Putting Out the Welcome Mat

Groton Church of Christ Building
GCC – Groton Church of Christ

Everyone likes to think, “Ours’s is a friendly church,” but is that the reception visitors receive? As members, when we pull into the parking lot, we see the cars of our friends and we can anticipate the warm welcome from people who love us. It keeps us coming back for more! But is that how others see us? Let’s walk in to our church with “new eyes” and look around.

Listening to the Building & Grounds

Grandma was right: “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.” Like it or not, the first thing people see is our parking lot and, if it is littered, pockmarked with potholes, and lacks any place for them to park, that all-important first impression isn’t going to be a good one. On the other hand, if there is a spot reserved near the door marked, “For Our Guests,” it shows somebody cares. If the lot is clean, well-lit, and bordered by flowers, I’m ready to learn more about these people.

At Grandma’s house, only salesmen and strangers come to the front door. Friends and family always came through the kitchen. Likewise, sometimes there is a difference between the front door of the church and the door the family uses. If that’s the case, we need to make sure someone is at the front door to welcome guests, or there should at least be a sign pointing to the “Friends and Family” entrance.

The Entrance Exam

Almost before he asked me for my name, he began a theological inquisition. Was I a member of the “Lord’s Church”? What did I believe about the Holy Spirit and Pre-millennialism? He was a “gatekeeper.” A sweet-faced, white-haired lady met me with a smile, but then began gathering grist for the gossip mill. She was a “busybody.” Unfortunately, sometimes visitors are subjected to an entrance exam.

A smiling face and a warm greeting the moment I walk through the door says, “We’re happy you’re here!” The second step is just as important. Do we introduce ourselves and ask anything at all about our new friends? About their family, work, where they live – the questions we would ask a new friend?

And don’t forget to introduce your new friend to another member. Don’t just shake their hand and leave them standing to navigate their way alone. Show them to class or invite them to sit with you during worship.

“You’re sitting in my spot”

Ouch! Sister Smith had been sitting in the same spot on the same pew forever. Brother Jones had staked out the seat next to the isle from the day the building was erected. Before I could warn our guest of the sin they were about to commit by sitting in the sacred space, Brother Jones or Sister Smith rudely booted them out – and they will never come back. If you are going to become permanently attached to a sacred space, at least have a plaque made to warn people.

“Where is everybody?”

Once, Jan and I went to visit a congregation. We checked their website first and they advertised a coffee hour thirty minutes before Bible Class. That sounded so friendly, but when we arrived, we walked into the foyer and no one was there. We walked into the auditorium and no one was there. We scratched our heads and then heard voices down a flight of stairs, so we followed the sound and found the Fellowship Hall. When we walked in, everyone stopped talking and just stared at us. There was a coffee pot and the remains of a tray of donuts off to one side. No one said a word. No one got up to greet us or invite us to sit with them. I’m not shy so I walked over to a table full of men and introduced myself. They shared their names, but nothing else. It was like I had walked into a conversation I wasn’t supposed to hear. Jan looked around wondering where the children were. It took us visiting for three weeks before we discovered what a warm and friendly congregation they really were, but I wonder if anyone else would give them a second chance.

How hard would it have been to at least put a sign in the foyer or on the doors directing us to the coffee hour? If this was a friendly church, why didn’t someone get up and prove it?

Don’t Forget the Kids

My children are precious and so are yours! If Bible School is important, then the classrooms should be clean and well lit. As a parent, I want to know my children will be safe. Who is the teacher and how will my children be protected?

We were so impressed by one congregation. Not only were the classrooms inviting, but there were pictures of the teacher and her aide posted on the door. When parents dropped their infants off at the nursery, they were given a pager in case there was a problem. The new parents could worship with peace of mind knowing that if there was an issue, they would be contacted.

I love “Family Friendly” worship where the children are considered a part of the congregation too. The worship leader always has at least one song for them and the preacher begins his sermon with a story and a lesson for the children. One congregation Jan and I visited began the worship by inviting the children to bring their contribution to the front, file past a giant water bottle and drop their coins in. As the kids rushed to the front, they were often given extra coins to contribute. Everyone loved it! By the way, the children decided how their collection would be used. It might go for a school lunch program to help feed hungry kids. It could be used to drill a well in a poor country so those children would have safe water to drink. It had even been used to build the playground at church. The important thing was the children were included.

