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Thursday, May 31, 2012


Left Behind

As a former deputy sheriff I have had plenty of training with weapons. Safe handling and usage of a firearm has been drilled into my mind. I can still hear the weapons instructor at one academy yelling, “Don’t point that muzzle in the direction of anything you don’t intend to shoot!” I only wish I’d learned that lesson when I was fourteen.
When I was young I often carried a .22 caliber pistol while working on our farm. Yeah, I know, don’t lecture me on why it’s a bad thing for a kid to carry a semi-automatic pistol--I learned that in the academy too. Anyway, once while trying to draw my pistol out of the holster, I accidently pulled the trigger. The round fired into the ground and missed my foot by a fraction of an inch. Shooting oneself in the foot is a quick way to ruin a workday on the farm!
I regularly meet rural pastors who are experts when it comes to shooting themselves in the foot—spiritually that is. Most don’t intend to make these kinds of mistakes, but bad habits developed over time in ministry bring bad results. There are lots of ways to kill a ministry from the start, but one mistake I often see made is having resentment towards the people/culture.
As the initial love affair with a culture begins to fade after a few months, things that were once cute or quaint perhaps become annoying. And, before long the seeds of hostility against a community take root in one’s heart. A shot is fired.
Is this you? Has your attitude toward the town taken on the smell of the sewage lagoon that sets on the east side of town? Listen carefully to the words of Jesus in Luke 14:23:

“Then the master told his servant, 'Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full.”

            What does it take to keep from shooting yourself in the foot? The command to “go out” literally means to exit one area for another. What is Jesus asking us to leave? Obviously he’s asking us to leave our location, but there’s more that needs left behind. The next word Jesus uses is into. The Greek work eis means to be immersed. The servant (you) is sent from your place/culture and told to become immersed the place/culture where you serve. 
            Our attitude toward the community in which we serve plays an important role in our effectiveness on the field. Live in a pagan area? Filled with despicable people? Sin is running rampant? People are hostile against the church? Doesn’t matter. Jeremiah’s words remind us of God’s attitude toward the places where people live (29:7):

“And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the LORD for it; for in its peace you will have peace.”

           If God loves Babylon he loves your town too. Do you? In a city, it may be fashionable--even chic--to speak with negative tones. Do that in a small town and you've just shot yourself in the foot.



Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Leadership is Simple

What is God looking for in a leader? Great oration skills? Exegetical prowess? Influential magnetism? Visionary foresight? While a case could be made for each of these, God bypassed all of them when he chose David. What possibly could a shepherd boy, "...who followed the ewes..." bring to the table of leadership? Everything.

God overlooked the educated, trained, and motivated intellectuals of the city to choose a boy tending sheep in the pastures. Why? Because leadership is more than the sum total of the peripherals in our life. Leaders are often seen as people possessing skill-sets obtained from reading the latest books or attending the hottest seminars. They quote the leadership giants in the business arena, and hold a death-grip on their teaching--until something new comes along. In a quest for principle-based leadership they forget that ministry is still about people, not principles. Does leadership have to be that difficult? Not according to Psalm 78:72.

So he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart,
                                  And guided them by the skillfulness of his hands.

David's leadership style was utterly simple: To shepherd and guide. That is what a leader does. The word shepherd, ra'ah, is a frequent Old Testament word. To anyone growing up in the rural pastures of the ancient near-East the word was loaded with connotative meaning. It was the word used for tending a flock of sheep or herd of cattle. It meant the complete process of leading them to feed and caring for their needs. It implied the act of spending time and knowing the animals individually. God prepared David to be a shepherd of people by teaching him to be a shepherd of sheep. The application to ministry is clear.

His second activity, guiding, is the word nachah. The word literally means to lead. Leading requires knowing where one is going, and knowing the way to get there. It is a combination of both orientation and orienteering. A leader is responsible for directing the paths of his congregations by living correctly (orientation) and moving forward (orienteering). Again, we see David was well schooled for this activity. His perceptions of danger effected his movement of the flocks. His skills to unite the flock for protection and comfort would prove beneficial in leading Israel.

If David's leadership style was based on shepherding and leading, then his philosophy of ministry was based on two simple components: the internal and the external. His shepherding of the flock rose from, "...the integrity of his heart". The Hebrew for integrity is tom, and means "simplicity of mind". It is a mind free from evil intentions--a mind uncluttered by fleshly desires and love for the world system. How this is needed in leadership today! No agenda-seeking, self-aggrandizing narcissists need apply!

