Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Awaiting the Savior – Five Reasons a New Pastor Won’t Save Your Church

Throughout the history of the church true believers have been awaiting the return of Jesus – the Savior.

The early disciples and many members of the first century church were just sure Jesus’ return was imminent. They talked about it. They looked forward to it. They made plans banking on it. It seems they were disappointed. They were the first expectant ones, but not the only ones nor the last ones. Believers through the centuries have expected the return of Jesus. During my lifetime many books touting the impending return of Jesus have regularly hit the best seller list. Back in the 1970’s, when I was new at this Christian thing, Hal Lindsey made sacks of money from his bestselling book, The Late Great Planet Earth. It was certainly an attention grabber and sold about a zillion copies.

Groups have left family and friends, sold their earthly possessions, gathered on hillsides and watched the skies expectantly. All for naught as they found themselves still standing on that same hillside the next day. Most leaders of these movements have had the audacity to recalculate their calendars and announce a new return date. That is not nearly as weird as the fact that they again gather a gaggle of followers who perch themselves expectantly on another hillside and eagerly await the big happening. Some of the real joiner types even go for it a third time. But on that third attempt it is pretty difficult to attract much of a crowd.

But those hopeful for the immediate return of Jesus are not the only ones who are expectantly awaiting a savoir. Many of our congregations are. A significant number of the members of the one I am serving as an interim minister are awaiting the first (Or second or third) coming of their messiah. Unfortunately this messiah is the yet to be named choice of the Senior Pastor Search Committee. Yes, my friends, the answer to all of the church’s problems is getting a new pastor. With the coming of (as my friend Rev. Mark Garrett says) Pastor Wonderful, giving will increase, worship attendance will grow, new people will join the church and all of our problems will dissipate like a late morning fog. All will be well and we will move into the Promised Land.

There are several reasons why such thinking is irrational and untenable.

  1. The history of this church and all others we know of has proven this to be untrue. If such a pastor sees the sought after results, it is usually for a very short time. We ministers call this the “Honeymoon Period.” It usually lasts six to eighteen months. Then things start to come unraveled and the criticisms and complaints begin. Soon there is a grassroots movement to fire this loser we have and start seeking the “messiah.” Many, if not most, pastorates fail to survive this period.
  2. If the last pastor was not the savior of the church, what makes you think the next one will be?
  3. Most churches are denial about the fact that the pastor is often not the problem that is causing the church to decline, but, instead, the unhealthy systems of how the church does financial, spiritual and relational business are killing the church.
  4. A vast majority of mainline denomination churches are plateaued or declining. Does that mean that a vast majority of these churches just need a new pastor? If so, where exactly are they going to find that pastor? If the pastor we are seeking to hire is “failing” at his or her present church, what makes us believe the results will be different at our church?
  5. Are our seminaries all producing class after class of inept ministers to serve our churches and thus causing the epidemic decline of church attendance and participation? If this is correct, why has the basic curriculum of our seminaries remained unchanged for over a quarter of a century? Yes, the curriculum does need to change. It would help the problem but not solve the problem. Such needed change is slow in coming to our divinity schools as change is slow in coming to our churches for the same basic reason – Institutionalism. Our schools, like our churches, have an almost fatal case of “But we have always done it this way.” Until we are willing to face the truth that what we are doing is not working and we need to do something else, we are doomed.

It is easy and comforting to believe that all our ills, problems and short comings can be blamed on one person; and that person isn’t me. It is the pastor’s fault. It is comforting but incorrect. I will be the first to admit that the pastor can be a detriment to the health and wellbeing of a church. We pastors can be so profoundly emotionally, morally and spiritually dysfunctional that what we say and do can cause great harm to the church. Our personalities can be so corrosive, negative and irritating that we run members and possible members off in droves. Our preaching can be so impractical, cerebral or boring that people can’t stand to sit through our sermons. But most churches, who describe themselves as a “family” are, in fact, a family. A dysfunctional family.

