IVP - Online Pulpit - Church Growth Archives

November 1, 2012

The Gifted Introvert

The church tends to favor the extrovert. From greeters to volunteers to leadership, the outwardly eager and overtly friendly are often chosen. It is easy to support natural gifts when they are plainly seen.

But what does the church do to draw out and pursue the introverted? As congregations grow and leadership changes, who is taking the time to bring out the gifts of the quiet but internally supportive and passionate introverts among us?

Adam McHugh, author of Introverts in the Church and an introverted pastor, writes that God is working in the hearts of all of us and that the gifts of the introverted can bring a balance to the body:

introvertsCoverOP.jpg“My struggles to be an introverted pastor are representative of the struggles many introverts face when navigating the waters of Christian community, which can be unintentionally, or intentionally, biased toward extroversion. As a pastor who has participated in both independent and denominationally affiliated churches, it is my experience that evangelical churches can be difficult places for introverts to thrive, both for theological and cultural reasons. Just as I have had a difficult time squaring my own temperament with common roles and expressions of the pastoral ministry, so also many introverted Christians struggle with how to find balance between their own natural tendencies and evangelical perspectives on community and evangelism. A subtle but insidious message can permeate these communities; a message that says God is most pleased with extroversion.

“Fortunately, disappointment has not been my only fellow traveler on this road, but I have also been accompanied by hope: hope in the calling, healing and transformative power of God. My journey has not been guided by my own heroism or impressive displays of faithfulness, but by God’s sovereignty. The same mysterious force that seemed to prevent me from depositing my resignation has also been a constant voice calling me into church ministry, parachurch ministry and chaplaincy. God is bringing me through a process of self-acceptance, both in terms of my introvert identity and also in terms of the gifts and contributions I bring to the Christian community.

“My hope is that God will begin or continue a process of healing introverts—helping them find freedom in their identities and confidence to live their faith in ways that feel natural and life-giving, the way that God intended. I want introverts to embrace that ‘you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God’ (Eph 2:19). Further, I hope that God will unlock in introverts the tremendous gifts that they have to bring to the church. Introverts have a set of qualities that contribute widely to the ministry of the church and to the building up of the body of Christ. When the church is led by introverts and extroverts who partner together, each contributing their strengths and offsetting the others’ weaknesses, it is a testimony that the Holy Spirit is orchestrating the community, that it is not being run by the cult of personality.”

Adam McHugh, Introverts in the Church (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Books, 2009), pp. 12-14.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 10:40 AM

August 20, 2012

Vocational Holiness

By David Rohrer

Often after preaching a sermon or leading a weekend retreat a family member or colleague will ask me “How did it go?” In answer to this question all I can usually offer is some tepid remark like, “Well, it felt OK,” or “I got pretty good feedback.” The plain truth of the matter is that I am probably the person least qualified to weigh in on that question, because I am never quite sure how it went.

In thirty years of pastoral ministry I have yet to find a satisfactory measure of the success of my labors in the lives of others. Some say we can adopt the metrics of business and talk about growth in market share and income, which we translate into worship attendance and giving. Some look to formal and informal surveys of congregational satisfaction with respect to pastoral leadership. Yet none of these things can ever really tell me if people are growing in their capacity to say yes to Jesus and thus growing in the ability to love of God and neighbor.

While I can never be certain about what God is doing through me to accomplish this in others, I can be reasonably certain about is what God is doing in me as I try to faithfully answer his call. It is in this context that Eugene Peterson’s phrase vocational holiness comes to mind. I first saw it used in the title of his book, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness. The phrase speaks to the way God grows us as we answer his call. It is the affirmation that what God is doing in us as we seek to be faithful pastors is as important as what God is doing through us in the lives of others.

If we forget this and make institutional metrics the primary arbiters of our success, the results can be disastrous. We start thinking of ministry in mechanistic terms like “deploying our people” and “aligning mission and resources.” We potentially objectify persons and make congregations into little more than institutional abstractions that need to be managed. We forget that real work of the Spirit is happening in the hidden recesses of individual human hearts, and we get lost in the burdensome and ultimately unfulfilling work of merely trying to make our congregations going concerns.

