And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children. Matthew 14:19-21
A lot of churches and church leaders are doing strategic planning right now. We all enter into a new year (and a new decade) with great hope and excitement for all the new and innovative ministry approaches we will endeavor to take. And we will talk a lot about mission and vision and goals and measurement. In that process, let’s keep some perspective.
Jesus and Strategic Planning
Jesus did not take an institutional approach to ministry. He did not survey the neighborhood to determine what the physical needs were then implement a task force to study those needs. Jesus did not plan the infrastructure of an organization that might be able to meet those needs and then go looking for funding for that organization and for the right people to fill the various positions in that organization. Jesus did not do strategic planning to set specific goals and objectives for his ministry over a one-year, five-year and ten-year plan. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do any of those things. It just means we should keep all those things in perspective.
I believe Jesus operated according to God-inspired vision. In the case referenced in Matthew 14 above, I believe Jesus recognized the hunger of the crowd and immediately developed a God-sized vision of what could be…of what should …
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. Colossians 1:15-20
I had a conversation with a friend today about the place (or not) for marketing principles in the church. Not gonna get into all the various pros and cons in that discussion here. However, I do think there is (at least) one interesting dilemma any marketing professional might face in trying to help a given church with a marketing plan. I am not convinced all of us as church leaders even agree on what, exactly, our product is. That is a sad problem. But it is not a new problem. Paul addressed it in his writing. More than once.
The Colossian Paradox
After a (frankly) gushing introduction in his letter praising the little church at Colossae for its impressive faith and reliance on Jesus, Paul does something interesting: he reminds them of how important Jesus is. It almost feels out of place. He heaps the praises on them. You are faithful! You are on the right track! Being gospel-centered, you are getting it right and we have heard all about your impressive faith in Jesus! And then he launches into …
We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints,because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Colossians 1:3-5
Why Authenticity Matters
There is a lot of talk these days about authenticity. According to most “experts”, authenticity is among the very highest values in our culture’s two youngest adult generations. That reality has brought authenticity to center stage in most churches’ efforts to more effectively reach those two generations. All of us, after all, are deeply troubled by the mass exodus by our adult children’s generation from the church. But, while everyone seems to understand how important authenticity is (especially for the church), I wonder how much consensus there is among church leaders about what authenticity even looks like in the church corporately? When it comes to being authentic (as a church), what does the “win” look like? More specifically, are there metrics? Are there particular, measurable characteristics or attitudes in a church that translate into actual authenticity? I believe there are. And, while there are probably many places we could find such descriptions in scripture, the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossians is particularly compelling.
Why the Letter to the Colossians is Helpful
Paul wrote his letter to the church in Colossae having never met them. He did not start this particular community of believers and, to our knowledge, did not know them as of the writing of his letter. So, his introductory remarks wherein he found them to be particularly authentically Christ-centered, were grounded strictly on characteristics that were observable and measurable by others. In other words, he was not biased by any personal relationships within that church. For …
Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. Acts 9:17-19
Have you ever wondered why exactly Ananias was necessary to Paul’s conversion experience? Doesn’t it seem like a lot of extra (unnecessary) steps? God could have handled this entire conversion experience so much more efficiently by just handling it Himself. What is the point of blinding Paul until a fellow believer could come to him and play a part in helping Paul see again? Friends, I believe we, the church, must answer these questions if we are to understand God’s expectations of us.
I have built an entire ministry around the proposition that the church is not just one alternative plan to reach this broken world, but rather is God’s only plan. I believe this with all my heart. Christian Unity Ministries is not about finding alternative ways to reach the communities of the world…it is about bringing health and vitality to the only vehicle God has already ordained for that work: his church. And a big part of that work involves helping churches become the people God expects us to become in order to love well, whether the objects of that love are within the church or outside the church. If we are to be God’s vehicle for reaching a lost and broken world, we must learn to minister even to those in our culture with whom we strongly disagree or fear.…
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” Matthew 6:25-27
I love the musical musings of Bobby McFerrin. He has an amazing creativity and an incredible vocal instrument. But I’m no fan of the philosophy behind his old song: “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”. Here’s why:
I am not a worrier…at least I do not think I am. Oh, I do worry. Some. But I don’t think of myself that way. Still, maybe I am a worrier but just not very self-aware. Could that be possible? If so, then maybe I actually worry a great deal more than I think I do. In fact, maybe it is a huge problem for me but I am just not very connected to that reality. And maybe I worry so much (without realizing it) that I could actually have a heart attack or a stroke one day because of it. Maybe I am killing myself slowly every single day and don’t even realize it. It is possible, you know. I could die any day now.
🙂 See how easy it is to worry?
I am not claiming any expertise as a worrier, but I am definitely no stranger to the notion. I have had a few stressful seasons in my life. Three years ago, my ministry’s Board of Directors passed the largest, most challenging budget in our ministry’s history. …
All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation;that is, in Christ God was reconcilingthe world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 2 Corinthians 5:18-19
People who do not want anything to do with the church often accuse it of being “full of hypocrites”. I have a theory about why they say that…
…because we, the church, are in fact full of hypocrites. We are bad about that.
I am certain you can fill in some of your own favorite examples of this. Paul’s remarks to the Corinthian church above point out one of my favorite examples.