Put Out the Welcome Mat!

Over and over I’ve heard churches complaining they aren’t growing and I wonder sometimes if we aren’t our own worst enemy. Here are some more suggestions and questions:

  • Do we send our visitors a personalized follow-up letter and call telling them how happy we were to meet them?
  • Is there any information available in the foyer about our congregation, our history, and the services we provide?
  • Are parents told about Bible School, Children’s Worship, or the Nursery facilities?
  • Are guests invited to join in with activities, service projects, or even just asked to sit with them during services?
  • Does anyone ever invite the guests to lunch after services or to coffee later during the week?

Perhaps the solution is as simple as the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

 

 

 

A Subway Sermon

At the Radio Station in Seoul

I loved riding the subway trains in Seoul. They are incredibly clean, amazingly safe and very efficient. One day I was riding home after we finished taping a radio program for the Christian Broadcasting System. The train pulled into a station and a street evangelist hopped on carrying a life-sized cross and an amplified sound system. He set up his pulpit in the center of the train and preached with all his heart to the captives on the subway who did their best not to look at him. When he finished his two-minute lesson, he looked around the car and his eyes lit up when he saw me watching him. He lit up and rushed over. Then he bent down so we were face to face, smiled from ear to ear and asked, “Are you,” he struggled to find his words in English, then he demanded, “Are you … Christian?”

Now the whole train was watching us. “Yes,” I replied smiling.

He danced triumphantly speaking in tongues and then shouted, “Hallelujah! Amen!” at the top of his lungs. People started to grin at my predicament. Then he stooped down again and asked, “Are you … Presbyterian?”

“No.”

Undaunted, the little man continued, “Are you … Catholic?”

“No,” I answered again.

Puzzled, he simply asked, “Baptist?”

“Nope.”

He was truly puzzled now. “Methodist?”

“No.”

In desperation, as the subway was slowing down to enter the station, he asked, “Mormon?”

“No!”

He couldn’t stand it. People were beginning to pick up their belongings as we slowed to a stop. Finally, he cried out, “What are you?

I grinned from ear to ear and replied, “Just Christian!” and I jumped off the train.

People are shocked to learn there are over 33,830 different denominations in the world today.[1] This is true despite Jesus’ telling his Father, “2My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you,” (John 17:20-21).

So how can we all be one? Perhaps we need to first ask, “What divides us?” A simple answer might be our different doctrines and dogmas, that is, our different interpretations of what it means to be a follower of Christ. For example, the battle cry of the Reformation was “Scripture alone!” The Protestants were opposed to the idea that God’s will was revealed in the Bible and by the traditions of the church, but what is ironic is, the Protestants, whose war-cry was “Sola Scriptura” quickly codified their interpretations into creeds with the practical result, they were doing the very same thing they were protesting – following the Bible and their codified traditions.

Enter the American Restoration Movement whose cry was “Just Christian! Just Bible!” How is that possible? By depending on “book, chapter and verse” for their interpretations. The key is to have scriptural support for their practices and beliefs, but not write them down. Unfortunately, the written traditions reflected in creeds was oft times simply replaced by oral traditions. Rather than each generation searching afresh to see what God said in his Word about various questions, people began to rely on customs and traditions. (“That’s the way we’ve always done it.”)

To truly be “Just Christians” requires continual renewal and three special attitudes: (1) an agreement to allow the Bible to speak, (2) an agreement to recognize some things are simply “matters of opinion,” and (3) a commitment to love, because without love it is impossible to be a Christian.

 

[1] According to the World Christian Encyclopedia published by Oxford Press, in 2001 there were 33,830 denominations claiming to be “Christian.”

The Seed Principle

Methuselah – Judean Date Palm

They were dark days for the land of Judah. Josiah’s grandfather, King Manasseh, was captured by the Assyrians who put a hook in his nose and led him captive to Babylon. Josiah’s father, King Amon, was completely corrupt and his officials assassinated him. Josiah was only 8 years old when he was crowned king.

In those days, people worshipped any number of deities and idols and who was to say if there really was only one true God? Confusion reigned in the land, morality plummeted and corruption was everywhere.

