03 November 2017

Evaluating the health of your ministry

Oh that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire on my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand. (Malachi 1.10)
Post-exile and pre-Messiah, the prophet Malachi addressed these words to a religious but ultimately self-interested group of Israelites: the priests, the nation's spiritual leaders, who diluted the purity of Hebrew worship by offering blemished animals as sacrifices to the LORD rather than the perfect stock He required.  More importantly, however, their hearts had no connection to the ceremonies they performed, which propped open the door for apathy and sinful practice to enter unregarded.

The church, of course, ministers within a different context, but we too would do well to heed the advice given in this text concerning the authenticity and efficacy of our ministries.  If the Levitical Priesthood could grow so spiritually cold in their routine to earn such a harsh rebuke, chances are we can unfortunately do and earn the same. Briefly, here's three quick ideas I take from the text, applicable to pastors, ministry leaders and deacons, or lay staff.

"Shut the doors."  Whether you're the leader of your ministry or a volunteer, participants in the work of the Holy Spirit must know how to critically self-evaluate, both on a personal as well as on a corporate level.  The ministries we lead and/or serve stagnate without careful and regular evaluation of their effectiveness, both in terms of their horizontal reach and also their vertical priority of glorifying God.  To "shut the doors" doesn't mean to kill a struggling ministry, but rather to put it on pause or probation in order to practice repentance and perhaps even take the program back to the drawing board.  Such is better than to allow an ineffective and possibly detrimental facet of your church family or nonprofit organization to further stagnate.  Sometimes we have to pump the brakes a bit before we can accelerate to see growth.

If -- as was the case of the Priesthood in Malachi's Israel -- rampant sin is festering in the ranks, then it's especially time to perhaps literally close the doors and humbly sort out the persisting issues between or within personnel.  Should we fail to do so, we risk not only an impotent ministry with a limited lifespan, but also the inevitable revelation by fire of a foundation loaded up with wood, hay, and straw (1 Cor 3.12-13).

"Kindle acceptable fire."  Early in the nation of Israel's history, Aaron's sons were executed by God Himself for kindling "strange" or "unauthorized" fire (Leviticus 10), which is likely the reference point for Malachi's choice words to the Priesthood centuries later.  While it is difficult to grasp exactly what Nadab and Abihu did to incite the Lord's wrath, their actions arrogantly and probably intentionally violated the standards God had given to Moses for acceptable forms of worship within the tabernacle.

You and I must constantly ask ourselves whether we are humbly seeking to serve the Lord on HIS terms, or arrogantly insisting on our own.  Often, we become far more concerned with being pragmatic, with evaluating the success of our ministries by the numbers they boast, or by how good the feedback is that we receive.  I know how easy it is to pat myself on the back on the days my teens come to me after a lesson with questions or with thanks, and how easily frustrated I can become when the opposite is the case: criticism of the way I phrased something, misapplication of the point I was trying to make, or perhaps just indifferent silence.

"Acceptable fire" is what God commands.  "Acceptable fire" is simply our duty as followers of Christ and ministers of His Kingdom.  What might seem an ambiguous instruction is actually systematically identified across the scope of Scripture.  Micah insisted on the Lord's priorities of mercy, justice, and humility (6.8); Jesus summarized acceptable worship as that which is done in spirit (wholeheartedness) and in truth (Scriptural accuracy) (John 4.23); and James distilled true religion to careful self-control and attentive ministery to those in need (Jas 1.27).  The penultimate breakdown, of course, is the total worship of God and resulting servant-heartedness toward others (Mark 12.30-31).  Threfore, in order to kindle "acceptable fire" to the Lord, my priority as a pastor or ministry leader must first be the worship of God in my personal life, and -- second -- the edification and discipleship of those whom the ministry is intended to serve.  Of course, that will look different for each ministry, which each has its own unique reach and function, but the supreme values of God's glorification and one-anothering must be central.  Anything else is akin to unacceptable fire.

A few good evaluating questions on this point:
  • Do I have a personal agenda, or am I doing the work of God?  Which am I actually accomplishing?
  • Am I driven by the praise and opinions of others, or by the parameters of Scripture?
  • What do I consider to be "success" in this ministry?
  • How am I pursuing long-term goals rather than simple maintenance?
  • Who benefits from this ministry -- me, or the people it is intended to serve?