So much more than this is possible, things greater than “we can ask or imagine.” The miracle of people growing into the image and likeness of Christ is happening all around us. When we are attentive to the ways it is also happening in us, we are on the road to becoming better pastors. Our vocation is one of the means God is using to shape us and when we are well established in our role as followers of Jesus we are going to make better leaders in his church.

RohrerOP.jpgDavid Rohrer is the author of The Sacred Wilderness of Pastoral Ministry (IVP, 2012). He was ordained in 1982 and has served 3 Presbyterian churches in that time, most recently in Seattle. He is currently serving part-time as a Regional Mentor for PC USA.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 10:29 AM

February 24, 2012

The Age-Old Myth, Part 2

by Emily Varner

The ways that elderly persons fit into our local congregations expose an “Age-Old Myth” many of us thoughtlessly buy into, not as much a wrong belief about aging but about what it means to be human at any age.

Christians are perhaps just as likely as unbelievers to define themselves by what they do, how much they accomplish, what their particular gifts and talents are, and other measures that, frankly, miss the mark of a biblical view of humankind. The starting point for a Christian theological anthropology, insists James Houston in A Vision for the Aging Church, is the life of the Triune God and the image of God stamped on each person. Fundamentally, then, to be human is to be in relationship. It is not our production or profession that give us meaning. Rather, the human-to-human and human-to-divine relationships in which we give and receive love make us persons of value and give us lives of meaning.

For those whose relationships seem distinctly one-sided, as for example those with advanced Alzheimer’s or dementia, this idea of being defined by those who love us is particularly important. Think, for example, about the book-turned-movie The Notebook. Each day the husband, no longer remembered by his wife, redefines her by telling their love story to her. He has become the guardian of their shared history, their collective memories, and he determines whether their legacy will be one of love or estrangement. This concept related to God’s view of each person is profound.

God has a past, present, and future with each human being. All persons, regardless of their age or ability, are beloved by God and bear God’s image. When the church stands up for this view of the human persons, it does so in marked contrast to a society where the value of a person is measured by beauty, net worth, IQ, productivity, and a host of other measures that fail to account for the reason God created human beings: for a relationship with him that, in turn, redeems our human relationships.

The biblical witness testifies to this theological vision but also presents a very down-to-earth reason why the people of God must respect and value their elders: wisdom. The Bible identifies wisdom as reverence for God and often links wisdom with experiences that can only come through length of life lived before God. Simply put, we honor our elders by acknowledging that their lives have given them a perspective the younger people in their lives need to hear. There are exceptions to this rule—most of us probably know an old fool and a young person with a wise spirit—but the Bible admonishes readers to expect that the words of those who are older and wiser will benefit the larger community.

A Christian theological anthropology dignifies each human person, and a biblical understanding of wisdom refuses to discount the many experiences only an older person can draw upon in wise counsel. When these ideas bear fruit in churches, ministry changes result that congregants and, likely, community members notice.

A third and final post will lay out some of these.

varnerOP.jpgEmily Varner worked extensively with A Vision for the Aging Church as a freelance editor and publicist for IVP Academic. Her business, AcademicPS, focuses on ministry books and academic texts from Christian publishers. She and her husband doug have a six-year old daughter and are also foster parents to a baby girl.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 12:22 PM

July 19, 2011

On Being Practitioner Guides

by Mark Scandrette

practicingOP.jpgI wrote Practicing the Way of Jesus to address the gap so many of us feel between how we want to live and how we actually live as followers of Christ. As leaders and teachers we long to see people experience the freedom and vibrancy of life in the kingdom of God, and we wrestle with how to best help them become well-formed disciples.

I think one of our temptations is to think that we can lead people to become well-formed disciples by merely teaching about the vision of the kingdom or preaching the need for embodied spiritual disciplines. But you and I cannot lead people to a place we’ve never been ourselves. In the documents of the early church, a leader was someone who “spoke the word of God” and modeled a “way of life” (Hebrews 13:7). In a community of practice, the credibility of a leader is dependent on their lived experience in practicing the commands of Jesus. I’m convinced that to really guide people in the Way of Jesus, we must become the message we proclaim.

