Category Archives: Church Life/Ministry

Phillip Jensen on Apologetics & Evangelism

by J. Matthew Pinson

Recently I listened to a podcast by Phillip Jensen, the evangelical Anglican pastor from Sydney, Australia. Despite the obvious doctrinal differences between Free Will Baptists and Reformed Anglicans, Jensen and the Matthias Media folks down in Sydney are interesting people to watch. They demonstrate what it means to have aggressive, growing, evangelistic churches in the highly urban, post-Christian setting of Sydney. Yet at the same time they show how to do this by relying on the sufficiency of Scripture and not giving in to gimmicks and depending on attractional, market-driven, or seeker-driven approaches to get churches to grow.

Continue reading Phillip Jensen on Apologetics & Evangelism

Millennials: They’re So Hard to Figure Out

by Matt Pinson

“We do face a danger, of course, when attempting to group individuals in a certain generation using sweeping generalizations. We risk missing the beautiful diversity of each generation, and the beautiful uniqueness of each person.”  —Jon Nielson

Recently I read a short article on the Gospel Coalition website by Jon Nielson, a 33-year-old campus ministry leader at Princeton University. It reminded me how difficult it is to “peg” the millennial generation, despite how much some people attempt to do so. One of the things the article tries to get its readers to do is to “stop trying to define millennials,” as a recent Huffington Post article urged.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry every time I hear someone in our denomination repeat this old, tired slogan: “The reason Free Will Baptists are losing our young people is because our churches are not cool enough.” The reason I don’t know whether to laugh or cry is that I know all the latest research from serious sociologists like Christian Smith and others belies this well-worn maxim of many in the FWB Baby Boomer set.

The social science research shows that evangelical churches across the board are losing their young people at the same rate—contemporary and traditional, urban and rural and suburban, large and small and mega, liturgical and charismatic—there’s no significant difference in the percentage of young people being lost or gained. Yet we continue to hear the attractional, “only-way-to-reach-Millennials” line over and over again. (For more on this, read another brief article by Nielson entitled “Why Youth Stay in Church When They Grow Up.”)

But I’m kind of like Jon Nielson in the article below: Millennials are a lot harder to figure out than Boomers and Gen-Xers. I work with them everyday, and just when I think I’ve got them figured out, they surprise me.

Millennials want more depth and transcendence and beauty from their religion than many Boomers and Gen-Xers. They’re more interested in theology than just pragmatic “what works” methods—they want methods that actually grow out of theology. This of course doesn’t apply to all Millennials, but that’s my whole point—it’s hard to reduce them to a one-size-fits-all approach, either educationally or religiously.

This was illustrated when I received an article from a Millennial youth pastor friend of mine recently about church architecture. It was a Barna Research survey commissioned by a large church architecture firm. The firm wanted to know what Millennials like in church architecture. They showed pictures of three types of church sanctuaries—(1) the dimly lit “stage set” one (2) the center-pulpit, brightly lit “Baptist-Presbyterian” one, and (3) the formal-liturgical one.

Two-thirds of the Millennials liked the traditional sanctuaries and disliked the modern one. They showed three types of church exteriors that corresponded to the sanctuaries mentioned above. Again, two-thirds of the Millennials preferred the traditional buildings and disliked the modern one.

Now, my point here is not to make an argument about the “correct” type of church architecture. My point is that a lot of our caricatures of the Millennial generation are just that—caricatures. Millennials just aren’t leaving, or joining, churches for the reasons we often hear cited.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy reading this brief but very insightful article by Jon Nielson.

Pastoral Theology and Change: Part 3

by Jackson Watts

Change is inherent to the nature of salvation; repentance itself implies real spiritual change. So it should be no surprise that the congregational life of saved persons also must undergo certain changes in its ministry sometimes in order to better foster growth, discipleship, worship, or evangelism. The challenge is to discern the right degree and type of trellises to support the vines, to use Marshall and Payne’s metaphor.[1]

So far we have established two important truisms concerning church change. First, change is often very difficult, frustrating, and sometimes elusive. It can lead to confusion, conflict, and unwanted departures of leaders and/or members. At its worst, it fractures a church, hindering its witness in the community.

