Church Facilities and First Impression

I have visited churches that don’t take pride in their buildings. After all, a church is not the building, but the people. As a result, the building is allowed to deteriorate into disrepair; the paintwork peeling off; entrances, ministry rooms and the main worship hall cluttered with all kinds of stuff (wanted and unwanted); and the grounds left unkempt.

This is particularly evident of churches that use rented shop lots (and in Malaysia, they make up a good majority). As the premises don’t belong to them there may be little ownership and motivation to keep the place in good condition. There is even less sense of responsibility for the common areas, such as the corridors; and public areas, like the five-foot way. I have been to churches where throwaways (by other tenants) were stuffed under the staircase leading to the church in the upper floors, unsightly debris along the five-foot way, and the only-to-be-found-in-Malaysia heinous Ah Long stickers plastered all over the external walls of the buildings.

I am not suggesting that church buildings have to be lavishly done up, but they must at least be smart and the facilities be in good-working condition. The surroundings do not have to be in manicured-condition but it must at least be clean and neat.

Why is it so important to keep church premises presentable? Because it shapes a  visitor’s first impression of the church. Consciously or unconsciously the following questions will be swirling around in his mind, and what he sees will inevitably lead him to make certain deductions about the church.

1. Are the people proud of their church?

A poorly-kept facility is an indicator that the members have an indifferent attitude towards their church.

A well-kept facility tells a visitor that the people are proud of their church and that they like their church.

2. Is the church serious about drawing in new people?

A poorly-kept facility is an indicator that the church couldn’t-care-less what outsiders think about the church.

A well-kept facility says that the church is concerned about providing an environment that is welcoming to visitors. They want, at the very least, to give their visitors a good first impression of their church.

3. Is “good quality” a value of the church?

A poorly-kept facility is an indicator that “good quality” is not a value of the church. If it cannot be seen in the care of its premises, it is unlikely that quality will be valued in other areas of the church’s life and ministry.

A well-kept facility is a sign that the church values “good quality”—in everything; with everything they have and in everything they do. I believe you will be hard-pressed to find a church with good quality ministries but whose building and facilities are out of whack through indifference.

4. Can I happily engage in worship in this church environment?

A poorly-kept facility, especially in the main worship hall, will put most visitors off from worship. The environment matters! If it is not conducive for worship because of clutter and peeling paint (and maybe odour) it is not going to encourage a visitor to return.

On the other hand, walking through a pleasant environment and into an equally or even more pleasant worship hall will enhance a visitor’s engagement in worship. This will certainly give him positive vibes.

5. If I am looking for a church, do I want to come back for a second look?

A well-kept facility may not be the deciding factor for a visitor, whether he would come back for a second visit or, for that matter, to join the church. However, a poorly-kept facility will guarantee that a visitor will not come back for second look!

If you are a pastor or church leader, let me encourage you to take some time this week to do a church facility audit.

 

The Misunderstood Ephesians 4:11-12 (Part 1)

Ephesians 4:11-12 is about one of the most misunderstood Scripture. Misunderstanding and misapplying it do not muddy-up our doctrinal beliefs but they certainly impede our effectiveness in building the church.

11 It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of  service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.”

Whether there are four or five gifted-persons (I am being gender-sensitive) is not the concern of this post. Whatever your interpretation, you still have God’s gifted servants functioning as pastors and teachers; as a combo or separately.

The first misunderstanding I want to raise concerns their role. What do they do? What are they supposed to be doing according to this Scripture?

Many would say, the job of the apostle is to plant, organise and oversee churches. It includes laying a Biblical-strong foundation for these churches, and also to raise, train and appoint leaders who will eventually take leadership of these churches.

As for the prophet, his (or her) job is to bring a now word of the Lord to the church and to the world. The evangelist is to preach the Gospel and win the lost to Christ. And the pastor-teacher, is to provide spiritual nurture to the converted, which includes teaching them the Word of God.

It is simply logical to expect a particular spiritual gift to naturally lend itself to a corresponding ministry. However, to say that the above descriptions are then their jobs is to miss the point of Ephesians 4:11-12. If we asked the second question, “What are they supposed to be doing according to this Scripture?”, we will get a totally different answer.

Verse 12 states that the job of these gifted-persons are “to prepare God’s people”. To put it succinctly, in the context of your local church: The job of the pastor-teacher is to equip and empower the members. Does the pastor provide spiritual nurture and teach the Word of God? Of course, he does. But that is not his primary role. His primary role is to equip and empower the members.

