Reconnecting the Church

It is all too easy for a church to discover one day that they have become disconnected from their block and the surrounding neighbors. Like Adam in the 1999 film Blast from the Past, church members can poke their head out of the cocoon of the sanctuary to discover that everything has changed. The people, places, practices that were once familiar are gone and the neighborhood no longer resembles what they remember. The change appears total, and it’s scary. God’s people could shake their fists and retreat into the safety of the familiar, but this betrays the mission. A missional outlook sees the community change in a different light, as an opportunity. Revitalization can come to church and community alike when they honor Jesus by getting reacquainted and reconnected.

The most common measure of demographics is ethnicity and culture, and these are the first important baselines for the church to review. Many places have changed in their ethnic composition over the years, a change not always paralleled in the church. If the declined or plateaued church does not reflect the surrounding neighborhood, we find an opportunity in asking why? In older churches, where people lived in the parish boundaries of their church, this question went unexamined. As transportation became personal and movement away from cities and towns became commonplace, many churches have declined because the remaining congregation now commutes to church. Their only connection with the neighborhood is parking there on Sunday morning. The radical solution is to move back into the community, but, barring that, the first missional step to take is to find ways to integrate our lives with the people of the neighborhood.

Demographics extends beyond race, ethnicity and culture. Income disparities can also arise that separate the congregants from the neighborhood. The missionally-minded church can serve this neighborhood, and therefore their neighbors, being careful not to hurt as they help. Embracing mission in this context is within the reach of every church, regardless of their size. It can range from the provision of basic needs (Matthew 25) to supplementing the education of the neighborhood children by tutoring to helping the adults to become proficient in English. Each of these touch-points offers a gospel opportunity; your life of service reaching over barriers embodying the gospel. As we build trust in the neighborhood, it sees the church as a part of the community, and a new season of growth might take the place of decline.

Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate…but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos 5:14-15; 24

As the declining church embraces the missional calling, we have to recognize that the missio dei involves more than crossing racial or ethnic or socio-economic boundaries. We must remember that the ultimate objective of God’s redemptive plan is the restoration of wholeness in creation, the return of shalom. As we engage with our church’s role in the redemptive plan, we must be prepared to engage with injustice in the many forms that have injured our fellow image-bearers. We engage by devoting ourselves to listening and learning about those areas where unrighteousness—as defined by God—has been visited upon our neighbors. After hearing, the church is blessed by opportunities to act in their interest. This might be the most challenging and demanding aspect of a church on mission, but it is also one most likely to express the immense love of God for those trampled by the fallen nature of humankind through the ages.

There are very few churches left who only see their neighbor as someone who looks like themselves. There are equally few churches who don’t recognize the missional call to love that neighbor in both word and deed. It can be challenging to cross cultural boundaries, especially those that the church has ignored or denied through the years, but it can also be enormously rewarding. The promise of the new heaven and new earth is one of all people together enjoying the return of shalom. The promise for our neighborhood is found in a church that embodies the promise of Christ to unite all peoples, regardless of worldly differences – “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,… All one in Christ Jesus.” [Galatians 3:28]

The North American Baptist Conference has four principles that guide ministry throughout their churches. These principles [called End Goals by the NAB] are interconnected and intended to be understood as a whole. Ministry flows through each of the principles to form a holistic, missional philosophy of the Church in the world. The thoughts above are an interaction with End Goal 2: NAB Churches will seek opportunities to engage cross-culturally. In an article written by Executive Director Harry Kelm, the following appears:

The church – the body of Jesus Christ – is to be a people of God that consists of many nations and ethnicities. John 17 tells us that though we are different from one another, we become one in Jesus. Engaging in cross-cultural ministry is embracing the diversity found in our oneness as God’s people. Onward Spring 2023

In addition to church planting, these principles should also guide revitalization efforts. As with the church plant, the legacy church has a place in being and proclaiming the gospel to their community. Use the principles to evaluate the alignment of your church’s ministry and leadership with the vision embedded in the Goals. Teach them and shape your efforts to reach your community and the world with the love of Christ and the hope of shalom.