When we understanding that healthy living things grow, then it makes sense when we say that a plateaued or dying church (a non-growing church) is not a healthy church. In every dying church there are several unhealthy things going on: how we do our business; how we do relationships; what inappropriate behaviors we tolerate; attempting to follow a Christ-less mission and vision; failing to pursue the mission of the church; giving to individual ministries and interests in the church instead of giving to the church and to support the basic mission of the church; members failing to be actively engaged in the ministries of the church; a majority of members believing the only “obligation” of membership is Sunday morning attendance; individual spiritual growth is not an expectation; and the list goes on.

Hiring a new minister will not fix this. It is the church’s responsibility to get well so a pastor can lead that church where God is calling it. So, churches, unfortunately, the savior is not coming.

Copyright © 2014, William T. McConnell, All Rights Reserved

Monday, September 8, 2014

Why I Love the Church

Let me begin by telling the reader that I love the church. I say that often because I am a critic of the church and my criticism could give the impression that I don’t like the church. I love it but know it could be better. One of the most often repeated comments about the church of our culture is something to the effect of, “I like Jesus but I don’t like his church.” A more honest rendition of this sentiment would be, “I like Jesus and his church; I just don’t like the people who populate it.”
Supposedly Mahatma Gandhi put it like this: "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." That is a great quote to address the hypocrisy of those of us who populate the church. Unfortunately I feel Gandhi didn’t know what he was talking about. I think that because, if he had known and understood the Jesus that is so clearly shown through Scripture, he wouldn’t just like him. He would fall at his feet and proclaim Jesus Lord of his life. Gandhi, like many people, knew something about Jesus but failed to really know and understand who Jesus really is. The theoretical, held at arm’s length, historical character Jesus is easy to like. His teachings are brilliant. His message is engaging. But when Jesus held up close and personal, when Jesus is known, he must be loved, worshiped, followed and obeyed. Liking Jesus is just appallingly inadequate.
Any group, made up of real people, is going to be problematic. People are people and human nature is human nature. Thus, the church WILL pretty consistently fail to be what it is called to be. But that should never stop the church from continuing to seek to be what it is called to be – The Body of Christ – the physical representation of Christ to this generation. The problem with the church has been and always will be the people. Just as Scripture says, human beings are flawed, fallen and sinful. To expect us to be otherwise is ludicrous. And I believe to reject the church because the people of the church do things you don’t like or approve of is disingenuous.
I fully realize that some of the people of the church, and sometimes entire churches, can be narrow-minded and judgmental. That is one of the most obvious criticisms those outside of the church have of the church. But, some of the most critical, judgmental, and narrow-minded people I have encountered have no interest in Christ and no affiliation with the church. That is not an excuse for the poor behavior of Christians. It is just an observation that glass houses and stones are involved in this discussion.
I love the church for several reasons. Allow me to share some of those with the reader.
  • The church was Jesus’ idea. I’m a little uncomfortable criticizing and second guessing Jesus.
  • The church allows people like me in.
  • The church will allow people like you in.
  • The church is God’s method of spreading the Good News of His love and mercy and forgiveness.
  • The church is the place where I can fail – fall flat on my face – and they will love me anyway. They will pick me up, brush me off and get me going in the right direction again. Not all churches will do this, but mine will.
  • The church is where I can ask my dumb questions and they will help me find answers.
  • The church provides the place, the tools and the atmosphere where I can most effectively grow spiritually.
  • The church provides me multiple opportunities to do mission work and impact my community in positive ways.
  • Finally - Jesus called the church his Bride. I’m thinking he loves the church. When was the last time you told a friend, “I like you but I can’t stand your wife?” Where I come from those are fighting words. I guess if the church is good enough for Jesus, it is good enough for me.
The church is far from perfect and always will be as long as people are involved. But the church is God’s idea and plan. Christianity (and Christians and the church) will always be easy to criticize and difficult to live and be. But it is what God has called us to be and do. So let’s just slog along, doing the best we can and continue to pray God has his way in our lives and in our churches.
“If you should find the perfect church: Without one fault or smear, For goodness sake, don't join that church; You'd spoil the atmosphere.”1
1 “The Perfect Church” by Mavis Williams
Copyright © 2014, William T. McConnell, All Rights Reserved

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Is It Time to Quit?