At 16, the young king decided to worship only the Lord, the God of his great, great, great, great grandfather, King David. By age 20, his zeal knew no bounds as he systematically destroyed the idols that filled his kingdom. At 26, he began to restore the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem and the workers discovered an ancient scroll, the Book of the Law.

Now Josiah had the guidance that he needed. Before, his reform was blind. He did what he thought was the right thing, but now he had a plan and the reform, like all good reforms, began with the king’s own heart. On hearing the words of the scroll, the king tore his robes, humbled himself and wept bitterly. With the Bible before him, Josiah learned how to be pleasing to God. King Josiah discovered the “seed principle.” (See 2 Chronicles chapter 34.)

The Seed Principle

In 2005, Israeli scientists announced to the world, a Judean Date Palm – a tree long thought extinct – had just germinated. Today that plant is over 3 meters high and doing well; the first of what will hopefully be many, many more. How did that happen?

Forty years before, archaeologists, excavating King Herod’s desert palace at Masada, uncovered a jar full of 2,000-year-old date palm seeds. No one thought seeds that old could possibly grow, so they sat in a professor’s desk drawer for four decades! Then a botanist planted one and the rest is history.[1]

The Apostle Peter told Christians the word of God is seed. When it is planted, it produces people of God (1 Peter 1:23). Josiah understood that and so do we. Rather than becoming enmeshed in the minutiae of people’s opinions, dogma and theology, why can’t we just be Christians and read the Bible for ourselves? Just as tomato seeds produce tomatoes and strawberry seeds produce strawberries, so the word of God, when planted in good and honest hearts, produces Christians. It’s ancient seed.

 

[1] Science 13 June 2008, pp. 1464

Photograph of Methuselah By Benjitheijneb – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20441116

The Accountable Christian

I was wrong. I felt pressured and I snapped at my wife and said somethings I’d later regret bitterly, but it was too late. What could I do to make it better? How could I smooth over those hurt feelings? She said it was “okay,” but I knew better and I felt awful. Have you ever done something like that? What makes you feel guilty and how do you deal with it? Flowers? Dinner out? Offer to do the dishes?

In ancient times, when people felt they had offended God, they offered costly sacrifices. Blood was shed. Our “sin” cost the lives of innocent animals. A priest arrayed in special robes performed a solemn ceremony and we expressed our sorrow with a price. The more elaborate the ceremony and the more costly the sacrifice, the more certain we were that the gift was effective in reconciling us to God.

But now comes Christianity and the end of sacrifice, clergy, elaborate rituals and a palatial temple. For many people, it just didn’t seem to satisfy their deepest need for reconciliation with God.

Do you remember the story of Naaman? He was a Syrian general afflicted with leprosy. Upon learning of the power of the Prophet Elisha, Naaman went to Israel to be healed, but it was too simple. “Go dip yourself seven times in the Jordan River,” the general was instructed. Listen to his response:

But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage, (2 Kings 5:11, 12).

Likewise, sometimes the Christian Gospel seems too simple. Human beings seem attracted to pomp and circumstance. We love elaborate rituals and mysterious ceremonies. To simply be forgiven is just too easy and people felt the same way in the first century. Many of the Jewish Christians still felt a longing for the old ways of sacrifice and ritual. That’s one of the reasons the New Testament book of Hebrews was written. Notice chapter 10:

For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins, (Hebrews 10:1b,2)

The writer incisively points out if the temple sacrifices had truly taken away sin, why did they have to keep being repeated year after year? In fact, all the sacrifices did was serve as an annual reminder of our sins (v. 3). It would be like buying your wife an expensive gift to make up for your foolish actions, but every time you saw the present, it just reminded you again and again of how awful you were. Rather than reconcile, it just reminded you of your guilt. How futile! And so:

Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins, (Hebrews 10:11).

Thus, true reconciliation isn’t a matter of repetition – offering the same sacrifice over and over again. Consider the Christian “Plan of Salvation.” It begins when our eyes are opened and we see things the way they really are. That is, we “believe.” Not only is that experience an eye-opener, it cuts us to the heart and we turn around: “repent,” but to ensure our repentance is genuine, we need to “confess.” That means admitting first to ourselves, then to God and to everyone else that we have sinned. At that point, believers are born again, that is, baptized, and their sins are washed away.