On (the Same) Mission?

So, your church is missional. Your pastor talks about it. The website says it; you know it; we’re on mission! Great, but what mission? Is everyone on the same mission? Our tendency within the Church is to assume that everyone is speaking the same language, that we all understand what we mean when referring to mission. From that assumption we believe that our commonly held definition leads to mutual participation and that we’re all seeking the same goals. But how often do we stop to check this?  

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. | Ephesians 4:3

Sorry, I may have misled you. I’ve broken every rule of ‘Smart Brevity™’ because this post is less about the missional church than it is the unity within that church. In one form or another, every church is living out their interpretation of the mission of God and there’s danger there. Two or more ideas of what defines the mission can create two or more factions within the body that compete with each other. Those factions will have different ideas of prioritization and practice and those differences might sow division as either side decides that their interpretation is truer and worthier of allegiance. God rarely (never) blesses division of this sort.

Building unity around a mission begins with defining terms. The foundation of unity begins with a definition that views God as missional in His character; as Missiologist David Bosch writes, “mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God.” When we locate mission as a defining characteristic of God, it orients the church to view it as a movement from God toward creation, with the church functioning as a participant in that mission. Our theology of mission (the missio dei) sees God having a desire to engage with creation, and this shapes our interpretation of the biblical narratives about the intervention of God into human history. To say that another way, we see the mission of God in the calling of Abraham, in the sending of Jesus, in His atoning death on the cross, and in his installment as king. The church’s understanding of how our missional God has already been at work answers the question of how we are to define mission within the body.

Jesus’ church is sent into the world with a mandate to continue HIS mission in the power of the Holy Spirit. His commission to those who are “in Him” is well known [Mt 28:18-20], but less well known is what it means to be “in Him.” More than just a ticket to salvation, to be united with Christ is to take part in His role, reflecting the glory of God [Rom 8:29; 1 Jn 3:2]. Our mission is to be a visible sign of the Kingdom by our proclamation of the gospel in word and deed. These deeds, the practical outworking of our understanding of mission, include our habits of discipleship in the ways of Jesus and extending that discipleship to our community. When the church’s missional objectives are structured with this theological framework in view, we become single-minded in bringing Kingdom life to the community, and our definition of mission is focused and, in that clarified missional definition, there is freedom. As the missional church proclaims and lives out the meaning of God’s redemptive activity in any number of context particular ways, our neighbors are blessed by the example we provide, and are invited into their own participation in redemptive kingdom.

If we anchor our theology and praxis of mission to the bible’s definition, we can avert most instances of division between good-hearted Christians. The ministry choices and direction of a church can all be evaluated fairly by looking to see if they align with the story of the Bible and the ultimate redemptive aim that it reveals. Does this mean that there’s only one way that a missional church can proceed? Not at all. As the church comes around to a shared definition, our question of application shifts from what we want to do to what God wants to do through us. Go and be.

Taking a Missional Footing

The commission that Jesus gives His Church demands that she remain on missionary footing “to the very end of the age.” [Mt 28:18-20] The Lord’s command is a cycle of preparation and movement, two ongoing actions: spiritual preparation and the spread of the gospel. When a church experiences the pressures and discouragement of plateau or decline, the missional footing becomes less sure, and the temptation is to retreat from the frontline to regroup. In most cases, this retreat becomes the norm. The revitalization pastor facing this reality has no choice but to nurse the spiritually wounded back to health and lead them once more to their community and the world beyond. A healthy church is consistently missional.

Being missional in ministry and outlook is not an innovation reserved for the younger churches in the family. The term describes the expected qualities of every church as they view their role in the larger Family of God. Every church is a citizen of both a locality and the kingdom, and the way this looks is unique to every context. Mission is not exclusive to foreign fields or underserved communities; the charge given by the Lord starts right where a disciple finds him or herself. [cf. Acts 1:8] Ignoring this local context while sending disciples across the ocean or to distant neighborhoods, the church finds herself out of place, disconnected from her parish while believing that she is playing her part in the kingdom mission.