In my experience in coaching pastors, the most often asked question is something like, “Am I finished here? Is it time for me to leave and find a new church to serve?”

That is a difficult question – especially for a pastor. It is difficult for several reasons. Let’s take a look at some of those reasons.

  1. The Church Board meets and unanimously votes to terminate your employment. When this happens, there are always some “friends” in the church who call you and tell you most people are behind you and you should stay and force a showdown in a congregational meeting. This is what my friend, Dave Hussing, would call a bad-good idea. The Board didn’t vote to fire you because someone was having a bad day. You have lost the confidence of the church leadership and that is something not easily won back. Most of the members may want you to stay (Honestly, most really don’t care one way or the other.) but nothing good will get done with you butting heads with the church lay leadership. Pack up and go.
  2. Suppose there is no pressure to leave. But you are frustrated and are having a difficult time getting new programs and ministries accepted and off the ground. Is your job done here? Have you done all you can do and now the church needs new pastoral leadership to move ahead? Maybe. But it could be that you are just tired or burned out. Perhaps, instead, it is just time for you to take a vacation. So take a vacation – a real vacation. Leave town. Stay away for at least two weeks. Ignore email and texts. Have only one person from the church (Who is agreed on ahead of time.) whose phone calls you will pick up. Let them know to only call you in case of an emergency. Define what constitutes an emergency – such as the death of a key church member. Have someone (a trusted colleague) cover your hospital calling. Unplug. Unwind. Do NOT engage in any church talk with your spouse or children. Ten days after arriving back, if you still feel it might be time to leave, start to prayerfully discern if it is time for you to go.
  3. The question of leaving a church is as difficult as knowing when to answer the call to a church. It is God’s will? This is the $64,000 question. In some ways it is easier making decisions without the “God factor”. How do we discern God’s will? Many methods are attempted. I have often used “The Three Lighthouses.” The story goes that there was a great, safe harbor that attracted ships in stormy weather. The one negative to the harbor was that it had a narrow opening surrounded by rocks that snagged and sank many ships. The people tried erecting a lighthouse but it didn’t help. Finally they came upon the solution of building three lighthouses, one directly behind the other. They then told the ship captains to enter the harbor only when the three lighthouses appeared as one; when they lined up with each other. Applying this to making Godly decisions I was taught to move only if God’s three lighthouses line up: God’s Word; Circumstances; Godly Counsel. If all agreed there was a good chance it was the right decision. Not a bad system, but certainly not foolproof.
  4. If you are leading the church in the process of Church Transformation and you have been in the process less than five years, it is not time to leave. Church transformation is very difficult and emotionally draining and you will want to quit on a regular basis. But normally the process takes around seven years. Three to five years to make the transformation and another couple of years to stabilize the new systems to the point they have become the church’s default systems. Without the extra time, every time there is a problem or a challenge, the leadership will default to the old, unhealthy systems of dealing with the problems.

Way back when I first entered ministry, it was common for a pastor to stay at a church for five years or less. In my first few churches my average stay was three to five years. Since then research has been done and it has shown that for a pastorate to be effective the minister needs to say a minimum of seven to ten years. In my home church, the two pastors I had during my time at the church each stayed from seminary to retirement. Under their leadership the church consistently grew. That long tenure may not always be good or even possible, but the experience of many matches the research and we pastors need to dig in for the long haul.

While in college we had a saying: “When in doubt, chill out.” That is pretty good advice when it comes to changing jobs as a pastor. It has been my experience that most of my moves from one church to another, in retrospect, have been premature. I mistook the end of the “honeymoon” for the end of the calling. Sometimes I mistook exhaustion or frustration or conflict or complaining as a sign I was finished there and as God’s call to a new field of work. Sometimes I just got bored. That was before I discovered church transformation. Now that I do transformation, boring sometimes sounds appealing.