Paul reminds us in the church that we have been given BOTH the message of reconciliation AND the ministry of reconciliation. They go hand-in-hand. The message is shallow and powerless without the ministry. The message (i.e., that God loves you and forgives you) requires the ministry (i.e., that we love and forgive each other as well) in order to have any power, any credibility at all. Otherwise, it is just…hypocritical.
It makes complete sense if you think about it. It requires us to practice what we preach. Those of us in the Christian church have preached the message well for a long, long time. “No matter where you have come from, no matter what you have done, God loves you and forgives you.” But if we are not, at the same time, willing to act out the ministry of reconciliation, i.e., “…and I love you and forgive you as well…” then the message rings shallow no matter how eloquently we speak it. All the cool videos and all the polished presentations, all the great books and all the amazing sermons, all …
When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they pleaded with him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” And Jesus went with them. Luke 7:3-7
And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. Hebrews 11:6
What is your plan for growing your people? What is your goal? What does “success” look like? Can you describe the model Christ-follower into which your are shaping the sheep in your flock?
For me, this story (from Luke 7) about the centurion’s sick servant is all about “worthiness”. It is about the qualities or characteristics which Jesus found worthy. And it is chock full of irony. Notice that the Jewish elders attempt to lure Jesus to come and help this centurion, because this man is “worthy”. Their version of “worthy” is all about his achievements and his support of them. Interestingly, Jesus goes. As he is arriving, the centurion sends a message to Jesus. What is that message? “No need to come here…I AM NOT WORTHY.” But, in the end, Jesus actually finds that he is in fact worthy. But not for any of the reasons the Jewish elders had used.
Jesus finds the man worthy because of his great faith. This centurion believed that Jesus was whom he claimed to be and that he could heal his servant. It wasn’t his achievements that made him worthy. It wasn’t his financial and political support for the synagogue that made him …
But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed?Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. Matthew 25:26-27
Honestly, I have always felt a little sorry for the poor servant who did not invest his master’s money wisely. It seems to me there is at least a little wisdom in putting the money away and making sure it doesn’t get lost or otherwise wasted away. I can still remember the first time I ever studied this parable (I was a teenager) and being shocked at the harshness of this master. “Wicked” and “slothful” just seemed a little over the top to me, especially for a servant who kept all of his master’s money intact and did not lose any of it.
But, alas, the economy of God’s kingdom does not favor the radical fiscal conservatives like me. In God’s eyes, simply hiding the resources under my mattress and saving them for a rainy day is just poor stewardship. I should rather be investing those resources and growing them. I should be risking them a little (every investment is a risk) and putting them to work.
The same is true for the church. And not just with finances or material resources, but maybe even more importantly, with the human resources God has given us in our congregants…the spiritual gifts, talents, abilities, learned skills, work backgrounds, and emotional strengths in the people God has brought us. Our master has placed all those resources into our hands as the church and, shrewd stewards that we are, we are to put them to work…risk them…use them to produce …
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. John 5:19
And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. Mark 1:35
If your church is anything at all like mine, there is a pretty limitless supply of human needs and desperation within a 5 mile radius of it in any direction. Add to that reality our current COVID-19 circumstances, and now we are talking about a similar radius around each of us individually! There are single moms struggling to make ends meet, there is poverty and homelessness, there are drug addicts and prostitutes, there are sick people and broken people…lots of reminders all around us that we live in a broken world. I wonder if all that brokenness causes you to lose sleep at night, trying to discern what needs are your church’s to meet and what ones are not?
You cannot meet them all. And even if you could, it is probably not God’s assignment for your church to meet them all. He is funny that way. Like a tornado which touches down on one house and leaves the one next to it standing, God’s assignments for us often have us meeting needs in one person (or one family or one group), without meeting the needs of scores of others all around them.
That was the disciples’ experience with Jesus in John, chapter 5 at the pool at Bethesda. A pool surrounded by a “multitude” of crippled and lame people. The disciples followed Jesus to the pool, watched him heal one man, and …
Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. Genesis 37:5
Then Joseph said to Pharaoh, “The dreams of Pharaoh are one and the same.God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do.” Genesis 41:25
I know there are some theological problems with comparing our Spiritual gifts to “super powers”…no doubt even more problems than I am aware of. Still, it makes me happy to think of them that way. So indulge me, please, for just this one post, because I believe the story of Joseph and his particular spiritual gift reads like a classic Marvel Comics super hero tale. He was like one of the X-Men with his super power of prophetic dreams and their interpretations.
Like most classic super heros, Joseph had a rough start with his gift. He wasn’t very polished in how he used it. It caused others to hate him and he just mishandled it more often than not. His fumbling of it got him sold into slavery by his spiteful brothers. Of course, years later, he would look back and see that was God’s plan all along. But in the meantime, his gift would cause him much pain.
As he matured, he came to understand the power and began to use it to help others (every super hero faces a crossroads early on when he/she must decide whether to use his/her power for good or for evil). As he made that choice more and more often, great and amazing things began to happen around him and he eventually rose to extraordinary power in Egypt, not to mention saving hundreds of thousands of lives in the midst of seven years of drought.
So here is the application (maybe you already got it)……