The Lion, the Sheep and the Bathrobe

18 11 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

I have a sort of recurring day dream about my first appearance before God at Judgment time. It’s probably horrible theology on a number of levels, but I just can’t seem to shake the picture, and it is all because of a cool little comment Jesus makes in John 17:12… While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.

I am haunted by those words, “…none has been lost”. I have this embarrassing picture in mind of my standing in my bath robe in front of God and Him asking me about all the people He placed under my influence in the church and who left the church at one time or another and I never heard from them again. I’m talking about members of Sunday School classes, choir members, committee members, etc. for whom I had some leadership responsibility (or at least a friendship) and who have disappeared from the church’s radar screen. Oh, how I wish I could look up and say (with Jesus) “None has been lost.” But I cannot. Can you?

It is what Jesus was referring to in Matthew 18 in his parable of the lost sheep. The context in which Matthew recalls that parable is a very different context from how Luke uses it. Maybe Jesus told the parable more than once. In Matthew, Jesus is clearly talking about the church and “sheep” who wander off. Jesus poses this question: what kind of shepherd would not leave the entire flock in order to go after the one lamb who wanders away? Of course, it makes perfect sense in that scenario that any of us would do that. So, why don’t we do likewise in the church? When one of our flock begins to make decisions that pull him/her away from the Lord and away from God’s people, leaving him/her vulnerable to the attacks of the enemy, why don’t we drop everything to go after that wandering sheep?

A herd animal’s vulnerability when it gets away from the herd is a scary thing. It is an image Peter has in mind in I Peter 5:8 when he refers to our enemy as “…a roaring lion looking for someone to devour”. Did you know that a lioness will follow a herd for weeks watching and waiting, studying the herd and looking for the weakest members? She patiently waits for that moment when one of the weak members pulls away from the herd and becomes vulnerable. Similarly, our enemy watches and waits, like a lion on the prowl.

One of our jobs as leaders in the church is to go after those sheep who have wandered away, and to find whatever creative means necessary to turn them back toward the flock. I know that is a tall order. I know it raises lots of questions about exactly what that confrontation looks like and how it works (that, of course, is for future posts). But surely it is our responsibility, if we take Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 seriously. Welcome to the Body of Christ!

So, if you look as silly in your bath robe as I do in mine, you better get to work, because there is an embarrassing accounting waiting for us. There are wandering sheep to be found…

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Does the Church Have a False View of Self?

23 10 2014

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.  1 Timothy 1:15-16

eye in the mirrorDoes it matter whether or not Paul was in fact the “foremost sinner” before coming to Christ? Or, is the more important point that he perceived himself as such? Yeh, I think so too. It is the self-perception on this issue which matters most.

I think  two of the biggest problems for most Christ-followers today is (1) having a false sense of who God is, and (2) having a false sense of who we are without him. The gospel is difficult in the American culture because there are so many in this culture who, frankly, do not feel the need for a savior.  What’s worse, the church has become less effective as those of us in the church have tended to forget for ourselves just how desperately we need a savior. Still.

Churches, you see, can have a false sense of self just as well as individuals…we can actually stop remembering who we are without God. We can get so wrapped up in “doing church” that we lose sight of what matters most. Specifically, here are five ways I have seen us have a false sense of self…here are some lies we sometimes believe about our church:

1. We’re better because our music/preaching/buildings/programming/resources are better. Truth is, we are probably not better at all. But IF we are better, it is only because of the work of the Spirit among us. All the stuff we do…is just stuff. With Jesus, the church has all it needs. Without Jesus, we can do nothing.

2. Our numbers prove that we’re successful and making a difference. Our numbers prove we are reaching people, and that’s a good thing. But our numbers do not tell us anything at all about spiritual transformation or changed lives. Without those, we are accomplishing very little.

3. We are a missional church and should be focused outside the church, not on relationships within the church. According to Jesus in John 17, missions outside the church DEPEND UPON relationships within the church.

4. We’re efficient, doing more and more ministry with fewer and fewer people. What do you think is more valuable to the kingdom…having a broader ministry reach or involving more of our people in real ministry? Think about it.