It was deeply revealing for me to recognize that my knowledge of the Bible, my experience as a pastor and even my seminary education did so little to prepare me to lead others to do the things that Jesus did and taught. In the reality of the kingdom our credibility doesn’t come from how well we perform publicly but from our lived experiences practicing and teaching the Way. Good leaders are committed learners. We can commit ourselves to being humble students who dare to follow the instructions of the Rabbi in the details of our own lives—by taking on practices that help us become people who live without worry, fear, lust or greed and walk in the forgiveness, power and love that our master promises.

To become leaders of practice we may need to renegotiate our contract of leadership— from service provider to practitioner guide. We can begin to see ourselves not just as hosts, caregivers or communicators, but also as initiators and coaches who invite people into shared acts of obedience. This implies a shift in expectation from “giving people what they want” to inviting them to trust us as master apprentices who will challenge, train and guide in a manner similar to someone teaching you how to cook or drive or plan a sport—less like a college lecture-hall professor and more like a karate dojo sensei.

Not everyone is ready to participate in shared experiments and practices, and people should be free to self-select into this dynamic. My friend Alex leads a medium-sized suburban church. When he first recognized the power of practice for spiritual formation, his first impulse was to try to get the entire congregation to buy in. He taught about the reality of God’s kingdom on Sunday mornings and challenged the whole congregation to do specific experiments he came up with. Most people either ignored his attempts or were frustrated by trying to act alone. Eventually Alex changed his approach.

First, he invited a few trusted friends into a shared experiment. Then he invited the congregation to sign up for a short-term small group called Praxis, which would explore shared practices. As people from the Praxis group began sharing stories of life change, the idea spread throughout the whole congregation. A good place to begin is to simply ask, “What is one thing we can each commit to do, as an experiment, between now and the next time we meet to practice the way of Jesus?”

scandretteOP.jpgMark A. Scandrette is the founding director of ReImagine, a spiritual formation center based in San Francisco. He has extensive experience providing leadership in churches and community-based organizations and has been a minister, writer and spiritual teacher for twenty years.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 11:16 AM

July 8, 2011

Practical Theology Diversified

The communities in which our churches reside are becoming more diverse every day. Not just new families or young people, but more ethnicities, different languages and unique cultures. Mark Branson and Juan Martinez, authors of Churches, Cultures and Leadership, believe the Holy Spirit has called the church to embrace this new diversity, not just with community projects or special services, but as a practical theology of shared life:

“Moses left Egypt with a ‘mixed crowd,’ and the earliest followers of Jesus learned that the Holy Spirit was leading them to cross cultural borders. The scriptural narratives are loaded with references to the strangeness of strangers and the discomforts of participating in God’s love for the world. This book is about that strangeness, those discomforts. It is about God’s call on the church to love our neighbors, and we acknowledge that such love is a matter of grace and of work.

“Our focus is on churches in the United States and how we can be faithful to God’s call on our churches in this context. We live in a culturally diverse nation—and many of our cities and neighborhoods exhibit that cultural pluralism. Ethnic diversity is evident in the media, at shopping malls and in many schools. Such diversity is less evident in our churches, but it is growing. We wish to promote more attentiveness, wisdom and faithfulness concerning intercultural life in and among churches, and between churches and their neighbors.

“We have all been shaped in a historical context of prejudice and racism. We carry the influences of our environment in our minds and hearts; too often our actions, choices and words perpetuate ethnic biases. There are many prejudices, rooted in racism, built into our institutions. We believe that God’s love for the world is definitive in Jesus’ inauguration of God’s reign, and therefore we believe that the church’s identity and agency should be characterized by reconciliation. Such reconciliation, if it is defined and empowered by the gospel, must be personal, interpersonal, cultural and structural. When persons of different cultures share life, once we get beyond music and food, the complexities increase.

“We claim that ‘paying attention’ is important and difficult. Just as a competent painter, carpenter or teacher learns, over many years, how to attend&mdsh;how to train their senses and responses to their environment and their work—church leaders need to pay attention to cultural characteristics and the work of shaping intercultural life. And that is the purpose of our writing: to help men and women in our churches to see differently and to gain the skills and competencies needed for multicultural contexts. We want to encourage church leaders to create environments that make God’s reconciling initiatives apparent in church life and in our missional engagement with neighborhoods and cities.”

