eternal life) among Christians and churches.

  • Failing to convey the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice and inadequacy of our works by publicizing the good we do, seeking praise from people when eternal life is our “reward”
  • Not understanding how to communicate the Christmas message clearly, that Jesus descended into our decadence because only He was capable of obtaining salvation the “hard way” (complete obedience to the law), the one perfect Lamb qualified to take our place and give us the opportunity for salvation the “easy way” (grace)
  • Living for the “dot” and not the “line”, without eternal perspectives or priorities that alter and mitigate typical human behaviors, like anxiety and greed

“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)  Since the beginning of time, humanity has been searching for a way to fix what we broke – the relationship with our Creator.  Only God can make things right, which He did that first Christmas.  To the extent Christians tout our good deeds and criticize the errors of others, we give the impression that salvation is in our hands, not a Christmas gift but an earned wage.  When Christians and churches exude the joy of salvation, give God all the glory, and discard “cheap grace” (salvation without surrender), America may once again discover the meaning of Christmas and stop looking to self and worldly “saviors”.


America rejects Christmas carols like “O Holy Night”, believing those “true to themselves” are perfect just as they are, when churchgoers and churches don’t reflect Jesus’ holiness or the new nature His birth, death, and resurrection should illuminate in believers.

  • Exhibiting characteristics misaligned with those typically ascribed to Jesus, like love, humility, and sacrifice
  • Forging our own path and priorities rather than God’s plan and instructions, leading culture to follow our example and declare its independence
  • Not realizing and debunking the fundamental misconception fueling progressive ideals – the false premise that human nature is inherently good
  • No longer occupying the front lines of compassion, losing our voice in society because most churches treat members, not the community, as their “customer”

“And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:11)  When we confess our inadequacies and admit only God is good, non-believers may rethink their overestimation of their own virtue.  Our culture has no issues with Jesus’ values, but over time adopted a different set of values they observed in His followers (e.g. pride and self-centeredness).  If Christians and churches truly learn and practice what it means to be in the world but not of the world, seeing the Holy Spirit in us will attract those disillusioned by progressivism’s failed promise of “sanctification”, proving Christmas is the only path to holiness.

It’s Your Turn…

Have you seen a church’s Christmas celebration spark revival in a city or a family’s Christmas spirit awaken faith and hope in a neighborhood?

Stress and Anxiety: A Cause and Cure

Dec 01, 22
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“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)   Thanksgiving last week reminded us that thankful is the opposite of stressful.  To represent Jesus well, Christians should be joyful and peaceful at all times.  Thankfulness is an attitude of gratitude for the Father’s faithfulness in blessing and rescuing us, the undeserving.  Worry demonstrates a lack of faith in God’s love and His plan, disappointing a watching world wondering if Christianity could transcend the distress of a hopeless existence.  Because most Christians appear just as concerned about life’s challenges and dangers as everyone else, those who don’t know Jesus look elsewhere for an escape hatch from reality – drug and alcohol abuse, avatars, affairs, or even suicide.

In other words, just as our division contributed to the fracturing of American culture, our consumerism exacerbated America’s overindulgence, and our stinginess made America less generous, our lack of faith has raised our nation’s collective stress level about…


America rejects our faith as the source of hope, taking extreme measures to blind themselves to the inevitability of death, when Christians act as if eternal life in heaven is not a certainty.

“Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” (Luke 12:25)  When Christ-followers strive and stress about growing careers, families, and churches, our fears devalue God’s provision and promises.  Living for self, success or survival conveys the sufficiency of mankind and insufficiency of God, freeing secular observers to dismiss the Gospel and face the trials of life without peace – and eternity without Jesus.  When churches and Christians exhibit countercultural reactions to adversity, the world will find the hope it’s desperately seeking.


America rejects the idea that the Holy Spirit lives in believers, writing off the supernatural as “fairy tales”, when Christians and churches don’t conduct themselves as if they were His temples.

  • Damaging our bodies through anxiety and stress we shouldn’t be experiencing as acutely as those not indwelled by the Holy Spirit
  • Becoming addicts to ease pain Christ-followers should endure more courageously knowing this world is not our home as citizens of an everlasting Kingdom
  • Suffering as a result of unhealthy lifestyles, not understanding we, like Jesus, will be resurrected in physical form
  • Humanizing church, making it seem like any other organization, by focusing excessively on how it appears on the outside versus who we are on the inside

“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’” (Matthew 6:31)  The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the dearth of discipleship in America’s churches.  Most Christians appeared more concerned with self-preservation than self-sacrifice, not personifying “church” when the buildings’ doors were closed.  If we rested on the Sabbath, accumulated less “stuff” (since each asset we acquire adds stress), and trusted God to take care of us, imagine how much healthier Christians, churches, and our nation would be.


America rejects our churches as being necessary and relevant, turning to government and academic institutions for answers, when we don’t pursue biblical opportunities to remain integral in a post-agrarian society.