“The gospel always comes as the testimony of a community which, if it is faithful, is trying to live out the meaning of the gospel in a certain style of life, certain ways of holding property, of maintaining law and order, of carrying on production and consumption, and so on. Every interpretation of the gospel is embodied in some cultural form.”

Lesslie Newbigin ‘Gospel in a Pluralist Society

In a church looking toward renewal, mission is often narrowly defined by the support and celebration of foreign missionaries, without equal attention to the neighborhood the church calls home. Revitalization begins with a restored vision of the community, a renewed belief that God was intentional in placing your church where it is. The demographics of the neighborhood may have changed over the years, the economic measure of a place may have shifted in one direction or another, but two things remain consistent: the mission of the Church and the power of the gospel. A fresh vision of what both mean for your community should be a chief topic of prayer among the faithful remnant. Challenging the church’s view of “the other” is a hard conversation that needs to be had. Loving those others must once-again be viewed as a debt [Romans 13:8-10] owed. A firm missional stance is the footing from which the first steps of renewed life in the church can be taken.

In an earlier post [The Inner Shaping of Mission], I emphasized the inseparable nature of discipleship and mission. The Missio Dei cannot be accomplished other than by disciples who are growing in spiritual maturity. [cf. Hebrews 6:1-3; 2 Peter 3:18] The axiom that we cannot give what we do not have applies here. The mission of the church requires vision and action, gospel vision developed through discipleship and action motivated by the same. Revitalization requires discernment to judge the preparation of the faithful in relation to these twin requirements. Renewal may require retreat from the outward expressions of mission for a season while you reengage the discipleship of the saints.

The North American Baptist Conference has four principles that guide ministry throughout their churches. These principles [called End Goals by the NAB] are interconnected and intended to be understood as a whole. Ministry flows through each of the principles to form a holistic, missional philosophy of the Church in the world. The thoughts above are an interaction with End Goal 1: NAB Churches will be trained for missional and formational ministries. In an article written by Executive Director Harry Kelm, the following paragraph appears:

Missionally and formationally multiplying is why the NAB plants churches, which has always been a commitment of the NAB. We plant churches with the intention of reaching people with the Love (of) God in Jesus. Missionally and formationally ministering is embedded in all our End Goals and in who God is calling us to be. Onward Spring 2023

In addition to church planting, these principles should also guide revitalization efforts. As with the church plant, the legacy church has a place in being and proclaiming the gospel to their community. Use the principles to evaluate the alignment of your church’s ministry and leadership with the vision embedded in the Goals. Teach them and shape your efforts to reach your community and the world with the love of Christ and the hope of shalom.

The Inner Shaping of Mission

A missional life begins in the spiritual depth of a Christian soul. Like the rings in a pond, it springs from the gratitude of a disciple, and it seeks the flourishing of community in radiating rings. The growing Christlikeness of the soul first seeks the shalom of those closest, family and the fellowship of other believers. As maturity develops, the desire to bless extends outward to the well-being of the community at large and then the world. Sadly, though, the missional life of a church is often one of the first things to contract when decline sets in and hearts turn inward toward survival. Programs replace prayer, the world shapes worship, and growth in the inner life falls out of favor. Restoring the missional soul of the church is the first significant challenge that any revitalization pastor must address, and it begins with the spiritual life of God’s people.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. Ephesians 5:1

The intention of all formational ministries is a growing Christ-likeness in the life of a disciple. The growing likeness of the Savior in the life of a Christian does two things; it gives us assurance that we belong to him and in him [1 John 2:6], and it shapes our outer life, the way we interact with our world [Romans 12:2]. Building, or rebuilding, that foundation of assurance creates a springboard for hope, and turns the declining church’s vision toward a new future. Tempering the urge to “do something” and instead focusing on “being something” pays much bigger dividends. If there’s been a lack of prayer or a shaken confidence within the church, lead the saints into a new practice of prayer. Commit your prayer leadership to a less petitionary communion with God, aim for spiritual strengthening and shaping. Lead with scripture, guide those who will join you to see what Christ’s heart and mission is for the Church, for your church. Pray for the well-being and salvation of the community and increase the sensitivity of those praying to the leading of the Spirit in their lives. Commit to the long road as the Lord works in His time to form the souls of His people.

Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord! Psalm 27:14

It will seem counterintuitive to do the work of spiritual development while the external signs of health in the church continue to point in the wrong direction. Depending on the state of spiritual maturity within the church, the Lord may take a considerable amount of time to reshape the hearts of the devoted remnant. During this time take heart, you as the revitalizer have time to teach again and again on the mission of God for His church. This teaching, from the pulpit and one-on-one, can take the saints back to scripture to come to know once again how important the inner life is to the empowering of the outer life. Put before whoever will listen the truth that they cannot not go unless the Spirit leads them [John 16:13], that they cannot make disciples unless they themselves are shaped by the truths of the faith [Philippians 2:1-3], and that all the world begins on the streets of the surrounding community.

The North American Baptist Conference has four principles that guide ministry throughout their churches. These principles [called End Goals by the NAB] are interconnected and intended to be understood as a whole. Ministry flows through each of the principles to form a holistic, missional philosophy of the Church in the world. The thoughts above are an interaction with End Goal 1: NAB Churches will be trained for missional and formational ministries. In an article written by Executive Director Harry Kelm, the following paragraph appears:

Missionally and formationally multiplying is why the NAB plants churches, which has always been a commitment of the NAB. We plant churches with the intention of reaching people with the Love (of) God in Jesus. Missionally and formationally ministering is embedded in all our End Goals and in who God is calling us to be.

Onward – Spring 2023

In addition to church planting, these principles should also guide revitalization efforts. As with the church plant, the legacy church has a place in being and proclaiming the gospel to their community. Use the principles to evaluate the alignment of your church’s ministry and leadership with the vision embedded in the Goals. Teach them and shape your efforts to reach your community and the world with the love of Christ and the hope of shalom.

Do You Want Spiritual Vitality?

The Principles New Life in Your Church

Spiritual formation and the Missio Dei often suffer in a church that is plateaued or in decline. The inner life and a Great Commission footing fall prey to the “more pressing” concerns of survival and whether the church will make it to next Sunday. But for the leader with a heart and vision for restoring the vitality of a body, these essentials of congregational life are the seeds and spreading roots of revitalization. Men and women of God who will look clear-eyed at the challenged spiritual condition of a church will not look for hope in process and programs, but in the biblical calls to develop Christlikeness and a servant’s heart. How do we do that? The answers are contextual to a particular church, but working from principles rather than programs can guide and motivate the first steps back to health.

Dry bones can live…

The revitalizationist will probably find that the principles of church health have become secondary concerns of the congregation in stasis or retreat. Where the kinetic energy of events and programs might seem to solve a church’s issues, the immediate blessings of doing something will fade quickly unless they come to rest upon a foundation of spiritual vitality. The pastor or lay leader seeking to renew a declining church should be prepared to set short-term gains aside and devote themselves and those under their leadership to restore spiritual health from the bottom up. Churches in the North American Baptist Conference [NAB] are blessed by a set of guiding principles that invite all member congregations to take them as their own. For the revitalizer, these are four principles that provide an outline for restoring areas of church life that can lead a church back to life. The principles [called End Goals by the NAB] are simple, biblical and direct:

  • Churches will be missional and formational
  • Churches will engage their neighbors cross-culturally
  • Churches will be committed to raising up the next generation of leaders
  • Churches will keep ‘all the nations’ in their ministry scope

Applying these principles as the foundation of a renewal plan addresses the wide variety of causes and symptoms of decline. Consider the church planted decades ago in a neighborhood or borough of the city. Over the years of faithful kingdom service, the church experiences declining membership and attendance. A census of the remaining membership shows most people not living in the immediate area and the makeup of the church no longer aligning with the changing demographics of the surrounding neighborhood. The reasons for these disparities are many and varied, but the underlying principle is much easier to find; the church has not consistently loved their neighbors as themselves. Now, this doesn’t have to be interpreted in a negative sense or assigned any nefarious motive. Every church with a history can identify with slowly changing surroundings, while the congregation carries on in the memory of their more fruitful days.