Copyright © 2014, William T. McConnell, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Ferengi Factor

This past Sunday I encouraged my congregation to consider how the Ferengi Factor is affecting our lives. Possibly you are unaware of the Ferengi Factor. That is probably because I just made it up this week. In FACT there may be the few of you who don’t know what a Ferengi is and may be unfamiliar with this fictional civilization invented by the creators of Star Trek.
Way back when it first appeared on television, I became a fan of Star Trek. Not the type of fan who goes to Star Trek conventions and has a room full of Star Trek toys (Though I wouldn’t mind having a model of the Star Ship Enterprise for my desk.) and a Star Trek uniform. But I enjoyed the show and watched it at every opportunity. The acting wasn't particularly good. And the special effects left much to be desired. What I liked was the social criticism many of the scripts contained. The writers were encouraging to take a look at what we do and how we think.
I haven’t followed through the years as it morphed into Star Trek “Whatever” with new cast members and different characters. But there were a few episodes that stuck in my memory. One of those included the Ferengi.
The Ferengi were a species of super-capitalists that shaped an entire culture around the pursuit of self-interest… sort of like Americans on vacation. Their simple rules of acquisition resemble a dark-side core discipling process:
  • Infatuation
  • Negotiation
  • Acquisition
  • Obsession
  • Resale
In addition to these core values, the Ferengi have some basic rules for life - almost 300 of them. They are not laws or religious tenets, but just guidelines for living life the Ferengi way. Let me share a few of them with you.
  • Rule 006 - Never allow family to stand in the way of opportunity
  • Rule 010 - Greed is eternal.
  • Rule 012 - Anything worth doing is worth doing for money.
  • Rule 016 - A deal is a deal. (until a better one comes along).
  • Rule 021 - Never place friendship before profit.
  • Rule 033 - It never hurts to suck up to the boss.
  • Rule 039 - Friendship is temporary; profit is forever.
  • Rule 041 - Profit is its own reward.
  • Rule 042 - What's mine is mine, and what's yours is mine too.
  • Rule 058 - There is no substitute for success.
  • Rule 060 - Keep your lies consistent.
  • Rule 097 - Enough is... never enough.
  • Rule 106 - There is no honor in poverty.
  • Rule 202 - The justification of profit is profit.
  • Rule 266 - When in doubt, lie.
These rules would be funny and the Ferengi would be ridiculous if they didn’t sound so eerily familiar. It sounds like the American culture with the veneer stripped off. I believe what I call the Ferengi Factor has powerfully impacted how we view:
  • Our possessions
  • Our money
  • Our work
  • Our families
  • And thus our daily lives and our relationships
We need to stop and rethink some of our basic suppositions. Why and how do we make decisions? What in our lives are important and deserve our time and attention?
  • People
  • Relationships
  • Family
  • Friends
  • Serving God in Ministry
  • Making a difference for eternity
What is our answer to this problem of wanting so much and being willing to do most anything to get it? How do we fit in the things we know are more important? We never seem to consider giving up something we are already doing. Instead, we cram more into our schedules and try to go faster. And it is killing us and our relationships. Everyone is yelling at us and urging us to do more. It is not sin, but busyness that keeps us from developing meaningful relationship, having time to develop our relationship with God, and time to include meaningful ministry in our daily lives. We don’t have time for growing spiritually. It is not some much that we reject God and doing the important things in life, we just don’t have the time. We struggle less with the Bible and more with the clock and the calendar.
Take a look at this story Jesus told.
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.  So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” Luke 10:27-37 (NIV)
What strikes me about this story is not that the priest and the Levite are bad people. Instead, I think they are busy people. They are important and they have places to be and things to do. They were so busy doing good things they ignored the things God had for them to do. They almost tripped over the needy man but managed to ignore him.
We don’t feel guilty because of sin, though we probably should. If we feel guilt, we feel guilty because we don’t have time for our spouses, our children, our friends and our God. We don’t come home staggering drunk, we come home staggering tired. And voices all around us: our bosses, our pastor, our parents, our wives, our husbands, even ourselves all telling us to do more and run faster.
Might I suggest that our lives would be better, fuller and more meaningful if we removed the Ferengi Factor? What would life be like, what would the church be like if we dropped the idea that success in life is having more, better, newer, faster. Instead of seeking to be successful – we were to seek to live lives of significance.
Let’s look at what Jesus simply asks of us: “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” Matthew 4:19 (NIV)
Let’s be real people. What we are doing is not working. Acting like a bunch of Ferengi is neither meaningful nor fulfilling. While we are living our lives at warp speed, while real life is passing us by like a blur. We are constantly frustrated because we don’t get to be with the people who really count because we are doing things that really don’t count. To change things we are going to have to decide to crank it down a couple of notches. When someone starts yelling that you need to do more perhaps you need to ignore them. We need to begin making some difficult, Godly decisions.
Think again: “Where am I going in such a huge hurry?” “Does what I am doing really matter?”
Copyright © 2014, William T. McConnell, All Rights Reserved

