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




Churches Dying Well

31 07 2014

Thursday Re-mix:

There on the mountain that you have climbed you will die and be gathered to your people, just as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his people. Deuteronomy 32:50

“None of us are getting out of here alive.”  Jim Morrison, Valerie Harper, Evel Kneivel, Colin Murphy, Hilary Swank, Jill Shalvis, Elbert Hubbard (and these are just from the first couple of pages of results on Google)

Life is terminal.  We all get that.  Dying is just a part of living, and that is an eternal truth.  We may not like it, we may not be ready to fully embrace it, but it is truth.  And eventually, it is a truth with which we simply must deal.

abandoned churchBut have you ever thought about it as it relates to churches (i.e., to local bodies of believers)?  Have you stopped to realize that there is not a single “local church” which has been around from the very beginning?  All those “churches” mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3? Gone.  Even the good ones.  And the church you serve right now will die one day as well.  It is the natural order of things.

Churches are, metaphorically speaking, living organisms.  They breathe, they multiply, they regenerate, they get sick, and eventually, they die.  They exhibit all the same signs of life (and of death) as any other living organism.  My perception of “church” changed pretty significantly once I began to consider the implications of this.

In the first place, churches need nourishment and exercise in order to be healthy.  The nourishment is the Word of God.  The exercise is the stretching and bending and reshaping that Word constantly calls us toward.  And it also is the challenges (even the persecution) which God permits us to experience.  Exercise only makes us stronger.

Second, this concept made me look at missions and church starts differently. Reproduction is just a natural function of churches.  Starting new churches is something every church should be a part of doing in one way or another.  It is the natural spread and propagation of the gospel…of making disciples.

But the most disturbing way churches are like living organism is that they die.  It is a part of the natural order of things for them to do so.  Neighborhoods change or go away altogether.  Ministry opportunities likewise shift underneath us.  Key leadership families leave or die off.  Congregations age.  Churches sometimes grow less and less relevant to the rapidly changing communities they serve.  Churches grow older and tired and unable to meet the vast needs around them.  Rather than growing and becoming more and more vibrant, they shrink and wither and find themselves having to make horrendous decisions about personnel and ministries alike.  The difficult truth is, there are churches all around us who, frankly, just need to be given permission to die, to shut their doors and fade away.  There is no shame in that…not after a church has long since fulfilled its purpose for being.

When a church recognizes these signs and decides to wind down, and leaves its resources (its buildings, its assets, maybe even a few of its people) to a new work…one more able and willing to meet the needs of the community it serves, one with youthful vitality and passionate people longing to love and to be loved…when a church is willing to face that music and give birth to something new, even in its death, then its legacy lives on even after it is gone.  That is what dying well looks like for a church.

Maybe you know a church which is just waiting for someone to love them enough to give them permission to enter into rest.  Maybe you’re in a church like that.  No shame in that.  Nothing to hide from.  Embrace death.  It is part of life.  Find a way to create a legacy.  Die well.

© 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




Corporate Prayer as a Means of Focus

15 07 2014

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. John 5:19

And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. Mark 1:35

camera lensIf your church is anything at all like mine, there is a pretty limitless supply of human needs and desperation within a 5 mile radius of it in any direction. There are single moms struggling to make ends meet, there is poverty and homelessness, there are drug addicts and prostitutes, there are sick people and broken people…lots of reminders all around us that we live in a broken world. I wonder if all that brokenness causes you to lose sleep at night, trying to discern what needs are your church’s to meet and what ones are not?

You cannot meet them all. And even if you could, it is probably not God’s assignment for your church to meet them all. He is funny that way. Like a tornado which touches down on one house and leaves the one next to it standing, God’s assignments for us often have us meeting needs in one person (or one family or one group), without meeting the needs of scores of others all around them.

That was the disciples’ experience with Jesus in John, chapter 5 at the pool at Bethesda. A pool surrounded by a “multitude” of crippled and lame people. The disciples followed Jesus to the pool, watched him heal one man, and then watched him leave all the others behind. I don’t know about you, but that would have troubled me a great deal! Jesus could have spoken one word and healed everyone at that pool. He did not.

Beginning in verse 19 of John 5, Jesus offers an explanation for how he knew where to work and where not to work. He explains, “…the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing.” It was true of Jesus, and it is true of your church as well. A local body of believers (the body of Christ), can only do what it sees the Father doing. That is how we discern our assignments.

And how did Jesus maintain such a laser-like clarity in his discernment? How did he stay so very focused on the father’s activity around him? Through an extraordinary prayer life. And how does the church likewise maintain an extraordinary focus on God’s activity around it? Through an extraordinary prayer life.