The temptation of the church is to have an event, intending to connect with their new neighbors. No doubt the Holy Spirit can produce fruit from this occasion. For longer term health and growth, however, the better choice is to put in the work of prayer and teaching to build a missional culture and an attitude of welcome for the church’s neighbors. Over time and with a commitment to the principles of spiritual health, the body of believers can become more naturally missional, not relying on special events to be a part of the life of the neighborhood. Consistently applying the principle of cross-cultural ministry to the church’s teaching and practice can be used by the Spirit to create a new sensitivity to the needs and issues of those who live within the parish of the church, resulting in open hearts and welcoming arms.

We’ll look at each of these principles individually as tools of renewal in the weeks ahead. If you are a part of the NAB family, be encouraged that our leadership has prayerfully given the conference a consistent set of guidelines for our collective ministry. One of the great blessings of these end goals is that they are applicable to all ministry contexts, from the church planter to the missionary and to the legacy churches that are seeking new life.

Review: The Loveliest Place by Dustin Benge

Why is More Important Than How

A Christian who has spent any length of time in the Church knows that she can appear less than beautiful when subjected to human scrutiny. Bickering, division, scandal – all of these things and more wound her and leave scars and many within seem to care little about the damage done. But when we pause and consider the view from God’s perspective we’re humbled. He looks upon the less-than-faithful, worldly, gospel-possessing but imperfect Church and He loves her unconditionally because, to Him, she is the most beautiful thing He has fashioned. To read Dustin Benge’s love letter about the beauty of the Bride of Christ is to be moved to repentance for one’s lack of similar vision.

The Loveliest Place is a beautiful book and one that I will be rereading regularly. Theologically deep, the depth is contained in a heartfelt paean to love the Church in the same way God does. Benge systematically presents the unique treasures that have been entrusted to the body and the eternal value that God assigns to them. Dare we consider of less value, or worse, abuse these privileges through apathy or ignorance. I was deeply captivated by page after page or prose that encouraged my vision to lift to a higher perspective, to look past the scars and stains and see the Church as her Creator does. The theology can wait for a second reading if the first pass draws us back to the beauty of the Bride.

The Loveliest Place should be on the shelf of every pastor, elder and dedicated church member. I find it much more powerful than any crop of ministry ‘how-to’ books because it gives the important ‘why’ to everything we do in the Church. Understanding the reason why the Church is so valued by God gives the motivation for everything we do (or don’t do) as people blessed to be part of the Bride. In the introduction, the earth is turned and the reader is confronted with our own attitudes as Benge challenges, “Chosen by God the Father, purchased by Christ the Son, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, the church should be cherished and recognized as ‘dear’ by all who call her home.” Reflecting on what we encourage, discourage, allow or ignore gives us our commitment to this truth. Perhaps our prayers need to return to the ‘why’ of the church, to the reason that we want to treasure her and her members.

A Review of “A Dozen Things God Did with Your Sin” by Sam Storms

Christians often perceive God dealing with sin in a binary fashion. He forgives sin, or he holds people accountable for sin and judgment. It’s difficult to argue with that equation because it is factually correct, but it doesn’t encourage much in the way of meditation. This new volume by Sam storms seeks to broaden our perception of what God does with our sin. He does so by enumerating 12 different facets of forgiveness that give us weeks and months of scripture and devotion to draw our souls deeper into the love and goodness of God’s grace.

As an example of the depth that the reader is encouraged to explore, Storms steps to either side of the key point: God forgives you of your sin. On one side of that truth lies the fact that the forgiveness that we enjoy came about because God laid our sin upon his son, Jesus. This draws our devotion from simple gratitude at being forgiven, to considering the cost of that grace. Bringing those two truths together deepens our gratitude and makes it less likely that we will take it for granted. On the other side of forgiveness is the truth that God has cleansed us of our sin. This draws us to an entirely other meditation and degree of gratitude. Not only have we been judicially redeemed, the Christian is washed clean and set apart. As with the previous thought, we are again drawn away from cheap grace.