Monday, August 18, 2014

How Could Robin Williams Do That?

A hot topic of conversation the past several days has been the death of Robin Williams. I have heard people say, “I am so depressed over losing him,” and some have asked the question, “How could Robin Williams commit suicide?” I have spent several hours over several days trying to write some reflections on his depression and suicide. It is difficult for me because it all hits so close to home.

It doesn’t make sense, does it? Robin Williams was amazingly talented. He had won an Oscar, an Emmy, and several other prestigious awards. He was a hilarious standup comedian, had a successful television sitcom; starred in a huge number of very successful movies and was loved and revered by millions of fans. He was generous in supporting various causes and charities. From all reports he was a kind man and a good friend. In public he always seemed up and excited. And yet, he took his own life. How could that happen?

When most of us hear that he was depressed, we think: So what. We all are depressed from time to time. No we aren’t. You are probably mistaking a bad mood or a bad day for depression. I always like to say, “Of course I’m depressed. I am Irish. I’d like a couple of beers, too.” I do suffer from clinical depression and if you haven’t experienced it, you have no idea what it is like. It is not feeling a little down or sad. Real depression is much like drowning. (Something else I have done.) It is extremely uncomfortable – should I say it is painful. It is overwhelming. You have almost no control over it. It engulfs you. It suffocates you and it is all you can think about. The ensuing panic is horrible because it does not move you to rescue yourself. I just drives you into a deeper depression. You are motivated to do absolutely nothing. Getting out of bed is a task akin to climbing Mt. Everest. Functioning normally is just something you would like to do; something you used to do but will never be able to do again. You feel helpless and completely out of control. You know you are dying but there seems to be no escape.

And when you are depressed it seems that everyone close to you takes a couple of steps away from you. If they do remain in contact it seems they are unaware of your condition. Which is normal since you are doing everything you can to hide it from them. Those who do see what is happening to you respond with such worthless “helpful” advice such as: “You should see someone about that.” (I don’t want to see you, much less someone else. The thought of leaving the house overwhelms me. Talking about it just seems to make it worse.) “You need to pull out of that funk.” (Good idea. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that before. It is so simple and easy I should have done that last week.) “Things will seem better tomorrow.” (Tomorrow! Oh, dear Jesus, I can’t even stand to think about tomorrow. The only thing that sucks worse than yesterday is today. Please don’t make me think about tomorrow.) “It is simply mind over matter. You need to will yourself out of that funk.” (The only urge I have right now that is stronger than my desire to kill myself is my desire to kill you.) No matter what advice is given, even if it is good advice, is not helpful.