CCLOP.jpgExcerpt taken from Churches, Cultures and Leadership, an interdisciplinary approach that integrates biblical and theological study with the disciplines of sociology, cultural anthropology and communications, by Mark Lau Branson and Juan F. Martinez.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 11:00 AM

June 1, 2010

Seaside Reflections

A wondrous view (and sound) lies before me. I am on study leave on the Pacific Coast in Southern California. It is early March, with a bright blue sky and balmy 70 degree weather. The surf is pounding outside my window. The sand stretches for miles in both directions. A vast expanse is the border God created for the seas. It does not get any better than this! For me the sound, smell and sight of the water always causes deeper reflection. Being a very verbal person, silence comes with great difficulty, but not when I am by the ocean. Everything I see and hear seems to speak to me about deeper spiritual realities. Every shell, every person poised on the shore in a multitude of activities, every wave and even the stillness of the vast expanse of water—they all seem to want me to pay attention and listen.

This morning when I woke up, I could see forty or fifty surfers who had shunned sleep and donned wetsuits, and were energetically defying the forces of the surf in order to get out and catch some waves. I have tried this sport once, so I have a miniscule idea of the effort this requires. There they were, all fifty of them bobbing up and down, and working hard to catch a wave they could ride long enough to be worth the effort it took to even try. When some do successfully catch a wave, the results are not always pretty. Legs and arms fly and boards shoot above the surf—wipeout!

As I watched, I was taken quickly from the world of surf, where I only observe, to the world of church, where I live most of my life. I think I experience similar dynamics. It often feels like I am swimming against the waves—the world around me. It often is exhausting, and I often experience “wipeouts.” Catching the wave of the Spirit at work in the world is not for the faint of heart. I shiver in the often cold waters of ministry even though the sun shines brightly above. And this morning I was especially struck by how the surfers congregate in the same area. Here was miles of beach stretched out in both directions and yet these surfers were all working to catch a wave along the same 150 feet of shoreline.

Where I minister there are no less than seven churches lined up within ten blocks on one avenue. I wonder if we are like surfers trying to catch just the right wave in a small stretch of beach. I wonder if there are ways to “do church” so that we are not all vying for the same worshipers to come on Sunday morning. I wonder if there is other surf to go to where I can catch the waves of the Spirit at work in the world.

These are not new wonderings for me. But the oceanside view this morning has at least temporarily (I do not know if I will be able to sustain this thoughtful stream!) reinforced my thinking about ways of doing church for those who are not already in it:

  • the eighteen to thirty-five year-olds almost completely absent from our sanctuaries
  • the disenfranchised and marginalized people in our community who we all would wish could just pull themselves up by their own bootstraps
  • the immigrant population, especially important in Southern California

Watching the view and just wondering, hoping not to wipeout.

Posted by Candie Blankman at 8:38 AM

April 1, 2010

Five Significant Facts About Church and First-Time Guests

Healthy and growing churches pay close attention not only to their members but also to those who are not yet a part of the flock. New people are the lifeblood of a growing church. We want to ensure that nothing impairs or cuts off the flow of new people to the church.

Pastors need to be aware of five significant facts about first-time guests looking for a church home.

1. Visitors make up their minds regarding a new church in the first ten minutes of their visit. Often, before first-time guests have sung a song, viewed a well-produced video or heard a well-crafted sermon, they have made up their mind whether or not to return. But far more time and energy is spent on planning the worship service than on preparing for greeting and welcoming first-time guests. The church’s ability to connect with these guests is not dependent on the pastor but on the front line of people who represent your church.

  • Are parking attendants in place?
  • Is there appropriate signage?
  • Are your ushers and greeters welcoming?
  • Is the environment you take for granted user-friendly?

2. Most church members aren’t friendly. Churches claim to be friendly. But the truth is that most church members are friendly to each other, but not to guests.

  • Observe your members. Do they greet guests with the same intensity and concern before and after the worship service as they do during a formal time of greeting in the worship service?
  • Do the three minutes before and after the service demonstrate whether church members really care about visitors?
  • Encourage your most gregarious and welcoming members to be unofficial greeters before and after each service.
  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep. My wife attended “The Friendly Baptist Church,” but no one spoke to her before the service, and the information-booth attendant was anything but friendly.

