Tag Archives: poverty

Signs of a Stagnating Congregation

Jan 26, 23
JMorgan
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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
JMorgan
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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
JMorgan
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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
JMorgan
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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.

Forgiveness

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.

Freedom

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).

Hope

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.

Salvation

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”.

Sanctification

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?

Poverty in America: A Cause and Cure

Nov 17, 22
JMorgan
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2 comments

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…

Leadership

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.

Savior

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.

Philosophy

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.

Religion

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.

Institutions

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?