Depression is a horrifyingly deep, dark place. It is a place of isolation; of loneliness; emptiness; hollowness; it seems endless. The most powerful feeling is the feeling of hopelessness. And that is what kills you. That is why one commits suicide… hopelessness… a profound belief that things will not get better. No matter what anyone says or does, this living hell will never end. And if this is what the rest of my life is going to be like, I have had enough. Death would be a welcome relief. No matter what death leads to, it has to be better than this. One certainly feels badly for how one’s suicide will hurt and affect others. But ending one’s life is just something that must be done. There is no other choice… it is not a choice.

Several decades ago, before I realized I had received the gift of depression, (I am being sarcastic) I found myself immersed in a profound bout of that special hell. My first wife and I had separated and I was plunged into a two year depression. By that I mean I was deeply depressed every day for two years. It was the blackest, most painful time of my life. Every morning I woke with a start feeling like I was suffocating. I lay awake at night dreading the onset of another panic attack – the feeling I could not breathe and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

The blame for our separation and divorce lay directly at my feet, but I was still overwhelmed with depression. I had suddenly become exposed, to myself and others, as a failure at everything I had sought to succeed at. I had failed as a man; as a husband; as a father and as a Christian. I had managed to convince myself that I was excellent at all of those things but the divorce exposed my shortcomings to me and the world. It all came into sharp focus for me through a conversation with my police chief. Over the years I have met some police officers who we not especially socially adept. He was one of those. On our way to lunch together he started the conversation with, “How are you doing. Other than losing your wife… and your kids… and your job… how are you doing?” I replied, “Other than that, everything is great.” It was like saying, “Other than losing everything that matters, my life is perfect.”

I sought to fill the emptiness and escape the suffocating hopelessness with activities. I felt that if I could just keep moving whatever it was that was trying to kill me would miss its target. If I ran hard enough and fast enough I could out run the depression. During this time period I was the EMT and firefighter on our volunteer fire and rescue squad with the most runs made for the year. Part of that was because I often slept at the firehouse or in the back of the ambulance. I joined the county police department and spent huge amounts of time riding in a police cruiser. In some odd way, it was reassuring to see, through these activities, that there were other people with overwhelming problems.

I stayed busy but I thought about suicide, every day. I planned my suicide, every day. I prayed that God would just let me die, every day. I was so depressed I could hardly function. I couldn’t do my job. I couldn’t care for my children. There were two motivating factors that kept me from taking my own life. One was my children. As a counselor and a firefighter and police chaplain, I had seen the damage done to children when a parent took his or her own life. The second reason I resisted the desire to die was my fellow firefighters. I knew that if I killed myself they would be called to the scene and feel obligated to clean up the mess. I had been there and done that and couldn’t do that to them.

I love it when fellow Christians say, “If you would just trust in Jesus, you would never be depressed.” That is about as smart as saying, “If you will just trust in Jesus you will never get sick.” Others suggest that one just will one’s self out of depression. That is much like willing one’s self out a broken leg. It is obvious that folks that say things like that have never really suffered from depression. They may have had a bad day or two, but they are clueless what real, clinical depression feels like.

So, unless you have been there, done that and got the T-shirt, you probably will never understand why Robin Williams could take his own life. Unfortunately, I can.

Copyright © 2014, William T. McConnell, All Rights Reserved

Friday, August 8, 2014

Know It All

Have you ever known a know-it-all? Of course you have. Aren’t they irritating? If they think they know it all about just about any subject but don’t, there is just no talking to them. And if they think they are a know-it-all and aren’t, you are almost overcome by a huge urge to strangle them to put both them and you out of your misery.

With that said, I must admit that I am a know-it-all. At least that is how I am often billed when it comes to the subject of church transformation. I must be a know-it-all since I have written two books on the subject (Renew Your Congregation and Developing a Significant Church), lead seminars on the subject all across the country, have consulted with several churches and coach several pastors in the leading of transformation in their churches. The difference in my books on transformation and others on the subject I have read is that I am one of the few who has actually experienced being a part of a transforming church. Admittedly that doesn’t make me an expert but I claim more credibility than most writers on the subject. The truth is, I don’t claim to be an expert on church transformation. But just by knowing something on the subject puts me worlds ahead of others. Transforming a church is a subject few know much about. This is rather astounding considering that there are hundreds of thousands of churches in North America in dire need of transformation. I would seem that more help for those wanting and needing transformation would be available.