Nevertheless, we’ve also established that not all change is the same. Change has many different faces, requiring different levels of reflection and effort to implement. Implicit in this is a conviction that I think most leaders share: Change doesn’t have to be a problem. It can be a healthy, exciting opportunity despite the challenges that come with it. Understanding the different types of change is an important first step for pastors and churches to work through transitions in a way which strengthens Christ’s church.

Change through Reform

The second type of change is innovation. While innovation is usually associated with a new invention, it doesn’t have to be something entirely new. Don’t think of it like the invention of electricity or the telephone. Innovation is more like going from the first light bulb to LED lighting. Light itself wasn’t invented. Rather, a better means to produce and diffuse light was. Moving from a landline phone to a cell phone would be an innovation within the field of electronic communication. Innovation then, as I am describing it, is the reformation of some aspect of the church’s life.

We know about “reformation” due to the tumultuous period known as the Protestant Reformation. Some would argue that the very nature of the faith was altered, or even recovered. But consider what remained: Churches, priests/pastors, the Lord’s Supper, belief in the Triune God, and other core aspects of Christianity.

Without question, much changed with both church teaching and practice! But I use this illustration to show that Christianity as a religion about Jesus Christ didn’t end or begin. However, significant innovations occurred that were thought of as reforms, returning the church to a pre-existing form (historians can debate the best terminology to be used).

Innovation is arguably the most common form of change, and thus most likely to be attempted. Changes within an existing church culture happen organically, in fact. Sometimes background checks on children’s ministry volunteers must be performed to satisfy the expectations of the church’s insurance company. It is a change, but largely accepted as unavoidable. People resign from ministries, and new people step into those leadership roles. Most members accept and understand that these changes happen, even if they don’t prefer them.

However, innovation happens whenever background checks lead to expectations of special training for children’s helpers. Innovation is when the church changes financial disclosure practices under a new treasurer, or when a new youth pastor stops taking students to a particular camp each year and instead goes to a different one. Financial stewardship and student ministry didn’t end. It isn’t a simple matter of addition or subtraction. Yet these ministries have been reformed in some way. To put it another way, the form (structure) of a ministry (substance) has been altered.

Tweaking or Tampering?  

Innovation and reformation are themselves contested terms. Depending on who you’re speaking to, these words summon different reactions. To Silicon Valley investors, innovation has an appealing ring to it. To those struggling to set up their voicemail, it doesn’t sound so good. Similarly, our Catholic friends may have something of a bitter taste in their mouths toward ‘reformation.’ To those with shelves full of Banner of Truth books, it just as well be ‘Gospel’!

This range of responses is also seen in the local church. Saying one is going to “tweak something” seems harmless enough. To others, it is heartless tampering designed to take control. Reform, in other words, doesn’t necessarily signal improvement, even if that is the goal. Healthy reform have growth in faithfulness as its ultimate aim, but it requires more than good intentions.

Thankfully, whenever leaders successfully improve an existing aspect of the ministry through some innovation, members usually appreciate it. In fact, it is quite rewarding whenever skeptics or even critical members become some of the most vocal supporters of a change once it has happened. The challenge is patiently waiting and praying for that reaction.

Naturally, leaders and lay members alike recognize that there is not just a range of feelings about changing certain features of the ministry. There is also a spectrum when it comes to the scope of the change. A church may have preaching in its worship service each week. But if in a week’s time, the pulpit has been replaced with a new one and the pastor has lost his necktie, this will likely be considered a significant innovation (fairly or unfairly!).

As a general rule, the degree of reflection, prayer, planning, communication, and implementation is proportionate to the extent of the reforms about to occur.[2] Bigger changes equal more preparation, in essence.

Innovation is not entirely unlike incorporation (change type #1). However, pastors usually learn that innovation and reform is most often easier to implement than actually introducing something new. With innovation, churches at least have the concept, structures, or other “raw materials” already in place. Being prepared to accept reforms then becomes the critical issue.