David's leadership may have sprung from the heart, but it was manifest in his hands. His internal beliefs became external actions. I won't dive too deep on this, but "skillfulness" is a word more commonly translated "understanding"...a mental process. It is highly likely that David's philosophy of ministry compelled him to live out his beliefs in practical ways. I hope that's true in your life as well.

All of this points to one encouraging aspect for me: leadership is simple. Though the tasks we accomplish and the situations we face may be complex and perilous, the principles of biblical leadership are basic--leading and feeding. Shepherd your flock with integrity and lead them with skill.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cultivating Spiritual Growth...in spiritually barren places

Some years ago a wise person told me, 'You can't squeeze blood out of a turnip'.  I had no idea what they were talking about.  Then I became a church planter.
Many communities across rural America can truly be labeled as spiritually barren.  The towns lack any known desire for the knowledge (or even respect) of God. They are pagan in both beliefs and practice. Is this a viable place to begin a ministry?  And, how would one start?
Before I begin, I'll make a couple of observations:


We must be willing to call a horse a HORSE.  It's easy to live in denial about the spiritual condition of a small town--even making excuses for why there are problems.  We can blame the economy, lack of opportunities for the kids, bad schools, or any other excuses.  Those are all just symptoms.


Understanding the PROBLEM is paramount to understanding the SOLUTION.  We will never address the problem until we understand what it is, and we will never solve the problem if we become mired in the symptoms. So, what has gone wrong?

LOSS OF IDENTITY
Rural morality is a symptomatic result of men losing sight of their role as fathers in their homes. Here is the pattern: loss of identity equals loss of activity which equals loss of example.  This perpetuates itself through generations.  The men then find their identity in the culture and adopt the activities which will give them their masculinity.  Ask yourself this question about your community: Who are the men that the community looks up to, and why?  For many farming communities, people will admire the guy who farms the most land or has the nicest equipment.  In others, it may be those who have many extended family members living in the same community together. These men, and their associated behavior, become the cultural role models in the community. Men, long ago, have lost sight of biblical manhood.  The women resign themselves to a survivalist mentality and look for suitable food and shelter.

INFLUX OF IDEAS

Many areas of rural America, pre-1970's were culturally isolated from the rest of the country. This all changed when Taylor Howard built a satellite antenna in 1975. Within six years it was a $50 million industry--mostly rural.  Worldly influence grew exponentially when internet capabilities reached the farm. Today, more than 12 million homes are served by satellite TV--most in rural areas.
This influx of ideas has been positive in many ways...and negative in some others.  The fact remains that the influx of ideas has brought change to the farm. Now exposed to a world's culture, the rural people continue to mimic that of people living across the globe. Traditional values and lifestyles are quickly being replaced with a 'casserole' or blended culture.
INFLUX OF IMMIGRANTS
When a new family shows up in town, the town changes.  Today, the fastest growing minority of rural America are Hispanics. Numerous communities throughout the Plains states have suffered severe growing pains when the meatpacking industries opened up for business. But they're not the only ones showing up on the farm.

One of the latest arrivals on the door step of rural America are a whole new class of citizens:  the New Rural Poor. Urban families are moving to rural America to extend the value of their government entitlements...and they bring their culture with them. As a law enforcement officer, I witnessed this several times as families from metropolitan areas moved to our isolated communities.  They spoke another language thorugh the way they dressed, talked, and related to others in the local school and community. Needless to say, they didn't last long.

How has the church responded to these changes?  Not well.  I will cover that next time.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Raising Up Workers

When one considers the enormous task of church planting in rural North America, the logistics seem insurmountable. Where will the pastoral families come from; and how will they be trained? The demand is far greater than the supply. Bible colleges are ever increasing their focus on urban ministries. Large-venue (or, possibly menu) churches along with their executive-style pastors are catching the eyes and excitement of the generation Y crowd. And, for those that end up in rural places, they are often met with the stereotype that they're a second-rate pastor serving in a third-rate church. Of course, you already know nothing could be further from the truth. How does a person become involved in perpetuating the flow of quality, well-trained and prepared workers in small-town North America? Easy, I believe. I think we need to follow the biblical pattern of modeling/mentoring. I'll spare you the sermon, but I will point out one verse:


And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Timothy 2:2).

The word commit is παρατίθημι. It means to "set beside/before someone" or "to make a deposit". It is really a TRANSFER of that which you've been given to the LIFE of someone else so they may be able (sufficient in ability) to PERPETUATE the process. So, how is that process coming in your life? How are you strategically working to perpetuate the role of preparing workers for ministry? Would you like to?