For years it has been my view that there are really no experts in transformation because transforming a church is such an organic operation. There are no two churches just alike, so a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. There can never be a handbook made available to churches to get transformation done – something like “Church Transformation for Dummies”. There are some basic principles and systems that must be in place and functioning well for any church to be healthy and grow. I believe it is true that a church may have an increase in worship attendance, even a sizable increase, without being healthy. Measuring the attendance in morning worship is not the only or the best indicator of health and growth. Things such as worship attendance and giving are much like vital signs that are taken to keep abreast of the present condition of the patient. Working as an Emergency Medical Technician I have taken lots of vital signs. Sometimes they told me exactly what was going on with my patient and sometimes they misled me. Occasionally a person with great vital signs would completely crap out on me. The vital signs are helpful but not the only thing to be looked at.

A much more important measurement to be taken is the spiritual vitality of the church. One must consistently ask, “Are these people growing spiritually.” Some people believe spiritual growth can’t be measured. Perhaps not. But it can almost always be observed. Just take a look at how individuals are treating those closest to them. Is that behavior getting better? Take a look at how the people are investing their time. Are they spending more time doing significant ministry in the community? Don’t confuse spending more time at the church with doing significant ministry. Sometimes these are two very different things. I am a great believer in the 1-5-4 principle of church growth. 1-The church’s primary mission is summed up in the Great Commission: to go into the world and makes disciples. 5-A healthy church does five things consistently and well: Worship; Discipleship; Evangelism; Fellowship and Mission. When I say, the church, I mean those of us who make up the church. 4-Growth is measured four ways: Numerical growth; Spiritual growth; Ministry growth and Mission growth. In a healthy church, each year more believers are being added to the Body of Christ; more people are deepening their walk with God through practicing spiritual disciplines; more people are involved in ministry in the life of the church and more people are involved in the outreach/mission of the church. These things are much more difficult to measure than counting heads and counting dollars. It takes a system to be close enough to the people to observe these things. The best way to do that is by implementing healthy small groups.

Another thing that almost every church must address is how we speak to and treat each other. For some odd reason we think we should tolerate extremely poor behavior in the church. Like it is the “Christian” thing to do to never call down bad behavior? We allow people to speak unkindly to each other; for disagreements to deteriorate into name calling; for voices to be raised and we explain that behavior away with, “That is just the way they are.” And that is probably the way they will stay unless someone challenges them to adopt better behavior. Churches need to adopt clear policies on what is and what is not appropriate behavior in the church.

Another system that must be changed is gossip. More harm is done through gossip than any other sin in the church. We are so accustomed to gossiping that we often don’t realize we are doing it. Here is some help. If you are talking negatively about someone and they are not present, that is gossip. If you are talking about a person or a problem and you are not a part of the problem or the solution, you are gossiping. When first moving away from gossiping, it is amazing how quiet things become and how short conversations are.

Another basic system change in the church is raising the bar. For several decades, churches, in an effort to attract more unbelievers to the church, have lowered expectations of church membership. Expectations have now been reduced to occasional attendance in Sunday worship and some sort of limited financial commitment. And that is considered an active member. Everything else has become optional. And for the church member who doesn’t even show up, we just move them to inactive status. When more is expected of a church member (a disciple of Christ) more is delivered. Also, younger generations are not interested in something that has so little expectations. People desire to be a part of something that matters, that impacts them and others, something that has real meaning. A church must raise its expectations to become a growing, healthy church.

So, like it said; I am not a know-it-all. But I am a know-a-little-something.

BTW, if you haven’t, that a look at my new web site – www.williamtmcconnell.com.

Copyright © 2014, William T. McConnell, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, July 30, 2014


As a child, several times a day my mother admonished me to be nice. I have always done my best to be nice. Nice is good and I like nice. When looking for volunteer and paid staff, one of the characteristics that top my list is nice. I call it, “Plays well with others.” Nice is nice but nice is not the ultimate positive trait. 