Now consider how the same steps can also work in relationships. When I realize, I have hurt someone (the believing stage), it genuinely cuts me to the heart and I begin to behave differently (repentance). It may take great courage, but I need to admit I was wrong (confess). My confession is believable because I have changed my behavior. This is an opportunity for a new beginning – a new birth if you will, in the relationship.

Notice how this approach is different from the first. The old way of dealing with our guilt calls for elaborate sacrifices. The new way calls for a change in behavior. The old way depends on someone else: a priest, a counselor, a friend. The new way places the responsibility on us for our actions. The old way didn’t involve the other person at all. The new requires confession.

Simple? Perhaps, but the Gospel is truly good news for every aspect of our life.

Yawning Your Way Through Worship

It’s something we have felt for a long time, but a book published in 2014 by George Barna and David Kinnaman, Churchless[1], confirms fewer and fewer Americans are attending church. In the 1990’s, 30% of Americans were classified as “unchurched.” That is “someone who has not attended a Christian church service, other an a special event such as a wedding or funeral, at any time in the past six months.” In the 2000’s that number rose to 33%, and in 2014, 43% of Americans were classified at unchurched.

Here is the breakdown for 2014:

  • 10% are “Purely Unchurched – they do not currently and have never attended a church.”
  • 33% are “De-Churched” – They once were active in church but are no longer.”
  • 8% are “Minimally Churched” the attend church infrequently and unpredictably.”
  • 49% are “Actively Churched” and Barna defines that as “Attend church at least once a month.”

The two groups classified as “Churched” are interesting, but the group that worries me most are the “De-Churched.” What happened? Why aren’t they part of our fellowship? I was relieved to learn, according to Barna, that we aren’t actively driving people out of our churches, but the sad truth is, we are boring them to death.

“Our surveys reveal that about one-quarter (24 percent) of the unchurched believe the typical church experience is boring or tiresome. In addition, they don’t see church as a place of meaningful community.”

Barna and I agree the answer isn’t to put on a better show – we don’t need to add pyrotechnics and improve our choreography – what we need is to “do things in and for your community that are valuable, visible, and memorable. … What does your church offer to the churched and churchless people that is too valuable, too meaningful, for them to ignore?”

That is not to say we must focus entirely on community service (as important as that is), but we need to learn to help people discover how relevant a relationship with God and one another is. “Churches should be places where we experience God’s presence in the company of his people. … People don’t come to church for the carnival rides. They come to meet God. … Our studies consistently show a large majority of people leave their church’s service without feeling as though they have connected with God.”

Brothers and sisters, as we gather for worship, fasten your seat belts because we have come to encounter God!

[1] Churchless: understanding today’s unchurched and how to connect with them: based on surveys by Barna Group/ Barna Group; George Barna and David Kinnaman, general editors, 2014.

A Cup of Coffee and Granny’s Bible

img_0262I had to get out of the office so I could focus on my class preparation. There were too many distractions and too many people dropping by, but when I settled down in the diner with my hot cup of coffee and my laptop, a young girl in the booth next to me asked, “What are you reading?” I took a deep breath, smiled and answered, “The Bible.”

“Oh, that old book,” she replied. “My grandmother left me her Bible when she died, but I just couldn’t get into it.”

“Did it sound a bit like Shakespeare?” I asked.

“Yeagh,” she smiled. “I guess it did. I just don’t understand what all the fuss is about. Why should I bother reading the Bible anyway?”

“Was it important to your granny? I asked.

“Yes. She read it all the time. Kept it next to her bed in the home,” she answered.

I put down my coffee and looked at her. “It’s a curious book.” I closed my Bible so we could read the cover. “Do you see it’s full name?” I asked. “It’s called the ‘Holy’ Bible because the word ‘Holy” means ‘special.’ It’s a unique book, unlike any other.” She picked up her coffee and came over to my booth and we began to talk. “Let me see if I can give you some reasons to pick your Bible up again,” I said.

“The Bible is a very old book. In fact, some of the oldest parts of the Bible were written over 3,500 years ago and the most recent parts were written nearly 2,000 years ago. The fact that it has survived at all is amazing. It was originally written on perishable material like cured animal skins and a fragile material made from plants called “papyrus.” Many ancient books have perished through benign neglect, but the Bible has even survived determined efforts to destroy it!”