Take pleasure in Him.  At the core of Malachi's indictment is that the priests have allowed themselves to descend into careless routine, with hearts that take no delight in worship.  In order for God to say, "I have no pleasure in you," we must have first reached the point where we have no invested interest in pleasing Him.  So the question is, what kind of attitude do I bring to my ministerial responsibilities?  What kinds of compromises -- for the sake of ease, time, reputation, or otherwise -- am I willing to make that could damage the ministry's integrity?  How has the freshness of the gospel, with its uniquely renewed mercies, impacted my heart for the Kingdom work that I'm doing?  Regardless of circumstances and difficult people, you and I will never lack for love of doing ministry if we never lack for love and adoration of God Himself.

On one hand, we cannot effectively minister if the work is a drag.  On the other, we cannot effectively minister if we get pumped for programming but fail to engage our hearts in personal relationship with Jesus.  If the former is true, our frustrations and weariness will inevitably and negatively impact what we are trying to accomplish.  If the latter is true, our "ministry" is only going to spin its wheels on the road to spiritual maturity, because the kind of fellowship and growth you espouse will lack the genuine worship component of true relationship with the Savior.  Either frame of mind is a failure to delight in the Lord and the work He has laid out for you to do.

Instead, "shut the doors" -- pause and invest in your own walk with Jesus.  Offer "acceptable fire" by "taking pleasure in Him," and then see what He is able to accomplish through your willing hands.

23 September 2017

The End is Near, 2017

The world was supposed to end today.  Again.

Since it's still before noon Eastern Time, I suppose the apocalypse could always make a mid-afternoon appearance, though I'd imagine there would be more preliminary earthquakes, drastic temperature spikes, and maybe horns blasting in the heavens before that penultimate moment of final judgment.  Or, if you're an atheist, nothingness.

We all have an idea of how the end will go down.  Right now, Hollywood is infatuated with a zombie-related apocalypse.  A few years ago, it was an apocalypse related to climate change and careless mistreatment of Mother Earth (The Day After Tomorrow, anyone?).  Other runners-up remain post-nuclear war and vampires, but Planet X crashing into the earth is as good an option as any.

Jabs aside, pausing to actually consider the end -- realistically, death, as opposed to cataclysm or apocalypse -- should be a sobering practice.  Not morbid, but focusing.  When we consider the end of our lives, we reach for the things that are important to us.  Nothing quite reveals our treasures like the threat of losing them, or the knowledge that we will soon leave them behind.

In that regard, for the Christian, predicting the end is less important than living with the end in mind.  In other words, I don't want to set arbitrary (or hypothetically "informed") dates on the end of the world so much as I want to live like that date could be tomorrow.  There's a difference.  On one hand, I have a deadline, but on the other, I have a priority.

How many of us in younger years were given responsibilities by our parents before they left for the day or the evening, and we spent the hours doing what we wanted, only to scramble to accomplish the chore in the last fifteen minutes before Mom and Dad returned?  Knowing the time of their return fostered laziness and irresponsibility, because we knew exactly how much time we had to get done what they wanted and yet still prioritize what we wanted.  That's not truly living a life of obedience.  

Better yet, remember cramming for a final because you didn't spend any time preparing in the weeks since receiving the syllabus?  That isn't really learning the material -- it's merely memorizing for a deadline, and then regurgitating information that we will promptly forget, leaving no real or lasting impact.  That's not truly being studious.

In the same regard, if we are to pursue the priorities of Christ and live as He did, we can't presume upon time to come any more than we can assume a final date.  Rather, we should take Paul's advice to the Ephesians, which is to "make the best use" of the time we have, or to "redeem" it -- that is, to purchase it back and make it profitable (Eph 5.16).  In other words, in the same way that our lives were spiritually dead, cold, and ultimately fruitless before the Spirit called us out of that darkness and made us alive and fruitful, we should give the time that God has supplied the same treatment: not using it wastefully, spending it on ourselves, but using it productively for His Kingdom.

If, in His earthly ministry, the Son of Man Himself didn't know the hour of the final judgment, then how am I to possibly hang my hat on a calendar date of my own choosing?  Furthermore, Jesus' advice regarding the end of all things isn't to become a mathematician and scientifically wager on the details of when.  To the contrary, He speaks fervently of the priority of readiness, which isn't based on a knowledge of when the end will come, but on a wholehearted commitment to worship.

In other words, be a Christian.  It's who you are.  You can't just mechanically do the stuff a Christian is supposed to do on your own timeframe and assume that you're in the clear because you're making the deadline.

When the Master does finally come, may He find each of His children faithfully laboring on behalf of the orphan and widow, loving Him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Living that way, with an eternal perspective, is an expression of a changed heart that truly knows the Savior and delights to live for Him.

21 July 2017

Ordination, 2017

I've had an eventful month of July.

On Sunday, July 2nd, I preached my first Sunday morning sermon at Fellowship Bible Church.