We live in a culture where the most widely accepted but seldom verbalized definition of Christian is: A Nice Person. I must smile when I talk to a person who verbalizes that they do not believe that Jesus was really the Son of God and that he was certainly not born of a virgin and that Jesus didn’t physically rise from the dead and I say, “Then you are not a Christian,” and they get completely bent out of shape. “How dare you,” they say, “claim I am not a Christian? I am a good person.” I didn’t say they weren’t a good person, I said they weren’t a Christian. They also haven’t told me anything that would make me suspect they are Muslim. Some of the nicest people I have met didn’t claim to be Christian and some of the most unpleasant people I know declare a faith in Christ. 

Generally speaking, for the past 2000 years, a Christian has been consistently been defined as a person who places their faith in the reality of Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah, and the risen Savior. For Christians, Jesus was seen as the way to God. About a century ago it became the common belief that all roads lead to God and it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe. 

Like many things in our culture, the definition of a Christian has shifted. Now this is more like it (fresh off the internet): “A Christian is a person who adheres to Christianity, an Abrahamic, monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. “Christian" derives from the Greek word Christós (Χριστός), a translation of the Biblical Hebrew term mashiach. There are diverse interpretations of Christianity which sometimes conflict. However, "Whatever else they might disagree about; Christians are at least united in believing that Jesus has a unique significance.” The term "Christian" is also used adjectivally to describe anything associated with Christianity, or in a proverbial sense "all that is noble, and good, and Christ-like." It is also used as a label to identify people who associate with the cultural aspects of Christianity, irrespective of personal religious beliefs or practices.” 

So, it seems I was wrong. According to modern definitions one can believe just about anything one wants and still carry the label “Christian” as long as one is considered nice. So, I wonder, does the God of the Bible qualify to be called a Christian in these days? Let’s look at the attributes of God described in scripture:

Loving (Contrary to some popular thought, being loving is not always being nice.)
Capable of Anger
King of Kings
Lord of Lords

In compiling this list of attributes I consulted many resources. Even so, I am sure this list is not exhaustive. But no matter where I looked, I never saw God described as nice. Some will, of course, say, “The God of the Old Testament is not the same as the God of the New Testament. You need to look at Jesus.” And there is no doubt that Jesus gave us a deeper and clearer view of God. After all, Jesus did say: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9) So, the question is, was Jesus nice? My answer is a resounding, NO. He was merciful, loving, forgiving, unreligious, powerful, kind (different than nice), encouraging, confrontational, insightful, an excellent teacher, a great friend, a loving son, courageous, blunt, funny, and many other things. But he could be anything but nice. Nice did not define who Jesus was. If you want to palm Jesus off as nice, I suggest you check with some of the people who had interactions with him. 

Jesus had a conversation with a rich man about how to become a part of the Kingdom of God. This rich man was a good guy. He kept all if the commandments, which is more than I can say for myself. Jesus did not say, “Way to go, you have it made.” Instead we read: Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. (Matthew 19:21-22) If Jesus had been a modern “Christian” he would have chased the man down and told him, “Hey, nobody’s perfect. You’re doing well enough.” That would have been the nice thing to do. But he didn’t. 

Or, Jesus talking to the religious people of his time said things like this. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” (Matthew 3:7-8) He called them a bunch of snakes. There is nothing nice about that. There is much truth and reality and righteousness in what he said but it couldn’t possibly be called nice. 

My point is that being Christian is much less about nice and much more about truth, righteousness, holiness and mercy. Telling someone the truth so they have the possibility of knowing and loving God is much more important than being nice. Jesus said, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) Sometimes telling the truth doesn’t sound nice. But if we are ever going to come to experience the true freedom that comes from knowing Christ, we are going to have to know the truth.  

Nice is great but it is not the ultimate good and it is not the definition of Christian.

Copyright © 2014, William T. McConnell, All Rights Reserved