5. The current absence of any unhealthy conflict in our church proves that we have unity. Wrong. It proves we are currently between issues. And that’s it. Unity has to do with the quality and transparency of our relationships with each other, with conflict or without it.

When Paul refers to himself as the foremost among sinners, he is simply recognizing who he really is without Christ. In desperate need of a savior. It is a healthy self-awareness. Let’s help our church have that same level of reality when we look in the mirror. It will do us good.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Surviving a Lion Attack

7 10 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.  1 Peter 5:8

Want a chuckle for today?  Check out this Wiki article on 7 steps to survive a lion attack.  Yeh, I’m not altogether certain about those seven steps.  I have a question or two about them.  For starters, do I try to recall these steps before I wet my pants or after?

I love that Peter uses this illustration to make his point about our enemy.  It is perfect for so many reasons.

Consider, for example, how a lioness hunts.  She is capable of following a herd of animals for days, even weeks, stalking and studying.  She watches to learn which of the members are the weakest and the most likely to fall behind the rest of the herd.  You see, when it comes to lion attacks, there is protection in the herd.  The lioness watches for lame or young or otherwise “slower” members of the herd who are more likely to make decisions that tend to “distance” them from the herd…decisions that might make the protection of the herd more and more tenuous.

The same is true of our enemy.  He watches the church (the “herd”)…stalking and learning.  He watches for those members most likely to distance themselves from the church…most likely to forsake the spiritual protection of God’s people.  You see, being created for community means we actually need each other’s diligent protection against the schemes of our enemy.  We really must let friends get close enough to us to protect us.  We  must make arrangements with brothers and sisters who will love us enough to ask us some hard questions about our choices.  That, my friend, is what “accountability” means.

My friend, Frank Pretorius (in Cape Town, South Africa) sent me this video.  Granted, it is a leopard and not a lion.  But otherwise, it is the perfect picture of what spiritual accountability looks like…

Is that awesome or what?  As an illustration, it begs some important questions about the spiritual accountability in your own life.  When it comes to lion attacks, who’s got your back?  With whom have you already made arrangements for accountability?  Whom have you granted permission to ask you hard questions about your choices?  You see, when you experience your next lion attack, you can either trust Wiki or you can trust your friends.  And I don’t have a single video of Wiki saving someone’s life.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Our Foolish Fragile Fences

18 09 2014

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility. Ephesians 2:13-14

dividing fence

We all build fences. It is an essential part of the human condition. We categorize and re-categorize ourselves and others over and over again in order to protect our fragile egos and in order to minimize any complex thinking required to really see others. We are quick to identify differences which separate us and we “otherize” anyone we do not agree with or do not fully understand. We build fences. And we do this within the church.

Apparently, the single most effective tool for breaking down fences between people or groups of people is to identify a bigger, more important dividing line. Having found that more significant division, most of the smaller ones suddenly seem less important and may dissolve altogether. You have experienced this.

Take, for example, the deep, deep political divide the United States was experiencing after the 2000 Presidential election…the race between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Does the term “hanging chad” ring a bell? Remember how very deeply this country was split right down the middle? We had almost a full year of political fights over those election results. But then, on September 11 of the following year, the greatest catastrophe this country has ever known was inflicted upon us. Suddenly, those deep, deep dividing lines seemed unimportant, because now there was a much bigger, more important dividing line…one that ran between this country and its terrorist foes. This country has never been more “unified” than in the days and weeks immediately following that event. Democrats and Republicans became bedfellows, united for a cause.

You see, there are certain “perspective builders” and “game changers” that make us forget about fences that previously seemed important to us. You will notice that all the demographic differences between patients in a chemotherapy ward dissolve very quickly in light of the “perspective building” fight they are all fighting. You will notice that all the political differences between members of an addiction support group represent insignificant divisions in light of the one huge dividing line separating all of them from sobriety and recovery. In short, all those fences we create are subject to being moved or being dissolved altogether under the right circumstances.