Prayer together, you see, is the vehicle God has given the church to bring clarity to its vision. It is the lens through which His people see the world around them. It is the means of understanding the will of God for the church. Corporate prayer life, then, is so much more than just remembering the sick congregants or the upcoming surgeries and hospitalizations. It is how we discern God’s will together. My understanding of God is shaped and molded by how I hear you pray, and vice versa. If the discipline of prayer is the gradual process by which we begin to see the world through God’s eyes, then gathered prayer is the means by which a church does that corporately. There is a reason, you see, Jesus insisted that the church be a house of prayer…there is a great deal riding on it.

And, all of a sudden, Wednesday night prayer meeting takes on a whole new purpose.

© 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




Walking Slowly Through the Crowd

7 01 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering. At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” “You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask,‘Who touched me?’ ” Mark 5:25-31


I have listened to so many John Maxwell talks and have read so many of his books, I do not even remember now where I heard or read some of the best leadership advice I’ve ever heard/read from him: “walk slowly through the crowds”.  It is outstanding leadership counsel because genuine leadership is, after all, entirely dependent upon relationships and people skills.  It is perfect for ME, because I get so narrowly focused sometimes (maybe especially on Sunday mornings) that I can walk right past hundreds of friends without even smiling or acknowledging them!  I am still working on this.  🙂

It is a challenge, isn’t it?  It is especially challenging when we get focused on the task at hand, on the ministry ahead, even on the relationships in front of us…but there are still people all around us who are hoping for our attention as well.  It is a delicate balance between competency for the task at hand and caring for everyone else in the meantime.  In this passage from Mark 5, Jesus demonstrated just how extreme that balance can become.  I have never raised anyone from the dead, so I have no experience with what kind of focus it requires, but I am going to take a stab in the dark here and surmise that it requires some extraordinary single-mindedness.  That is the focus Jesus surely had as he walked through the crowd toward Jairus’ house.  And yet, he walked slowly enough to have permitted and felt the touch by one woman in the crowd.  Unbelievable balance, wouldn’t you say?  Even the disciples who were with him thought so.

So there is a great lesson here for each of us as leaders.  But I wonder if there is an even more important lesson here for the church corporately?  What does this balance teach us about being the Body of Christ in the communities our churches serve?  How can a church “walk slowly through the crowd” so that it doesn’t miss important ministry assignments?  Here are some ideas…

First, it’s regular weekly rhythm should include a vibrant corporate prayer time.  That gathered prayer, after all, is how a church develops the kind of extraordinary focus Jesus showed.  There are lots of promises in God’s word for a people who pray…but none for a people who do not pray.

Second, it can develop a regular, systematic approach to strategic planning.  Keeping God-ordained mission and vision ever before us, and practical, measurable objectives always on our radar screen will help keep us from getting “lost” in the busy-ness of church.  On this note, evaluation and assessment becomes a critical skill.  We need processes to help us know when a program or ministry is succeeding and when it is not.  Andy Stanley calls this “clearly defining the win”.  By the way, it is just as important to know why something succeeds as it is to know why something fails.

Third, we can be ever watching and paying close attention to whom God is bringing us in our newest attenders.  One of the easiest ways of knowing what God is doing in a church is to understand whom he has brought to us recently…what is their background and their passion?  What are their gifts and their abilities?

Fourth (and I realize I am meddling with this one), a church can unify its small group curriculum, so that the entire church is studying the same Biblical passages at that same time all year long.  I cannot even begin to tell you how much that has helped my own church in getting us on the same page on various issues.  Such a benefit!

These are just a few ways a church can “walk slowly through the crowd”.  I’d be interested in hearing any additional ideas you might have.

© 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




Parting and Going Our Separate Ways

9 07 2013

Tuesday Re-mix –

Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord.  Acts 15:36-40

I honestly cannot even imagine how difficult being on a mission trip with the apostle Paul would have been.  It seems to me you would be hard-pressed to find a more driven, intense “missionary” in the entire Bible than Paul.  He seems to have worked tirelessly through very long days and he seems to have pushed himself and his fellow laborers to extremes.  Being on mission with Paul would not be for the faint-hearted.  So, just between you and me, I don’t blame young John Mark one bit for bailing on Paul in Pamphylia.  I am sure that young man felt utterly overwhelmed by it all.

But oh what I wouldn’t give to have been a fly on the wall during that later conflict between the two teachers, Paul & Barnabas, over this very incident.  Paul would have argued vehemently that the mission field is no place for quitters and that he had no time to be babysitting when he could be out teaching.  He would have pointed out that John Mark literally left them holding the bag when he quit on them in the middle of that mission trip.  Barnabas, ever the encourager, would have argued that everyone deserves a second chance (and he may have even asked Paul if he wasn’t glad that Barnabas himself was the one who gave Paul his second chance at teaching–oh, the irony of this conflict!).  Barnabas would have asked how in the world John Mark would ever grow in his spiritual walk as a leader if someone were not willing to come along side him and mentor him.  Of course, neither Paul nor Barnabas could have known that this young man would eventually write an entire gospel under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

While we do not know all the specifics of what Paul said or what Barnabas said through this “sharp disagreement”, we can at least pull some eternal truths out of it for our own application:

Parting and going our separate ways is sometimes the right solution. The results of this split by Paul and Barnabas changed the world.  God brought about some amazing things as a result of it.  New churches were started, many more lives were impacted, and a gospel was written.  I am sure we cannot even begin to fathom all the ways God used this split to accomplish His will.  While I would be very careful about using this example as an easy excuse to run from conflict in your own life, I do believe there is a time and a circumstance when parting and going our separate ways just makes sense and honors God.