After giving a dozen positive truths about what God has done with our sin, Dr. Storms adds an important chapter about three things that God does not, and will never do with our sin. I found this chapter to be very important in light of discussions I’ve had with people through the years. Lacking a firm hold on the concept of forgiveness, well-meaning Christians have looked at God’s grace in the same way that we might be tempted to look at human grace, as though it could be rescinded at anytime. Storms makes clear through scripture that this is definitely not the case.

This book is excellent reading for the individual Christian, but I can see this being the basis for a small group or a discipleship relationship study. Each of the topics he touches on can create an opening for a brother or sister to open up and share their concerns with the answer close at hand. Put this book on your reading list today.

5 Ways to Start a Revolution (of Prayer)

The foundation of following Jesus is prayer. This deep personal communion, this spirit-to-spirit connection with God is at the same time a privilege unique to Christians and a part of any serious life of faith. The Bible encourages prayer by invitation (if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways… [2 Chronicles 7:14]) and imperative (Ask and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened. [Matthew 7:7]). The centrality of prayer in Christ’s church is a settled matter and few Christians would stand up and say otherwise. We agree at each of these points in theory and by doctrine, but does your church show this commitment in action?

Prayer is said to be one of the most difficult ministries, and this challenge might be your experience. Meaningful prayer requires a compliant heart, repentant and believing that God will answer petitions. Prayer does not require eloquence of speech, but it does demand a heart guided by the Holy Spirit and fed by scripture. Distractions must be put aside; prayer cannot be engaged at the same time the television is on. Prayer is demanding, but the Christian who discovers the spiritual treasure that awaits them through this relationship can’t help but long for more.

If you want to ignite a revolution of prayer within your church, the first thing to remember is that it starts with you. You need to be fully committed to a life of prayer, with both a practice and an experience of regular, deep prayer with God. In fact, without this prayer life, it’s unlikely that you will have the desire to ignite a change in the prayer ministry of your spiritual family. The desire will come when your holy dissatisfaction peaks and you are moved by the Holy Spirit to do something about it. And when that happens, when you’re motivated by the Spirit, move immediately! Here are five ways to bring people into the movement with you.

Model Prayer

One thing that keeps well-intentioned people from praying is the fear that they will somehow get it wrong. The fear is that they will use the wrong words or someone will not understand their prayer. You can address this by modeling simple prayer. Use the structure and words of the Lord’s prayer to show that eloquence doesn’t have to do with complex syntax and a lofty vocabulary. Show that passionate prayer comes from the heart. Show that prayer begins and ends with a clear recognition of our relationship with God – Our Father in heaven. The more we can emphasize this simplicity, the more people are invited to prayer.

Lead On and In Prayer

If the Holy Spirit has motivated you to take the lead in moving your spiritual body into a deeper prayer life, then every step that you take should be preceded by and sustained in public petition. Be up front that this motivation you are sharing with your brothers and sisters is not an idea of your own, but that it comes from your commitment to prayer and the prompting of God the Spirit. Show the perseverance power that you enjoy comes from continuing in prayer, publicly seeking the power of Christ for ministry, and showing your trust that He will deliver.

Publicly Share Answers to Prayer

This should be a regular part of the life of the Lord’s church, as it is one of the great encouragements to God’s people. Answers to prayer show those growing in their confidence that He is at work in countless ways, that He does answer our petitions. When we are public about giving God glory for the answers that we see to our prayer, it works in the hearts of those at the edges of the congregation who want to know this same power. Doing this also serves evangelistically, showing, without preaching, the inestimable power of our God and His love for His people.

Pray Deeply

Praying simply and directly invites others to join in as it knocks down the barriers to public, congregational prayer, but if we want others to grow with us in their maturity and the depth of their prayer life, we should also make it a point to pray deeply. This will mean different things in different situations, but a good place to start is to pray the scriptures back to God. Go beyond the well-known verses to the deeper well of the Bible, showing the importance of the full counsel of God. Trust the spirit and be open is sharing your concerns, your heartbreaks, your pleading for grace in the lives of the unsaved. Your transparency encourages others to pray in the same way.