To what end? “…for works of service.” The gifted-person’s primary job (or ministry) is not to do ministry but to prepare God’s people to do ministry. Unfortunately in too many churches they expect the pastor or the hired-hand to do all the work! From preaching, counselling and visitation to driving the van, printing the bulletin and being the key-man (literally).

If that is the culture of a church then what we have is just one man serving the rest of the body. Or, a bunch of paid staff serving the church. This is certainly not the body-ministry envisaged by the New Testament, where all the members of body builds up the whole body. Furthermore, 2 Timothy 2:2, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of witnesses, entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others also”, is not going to happen. Multiplication is not going to take place.

Now, part of the problem is the gifted-persons themselves. Unfortunately, many among them also have a misunderstanding of their own role. They believe, like so many others in the church, that they are the ones to do the ministry. “That’s my job!” “I’m the one with the spiritual gift; so, I’m to do the ministry!” In fact, for many, their identity is so tied up with their ministry that they cannot give it away—by empowering others to do “their ministry”.  They can’t see themselves doing “less” by empowering others to do “more”.

The awesome truth is that the body of Christ, the church, is only going to be built up when every member does ministry. It’s the kind of ministry ethos that says, ministry is not to be left to just the specially gifted-persons, but to be expected of all. The former is to focus on empowering the members—so that the latter can do ministry. In turn, the gifted-person is freed up to from having to do a lot of hands-on service and give more time to equipping, guiding and mentoring their mentees. Hence, effectively, multiplying themselves. That’s the import and genius of Ephesians 4:11-12 which both the pastor and members must heed if we are ever to see the church built up.

We now know what these gifted-persons are to empower God’s people for. But what are they to empower them with? The answer will surprise you. That’s the other misunderstood item about Ephesians 4:11-12. Click here for Part 2. 

Bringing Change Without Being Shown the Door!

Recently I watched Thom Rainer’s webcast (CEO of Lifeway & a church consultant) on the reasons pastors get moved out (or made to move out) from the church they had been serving. One of the big reasons was because the pastor had led change too rapidly. Another reason, although not among Rainer’s big four, is because the pastor had led change too slowly.

It is not surprising that when too much change is made too quickly there will be resistance. If these are leaders or influential members the pastor can expect a pushback. It may even cost him his job. Change is a necessity. All churches must continually make changes if they are to progress (read my blog “Change or Plateau”, 9 Jan 2018), but pastors need to be wise on how fast and how much change to introduce without incurring pushback; and instead, get a buy-in.

I like what Rainer said about a leader: He is someone who is leading sufficiently out front, but not so far out that he is mistaken to be the enemy and gets shot in the rear!

On the other hand, if a pastor doesn’t make any changes, or ever so painfully slowly, it will, inevitably hinder the development and growth of the church. The church may even fall into decline. Members who want to see the church go on an upward advance will leave and look for another church that they can channel their passion. For others in the church, a mix of lethargy and dissatisfaction will set in. In the United States, the pastor may be asked to leave because of his poor leadership. In Malaysia, from my observation, I don’t think this often happens.

Bringing change, especially in the context of a church, is one of those things which is not going to please everyone. Whether too fast or too slow it will have its detractors. Is there such a thing as the right pace? Yes, but it is not a one-size-fits-all. For one church, a certain kind of change may be too fast, while for another church it may be too slow. Too fast, too slow or just right depends on a number of factors:

  • How much is the church used to change?
  • What is the magnitude of the change on the “Change Richter-scale” for the church?
  • How much credibility does the pastor have with the church to initiate change?
  • How much is the leadership team with the pastor and with this particular change?

On top of the above the pastor still needs to bring change wisely so that the change will not cause a fallout in the church but will bring about the desired results. In order to do this the pastor must be able to:

  • Get a buy-in from the whole leadership team and other influential people.
  • Communicate to the church early and frequently on the why, what, where, who, when & how.
  • Listen to feedback from other leaders and church members.
  • Cultivate a culture of change in the church.

I learnt all this from the school of hard-knocks. I have pastored two churches, and in both churches I introduced changes. In one I successfully brought about changes that enabled the church to move forward. In the other I wasn’t so successful, and was shown the door. The former was ready for change; the latter was not. If I had known then what I know now maybe things might have been a little different in the latter church. 🙂

Change or Plateau

Many churches in Malaysia [1] that had their heyday in the ’80s and ’90s have plateaued or declined over the last decade (probably longer). Each church may have its own unique reasons, but I suspect that there are common causal factors.