As it turns out, the gospel is the right circumstance…it is the quintessential ultimate dividing line which causes all others to dissolve in its shadow. Whatever fences we may have erected in order to differentiate ourselves from others (“those people” who voted differently from me in the last election, “they” who live a different lifestyle from me, “them” who rebuke my faith, etc.), those fences all go away at the foot of the cross. As it turns out, there is only one dividing line that matters…only one that is eternal…it is the line that divides a holy, sovereign God from all the rest of us. ALL the rest of us. You and I and everyone else in this world all find ourselves on the same side of the only fence which matters. We were all dead in our trespasses. None of us…NONE OF US…are in any way entitled to a place on the other side of that fence.

And that is the miracle of the church. None of our fences matter, all of them are foolish and fragile and meaningless in the light of the gospel. Jews and Gentiles…Republicans and Democrats…prostitutes and debutantes…slaves and kings…we all need a savior. Desperately. That is the undeniable unity of the gospel.

So, I find myself wondering what fences I have erected that need to come down today, in light of the gospel I say I believe?

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




The Shrewd Servant Church

5 08 2014

But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. Matthew 25:26-27

Honestly, I have always felt a little sorry for the poor servant who did not invest his master’s money wisely. It seems to me there is at least a little wisdom in putting the money away and making sure it doesn’t get lost or otherwise wasted away. I can still remember the first time I ever studied this parable (I was a teenager) and being shocked at the harshness of this master. “Wicked” and “slothful” just seemed a little over the top to me, especially for a servant who kept all of his master’s money intact and did not lose any of it.

human resourcesBut, alas, the economy of God’s kingdom does not favor the radical fiscal conservatives like me. In God’s eyes, simply hiding the resources under my mattress and saving them for a rainy day is just poor stewardship. I should rather be investing those resources and growing them. I should be risking them a little (every investment is a risk) and putting them to work.

The same is true for the church. And not just with finances or material resources, but maybe even more importantly, with the human resources God has given us in our congregants…the spiritual gifts, talents, abilities, learned skills, work backgrounds, and emotional strengths in the people God has brought us. Our master has placed all those resources into our hands as the church and, shrewd stewards that we are, we are to put them to work…risk them…use them to produce kingdom growth.  What we are NOT to do is sit on them or ignore them or stick them under a mattress…that would be wicked and slothful on our part. Moreover, part of shepherding these very people is helping them identify those gifts and learn for themselves how they can be invested in kingdom growth. In the church, you see, every member is a minister; everyone has an assignment. We need systems in place designed to figure out what those assignments are.

As Andy Stanley is prone to pointing out: the system you have in place right now for this purpose is perfectly designed to bring about the results you are getting. So, if you don’t like the results you are getting, it is your system (your approach to the problem) which needs tweaking. There are a multitude of vehicles out there today to assist. Rick Warren’s S.H.A.P.E. profile is one. The Enneagram Institute is another. Group Publishing continues to publish outstanding resources for mobilizing ministry volunteers. There is a host of personality inventories and spiritual gift inventories out there for use. There are nominating committee systems and even “drafts” for ministry leaders. I have seen and heard about some pretty creative approaches to mobilizing laity for ministry. Use any of them. Use all of them. Make up your own. The point is, be a shrewd steward of all that God has brought your church. Have a system in place for learning about all your people have to offer and have a system in place for then mobilizing them into ministry assignments.

Has your church figured it out? Do you have a system that is working well for you, making your church a shrewd servant? I would love to hear about it in the comments!

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Letting Your People Mess Up

24 07 2014

Thursday Re-mix:

And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.  As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you.  Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.” 1 Samuel 8:7-9

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”  C.S. Lewis

Here is a fundamental truth for church leaders (including pastors): the church is not for you (not really), nor is it about you.  If you think about it, that is actually a rather freeing reality.  That means it is not your responsibility to manipulate every outcome.  Rather, it is your responsibility to speak God’s truth to the best of your ability and to love your people well…and love often means letting them mess up royally.

Asleep in ClassMost of my own best illustrations of this leadership principle come from parenting.  If you are a parent, you already know the phenomenon well.  There are times when a parent can see a wrong direction a child is headed and the very best way to teach this lesson is to simply warn them and then let them make their own decision (and live with the consequences).  Take bedtimes, for example.  Toddlers are simply told when they will go to bed.  But, as they grow older, we eventually get to a point where they must learn to use their own judgment about sleep time.  The first time we lift the bedtime requirement, we simply explain to them, “Go to bed whenever you like…but if you stay awake too late, you’ll be awfully tired tomorrow at school.”  Then, that first night we find them playing on X-box at Midnight, we warn them again: “You’re gonna be awfully tired tomorrow if you don’t go to bed soon.”  Well, you know how this one plays out.