3. Church guests are highly consumer-oriented. If Target doesn’t have what I need, I just head to K-Mart. If you don’t have adequate parking or your people are unaccepting and unfriendly, guests will look at another church. Or worse yet, they may give up their search altogether.

  • Pastors and church leaders need to look at their churches through the eyes of a first-time guest.
  • Many retail outlets use the service of one or more “mystery shoppers” to analyze and critique their customer service. Churches would be well served to utilize a similar service.

4. The church is in the hospitality business. Though our ultimate purpose is spiritual, hospitality is important. Church members can extend hospitality to guests by offering to sit with them during the church service, giving them a tour of the church facilities, inviting them to lunch after service, or connecting with them later in the week.

5. You only have one chance to make a good first impression.

  • Are you consciously working to remove barriers that make it difficult for guests to find their way around and to feel at home with your people?
  • Do newcomers have all the information they need without having to ask any embarrassing questions?
  • Are your greeters and ushers on the job, attending to details and anticipating needs before they are expressed?

You may be the most skilled preacher and your church may have excellent small groups or the best children’s ministry in the city. Your first-time guests will never know unless they make a second or third visit. Will they come back? It all depends on the impression you’re making. Make it the right one the first time.

Posted by Rick Ezell at 9:05 AM

September 1, 2009

Lives that Pour Out Into the Streets

In February I had the privilege of traveling to Vietnam with five members from my church. Our church had hosted Vinh, a seminary intern from Vietnam, for over two years, and his presence in our congregation changed us. We are seeking to be faithful as a multicultural, multigenerational congregation in southern California, the frontline of our rapidly changing national community. Vinh’s presence in our congregation gave us the opportunity to grow in openness to those who are very different. His life poured into our streets. And we decided to see the church that fostered the faith of this remarkable young man.

Visiting three different cities and one very rural community in Vietnam helped me understand why Vinh had such an impact on our church. In Vietnam there is little separation between public life and personal life. Especially in the north and central part of Vietnam, where there is much less Western influence, the people conduct life out in the open. The small shops that line most of the streets are places of business, but here shop owners also sit with their families and their neighbors while they eat their meals and drink afternoon tea. It’s nearly impossible to distinguish between paying customers and family members. And when you walk the street, it’s not uncommon to be invited to sit for a while.

The same is true of many of the Vietnamese homes, many of which have large doors or gates that open wide to the street and neighbors. The street or sidewalk is a part of the home. While I was having dinner with the Ha family one evening, several times neighbors stopped at this wide open door to talk. We could hear the neighbors all around doing the same thing—living their lives open to others.

I was struck by how dramatically this contrasts with the American obsession with privacy. We have weatherized our porches and air-conditioned our homes so that the windows and doors are almost always closed, and our blinds or drapes are often pulled. If we do venture out, it is into the privacy of our back yards. We are intentionally not open to the streets and our neighbors. One sociologist says that Americans have lost a sense of public space. In our search for privacy we have retreated, and we now fail to value publicly shared lives—lives that pour out into the streets.

Vietnam was a vivid picture for me of the task that lies ahead for my church. We must find a way to pour our lives out into the streets. Our church services and activities should be much more open to passersby. And more of our activities should be done on the streets and in the neighborhood. After all, according to the Scripture, “The Word became flesh and moved right into the neighborhood” (Jn 7:17, The Message). We need to do the same.

Unlocking the church doors and ministering outside of the church building and on the streets is challenging. Neighborhood children playing on our church’s lawn and basketball court are great, but we have only just begun. I hope in the not-too-distant future people all around our city will witness the lives of our church members pouring out into the streets.

Posted by Candie Blankman at 8:44 AM

May 1, 2009

New Kids on the Block

It is a strange feeling. After years of being a pastor, my husband and I are back in the pew, and a strange pew at that. Let me tell you, it’s no fun being the new kids on the block as we show up at a strange church on Sunday morning. It’s lonely not seeing friends’ faces in the crowd of worshipers, and not being familiar with a church family’s unique habits and customs. It is so intimidating, as a matter of fact, that every Sunday we have to make a deliberate decision to attend church, and to keep trying to fit in and find our niche in a new place.