  • Abdicating the front-line role in alleviating the pressure of poverty, leaving it to those who can only provide (transactional) handouts, not a (relational) hand up
  • Imitating churches in worrying about having enough to pay the bills, only giving leftovers, not first fruits, to help struggling families
  • Developing church strategies and programs to feel needed, wondering whether the community would notice if we shut our doors
  • Wanting to return to a position as the “center of town”, as churches were for centuries in America, yet realizing post-agrarian culture now has other social, charitable, and educational outlets

“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)  Jesus was more concerned about growing disciples than growing churches.  We’re the only light in a dark, anxious world – but our light dims if we’re not active in compassion and evangelism.  Today, it’s not just secular media questioning the importance of churches.  According to Lifeway, 1 in 4 pre-COVID regular churchgoers have not returned.  Regaining reach and relevance requires following Jesus’ example – going out to care and share, not just inviting the “lost” to come in.


America rejects the (traditionally) positive public perception of churches and Christians, showing greater respect for resolute post-modernists who hold their ground, when fearful believers compromise to adapt and conform to culture.

  • Protecting social and employment status by pretending to be who we aren’t, not taking risks like speaking out about Jesus or professing to hold Christian values
  • Inviting accusations of hypocrisy when churchgoers live inconsistent with their beliefs
  • People-pleasing, losing sleep over how others perceive us instead of how God sees us
  • Attracting congregants by catering to their needs rather than challenging them, soft-pedaling the costs of discipleship and commands to keep the Church holy

“And why do you worry about clothes?  See how the flowers of the field grow.  They do not labor or spin.” (Matthew 8:28)  Jesus wasn’t concerned with being liked, nor should we.  Our efforts to impress anyone but God has the opposite of its intended effect, causing anxiety for us and for secular observers by taking the spotlight off Jesus and shining it on our insecurities, making it less likely they’ll see Him clearly.  If Christians and churches would focus on loving God and others, not being liked but respected, our faith would lower our nation’s collective stress level.


America rejects conservative values, gravitating toward those who don’t have their best interests at heart, when Christians and churches fret over gaining influence in society rather than electing to pursue Jesus’ path to prominence (caring for the “least of these”).

  • Stressing about politics and elections when we’ve already read the end of the story (The Book of Revelation), knowing Jesus and His Church win
  • Bemoaning the state of our world in this Age of Decadence as if the sky is falling when fulfillment of prophecy should increase our faith, not jeopardize it
  • Seeking earthly power, scaling the tops of the 7 mountains rather than relying on God’s power, realizing Jesus walked away from every attempt to enthrone Him
  • Centralizing into “skyscrapers” that don’t occupy much ground instead of equipping and sending disciples to engage those who would never darken the door of a church

“When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say.” (Luke 12:11)  Quietly serving in obscurity or decentralizing church to occupy a larger footprint doesn’t create notoriety but expands the Kingdom exponentially.  The Lord’s math is the multiplication of disciples making disciples, not the addition of Invite/Involve/Invest church growth strategies.  There’s tension in the precarious task of trying to build a large platform, and it’s hard to compete for attention with secular, for-profit organizations.  If Christians and churches were less concerned about size and influence, we would gain more of both, and Americans would be less stressed in trying to outdo one another.

It’s Your Turn…

Where have you seen a Christian’s or church’s faith in dire circumstances move the needle on a family’s or community’s sense of peace and hope in the midst of trials?

Poverty in America: A Cause and Cure

Nov 17, 22
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Throughout most of America’s history, churches were the food bank and homeless shelter, the first place the destitute went for help.  In fact, across much of the world for over 1900 years, churches followed Jesus’ model of demonstrating the Father’s love before telling people who He is (i.e. the Gospel).  During recent decades, however, churches in America developed growth strategies that precluded continuation of its indispensability in helping the materially poor.  If all Christians still took Jesus’ example and commands to serve the poor seriously, our nation as a whole would be more accepting of Christians and less tolerant of poverty on our shores and abroad.

In other words, just as our division contributed to the fracturing of American culture and our consumerism exacerbated America’s overindulgence, the Church’s decision decades ago to abdicate its lead role on the front lines of poverty relief has diminished our influence and convinced many not to follow our…


America rejects Christianity as the model for how to live, believing government and secular charities are kinder and more compassionate, because the average church’s investment of time, energy and dollars into serving the poor has dropped 95% over the past hundred years.

  • Changing the definition of “church” to emphasize gathering of Christians in a place on a weekend rather than scattering of disciples into ministry the rest of the week
  • Consequently, catering to those Jesus challenged (to live out the Great Commandment and Great Commission) while underserving those Jesus catered to (the poor, ill, and hopeless)
  • Finding intensive discipleship too demanding for church “consumers”, therefore not understanding how Jesus truly lived and what it means to follow in His footsteps
  • Not dying to self as the Bible commands, more concerned about our wants than the needs of others

Every human being is looking for a light in this dark word.  Christians are to radiate the love of Jesus to illuminate the path to the Father.  In America and around the globe, history reveals a direct correlation between compassion of Christ-followers and the growth of Christianity.  Similarly, there’s an indisputable connection between times our faith becomes associated with legalism, judgmentalism, and political parties and its decline.  As churches in the U.S. became more consumer-driven and less compassion-driven, that influence spilled over into secular culture, turning it more consumeristic and less generous.  Where else will people learn about love and mercy except from Jesus?  Yet society no longer looks to churches as viable examples of those qualities, nor will they until we again become a shining beacon of light to the poor and marginalized.