Leadership Insight

Why innovate? It has often been said that change for change-sake isn’t very healthy. People say this because they generally need to see a need for improvement in order to embrace change.

Ultimately, innovation is grounded in the conviction that God is calling his people to a deeper level of faithfulness. If the culture of a church is permeated by beliefs such as, “We are perfect,” “We are fine,” or “Everything is going well,” then any form of change will prove nearly impossible. However, whenever there is a growing sense that the church is imperfect or ineffective—as a whole, or in several areas—there is a greater openness for reform.

How does this awareness of imperfection or ineffectiveness occur? The primary means by which the church increases in awareness of the need for reform is 1) Preaching/teaching the doctrines of sin and sanctification, and 2) Regular observation and evaluation of the church’s ministry effectiveness.

The first of these is accomplished from the pulpit, the podium, the Sunday School classroom, and numerous other venues where believers intentionally meet for instruction. By learning that we are sinners as well as saints, they will be better able to connect the dots between their hearts and the ministry structures around them. In other words, if Christians still sometimes sin in thought, word, or deed—including inside the church—then this means that sometimes our ministries need sanctifying, so to speak.

Furthermore, the laws of physics tell us that things wear out: people, programs, buildings, etc. Sometimes a fresh coat of paint, new carpet, new chairs, and other tools are unavoidable if we are paying attention to this decaying world. Understanding the extent of the Fall helps us to see that every manmade thing won’t last.

When we take into account both the fallenness of our own natures, as well as the world itself, we know innovation will occasionally be needed as we address the flaws in our ministries. Naturally, this always begins with the heart, mind, and soul. But is an error to overlook the body, and thus the church’s material life. We are embodied souls who worship in places (e.g. buildings), in well-ordered ways (e.g. worship service times, order of services), with carefully-designed tools (e.g. curriculum). These trellises serve the vine best whenever innovation and reform is occasionally undertaken.

The second way to create a church culture that thinks in terms of improvement is to regularly inform members of the patterns of growth and decline of spiritual vitality over time. Church attendance is a valuable metric, but a very limited by itself. Church leaders must find biblical and practical means of observing, recording, and reporting how God is at work in the congregation. Some of these are easier to measure than others, but by developing multiple means of assessment of the church as a whole, and then specific areas of ministry, the congregation will be better positioned to understand what potential reforms may be needed.[3]

As a rule, this will be much more effective than saying, “We need to mix things up,” or “The church down the street is doing this, so let’s try it, too.” Members who are growing in maturity are doing so because they understand sin and sanctification, and they care deeply about the unfolding life of the church. It works it reverse as well: members being taught about sin and sanctification and who are helped to better see the ministry for what it is will grow in maturity. Such members become advocates of and partners in reform, not opponents.

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[1] Cf. Colin Marshall & Tony Payne’s The Trellis and the Vine: The Ministry Mindset that Changes Everything. See a brief summary of their proposal here.

[2] This is why my illustration about the Protestant Reformation is intentional. Some would argue that we see the whole gamut of changes in this event: incorporation, innovation, and interruption (see forthcoming Part 4). This illustrates another facet of my argument, which is that once you begin ‘innovating’ or generally changing many things, at some point you begin having several different types of change all at once, which is more apt to lead to conflict than multiple changes of a single type in a single area of ministry.

[3] The concerns about the proper use of numbers or data are well-expressed in Kevin Hester’s recent post.

Nervous about Numbers

by Kevin Hester

Numbers can be depressing. When we hear that over half of all marriages end in divorce, we cringe. It doesn’t help that some versions of the statistics show that Christian marriages are no better. What about church attendance? A 2007 LifeWay Research Study documented that 70% of all church-going millennials “dropped out” of church between the ages of 18-22. Of this 70%, 35% reported that they had later resumed attending at least twice a month.

More recently, a Pew Research Center study released in 2015 indicated that 36% of Americans aged 18-24 define themselves as “religiously unaffiliated” with “fewer than six-in-ten (identifying) with any branch of Christianity.”