They may be due, in part, to a waning in critical areas such as prayer, evangelism and dependence on the Holy Spirit. I think, however, one of the biggest factors is the churches’ failure to change: to connect with the young, the new and the unchurched and to pursue a culture that enables them to adapt, be fresh and progressive. From my observation, only those that have embarked on change have been able to buck the trend.

Generally speaking, the newer churches are doing better—those that were planted in the last 20 years by younger people to reach their own generation and the next. They are more successful because, in part, they appear to be more attractive to them. And the reason for this is because they are more in sync with the younger generation. This is seen in the form of worship they have adopted, the way their sermons are preached, and even how the announcements are presented. These are just the more noticeable things because they happen at the worship service; the primary place of church attendance. As you go deeper, you will realise that its more than just about the lights and sound; it’s about culture. These newer churches have a culture that appeals to the younger generation.

It might help if I drew your attention to a similar situation a few decades ago. At that time many of the traditional and conservative churches were already experiencing a plateau. Some even lost their members to the up-and-coming newer or revived evangelical churches. Why? A large part of the reason was because the former refused to change. Their inflexibility to change their church culture prevented them from moving with the new things that the Lord was doing during that time. On the other hand, the latter, knowingly or unknowingly (as they were moved by the Spirit of God) made changes that brought freshness to the church, they became attractive, and relevant even to those who were outside the church.

It is my observation and opinion that, unfortunately, many of these evangelical churches that had their heyday in the ‘80s and ‘90s are repeating the same mistakes of the traditional and conservative churches of the past. If they don’t change—which primarily means changing their church culture—they will continue to plateau and eventually decline. And that’s sad, when you think of how they were once riding high on the wave of God.

I sincerely believe that all churches ought to prayerfully consider what they need to do, including what they need to change, so that the young, the new and the unchurched of today can relate with them much more readily.

There are a number of related matters that need addressing, and I’ll take them up in my following blog posts.

Let me end by pre-empting a question in your mind. I know that some are going to argue that the Christian faith and good news are about Jesus. It is He whom we are to faithfully lift up; and He will draw people to Himself. I will not contend with that; Jesus is the centre of it all. But the Church is never far from Him. Jesus is the Head; the Church is His Body. When people see Jesus they will also very quickly cast their eyes on the Church. More than that, it is the Church that makes Jesus known to people. And so, how a church presents and represents Jesus will colour people’s perception about Him.

This statement still rings true: The message is the same, but the method must change.

Apply this to the larger context of the whole church. Many of the methods, forms, structures and even church culture need to change if we want to be able to continually connect and reach the young, the new and the unchurched of today and tomorrow.

—————————-

[1] I’m limiting my comments to the English-speaking churches as I do not have much interaction with the vernacular churches.

The Rookie, Leadership & Culture

Most pastors believe that when they were called by the Lord to be pastors it came with the mandate to lead the church. On the other hand, most lay leaders believe that the pastor’s role is simply to provide pastoral or spiritual care for the members. Leading the church, especially with regards to organisational matters, finance, direction of the church, policies and staff issues are supposed to be under the purview of the Board or Council. In the end, the pastor has a very limited leadership role.

One way to mitigate the clash of expectations is for both pastor and church leaders to iron them out before the pastor comes on board. Candour and honesty are indispensable elements. Terms and conditions, role and expectations, and especially the leadership role of the pastor, need to be spelt out and agreed upon; and put into writing. This is not a guarantee that there won’t be problems later. Still, it is better to have this done. If all parties are people of integrity, the agreement will be honoured. If not, the parties will know where they have erred.

Clarity and agreement are vital if the pastor, the leadership and the church are to avoid confusion and second guessing about the pastor’s role. What is his leadership mandate? Who leads the leadership team? Who sets the direction for the church? Who is the staff accountable to? Who determines how the resources of the church are to be utilised? And more.

That’s a lot of ground to cover. And most churches have not even begun to consider these things, or, think it necessary to deliberate on them. But they will still function—according to the culture of their church—the set of beliefs and values they hold in common that causes them to do things in a certain way.[1]

If culture is so critical to the life of a church, the most sensible thing to do, then, is to establish a good church culture; including a culture of leadership that honours the leadership role of the pastor.