America rejects our Lord as the answer to meaning in this life and hope for the next, looking to secular flourishing and social justice causes for fulfilment, as Christians and churches increasingly deviate from Jesus’ model of Prayer, Care, and then Share.

  • Wondering how Jesus can save people eternally if churches in their communities aren’t active in rescuing those suffering on this side of heaven
  • Hearing stories about Jesus’ miracles of healing and feeding during their youth, but not observing anything transformative that borders on the “miraculous” today
  • Instead seeing Christians occupied in the unremarkable, indistinguishable work and worries of managing careers, raising families, and operating (religious) institutions
  • Losing respect for Jesus when Christ-followers attempt to “outpreach” Him (who despite speaking perfect words still felt it necessary to open ears through loving acts of service)

Whenever Christians fail to reflect Jesus’ deep concern for the (materially) poor or don’t imitate His approach for reaching them with the Gospel, we misrepresent and discredit our Savior.  America’s accelerating departure from its Christian heritage is not an indictment of Jesus, but of those who depart from His model and mission (“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free”.)  Despite our nation’s entree into the Age of Decadence, a last gasp for revival by the power of the Holy Spirit could be sparked by a repentant reassumption by Christians of the leadership mantle for poverty alleviation, a responsibility Jesus (and His disciples) told us never to abdicate.


America rejects our approach to dealing (compassionately) with those we don’t agree with, even if they’re Christians, turning to godless yet more welcoming friends and groups for answers about how to treat others, because most Christians and churches no longer clearly convey what Scripture commands about love, relationships, forgiveness, and humility.

  • Coming across as morally superior, a stance Jesus reviled and repudiated
  • Being known more for what we’re for than what we’re against
  • Taking a back seat on discrimination and injustice when Jesus condemned silence
  • Essentially ignoring our own persecuted brothers and sisters overseas

Poverty is not just in material wealth and possessions.  Nearly everyone endures some from of poverty – whether emotional, spiritual, relational, or financial.  The materially poor lack hope for the future because they’ve lost and haven’t been able to reestablish symbiotic connections to God, self, others, and the rest of creation.  Their isolation leaves them without the opportunities most of us have for relational (rather than transactional) support when times get tough.  Our society knows enough about Jesus to understand He commissioned churches to be the only earthly institution that’s perfectly designed and equipped to provide compassionate assistance for all 4 types of poverty to rebuild all 4 types of relationships.  Non-believers will become interested in and curious about Christianity again when churches stop walking by the poor, going about our “business” rather than fulfilling our calling and emulating Jesus.


America rejects our religion as truth, opting to invent their own realities and identities, because if what we claim is actually true, then more churchgoers would be radically transformed by the power of Jesus’ resurrection and eager to pay forward the grace of Jesus’ sacrifice.

  • Talking the talk (“I’ll pray for you”), not walking the walk (“I’ll feed and clothe you”), when the gift of eternal life should compel action on behalf of the lost and hurting
  • Complaining church members only give leftovers when they’re imitating churches who have little or nothing left over for local missions after other bills are paid
  • Missing opportune moments to preach our message of hope to the hopeless, making non-believers question whether Christians really think there’s a Hell

Our culture increasingly elects the visible over the invisible, doubting God’s existence or goodness as they witness abject poverty and the complacence of wealthy American Christians.  We may signal concern (virtue) on social media about injustice and oppression to gain clout, yet most of us said or did little before it was in vogue.  If all Christians practiced what Jesus preached, we’d have ample resources to ensure no one goes without and far greater influence over the generosity, compassion, and spiritual health of our nation.


America rejects Christianity when churches devise solutions for alleviating (material) poverty that appear more like self-serving, thinly veiled advertising – seasonal events that may make churchgoers feel good but actually perpetuate poverty.

  • Replicating in local missions the “fast-food”, event mentality practiced by most churches on weekends to appease a busy, time-constrained congregation
  • For convenience, writing checks at arms-length without getting hands dirty in the hard relational work of true, needle-moving charity
  • Preferring geographic distance, afraid Jesus’ proximate model would attract those He did
  • Redefining “outreach” in the church lexicon to mean initiatives to grow membership

When churches were the center of town, a safe haven and shelter for America’s poor, we did more than provide short-term relief.  We offered the chance to become part of a family of Christ-followers, a support structure to help navigate the path to a brighter future.  When government usurped the lead role in compassion, it could only offer a “safety net” of handouts that extend the relief phase indefinitely and foster unhealthy dependence.  Surveys indicate that the American public still expects churches to be a first responder in compassion but the approach most have adopted looks more like government assistance programs, not the Church’s traditional, dignifying, biblical model.

It’s Your Turn…

Where have you seen outpouring of compassionate service to the poor soften hearts toward Christianity and open doors to evangelism among those who had appeared unreceptive?