In my Bible reading this summer I have been going through some of the Old Testament historical books. Recently, a sentence from II Kings gripped me and hasn’t let me go.
You can read the whole story in II Kings 20:12-19, but here is the gist of it. Hezekiah, one of the few good kings that Judah had, became ill and the king of Babylon sent messengers to wish him well. Hezekiah not only welcomed the messengers, he showed them all of the riches that were in his storehouse, which is kind of like giving bank robbers a tour of the bank vault and letting them see how much money is there.
After the representatives from Babylon left, the prophet Isaiah came to ask about the visit. When he found out that Hezekiah had shown them all the riches of Judah, he predicted that because of Hezekiah’s foolishness Babylon was going to invade Judah and take everything.
Now, here’s the part of the story that haunts me. Here is Hezekiah’s response after he heard Isaiah’s prophecy: “The word of the LORD you have spoken is good,” Hezekiah replied. For he thought, “Will there not be peace and security in my lifetime?”
Did you catch that? As long as things held together during his lifetime, he was okay with it. In short, he cared about his own survival more than he cared about the longevity and legacy of his kingdom.
Don’t be too quick to judge Hezekiah; the temptation to care more about survival than legacy sneaks up on a lot of leaders, especially as we are running that last few laps in our leadership race. I suppose I’m more aware of that temptation now that I’ve been in ministry 40+ years and am approaching retirement age. It would be easy to avoid the hard decisions and coast. I might be leaving problems for those who follow me, but as long as there is “peace and security in my lifetime” then I’m okay with it, right?
Not only do leaders succumb to the survival temptation, entire churches do as well. We may be avoiding the risky decisions that will build a strong legacy for the generations that follow, but as long as the folks who are presently in the church are happy, it’s okay. After all, these are the folks who pay the bills, right?
So I’ve been thinking a bit about the differences between a legacy leader and a survival leader. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but here are some qualities I’ve seen in the legacy leaders I’ve known:
23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching. - Hebrews 10:23-25 (NIV)
When you read those words from Hebrews what do you think of? Let me see if I can read your minds… Most of you thought about the importance of worshiping with the body of Christ. Some of you thought about studying the Bible with your small group. None of you thought about District Conference! How did I do?
I get it. Traveling to scenic Northeast Iowa and sitting in a meeting all day probably isn’t on your “top ten list” of fun things to do. If it is, you maybe need to get out a little more…
If you are one who views district conference simply as a necessary (or maybe unnecessary) item on your to-do list, read on for a couple of minutes and allow me to highlight a few of the reasons I believe this annual district gathering is so very important:
I hope to see you in just a couple of weeks at our Conference. And if you can’t make it, please pray for us; it’s going to be an incredibly important day of encouraging one another and “spurring one another on toward love and good deeds.”
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him,
he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” -John 15:5 (NIV)
Recently I read, An Unhurried Leader, by Alan Fadling and was impacted and convicted by the following quote by Bernard of Clairvaux, a twelfth-century reformer in the Benedictine order of monks:
“The [one] who is wise, therefore, will see [their] life as more like a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water till it is filled, then [offers] the overflow without loss to itself ... Today there are many in the Church who act like canals; the reservoirs are far too rare .... They want to pour [this stream] forth before they have been filled; they are more ready to speak than to listen, impatient to teach what they have not grasped, and full of presumption to govern others while they know not how to govern themselves.”
It reminded me of the part of the speech the flight attendant gives right before the airplane takes off; you know, the part about being sure your oxygen mask is in place before attempting to assist someone else. Pretty good advice. It’s hard to assist someone else if you’re passing out from oxygen deprivation!
Choose your analogy; the branch that doesn’t stay connected to the vine, canal versus reservoir or the airplane passenger trying to assist others while being short of oxygen themselves. The point is that we can’t pour into others without continually and consistently being filled ourselves.
“God, make us reservoirs. Teach us to be before we do, listen before we speak, learn before we teach, and be sure that you are leading us before we attempt to lead others. Amen.”
I suspect that you have already noticed this, but there are a lot of people with gray hair (or no hair) in our congregations. I’m definitely not against people with gray hair, because I am one. But the reality is that most churches, by and large, we are not effectively reaching and keeping young people. And I’m not just talking about Wesleyan Churches, I mean all churches. Adults ages 18 to 29 comprise 17% of the adult population in the United States and yet that age group represents less than 10% of church attendees.
As I visit the churches in our district, I often hear comments like, “Young people just aren’t interested in God anymore,” or “The younger generation doesn’t want anything to do with church.” Both of those statements are false. Young people are as hungry for God as ever and are as willing as ever to connect with churches that will really value them. That’s why I’m excited about our upcoming Pastors’ Round Tables where we will be digging into the book, “GROWING YOUNG.”
In case you are tempted to believe that your church can’t reach and keep young people, check out this list of qualities that churches DON’T need to grow young:
“…make disciples…” Matthew 28:19 (NIV)
Dress up your church’s mission statement any way you like, but we all understand that Jesus gave the church a two-word job description: “MAKE DISCIPLES.” Everything we do should work toward the ultimate end of bringing people into the Kingdom of God and helping them to become fully-devoted followers of Jesus. We get that and we say that making disciples is a priority, but the problem is our process.
Most churches approach discipleship with a hodge-podge of various programs; Sunday School, men’s Bible studies, women’s Bible studies, small groups, midweek services, etc. The problem is that those ministries tend to operate independently of each other and there is no guarantee that the people attending will get the teaching and mentoring they need to really become disciples.
There is a better way; the discipleship pathway. Instead of a hit-or-miss program approach, the church with a discipleship pathway has a logical, well-defined process in place to walk with people through the steps of becoming a mature disciple of Jesus Christ.
Recently I had the opportunity to attend a seminar with several other leaders from our district that was sponsored by an organization called, 95Network. One of the sessions really helped to clarify for me the basic steps for designing and implementing a discipleship pathway.
First, it’s important to determine the win. In other words, how will we know that we have really made a disciple? What does a genuine disciple of Christ look like? I want to suggest that a disciple is three things: a learner (Matthew 11:29), a follower (Matthew 4:19a), and a reproducer (Matthew 4:19b). Let’s be honest. In the past our attempts at making disciples has been limited to helping people get spiritual knowledge through all of those classes we offer and we have neglected the mentoring that is required to develop a followers and a reproducers.
Secondly, we have to prioritize what actually helps people get there. That’s the pathway part and it’s really hard. It’s pretty easy to offer programs, but it’s hard to put our energy into relationships that really help people learn, follow and reproduce. Did you catch that word, relationships? Discipleship is relational.
Finally, we absolutely must communicate those next steps clearly and consistently. For anyone attending our churches there should be no confusion about the steps they need to take to become a devoted disciple of Jesus.
It’s time for some honest self-evaluation. Our mission is to make disciples, not to have programs. If your church isn’t making disciples effectively, maybe it’s time to evaluate all of those programs and start planning a pathway.