On Saturday, July 8th, I went before an ordination council comprised of mentors, peers, and church elders, and then -- on Sunday, July 9th -- was publicly ordained as a pastor before my church family at FBC, and alongside my friend and fellow pastor/elder, Scott Foreman.

Photo courtesy of Julie Moore @ Julebug Photography.

I've been deeply encouraged by friends and family at FBC throughout this process, and it has been such a blessing to see the Lord at work in my life, preparing me for this journey.  Over the past weeks, I've recounted to a number of people that my mom was the prophet, not me.  She told me at 13 that I should consider one day becoming a pastor instead of a writer, which is what I always envisioned myself being.  Perhaps as few as 5 years ago, the pastorate still wasn't a goal for me.  But that was before I entered into the realm of full-time ministry, by virtue of simply being available, and gradually fell in love with local church ministry.  Since then, the Lord has been preparing me for this noble task, training me in matters of the heart, leadership, and administration, and appointing in His sovereignty the perfect time for me to step into the role of FBC's youth and worship pastor.

I thought I'd use this post to answer some of the questions I've frequently been asked in the days leading up to and following ordination.

"Are you now an elder now?"

Yes.  As a non-denominational, independent church, Fellowship Bible is governed by a plurality of elders rather than by a top-down, Senior Pastor or executive-style power structure.  We believe that this is the biblical model of church government (as per 1 Timothy 4.14; 5.17 and 1 Peter 5.1), and also that it provides our pastors and bi-vocational elders with a great degree of accountability and encouragement.  Because the Scriptures also use the Greek terms for elder, pastor, and overseer interchangeably (1 Timothy 3.1ff1 Peter 5.1-2), we also bestow the title of elder on each pastor of our church family.  This is a role I am deeply humbled to hold, alongside godly men who have demonstrated themselves to be above reproach over years of service to our local body.

My transition from FBC's youth/worship director to youth/worship pastor/elder hasn't brought any immediate changes, simply because my previous role already carried with it a number of pastoral responsibilities.  So my schedule and priorities largely remain the same in my current areas of oversight, though there will inevitably be new responsibilities and considerations for me as we shape our church leadership team and seek to hire a children's' pastor this year.

"What seminary did you go to?"

The answer to this question might be surprising to some, but seminary is a yet-future goal for me.  My background is actually in English (BA from Rowan University, class of 2012), but I have 5+ years of studying and teaching the Word as a paid, full-time employee of Fellowship Bible Church, in addition to 20+ years of sitting under the pastoral insights of our teaching pastor, Phil Moser, as well as 13 years of discipleship and training under/beside our former youth pastor, Jack Klose (Sr. Pastor at Evangelical Free Church of Keokuk, IA).  This, plus a lifetime of personal investment into the Word of God, which I believe I have been Spirit-gifted to understand and teach.

So seminary is a future goal.  Several months ago, I applied to Southern Theological Seminary to pursue an MDiv with a concentration in Biblical Counseling, and could possibly begin online studies as early as spring 2018.

"Did you get grilled for your ordination?"

No.  And as a positively encourageable person, I'm very thankful for that.  Rather than an adversarial, stump-the-pastoral-candidate kind of ordeal, the ordination council was actually an immensely thoughtful, conversational, and warm experience for me, structured more to discuss sticking points of theology and potential ministry challenges (such as hypothetical scenarios and difficult counseling topics).  In fact, I wish it had been a little longer.  We began at 8:00 AM on Saturday morning and were done by noon.  Scott and I both had one hour each for sharing our testimonies to the council and defending our statements of faith, and forty-five minutes each to interview on our ministry papers.  Because the men comprising the council had ample time to consider our character, beliefs, and Spiritual gifting, as well as serving hand-in-hand with us in various FBC-based ministries (and in Scott's case, in ministry partnerships in Word of Life Canada), the vetting process differed greatly from what might transpire at other churches of various denominations.

It has therefore been my unique experience to begin pastoral ministry as a hands-on disciple, to grow and learn via experience alongside a mentor, and to enter the role of an ordained minister with both feet on the ground, with the loving accountability and support from a leadership team that has watched me grow over the years.  Not every pastor gets to have that kind of homegrown experience, and I'm immensely grateful for it.

For anyone interested, I'd like to make available my Statement of Faith and Philosophy of Youth Ministry paper, documents I wrote/compiled for my ordination.  I welcome dialogue or questions on either.

My heart is full as I look forward to what the Lord will do through me at Fellowship Bible Church over the years to come.  To Him be the glory.

"Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen."
Jude 24-25