Our search for a new church home has opened our eyes to how important it is for a church to have a deliberate plan to welcome visitors. We pastors know this stuff, of course. I don’t think any pastor would argue about the importance of that first ten minutes for a newcomer. The first impressions visitors have of a church and a facility often determine whether they come back again next week.

While most churches have a plan to welcome newcomers, we often become complacent. It’s easy to take the plan for granted and not work as hard at it every Sunday as we should. For the first-time visitor, no Sunday is “just another Sunday.” From sad experience my husband and I can testify that the Sunday your greeters slacked off may have been the Sunday we showed up at your door, and we were the casualties of that poor performance.

Here are some reminders to make sure that every visitor feels the warm welcome your church wishes to convey every Sunday.

Develop Your Greeter Team

Greeters should go through training. They should have regular refresher courses every quarter, or at least twice a year. A greeter should have a brochure or welcome packet in hand that explains what is happening and where it is happening that Sunday morning. It should have enough basic information to make an outsider feel more like an insider.

Pastor, create a visitor-friendly atmosphere by expecting the whole congregation to be part of the welcoming committee. Your encouragement from the pulpit will remind your church family that it is everyone’s responsibility to make people feel at home.

Which Way to the Restroom?

Insiders take for granted where everything is located. Attractive and plentiful directional signs convey a welcoming message to newcomers.

First Impressions Are Important

The junk that has accumulated above the coat racks might not bother you anymore, but clutter is a turnoff to a visitor. Clean carpets, spic-and-span restrooms and fresh paint are important details that can make any church, new or old, look more attractive.

Any church can develop blind spots when it comes to welcoming visitors. Try putting together a team who periodically comes to church as “visitors,” armed with a report card that rates each detail of a church’s welcome plan. Seeing things from a newcomer’s eyes can be eye-opening!

There is no way to be all things to every visitor that comes through the doors. But we can all strive to be like Allan, a lovely young man we have recently met. In his simple way he steps forward to greet us at the door of the church every Sunday morning. Last Sunday I thanked him for the great job he does. He replied, “I just do what I can.” Preach it, brother!

Posted by Joan Tyvoll at 10:18 AM

January 1, 2008

Wake Up and Smell the Coffin

What part of dying don’t we understand? The mainline churches are dying. I do not need to quote statistics. We all know them well, and many of us are in churches where we can see the death daily. And I am not only talking about aging, gray-hairedcongregations. I am also including congregations that are dead spiritually. These churches are going through all the motions of religion but denying its power—its power to quicken, transform, reorder and revitalize life now. The problem is we really do not believe we are dying, either physically or spiritually. Many of the long-time members of these congregations insist that the church be about them and their way of doing church. Over their dead bodies (sometimes literally) will the church be allowed to change or be relevant to anyone but them!

When I encounter such people, I try to love them and gently nudge them toward realizing what God will do long after they are gone. I try to give them the opportunity to bless the future before they die. But honestly, I want to shake them and say, “Wake up and smell the coffin! You are dying. This church is dying. Do you want to die clinging, clenched-fisted, to your church, knowing that means it will die shortly after you do? Or do you want to die with open hands, giving a future to Christ’s church?”

But it isn’t only the older members of these congregations who are dying. We are all dying. Death is certain for all of us, and it is no respecter of persons, regardless of age. All of us, whether ninety or nine years old, are only guaranteed today. We do not know what tomorrow may bring. In reality, the question isn’t, Are we dying? Rather it is, Do we acknowledge we’re all dying? Will we make our remaining days count to the glory of God and to work to build Christ’s church for the future?

I am convinced that dead churches are not the result of style of music, polity or poor facilities. At the core of every dying church is a loss of the centrality of the gospel message. The world—everyone—needs Christ. And the church’s main business is delivering the good news of Christ to whoever will listen.

We don’t really believe we are dying and that the only future of the church is Christ living through us. Wake up and smell the coffin!

Posted by Candie Blankman at 8:52 AM