“There are a lot of really old books though aren’t there?” she asked.

“That’s true, but the Bible is different. For example, it doesn’t reflect the common errors of its day,” I answered. “Think about it. Egyptian medical books from the time of Moses prescribe animal feces, crocodile teeth, and other similar remedies for disease.”

“If men had written the Bible from their own unaided wisdom, the same silly ideas we find in other ancient books which treat scientific matters would be found in it. How shall we explain their absence in Scripture?” — Rubel Shelly.

She stopped for a minute to think. “So the Bible doesn’t do that?” she asked. Then she took a sip of her coffee and continued. “But I’ve always heard that the Bible contains a bunch of errors. In fact, I’ve heard it is filled with mistakes.”

Now it was my turn to sip my coffee. “The ‘errors’ of the Bible are a slippery lot. The list keeps changing! Relevant research by historians, archaeologists, and scientists have always settled every dispute. For example, before the 20th century, scholars thought the book of Acts was full of mistakes. Let’s look at just one. Luke, the author of Acts, called the rulers of the city of Thessalonica in Greece ‘politarchs.’ Scholars said that was an obvious ‘mistake’ since not a single inscription could be produced using this term. Today we can point to nearly 70 inscriptions that use it and over 40 percent of those are from Thessalonica itself!”[1]

“Yes, but I’ve heard that the Bible has been changed through the centuries. Couldn’t people just have edited out embarrassing stuff?”

“A lot of people think that,” I said. “Some people believe the church changed the wording. Others think books were added to it and still others believe things were taken out. What do you think?”

She rolled her eyes. “Well, a lot can happen over 4,000 years!”

“William Shakespeare wrote 400 years ago. How can you be sure the Romeo and Juliet we are reading is the same as the one he wrote?” I asked.

“Can’t we just look at his first manuscript?” she asked.

“We don’t have it,” I answered.

Of Shakespeare’s plays, for example, no manuscript in his autograph is known, and much the same is true of the productions of the other playwrights who worked in the great period of drama from 1580 to 1642. …. The facts can be summarized in this way: no play by a professional playwright which was successful on the stage and which was printed before 1642 is known to have come down to our time or near it.[2]

I continued. “So what scholars do is gather up as many copies as they can find from ancient times and compare them. The more copies we have, the more certainty we have about the veracity of a reading.”

“Well that makes sense I suppose.” The waitress refilled our cups.

“With the risk of boring you,” I apologized, “let me share some statistics with you. You’ve heard of Julius Caesar?” I asked.

“Roman Emperor,” she answered.

“A Plus! The Emperor is famous for his book the Gallic War (composed between 58 and 50 B.C.). There several manuscripts of it, but only nine or ten are good, and the oldest is some 900 years later than Caesar’s day.”

“Okay,” she replied.

“The same is true of most ancient books. There are only a handful of copies and most of those are dated hundreds of years after they were originally written.”

Of the 142 books of the Roman History of Livy (59 BC-AD 17) only thirty-five survive; these are known to us from not more than twenty MSS of any consequence, only one of which, and that containing fragments of Books iii-vi, is as old as the fourth century. Of the fourteen books of the Histories of Tacitus (c. AD 100) only four and a half survive; of the sixteen books of his Annals, ten survive in full and two in part. The text of these extant portions of has two great historical works depends entirely on two MSS, one of the ninth century and one of the eleventh. The extant MSS of his minor works (Dialogue dc Oratoribus, Agricola, Germania) all descend from a codex of the tenth century The History of Thucydides (c. 460-400 BC) is known to us from eight MSS, the earliest belonging to c. AD 900, and a few papyrus scraps, belonging to about the beginning of the Christian era. The same is true of the History of Herodotus (c. 488-428 BC). Yet no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest MSS of their works which are of any use to us are over 1,300 years later than the originals. — F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?

“Now let’s look at the New Testament written about 2,000 years ago. There are over 5,000 ancient Greek manuscripts and over 20,000 ancient translations so we’re pretty sure we know what it originally said.”

“Okay, okay,” she said moving towards the outside edge of the booth.

“Wait,” I pleaded. “Before you go, let me give you two suggestions that will help you read it and three good reasons why you should.”

“This is beginning to sound like a sermon,” she protested.

