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




Losing Your Church’s Training Wheels

9 09 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand.  In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!  Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.  But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.  Hebrews 5:11-14

training wheelsIt is kind of a big moment in a child’s life, going from three (or four) wheels to just two…going from the tricycle (or bicycle with training wheels) to a bicycle.  “Look Dad, I’m a big girl now!”  It is a big deal because it is a big adjustment.  It is not just about balance.  It is about forward motion.  It is an entirely different mindset.

After all, that is the biggest difference between a bike with training wheels and one without…you can sit on a bike with training wheels and not move at all.  You can just sit there and be pretty and comfortable and cool, never moving forward, never taking a risk, never changing a thing.  But as soon as those training wheels come off, that option (sitting still) is off the table.  You see, with the growth from child into maturity, there comes a requirement of constant forward progress, continuous pressing ahead without long stops, without sitting still and being comfortable, and without growing content where you are.

It really is a very different way of being, a totally different philosophy.  It is a new mindset, a new frame of reference.  Constant forward movement means leaning against the very human tendency of stopping to just wallow in the way things are.  An orientation toward forward progress requires leadership on your part, much like the leadership provided to us by the writer of Hebrews: though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.  I read this exhortation less as a comment about what we do not know, and more as a comment about the direction we are headed…more specifically, the direction we are NOT headed…FORWARD!

Effectively leading God’s people toward a “forward orientation” requires steady, constant, loving pressure.  It requires a regular dose of discontent…not a depressing discontent, bringing everybody down all the time…rather, a healthy realization that we can get better, that we can get forward.  It requires a little cheerleading to celebrate the successes of the past, an appropriate pause to feel encouraged, and then an immediate shift toward what is next.  It requires a system for setting goals and objectives, for discerning what God is doing right now, for making quick adjustments to join that work, and then doing it all over again.  It requires evaluation and asking honest, hard questions about whether we are really “winning” in terms of the vision.  This is what “maturity” feels like for a church.  It is not a destination…it is a direction of movement.

If your leadership is not resulting in healthy change and moving forward, if the only prevailing mindset in your people is contentment with the way things are, then it may be time to take the training wheels off the bike.  It’s scary at first. For everyone.  But once you’re going forward, it’s a rush your people will never want to lose!

© 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 Leader’s Problem with Pretense

2 09 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.  Hebrews 4:15

transparencyMy friend Scott is a gifted teacher.  I remember one of his illustrations using a bunch of unmarked tea bags.  He had everyone pass them around and smell them to see if we could tell what kind of tea each one held.  Then he said something really profound: “Tea bags are a lot like people…you don’t know for sure what’s inside them until you put them in hot water.”  It was a beautiful illustration about integrity and transparency.  Together, those are the currency of leadership in the church.

What was truly transformative about Jesus (and what has been transformative about Christianity for over 2,000 years now) is not the power nor the persuasion nor the perfection of Jesus.  Rather, it was the almost spellbinding “connection” he had with everyone he met.  He connected with the Samaritan woman at the well.  He connected with the Pharisee, Nicodemus.  He connected with fishermen and tax collectors and soldiers and prostitutes.  What changed people was his ability to see right into their souls, and at the same time allow them to see right into Him.

That was the founder of this revolution for which you and I are contending.  And we should reflect that same level of transparency and connectability.  It is important to our mission.  In fact, the revolution depends on it.

But in our efforts to work harder to do all the things good Christians should do, and in our efforts to manage our people’s perception of us, we often tend to lose the transparency.  In our churches’ efforts to elevate our leaders to praiseworthy heights, we create an environment where it is no longer safe for them to be truly transparent, lest they lose the very popularity which placed them there.  We want heroes for our leaders, so we “create” them, leaving little or no room for their humanity.  And as leaders, we fall in line with this very system, as it often seems like the only opportunity to lead.  The very pretense which lifts us up eventually becomes our downfall.

But here is the magnified effect of that pretense: Leaders who pretend to be something they are not end up building organizations which pretend to be something they are not.  An entire culture of pretense and shallow relationships results.  And, more times than any of us want to admit it, we call it “church”.

As I reflect on Hebrews 4-5 and its description of our “great High Priest”, I am reminded that it is transparency and “connection” which are the real stuff of which Christ-like leaders are made.  Our ability to relate to our people and their ability to relate to us…to connect with us…is what really matters.  That’s what our founder taught us.  I just need a reminder a few times each day.  Because, in the end, when you put me in hot water, all I really want you to see coming out of me is Jesus.