That illustration is harmless enough.  The worst outcome for that student is a little humiliation in class and perhaps a bad grade or two.  But the more mature our student becomes, the bigger the consequences.  We begin allowing them to make really big decisions with really big consequences.  It is all a part of growing up.

Shepherding God’s people is no different.  As leaders, there really is no other effective way to lead than to allow God’s people to make decisions as a people, even when those decisions are sometimes horribly wrong.  You can give them the benefit of your own spiritual discernment, you can warn them about the consequences of their wrong direction, you can even ask them to please reconsider.  But in the end, more times than not, it is their decision to make and not yours.  You cannot make it for them.  You cannot even make it for yourself.  Most importantly, you cannot take it personally when they decide not to take your counsel.  They will make their decision, and you and they together will live with the consequences of it, and you will just keep loving them as well as you know how.

God’s words to Samuel in 1 Samuel 8 echo in so many of your church’s important decisions today.  You can see the majority forming and you can see the damaging consequences of that direction.  They are about to make a decision exactly contrary to how you have counseled them.  This is when God’s whisper comes: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king…Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what [their decision will mean].” That is what leadership looks like.  That is what love looks like.  Swallow your pride, listen to your people, counsel them as best you know how, and then walk with them…even through the muck and mire of wrong decisions.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




The Church as the Sandwich Generation

10 07 2014

Thursday Re-mix:

When the time drew near for Israel to die, he called for his son Joseph and said to him, “If I have found favor in your eyes, put your hand under my thigh and promise that you will show me kindness and faithfulness. Do not bury me in Egypt, but when I rest with my fathers, carry me out of Egypt and bury me where they are buried.”

“I will do as you say,” he said.  Genesis 47:29-30

I believe it was Will Rogers who came up with these four stages of life: First we are our parents’ child, then we are our child’s parent, then we are our parents’ parent, then we are our child’s child.  Right in the middle of those stages, there is a life stage, a generation (if you will), referred to as the “sandwich generation”.  It is that life stage where you find yourself not only still parenting your children, but also being a  caregiver to aging parents.  That is where Joseph found himself in Genesis 47-50.  He was a father to two sons born to him in Egypt, while at the same time being called upon to honor his dying father’s heritage.  I am grateful to God that I have two healthy parents and have not quite arrived at that sandwich stage (and I’m not sure either of my parents would ever permit me to), but I can only imagine it is wrought with difficulties and tensions.

three generationsIt seems that having our focus divided between raising a new generation into adulthood and, at the same, honoring an older generation is a real challenge.  Then again, as a church leader you already know that.  The sandwich illustration, you see, is a perpetual life stage for every local church…always raising up new leaders and always loving well those leaders who are aging.

The challenge hits us at virtually every turn in the church.  The tension surfaces in worship, in communication patterns, in fiscal policies, in government issues, in missiology, in community ministry, and in leadership styles.  The demand for effective leadership development in the much-studied but rarely understood generations X, Y, and Millenials in the church has never been higher.  But at the same time, the need for elder care and learning to honor the numerous and now-aging baby boomer generation, looms large in almost every church today.  There simply are no shortcuts.  Just about every church must figure this out and must do the hard things necessary to nurture both ends of the generation spectrum.  In most cases, forsaking either end spells doom for that church.

In some cases, it may mean bringing in a staff member specifically for each end of the adult generation spectrum.  In other cases, it may mean being more assertive in creating community among the generations…genuine Spirit-filled relationships between them.  In still other cases, the real need might be a senior pastor who is adept at loving and shepherding across generational lines.  But in every case it takes intentionality.  It requires creativity and strategic thinking…a plan, if you will.  It will not happen naturally, not in this culture.  It takes thinking and effort and a commitment on the part of your leadership.

So, what about it?  What’s your plan?

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com