I laughed and said, “That’s what you get when you drink coffee with a preacher!”

How to Read the Bible

  1. Use a Good Translation – the Bible was originally written in Hebrew and Greek. Keep Granny’s Bible with your precious keepsakes, but read the Bible in a modern translation.
  2. In the beginning, some parts of the Bible will be more interesting than others. I recommend new readers start with the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. Then get involved with a good Bible class to help you read the rest of this amazing book

Reasons to Read the Bible

  1. The Bible has an amazing history – It’s a very old book that is just as popular today as it was thousands of years ago. No other book compares in terms of popularity and circulation. The entire Bible is available in 554 languages. The New Testament is available in 518, and parts of the Bible have been translated into another 2,932 languages and dialects.
  2. No other book has had as much influence on western thought and literature. If you want to understand culture, you need to be familiar with the Bible.
  3. But the most important reason of all is the claim that the Bible makes to be the Word of God. Think about it! If it truly comes from God and not just people thinking about God, then no other book is as important as the Bible. When you read the Bible, God is speaking to you!

 

[1] Politarch. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

 

[2] Elizabethan Handwriting, 1500-1650: A Manual, by Giles E. Dawson and Laetitia Kennedy-Skipton (1966)

 

Leadership Paradoxes

John McKeelOver the years, I’ve accumulated a few scars. Some of them are expected. Once I received a phone call from a counselor warning me his client had made a credible threat against my life for helping his wife escape to a safe house rather than being repeatedly abused. Another time my Army training helped me protect a teen girl who was escaping her pimp, but those are expected wounds. Those are the scars you can point to with pride. But there are other scars – lasting wounds that will never fully heal. Those are the scars that come from people claiming to be brothers and sisters in Christ.

  • Big fish in little ponds have no interest in expanding their world.
  • You are often treated like a “hireling” by people who should know the difference between your ministry being “just a job” or a divine calling.
  • Some people believe just because you are a minister, they can say anything they like about you or your family or the people you care about. You’re a safe target. You won’t strike back.
  • It doesn’t matter that you have 12 years of education, know five languages, and have 40 years of experience, your answers mean nothing if they don’t happen to agree with their opinions or translation or favorite preacher.
  • Worst of all is the gossip, but of course Christians don’t gossip. They just share prayer requests.

At times like that, I fanaticize about becoming a parking lot attendant, but I can’t give it up. There is a fire in my bones that I can’t explain. So, I weep in the middle of the night. I spend more time in prayer and I reach into my “Bad Day File.” There I’ve saved letters and cards to show me my ministry has made a difference. There I keep inspirational tidbits that remind me why I am doing what I am doing.

I’ve lost the original source for this list of “Leadership Paradoxes,” but they have been a great comfort to me over the years and I hope they will inspire you not to give up either!

Leadership Paradoxes

  1. People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered. Love them anyway.
  2. If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Do good anyway.
  3. If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.
  4. The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
  5. Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.
  6. The biggest men with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men with the smallest ideas. Think big anyway.
  7. People favor underdogs, but follow only top dogs. Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
  8. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
  9. People really need help, but may attack you if you do help them. Help them anyway.
  10. Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best anyway.

The value in an action lies, not in the response it will receive, but in the quality of the action itself. Doing what is right, because it is right and honors God, is abundantly worthwhile, whether or not it is understood, appreciated, or reciprocated.

Leadership Communication

My grandmother who gave me such great advice
My grandmother who gave me such great advice

Communication and miscommunication seem to be universal issues among churches. People need to be informed, but the word often doesn’t get out. Leaders are misunderstood and members feel out of touch. How does this happen?

A common mistake is for leaders to believe that because they know, everyone else knows. At elders’ meeting issues are talked about over and over and over again. The shepherds know about issues and activities amongst themselves, but they fail to inform the congregation. An item might be put into the bulletin – but not everyone reads the weekly newsletter. Something might be announced, but announcements often fall short because people are thinking about what they are going to do after church rather than paying attention. What we need is what marketing people call “buzz.” A few people are excited and share the news repeatedly in every forum and in every format.

Unfortunately, most buzz is like a Twitter feed or a marketing pitch: it must be attention grabbing and especially short. Buzz doesn’t work well for complicated issues, issues that require education, or items that must be reviewed in depth. Here the “key man” concept may help.