© 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 Best Laid Plans

7 08 2014

Thursday Re-mix:

When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body.  1 Corinthians 15:37-38

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—  1 Corinthians 15:51

TransformationI am no visionary.  I am the first to admit it.  I am envious of those who are visionaries.  I’m pretty quick to admit that as well.  I am impressed with the leader who says, “This is what we will look like in 5 years.”  I very much believe there are people like that…leaders who know exactly what they want to achieve and who know how to cast a laser-like vision to make sure their people make it happen.  So when that leader gets to that 5-year mark and is able to look back and say, “This is exactly where I said we would be in five years, and lo and behold, we did it…” I am impressed and awed.  And if it is a spiritual venture, like a church, I am a little bit sad.

I am sad because that picture seems to leave little room for God’s transforming activity.  You see, there may be some things about the God of the Bible which are predictable, but there is very little about His creative side which lends itself to even the best plans of men.  When God gets involved in something, huge, unpredictable transformations occur…things that are not a part of anyone’s strategic plan.  If we are planning correctly in the church, all we are really doing is structuring so as to enable the organization to respond quickly and efficiently once God’s transformational activity begins.

That is why I love the metaphor of “planting” a church.  There may be some predictable activity associated with planting a seed, but as for the transformation of the seedling into the sprout and then into the flourishing plant, it is all still more mystery to us than science.  And there is nothing about the appearance of the seed that would give you any clue at all as to the ultimate appearance of the plant.  God is unpredictable that way.  And “planting” a church works that same way.  Ask anyone who has been truly successful at planting them…he/she will share story after story of how God moved in totally unexpected ways to bring about results which were not on anyone’s radar screen.  Ultimately, the church ends up looking very little like the original dream.

And so, the church growth testimonies which stir our hearts are not so much the ones which were totally predicted by their leaders; rather, they are the stories about huge, God-sized, unexpected things happening and a church which simply followed God’s activity.  And while we applaud the visionary and the clearly-articulated and well-implemented ministry vision, what moves us is the unmistakable transforming work of the Spirit.

Please don’t hear me saying strategic planning and vision-casting are wrong, even in the slightest.  I believe they are critical.  But the real work, the truest tack for God’s people, is learning to rightly discern the work of the Spirit among us and then mobilizing to join in that direction.  After all, in the end, the clearest evidence of God’s work among us is that none of us envisioned the transformation He would bring about.  His ways…His thoughts…don’t look anything like ours.

© 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




Seeing Through the Flaws in Your Shepherd

17 07 2014

Thursday Re-mix:

The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.  1 Samuel 16:7b

Most of the church conflicts into which I get called are swirling (at one level or another) around a pastor.  And most of the opposition parties I meet eventually get to a point in the conflict where they are saying, “We never should have called him as our pastor…we made a terrible mistake.”  And that conclusion is always based upon a (sometimes very long) list of flaws which, in their eyes, disqualify him/her as their shepherd.

finding flawsIt always reminds me of the life of Israel’s most effective King…King David, the “man after God’s own heart”.  So much of God’s story in this world was written through David’s life…so much scripture…so much poetry…so much history…it is hard to imagine anyone being used more profoundly by God.  His passion was extraordinary, his love for God immeasurable.  His leadership was undeniable, and his lineage would produce the Savior of the world.  Not a bad spiritual resume, if you ask me.

Did I mention his poligamy?  His adultery?  The murder?  The “divorce” from his first wife (she apparently had a problem with his dancing in the streets in his underwear), the attempts by his father-in-law to kill him, and the subsequent re-marriage to her?  Did I mention his eight other marriages (and that number is just the number of wives whose names we know…there were apparently many others whose names are not mentioned in scripture)?  How about David’s first son’s rape of his half-sister…followed by her brother’s murder of that same son in retaliation?  How about the attempt by that second son to overthrow David’s reign as king?  Did I mention that David’s own men would subsequently kill that second son as well?

In short…David’s house was a mess!  His life was a mess.  And his “kingdom” was as conflict-ridden as any imaginable.  So, as I am reading through this muck and mire which David called a life, I could not help but wonder…how do you think David’s resume would fair in your church’s next pastor search process?  For that matter, how about Peter’s resume?  Or Hosea’s?  I think you get the picture.