Almost weekly, I speak with young couples/individuals regarding serving with RHMA as interns. I can assure you of a couple of things. First, they are not looking for "exposure" to rural ministry--they're looking for "field experience" that will equip them to serve where God has called them. Second, they want to roll up their sleeves and learn the mechanics of living and serving God in rural places. They want someone who will TRANSFER the knowledge they've been given, to them.  They are not looking for a three month stint on a dude ranch.  They want to see the power of the Gospel at work in rural America!

This generation of church planters are looking for authenticity that moves beyond the ideals of the classroom...to the realities of the field.  They want God's Word applied to life.  The only way they'll learn that is through others--like you--who are willing to apply the type of mentoring demonstrated by Paul and Timothy.

What would happen if you decided to pour your life into a young ministry couple? Could you imagine the joy of following their ministry over the years, and watching them flourish in the fields where God plants them?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Church Planting Stages

Here are four stages of rural church planting that I've been thinking through and developing over the past several months.  Although I find it hard to confine ministries to pigeon holes, and the lines are often overlapping, most church plants will progress in a similar manner.

1.  Upward Stage:  This is the vision stage--where it all begins.  The upward stage includes the survey of the field, developing the vision and goals, raising support, and moving to the field.  It begins with the call of God to plant a church and ends with establishing a residence on location.  In agricultural terms this would be parallel to tilling the field.

2.  Forward Stage:  This is the action stage.  It is a move from planning to planting.  This is time when the first seeds of the gospel are sown.  Relationships are built, Bible studies are held, sinners are saved.  If the first stage was to design the ministry, this stage is to deliver the message.

3.  Inward Stage:  This is the focus stage.  Here, we're moving from planning and planting...to people.  New believers are growing in grace and maturity as they're watered by the word of God.  Discipleship.  Leadership is being identified and developed.  Practical considerations (such as a meeting place) to a growing body are being considered. Biblical community is happening in a scriptural sense (think Acts 2).  Often, this stage is a prolonged and difficult process.  It takes time for the crop to grow and mature. 

4.  Outward Stage:  This is the intention stage.  We are beginning to bring this process full-circle.  Now, as a functional body of believers, we are looking at our purpose or intention...duplication.  The expansion of the gospel is moving believers to new areas where the harvest will continue. There is an emphasis on moving the message from Jerusalem to 'the ends of the earth'.  Faithful followers of Christ are being developed and sent.

Each of us probably has a favorite area of church planting.  They're all important, but I like the outward stage best.  I enjoy forming relationships with people, sharing the gospel, and getting people on-board.  Where do you best see God using you in this process?  Are you the analytical type that enjoys thinking through strategies and developing vision?  Or, do you like the long days of developing leadership and unity in the body?  Where are you now (as a church), and what are you planning to accomplish this year?  One thing I've noticed after 15 years of church planting is that one of the stages is not called the Neutral Stage.  We're always going somewhere!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Beyond the Jordan

From the eleventh floor of the Crowne Plaza Hotel I looked across the city of Cincinnati. I saw sweeping vistas of...humanity. A hundred feet below, people scurried from their cars to an indoor water park. A stream of cars flowed along Interstate 75 like ants marching to a feast. Looking out even further I could see nothing that was not shaped by the hand of man. The city was everywhere.

I pulled the curtains shut.

Life in the city leaves me gasping for air. I am a foreigner. I am the one who become a beast behind the wheel of my car. I hear the sounds of squealing tires, honking horns, and gunshots. I lock my doors and dim my lights. I trust no one. I cannot understand the language spoken by the urban society.

Jesus can relate to me. He was in the city--Jerusalem--for the Feast of Dedication. The religious city dwellers were demanding an answer to their question, If you are the Christ, tell us plainly (Jn. 10:24b)! He already had, but they didn't listen. He tells them again, and they try to stone Him. John records that Jesus escaped the mob and retreated...beyond the Jordan (vs 40). That is where I want to live, too.

Just yesterday, we drove to a nearby city to escape the clutches of a serious case of after-Christmas apathy (you know, sit around the house and stare at one another, then every five minutes get up to grab another stale peanut cluster). We decided to visit the Bloomington Mall because we're tired of the same ole stores in Peoria. Bad idea. All the high school kids on Christmas break were there. And all were sporting their latest fashions. You know--crotches to the knees; hair that resembles Barney; sparkling white shoes--with laces dangling behind; and shirts...well, let's just say they needed a larger size. After darting into Radio Shack to escape the mob and catch our breath, we tried to enter back onto the freeway. Finally, we saw an opening. A lady was pushing an elderly person in a wheelchair and we jumped in front of them. I cringed and thought "I'm becoming just like these foreigners!" Our destination: the exit.