Teach Prayer

We’ve heard the saying that habits and actions are “more caught than taught.” The first four points of this list have to do with leaders taking action, for example, praying in the presence of others. But, as much as we would like to teach by example only, we must not forgo supplementing our example with sound biblical teaching. The Bible is filled with lessons about prayer and its importance, and an entire library of books can be built on that topic alone, so use these resources to preach and teach on the importance of prayer and its benefits while you lead others to add their voices to the prayer chorus.

Building a prayer culture within the church is not an easy task. It takes teaching and practice and being intentional about giving God’s people opportunities to put their prayer into action. They will be encouraged by hearing about answers to prayer and further encouraged to hear of your own struggles in building your prayer muscles. One of the most important things we teach and show is perseverance. A revolution starts with a spark but rarely catches fire overnight. Start, take the first step, even if you find yourself alone. To borrow from Edward Hale, “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.” Be committed to seeing it through, because the rewards are eternal.

Measuring Surprise and Delight

One of the great surprises for gardeners is the volunteer, those that blossom in unexpected places. Sometimes delightful, like the beautiful poppies that arise in my tomato beds, and sometimes not; the virtual maple forest that germinated in my backyard one spring required a lot of undesirable labor. The hundreds of little saplings were not all that surprising given the countless seeds that had dropped in the grass beneath the tree the fall before, but the flowers that sprout in the vegetable frames far distant from the flower beds are a welcome wonder. As every gardener knows, the appearance of these plants is not attributed to my work or intention; birds or wind or the coats of the dogs had serendipitously been the sowing agent that brought these joys to my soul.

There’s a similar joy found in the ministry of believers blossoming in unexpected places. What makes these unexpected joys stand out is that they are not where we expected them, and they’re  measures of spiritual movement that a stagnant church easily misses. Many churches measure their health and ‘success’ using a yardstick marked out in segments labeled attendance, budget and programs. When the pews and offering plate are full, and the program schedule grows more and more crowded, we celebrate ministry. When the opposite is true and fewer seats are occupied and the budget constrained, these measures of success move the pointer into the red. A sense of failure rises, soon followed by discouragement. This can lead to an unfortunate blindness to the power of God at work, especially where we least expect it.

Wild abandon is the natural state of the forest and the volunteer doesn’t stand out among its equally random neighbors. The volunteer in our garden is surprising because of its location. The seed that falls to the ground and germinates, even if carried a distance on the wing, is doing what it is designed to do, creating after its own kind [Gen 1:12]. If we as Christ followers are faithful in discipling others, we too will reproduce after our own kind and the fruit they bear (Rom 7:6) will be the natural result. This is the genius of God in making soul shaping a normal part of life and not a program. We teach by living out our beliefs (Dt 6:6-8; Mt 28:19) and shaping hearts as we walk along and when we lie down and when we rise.

We’ve become accustomed to looking for ministry results as an outcome of a program. If we have the right music and preaching style, worshippers will come. We pour into the children and teenagers so that they make it successfully to adulthood. Our discipleship, more often than not, has a start and end date where success is measured by a completed workbook. We need to look deeper though; we need to spy out the volunteers that have been carried by the wind to unexpected places. By the design of the Lord, this is where the measure of a spirit-guided heart is going to be found.

What of the ministry that a transformed heart started that now serves the community? What about the bible study conducted by folks who take their discipled souls south for the winter? Your ministry plan didn’t have a bullet point for either one of those activities. What of the fellowship that surrounds an elderly member who is by themself and refuses to let them be alone? This is the work of the heart surrendered to the Lord. Success is not measured by programs, the Lord measures it by heart and if your discipleship is transforming hearts, you never know where the spirit is going to take them next. Your church is never commanded to be the biggest or have the most programs. It is called to be faithful in shaping the hearts of Jesus’ people and then trusting Him to put them to work in the places we least expect.