These numbers, and many like them, are scary; especially to parents of millennials like me. Numbers are used as illustrative bludgeons or avoided at all costs. Sometimes we feel as if we need to protect our flock from numbers. The question is, are we protecting them in the right way?

The Problem with Numbers

Why are Evangelicals so nervous about numbers? I think there are several reasons, both practical and theological. From a practical perspective, many of us just don’t understand them. We aren’t sociologists, and so when confronted with graphs and pie charts our eyes start to glaze over or we have horrible flashbacks to high school statistics.

Others (especially my Generation X peers) are skeptical of anything they haven’t personally observed. We have had too many push-polls, political phone calls, and have seen too many click-bait Facebook posts. Still others make decisions based on their personality. With the advent of genetic testing, it is now possible to determine whether an individual is likely to develop certain forms of cancer or Alzheimer’s. Some believe that this kind of knowledge would hamper their quality of life. In a similar way, perhaps our concern with numbers is sometimes driven by the harsh reality of the situation and the specific needs of our congregations.

Another problem is that numbers can sometimes be deceiving. I referenced the well-known statistic above related to marriage. There is a problem, but the simplicity of this statement belies the complexity of the situation. The truth of the matter is only about 30% of first marriages today end in divorce. What that tells us is that although divorce is a major concern, most of those who experience divorce experience it as a serial problem.

Education is a major factor. Only 20% of first marriages of couples with at least a college-degree end in divorce. Faith plays a role as well. If Christians are more likely to get divorced it is only because Christians are more likely to get married in the first place. Cohabitation has become much more common for non-Christians. But as Ed Stetzer recently pointed out, many of these studies have problems because of their inclusion of nominal Christians in the figures.

There are also theological concerns over numbers. My generation grew up during the Sunday School campaigns of the 1970s and the church growth emphasis of the 1980s. We have seen that a rapid growth in numbers doesn’t necessarily reflect spiritual depth or have a lasting impact, whether individual or corporate. We reason correctly that numbers don’t reflect spiritual health. We have recoiled from ministry based on consumer-conscious business models asserting that Scripture rather than culture is the norming norm for evangelism and ministry. But a Gospel-based ministry need not ignore its community.

Tools, not Techniques

No parent has ever been upset at the thermometer when it indicated that her child had a fever. She may be upset, but it has alerted her to a problem. Not measuring a temperature doesn’t indicate that there isn’t a fever. The number on the thermometer prompts action, but it doesn’t tell her what to do. That decision must be made with all the needs of her family and her situation in mind.  If it’s the first day of the fever and she knows a virus has been going around, she may treat the fever and monitor her child closely. If it is the third day and the fever hasn’t yet broken, she may seek the advice of a medical professional.

The same thing is true for the data that is available for churches to use. If we recognize it as a tool, it gives us a fuller picture of the people in our congregation and those our churches are trying to reach with the Gospel. Just like the mother, it doesn’t mean we will like what the data tells us, but at least we can respond with knowledge. It is always a mistake to see data as an indicator of what a church should do. Such data is useful because it is generic, but this same utility makes it impossible to know how certain actions would impact particular congregations, with particular sensibilities in particular geographical locations.

So then, is there any use for data like this other than sermon illustrations about the impending doom of our culture? Is it possible to use data responsibly? Can a Gospel-centered church committed to the regulative principle of worship gain any benefit from such analysis?

Some Practical Advice

I believe that there is more knowledge available today to help our churches faithfully preach the Gospel than ever before and there are more reasons to pay attention to this data. Being Gospel-centered will keep us as “innocent as doves,” but being culturally aware helps keep us as “wise as serpents.” Nevertheless, I do believe that there are some important principles that will help us leverage this information and avoid some common pitfalls:

  1. Know How to Use the Data. I have already mentioned the biggest overarching concern which is the recognition that data is a tool and not a technique. Data provides a diagnosis, but it can’t differentiate a cure. Data is only information and we err when we attempt to find within it a plan for the future. God has already given us this plan and the process in his word.
  1. Know Where to Get the Data. There are a number of good organizations and groups that widely publish their data. You want to look at sources that are comprehensive in their scope, that clearly delineate the number and nature of their samples, and whose interpretation focuses upon what the numbers say and not what we should “do” about them. Good studies are analyses and don’t move beyond the data. Some well-respected sources known for strong data and quality techniques are: Pew Research Center, Barna Group, and LifeWay. All of these groups regularly post studies and material that get picked up by Christian and mainstream media outlets.
  1. Know How to Read the Data. The key component of this hint is to read critically. One of the reasons many people are skeptical about studies is that they have seen interpretation articles or references that argue for a particular implementation based on the data. Don’t just cite a study when it agrees with your position and deny it when you don’t like the result. The numbers mean something, but they may not mean what the interpreter is claiming. Always go to the study itself. These should be linked from quality articles or will be easily discoverable online. Read the fine print, including the methodology, rather than the headlines. It is important to know who the respondents were and what the limitations of the study were. This will often help you understand and interpret the data for yourself as well as give you some indication of the objectivity and therefore the value of the data. This is one of Ed Stetzer’s helpful pieces of advice in a recent article on the use of statistics.
  1. Know the Relevance of the Data. I would encourage you to put faces on the numbers. When confronted with news that 7 out of 10 of your teen group are likely to “drop out” of church for a period of time, make it personal. Don’t see “seven.” See Emily, Hannah, José, and Charles. Ask in what way your teens resemble the attitudes and actions of the sample presented in the study. What is the correlation of your congregation with the geographical, social, and economic factors? This type of analysis will help you judge whether your teens are more likely, less likely, or as likely to follow suit.
  1. Build your own Data. Generalized survey data may prove helpful in benchmarking the audience for your church’s ministry efforts but ministry is ultimately about your congregation’s relationships within its community. Broad, generalized studies describe, they do not define. The best data for your congregation is what you build yourself. Don’t be afraid to survey your congregation about their perceptions and attitudes. There are even tools that will help you in the process (http://tcat.lifeway.com/). This is really just an extension of what we all do when we look at the faces of our congregation during a Sunday morning service, glance over the Sunday School numbers, or review the giving for the last fiscal year.

Conclusion

We don’t need to be afraid of numbers. They do not define us, but they do give us a snapshot of a particular moment in time. They can’t tell us what to do but they can tell us that something needs to be done. Data doesn’t change the great commission or the Biblical methods we are called to employ, but it does give us tools to measure our effectiveness and suggestions for ways we might improve.

*This is the first of what I hope will be an occasional series on the use of data in ministry. This article sets out the philosophy behind the use of data. In future articles, I hope to explore generational differences, Biblical knowledge, moral issues, and spirituality.

Pastoral Theology and Change: Part 2

by Jackson Watts

What’s in a change? We never truly know until we enter into the crucible which is change.

As I explained in my previous post, church leaders (especially pastors) face numerous challenges in the course of leading God’s flock. Among them is the difficult task of helping implement change. This change operates both on the level of personal spiritual sanctification, as well as the structural aspects of the church’s congregational life which are intended to foster spiritual renewal and progress. We might say that changes in the organism (individual believers’ lives) are inextricably connected to organizational changes (the programs, policies, and procedures of the church’s ministry).

Pastors, especially by virtue of their role as overseers or bishops (episkopoi), must wisely work together with other leaders and mature members to discern which changes will best accomplish the church’s mission.

However, many of us intuitively know that not all change is the same, though some may tend to associate all change with discomfort and hurt feelings. Part of why this is so often the case is because there has been a failure to consider the nature of specific changes. In other words, church change isn’t a monolithic category.

I would suggest that there are at least three main forms of change a church can experience. Each is difficult in its own way, but each is also sometimes necessary. Here we will consider the first of these three unique types of change.

What’s New?

The first type of change is when something new is introduced to the church’s life—what I call “incorporation.” This is the resourcing of the church’s ministry because a new practice or custom, artifact or object, or value or belief is introduced to improve or strengthen the church.[1] Sometimes the newness is associated with a pastor’s particular background or experience elsewhere, or perhaps an emerging trend among associated churches. The perception is that the pastor is “bringing this newness” or that all the other churches are doing this now. Regardless of the source, usually a pastor or group of leaders presents the idea, hoping to persuade members of its value, and then implement it as smoothly as possible.