There is a limit to how much of our resources we can expend on trying to resolve a conflict amicably.  I have seen churches completely paralyzed by conflict.  Individuals as well.  It can have that effect on us.  We can try and try and try to reconcile our differences and examine ourselves and each other and work to find common ground, but there is a point where we must look at all the ministry we are foregoing in order to do that…we must count the opportunity costs we are paying in order to try to find some common ground.  At some point we may end up realizing that, for now, there does not seem to be any common ground and there is much ministry out there to accomplish and what we must do is split up and get back to work.

Reconciliation is as much about right timing as it is about right hearts.  There is evidence to indicate that Paul and Barnabas eventually reconciled and came together on the topic of John Mark.  Very late in his ministry, from prison, Paul wrote to Timothy and said, “Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.” 2 Timothy 4:11.  It seems that a reconciliation did eventually take place.  Perhaps they just needed time to gain perspective, or time to grow, or time for John Mark to grow, or some other time-based reason.  The point is, when the right time finally came along, so did reconciliation, because reconciliation has much to do with timing.  That is an eternal truth.

So, again, I would be careful about pointing to Paul and Barnabas as an easy excuse for your desire to just run from your conflict.  Nevertheless, there is a right time and right circumstances for parting and going our separate ways.  May God grant you the wisdom to recognize it!

© 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




Every Day is a Church Start!

2 07 2013

Tuesday Re-mix –

All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.
Acts 2:44-45

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.  Acts 4:32-35

Here’s a test question for you as a church leader: which is more “successful”…ministering to the needs of 50,000 people by mobilizing 5 people…or ministering to the needs of only 500 people by mobilizing 500 people?

Some 15 to 20 years ago (suddenly feeling great surprise that it’s been that long now) my wife, our two little girls and I joined a small team of about 5 other families, all spending our Spring Break on mission in Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, doing Vacation Bible School at a small church there.  Over the ensuing 8 years, that same trip grew to become a church-wide Spring Break family mission trip of some 100-150 “missionaries” ranging in age from 6-months to 80-years.  We had medical mission teams, construction teams, music teams, drama groups, VBS on multiple sites, sports evangelism teams and even pastoral care teams.  We gathered everyone together at our campsite every night for worship and reporting.  As you might imagine, it was chaotic and fantastic all at the same time.  There was no childcare ministry…we all took care of everyone’s children.  There was no “poverty” ministry…everywhere we worked, lived and slept was impoverished, so all of us ministered all the time.  We had assignments, to be sure, but there was very much a spirit of everyone pitching in and doing whatever he/she needed to do to minister.  It was an amazing experience for those of us who had grown a bit calloused and ingrained in an otherwise “institutional church” experience.

That was the closest I have ever come to being a part of a “church start” experience.  For that growing group of families, we were “church” together for a week every year.  We definitely made an impact there in Mexico, but the overwhelming testimony of all of us was that the larger impact was on each of us.  That experience changed how we “did church” when we returned each year.  We all recognized that it was much closer to the “church start” experience described in Acts.  If you have ever been a part of a church start or perhaps of a similar mission experience, then you know exactly what I am describing.

Reading the two passages from Acts 2 and 4 above, there are a lot of numbers that might jump out to you.  And there are a lot of concepts that might grab you.  But I think we make a mistake in what application we draw from these passages if we focus in on the wrong numbers and the wrong concepts.  To me, it is the very first word in each passage that merits our most attention: All.  That, it seems to me, is what these passages teach us about the genuine New Testament church.  How many “members” were mobilized into ministry?  What percentage of them were finding a way to contribute…to make a difference in someone’s life?  All of them.  That, my church leader friend, is what success looks like.

I admit that kind of success is easier to achieve in a church start than in a well-established institutional church.  Once we get very, very efficient with our ministries, we start missing the wild-eyed, “just do whatever it takes” attitude of a people who are running around meeting needs and plugging holes…like in a church start.  And therein lies one solution: we really should be starting more churches.  That is where we are the most like the New Testament church.

But don’t we also have to develop some strategies for the institutional church?  Isn’t it possible…no, isn’t it CRITICAL to find ways to jump-start the hearts of our people into a bit more of that wild-eyed, “just do whatever it takes”, everyone-is-a-minister mindset?  Here’s a challenge: stop measuring your success in gross numbers…and start measuring your church’s success in terms of percentages, i.e., the percentage of your people who are meaningfully engaged in ministry.  That might just change everything!

© 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