At some point, we as Christ-followers have to come to grips with the fact that God’s ways of testing the heart of a leader are pretty different from ours.  We have to embrace the sheer magnitude of God’s grace and His ability to write His story through the lives of horribly flawed people with horribly flawed lives and horribly flawed families.  Indeed, we must acknowledge that God’s purposes for his/her leadership may well be served best in our situation BECAUSE of those “flaws”, and not just in spite of them.  Those “flaws” may bring exactly the perspective God wants in his/her leadership for a specific place at a specific time.  I have said often that I never want to be pastored by a shepherd who does not know personal turmoil or tragedy.  It has a way of bringing “perspective” to my own turmoil.

So, does that mean we must rejoice in all our leaders’ flaws?  No, not necessarily.  But it does mean we do not have the privilege of writing them off merely because of those flaws.  We must learn to recognize that, when God calls a leader to a task, He does so with full knowledge of that leader’s “flaws”.  In short, we must learn true spiritual discernment…and not just some worldly version of measuring leaders.

Tall order, I know.  Then again, if it were easy, everybody would be doing it already. Right?

© 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




Loving Obedience is Caught, not Taught

8 07 2014

Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
    as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
    and to heed is better than the fat of rams. 1 Samuel 15:22

loving GodMy dear (now deceased) friend and Board member, Warren Clark, loved telling a story about teaching some of our materials on reconciliation in a church in Eastern Ukraine some years ago. He was in the middle of the teaching when people started getting up and leaving the church building. Not all at once…just a few here and then a few more there. During a break in the conference, he asked the pastor if he had done something wrong to offend them, since they were leaving. The pastor smiled at him and said, “No, brother, not at all! They are hearing a word from the Lord about reconciliation and they are going to reconcile with brothers and sisters. Isn’t that what you want?” Well, of course it is. We in the American church would just never have expected it.

Immediate and complete obedience is really the only obedience.  Anything less (delayed obedience, partial obedience, etc.) is just a form of disobedience. That was Saul’s lesson in 1 Samuel 15. And that will be the lesson ultimately for the American church, I fear. We talk a lot about God and Jesus and God’s Word and other such spiritual things…we can argue theology all day long, thanks to 200 years of freedom to study it…we can write books and blogs about building churches and vision and preaching and small groups and creative programming…but in the end, it is going to matter to God that his people followed some social or political or personal agenda first, and His agenda second. Any agenda, you see, which comes before God’s agenda is disobedience plain and simple. It was for Saul and it is likewise for us.

In the wake of a busy week of arguing about Hobby Lobby and Independence Day and the “correct” Christian view of those social and political issues, I wonder if God is feeling the love? I wonder if the church (and more specifically, those of us who have been called to lead the church) has truly loved God more than we have loved politics or social agendas or being on the “right” side of either one? You see, being truly faithful and truly obedient to God is a simple function of one thing: our love for God. That was Saul’s problem. He did not really love God. He acted as if he had a fear of the Lord, but ultimately, it was not God’s agenda driving him. It was some different agenda.

Our various agendas are, I believe, at the heart of all our rebellion and disobedience. We are very much like Saul. It is not a hatred of God. It is not even a dislike. It is simply that we do not love God enough to allow Him and Him alone to set our agendas. We would rather trust our own understanding (and the understanding of our news syndicate of choice), rather than demonstrating to our people a complete dependence on God and on an unbiased interpretation of His Word. That love for the Lord, after all, is the only right motive for obedience. You and I talk about loving God, we try to grow our people’s faith in God, and we devote hours of study to the teaching of His Word. And then we complain to God that our people are still living in disobedience to Him and wonder out loud why they do. You see, as it turns out, loving God is most often caught more than it is taught.

The American church today is not wanting for leaders. There are plenty of voices speaking loudly and clearly from leadership platforms in the church. But my fear is that we are wanting for leaders whose demonstrated love for the Lord and respect for His Word cause them to rise far above all political and social agendas…leaders whose love for the Lord is contagious, and who make us all want to love God with that same faithfulness and obedience. The church today doesn’t need leaders who will inspire us to be “right”…we need leaders whose faithfulness will inspire us to love God more and more.

© 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