In every church there are certain outspoken individuals that others listen to. If an idea can be effectively communicated to them, they will communicate it to the rest of the congregation. People naturally listen to what these people have to say and respect their conclusions. “If Brother Jones thinks it’s a good idea, I’m all for it.” Unfortunately, those key individuals, in my experience, are rarely the elders. Why?

It could be because elders only have a limited amount of time and that is generally spent with the other elders. The group becomes closed off from the rest of the congregation. This isn’t the case when the elders are leaders of smaller groups in the church like a Bible School class or a small group or they are diligent in exercising hospitality. But if the elders are only talking with other elders, a disconnect occurs.

Have you ever been to a store where the employees are all talking with each other and ignoring the customers? Do you feel like an outsider or like you are intruding if you try to interrupt them? Unfortunately, church leaders can be like that with their congregations. So how can we change that sad situation?

Paul says one of the qualifications for serving as an elder is “hospitality” (1 Timothy 3:2). That term includes being friendly and serving others, but it is much more familiar than that. When an elder and his wife open their home to others, it changes relationships from superficial social banter in the back of the church; it changes politeness into transparency, intimacy and love. No wonder the very first Christians met daily in the Temple and “in their homes” (Acts 2:46)!

However, whenever I have suggested this, the idea is met with a great deal of resistance. I think that’s because modern Americans have forgotten the difference between entertaining and hospitality. Entertaining mean setting out a formal dinner party that requires a great expenditure of effort and money. It means setting the table with the best china, polishing the silver, and arranging entertainment. Good old fashioned hospitality doesn’t care about clean houses and gourmet fare. TV trays and pizza are perfect! Laughing and telling stories is the stuff of intimacy and the foundation of hospitality. It also is the perfect setting for sharing dreams and visions and honest communication which raises another point.

Communication is a two-way process. Putting something in the bulletin or making an announcement involves only one direction and may or may not get the job done, but when you listen to what people think, it involves two directions and communication is much more likely to occur.

Maybe we should all listen to my grandmother’s advice: “God gave us two ears and one mouth Johnny so we need to listen twice as much as we speak.” The foundation of good leadership communication is listening as well as speaking.

The Power of Preaching

Recently, one of my former elders called me and asked, “How’s the job search going?” I know he meant well, but we’ve gone round and round in the past about the difference between a “job” and a “calling.” A job pays the bill. In High School I cut fish for a living. It was my first job and, since I don’t have a sense of smell, I was ideally equipped for it. On the other hand, it was never my intension to spend the rest of my life hacking up halibut. I felt God had something else in mind for me.

My Grandfather, John D. McKeel
My Papa, John D. McKeel

My earliest memory is holding my Papa’s hand and climbing the stairs to Sunday School at the old 12th and Drexel church of Christ in Oklahoma City. Dad was in the Army in Korea and mom and my baby brother and I were living with my grandparents. I still have the card K.C. Moser gave my parents when I was born. From the earliest age, I wanted to be a preacher. Ministers were my heroes. Still I was mesmerized by those giants of old who so authoritatively preached the word. That’s what I wanted to be when I grew up! That was what God was calling me to do.

“I’m sending out resumes,” I answered, but what I am really doing is listening to stories – the stories of congregations around the country and I am worried. Not that I won’t be called to another church, but I am worried about the church itself.

“The average age here is 70,” he said as I listened. “We’re all getting up there so we need to do something quick!”

“And what do you feel like you need at X street?” I asked.

“Well, we’re going to hire a youth minister and we’re looking for a young man with a family to fill the pulpit,” he answered. I sighed and resisted the urge to ask, “And how many young people are there for that Youth Minister to minister to?”

Congregation after congregation believes the key is to hire someone young. “That’ll attract young families!” I hear over and over again. “If we add a contemporary service, the young people will come back!” They conclude. I had a vision of a bunch of 70-year old rockers with electric guitars and pounding drums – and shuddered.

Changing the music is probably a good idea in a lot of churches, but I don’t believe adding a band or a Youth Minister for that matter is the key to growing a church.

“Well, Brother McKeel, what do you think the key is?”

“Please, just call me John.” I said.