How does this work out for a rookie pastor? It is unlikely that a church would be prepared to entrust leadership to a newbie. I can understand that. So, what should he do? For starters, a rookie pastor shouldn’t join a church where he is the only pastor. Rather, he should work under a Senior Pastor who is serving in a church that has given the latter the mandate to lead.

Following his time of apprenticeship, one of two things can happen. One day, the Senior Pastor may move on or retire. The rookie pastor has blossomed and come into his own. If he is suitable he may be asked, either by the Senior Pastor or the Church Board, to take over as the new Senior Pastor, in a church that already has a culture that understands the leadership role of the pastor.

A second option for the rookie pastor is go out and plant a new church. After having served a number of years under a Senior Pastor he is no longer a rookie. He knows how to “do” church and lead the church. It is very likely that his fellow-lay church planters will give him the mandate to be the lead man. If this happens, the culture of leadership by the pastor is already set at the beginning of the church plant.

While it is not impossible to change the culture of the church, it will, however, take a lot of hard work, patience, grace, wisdom and prayer—if we don’t want to see a church-split, people leave the church or the pastor’s services prematurely terminated. Getting it right—right at the beginning—is a far better way of tackling this problem. But it calls for Senior Pastors, rookie pastors and church leaders in these “enlightened churches” to understand and work together on this.

[1] Read my blog posting dated 29 Feb 2016 on Church Culture

Know Your Philosophy of Ministry

One of the most important things I ever did was to write out my philosophy of ministry. It was an assignment for a refresher course I took at a Bible school in Penang. By then, I had been in the pastoral ministry for 14 years; doing ministry from out of convictions that were being developed during those early years in the full-time ministry. In fact, some of the convictions had already begun to form while I was studying in a Bible school in Singapore, and even going further back to the time as a new Christian that was influenced by both the Charismatic renewal in New Zealand (where I was converted) and the Navigators (that I had been a part of for a while).

Sometimes I was conscious of my philosophy of ministry. Other times it was operating at my sub-conscious level. Writing it down was immensely helpful because it made me see more fully and clearly my philosophy of ministry.

What is a Philosophy of Ministry? Simply put, it tells us why we do what we do in the way we do it.

All Christians who have been serving for some years (paid and volunteer) do it from out of their philosophy of ministry. Whether they are conscious of it or not, whether they have thought through it or not, it is there. It guides them when they make ministry decisions and it directs them on how they do ministry. Where did it come from? General speaking, it was likely passed on to them by their church and ministry leaders and/or picked up from books they read which influenced them, and eventually internalised along the way of service.

Unfortunately most Christians have not thought about their philosophy of ministry, much less worked through it. At no point did they consider whether it is Biblical or not, and whether it is the best approach to their service or not. This becomes critical for those who are in positions of influence like leaders of a ministry or a church; more so if they are the lead pastors or the key leaders of a Christian organisation.

Why is knowing your philosophy of ministry important? For starters, knowing why is critical for clarity; not only just for yourself but also for those who are working with you. If you are clear, it will help you to be consistent in applying your philosophy of ministry in every situation. In fact, this is one of the most important keys to help you work through difficult situations; because you know why you are doing what you are doing in the way you are doing it. When you are consistent your fellow-workers will value you as a person of integrity and likely, to be happy to follow your lead. On the other hand, if your philosophy of ministry is fuzzy and you are often flip-flopping, they will be very uncertain about how you make ministry decisions and eventually you will lose their trust in you.

This does not mean that a Philosophy of Ministry is written in concrete. It can be modified or even overhauled if you are convinced that another philosophy is better (and “more” Biblical). Mine has not significantly changed since that time when I wrote it down, but it has certainly developed further.

If you are a ministry or church leader, and especially, if you are the lead pastor or a leader in a Christian organisation, you need to write down your philosophy of ministry. You may begin with something broad and general vis-à-vis your approach to ministry. Then, you may single out some specific areas of ministry to work through. If you are a pastor of a church you will want to look at the role of the pastor, leadership structure, finance, church growth and discipleship, to name a few.

Start working on it and enjoy the journey. I know for a fact that the value that you will get from doing this will far outweigh the effort you put into it.

The Offering Sermon

Offering

While we were talking about a certain church my friend asked me, “Is it true that they always have a sermon before the offering is taken?” I said, “Yes. That’s part of their church culture.” Obviously, this is not a practice of his church. It is the same with the tradition I have been associated with for the many years I have been a Christian. There is hardly a comment when the tithe is taken; except for a simple statement like, “Let’s worship the Lord with our tithes and offering.” And a prayer either before or after the offering is taken.