The main obstacle with this type of change is that the newness in question seems like an unwanted intrusion on a church’s existing life. For members who aren’t in the habit of self-examination, there is usually an implicit assumption that everything is already fine. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” epitomizes this sentiment. Therefore, the default position is to reject anything new on this basis without further reflection.

Any number of other sensibilities can be attached to this reticence toward change. Members may be fearful of how something they deeply value may be negatively impacted by the intrusion of the new. New programs, practices or tools have a tendency to displace older programs, practices or tools that may be deeply cherished.

Another common reason towards resisting the new is that many churches have had a checkered history when it comes to implementing new things. More than likely, the frustrated pastor is unaware that some of the congregational resistance to change has been conditioned to be that way by prior, unsuccessful changes. If crossing Jordan posed its difficulties for the Israelites after they had the Red Sea crossing in their rearview mirror, then it’s no surprise that sometimes church members—especially those desiring peace—don’t want to retread old ground whenever things weren’t successful before.

In this way, our experiences tend to be hermeneutical in nature. If a church leader has had success with a particular change in a previous ministry situation, it conditions him to think that it could go well and work smoothly in other contexts equally well. Likewise, if people have had unpleasant experiences with various forms of “newness,” this will shape their perception and expectations concerning the impending change.

Expectations and Ends

An equally problematic pattern with incorporation can be when churches want to adopt anything and everything new simply because it is new. In this, the church reveals its captivity to the myth that whatever is new is inherently good, and whatever is old is inherently bad. Another aspect of this is the belief that this new thing will deliver to the church something needed or sought after, whether converts, improved finances, or any number of other positive things. In this respect, the modern notion of ‘technique’ (especially in its commercialized American form) is simply applied to ministry. If the right technique is applied, then this will engender the desired result.

Many people will recognize that the first reaction above by some lay members is problematic in that it out-of-hand rejects anything without careful spiritual reflection. But the second mindset is also problematic because it also lacks a certain level of essential biblical evaluation. Rejecting something new for the wrong reasons is, in the long run, just as detrimental as promoting or accepting something new for the wrong reasons.

Pastors must work diligently to make a reasoned case, from Scriptural principles, for why certain new additions to the church’s life should be pursued. Additionally, they must develop an understanding of the context into which such new changes are being proposed. This will not only help them gauge the reactions they will receive, but the likelihood of success even if the changes are adopted.

A second thing they must do is closely evaluate which problem they are trying to solve, or area of ministry they are trying to improve by such a change. What is the end, in other words, of this effort? What are we realistically expecting to happen as a result of this change? Will the evaluation of the change’s effectiveness continue even after its adoption? How, if at all, will the church tweak the change or even reverse course if things are not successful?

These questions demand more time, attention, and reflection than we sometimes want to give, even if we are well-intentioned throughout the process. But they are the reasonable extensions of any case for incorporating something new into an existing church ministry.

Leadership Insight

We must come to appreciate the unique ministry setting in which God has placed us. Certainly the principles of Scripture are truthful, valid, and beneficial in any place where God’s people are. Yet these can never be hastily abandoned in the name of cultural relevance, or even in a misplaced desire to give the illusion that the church is making progress simply because they are doing something new and different.

There are also no doubt trans-cultural principles that shape pastoral ministry in any context. However, one of these principles is, in fact, that all ministry is local! This means that the pastor must be an anthropologist and historian, in addition to being a theologian. They must be students of the people they are called to love and serve. They must explore the history which has shaped the church throughout the years, making it the unique congregation that it is. The church’s history itself is constituted not by random events that simply happened to the church; its history is the sum total of the decisions (good and bad), gifts, victories, defeats, and dreams of the people. An awareness of such history will facilitate pastors in all types of change, especially with incorporation.

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[1] More on these three ‘traditions’ will be shared in a later post.