Getting out of the Mall parking lot was another test of my patience. I'm used to living in a county with no traffic lights...none. I get impatient when one person is stopped in front of me at the stop sign. I won't tell you how many there were! After driving several miles to escape the masses, we were hungry. Actually, I'm always hungry so we stopped at a sandwich shop which, at 4:00 in the afternoon , was nearly empty. Two or three people were sitting and enjoying the peace and quiet--they were probably from a small town. We ordered our food and then were seated. Ahh. ..now, this is nice! About thirty seconds later, the door burst open and a deafening noise filled the quiet restaurant. Sixty-five high-school age girls wearing basketball sweats and sporting over-active vocal cords crammed into the empty seats around us. I watched in amazement how one girl could hold a conversation with three others-- texting someone else--and rapidly devouring a bread soup bowl.

When I find myself in unfamiliar surroundings--like the city--I begin to realize that I am the foreigner. I am the one who doesn't fit. I am the one who doesn't speak the language. The one who doesn't dress like the rest. I am content to live among the few. I prefer to live among the few. I cherish the authenticity and transparency that small town life and ministry provides. I want to shop...and eat...where I know everyone. I want to know their middle names. I want to know who's related to who. I want to know the name of their dogs (I don't care about the cats, though). I want to walk through life with people I know.

Somehow, I think the Apostle Paul could relate to this. He knew the advantage of transparency. He said, "You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you" (Acts 20:18). They knew . Knew what? They knew how he lived! His life was transparent. Visible. Open. Transparency is just one benefit of serving Jesus Christ "beyond the Jordan". Is that where you serve? Are there other benefits of serving in rural places, or am I just rambling again?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Why Rural North America? Why Now?

When I first heard the word "missions" I thought immediately of remote tribes in the Amazon forests of South America; or, I thought of grass huts in the savanna's of Africa. I thought of remote villages in the interior of China. I thought of proclaiming Christ in hostile areas of the world. I thought of foreign languages, tribal tongues, and translating the Bible. I didn't think of rural America. Is there really a need?
Aren't we the most "Christian nation" in the world? Isn't it here that we have ready access to all the teaching of the Bible? Is rural America a viable mission field? Should the Church in America put our valuable resources into planting more churches in rural North America? They are all valid questions...but when one looks at the statistics, the answers become clear.

More unchurched Americans calls for more churches.
The number of unchurched Americans has almost doubled from 1991 to 2001. There are an estimated 360,000 churches in the United States, with an average attendance of about 75 persons per church. Yet if every church in America doubled its attendance, there would still be 190 million people not in church to hear the gospel on an average Sunday. Even in most small towns, there would not be enough seats in existing churches if even half of the people decided to go to church on a given Lord’s Day. There are 300 million people in the US. Lost people matter to God and should to us.

The US and Canada are the third largest mission field.
The combined populations of the United States and Canada comprise the third largest mission field of unsaved persons in the world. Only China and India have more non-Christians. The U.S. is the largest mission field in the Western hemisphere.

Church plants are not keeping up with population.
In 1900 our nation had 27 churches for every 10,000 Americans. By 1950, this ratio had dropped to 17 churches for every 10,000 people. Since 1950, we actually have 30 percent fewer churches to reach the growing number of unchurched people in our land!

Church planting is still the best form of evangelism.
Most new churches come into existence and prosper primarily by reaching unsaved people. Most existing churches grow through transfer growth--church hopping. About half of all U.S. churches did not add one new person through conversion growth last year.

3,500-4,000 churches close their doors every year.
The spiritual deadness of our North American culture is showing up in many churches. Eighty to 85% of U.S. churches are on the downside of their life cycle – many of them Bible-believing congregations. They have little or no evangelistic impact in their community. Three times as many churches in America are closing as are opening. It is estimated that between 3,500 and 4,000 churches dissolve every year in our nation. Yet at best only about 1,300 new churches are being planted annually. The net result is that there are fewer opportunities for people to hear the gospel than before. We need to be much more aggressive in intentionally starting new works just to take the place of those that are closing their doors.

59 million people still live in rural America.


It's a valid case. It's a worthy field. Who will go?