My friend asked me, “Don’t people feel offended by all this “money talk”? Doesn’t this give a bad image of the church—that it is always talking about money and getting people to give their money to the church?” I said, “That was what I used to think.”

Over the last one year I’ve been attending a church that always has a short message before the offering is taken. One of the reasons they do that is to provide opportunities to train up potential speakers. And I must add, these young adults do very well. They speak from an appropriate verse or passage in the Bible. And almost without fail they share something from their own journey and lessons on “giving”. The stress they inevitably make is about the attitude of the heart—how we give; not how much we give.

Am I offended by this constant weekly mini-sermons on giving? Honestly, I am not. I am encouraged by the genuine spirit of happy giving that I see in the lives of those who have shared. And it is not just from the same few leaders; I have heard at least ten persons share on this. Their heart is in the right place; their attitude towards money is in the right place. It has encouraged my own attitude to giving.

In former times, I would simply put my tithe into the offering bag without too much of a thought. I certainly didn’t do it grudgingly or unhappily. But neither did I do it with any real sense of worship or thankfulness. I give my tithe because that is what I’m to do. That’s the Christian thing to do. That is my act of worship. But I have to admit, that the act of worship lacked the spirit of worship!

In Harvest Generation Church I learned something more about the kind of attitude we should have when we give (Yes, it is possible to learn something new after 41 years as a Christian and 29 years as a pastor!). Just before the collection is taken we would be asked to lift up the offering in our hands in worship to the Lord and to verbally thank Him for His provision and the privilege of giving. When I do this my mind and heart become consciously engaged in the act of giving. And this has made a huge difference in my attitude when I give.

Try that! It doesn’t matter whether your church has a mini sermon before the offering is taken or not. As you wait for the offering bag (or plate or bucket) to be passed to you, lift up your tithe to the Lord, verbalise your praise and thankfulness to Him from your heart for the offering you are about to make. It will do wonders to your spirit.

Note that the context in which Paul makes the oft-quoted statement, “Thanks be God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Cor 9:15) is about giving. I think that pretty much sums it all.

Blessed Christmas!

The Disciple’s Growth Process

growing plant

I had a great time teaching again at Harvest Generation Church’s Bible Study on 28 & 29 August, as I did the previous two times. The church is primarily made up of a bunch of passionate, hungry and teachable young people. Their attentiveness and responsiveness make teaching them such a great delight.

Over the two evenings I taught on “The Disciple’s Growth Process”, which included: The Call to Spiritual Growth, The Areas for Growth, and The Growth Process. One of the key points in the Call to Spiritual Growth is that growth is not automatic. Growth for a Christian can only happen if we “remain in the Vine” (Jn 15:4) and, when we use what the Lord has given to us. The first calls for us to draw from the resources of Christ, the second is like going to the gym and pumping iron—we work our muscles to grow stronger and healthier.

When I presented to the group the Areas for Growth, I think they were overwhelmed by the fact that there were so many; such as, Truth, Spiritual Disciplines, and Ministry Development. Furthermore, the breadth that these subjects cover are vast. For example, one of the spiritual disciplines that Christians engage in is prayer. Often the first things we learn about prayer is that we are to pray in Jesus’ name. We may also be taught to use the acronym ACTS to guide us and to give us a balanced approach to prayer. As we progress we may learn to pray conversational prayer, praying the Word and praying in the Spirit. Later on we may learn to engage in prayer warfare, prophetic prayer and ministering to people through prayer. There is so much more, from the elementary to the deep things of prayer. This gives us an idea of how deep we can go in the many other areas of our spiritual lives. God’s spiritual ocean is very deep. The question is, How deep do you want to go?

At the two evenings with HGC the prime focus of our study was on The Growth Process. Here I attempted to show them through a chart and with the use of a roadmap imagery how a clear process can help a disciple grow spiritually. Jesus did that with his disciples. Mark 3:14-15 tell us that Jesus trained his disciples (“with him”), empowered them (“have authority to drive out demons”) and sent them to do ministry (“send them out to preach”). While the details of the process will not be the same for all Christians, nonetheless, there is a process that the Lord uses to develop us.

A church needs to understand this. Besides providing an environment conducive for growth a church also needs to put in place a process in order to help Christians grow in their discipleship and ministry.

If you want to know more, I will be more than happy to conduct this seminar or tailor something suitable for your church.