It’s no more about adding music and changing the role of women than it was about Pre-Millennialism, Cooperation, Speaking in Tongues or the Discipleship Movement in days gone by. There will always be a new program and there will always be a new controversy that threatens to divide us. A new program or a new method will not “save the church.”

“The Bible is the key,” I replied. “Jesus warned the Scribes, ‘Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge.’ (Luke 11:52) The Bible is the key!”

I got a puzzled look and he stammered, “But we preach the Bible!”

“Yes, but do you make it come alive?” I asked. “No one has the right to make the Bible boring! I know a lot of preachers who try, but the Word must be ‘living and active’ not ‘dead and dull.’”

“Our preacher works very hard to have a lesson that is strong on application,” he protested.

“I’m sure he does,” I answered. “But Preaching ‘Six Steps to a Happy Life’ isn’t going to change the world. Many of the sermon outlines I see look like a kidnapper’s ransom note,” I observed. “Six points with six Scriptures cut out of different contexts to prove a point. That’s not listening to God. That’s just cutting out passages and pasting them into your outline to prove your point. Your preacher may make a wonderful point, but he needs to let the text dictate the outline instead of using the text to illustrate his conclusions.”

[Think about that for a moment. On the one hand we begin with God (observation), study very hard to know what the text is saying (interpretation) and then apply it (application). On the other hand we begin with our application in mind and try to find supporting quotes for it from different, often unrelated, passages of Scripture. Those are two very different approaches to my mind.]

I got a sharp glance down a very long nose. “And what is preaching in your opinion?”

“Story-telling.”

I let that sink in. “A rabbi once said, ‘God loves a good story. That’s why He created people.’”

Think about it. The first rule of good preaching is “Never yawn during your own sermon.” I’ve learned the way to hold people’s attention is by telling a good story and no story is better than the ones that come from the Good Book. First are the Bible Biographies. Yes, everyone may have heard the story of David and Goliath, but who tires of it let alone the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the Beggar at the Golden Gate; the Philippian Jailer – the prophets, the apostles – the list is nearly endless and the lessons are just as applicable today as they were when the Holy Spirit chose to include them in the Bible.

But suppose we do tire of those stories. We can move on to the stories Jesus told: the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Story of the Soils. And what happens when you get bored with those? Then let’s open up a text and make it come alive! Preachers need to learn the art of exegesis again. People are spell-bound and lives are changed when the letters of Paul, Peter, James and John are opened. When was the last time you heard a book brought to life from beginning to end? That’s preaching!

And the beautiful part of this plan is: The Bible touches everyone – old and young alike! Preaching on current events is divisive. Preaching pop psychology or even common sense won’t touch everyone. Using multi-media is clever, often entertaining, but it doesn’t begin to change lives unless it is used to open up the Scriptures.

Let’s get back to the Word of God. Let’s stand in awe and listen! If we are going to survive, much less grow, we need preachers.

The 73rd Annual Pepperdine Bible Lectureship

John guiding in Bavaria 1975
John guiding in Bavaria 1975

This Friday, May 6th, I will be teaching a class, “Five Minutes on the Back of a Napkin: A Visual Approach to Sharing the Gospel,” at the 73rd Annual Pepperdine Bible Lectureship in Malibu, California. Sharing the Good News shouldn’t be a program. We don’t need to learn a “sales pitch” or use some kind of gimmick to share the Gospel. When my daughter was born, I had to tell someone the good news. It was 3:00 in the morning! So I went to Denny’s and burst through the doors shouting, “It’s a girl!” Everyone shared my joy and someone bought my breakfast!

Do you remember the story of the Triumphal Entry (Luke 19:28-43)? When the religious leaders tried to tell Jesus to quiet the Master’s joyous celebration,  “He answered, ‘ I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

Likewise, Jesus used this principle with the Gerasene Demoniac (Mark 5:1-20). When the man was cured, he asked to go with Jesus, but the Lord said, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you.”

The apostles used this principle with the Sanhedrin (Acts 4:1-22). When the politicians told the apostles not to talk about Jesus anymore, they replied they couldn’t help but speak.

You know your own story of how God saved you, but what many people struggle with is a framework. Where do I begin? What do I need to say? That’s what this class is all about. If you happen to be at the lectureship, I hope you’ll join me. Meanwhile, several people have asked me to share more about sharing the gospel on the back of a napkin. Stay tuned!