Month: February 2009

New people need new groups

Lyle Schaller wrote many years ago, “New people need new groups.” Schaller said that existing groups don’t assimilate new members well, and churches should start new groups for new people.

About a year ago Debbie and I started a Sunday morning class  for younger adults, which in our church is anybody under 65.  The intent was to gather all our younger adults who did not attend Sunday School into a new class just for them.  Instead we actually attracted new people.  Our class of about 12 now has all new members or guests, with one exception,  who have joined since we have been here in Chatham.

It has taken about a year for the class to “gel” — for members to know one another well enough to want to spend time together.   We’re heavy on the fellowship end and a little light on the study part, but that seems to be working for now.  We have done several book studies, and right now we’re reading Francis Chan’s book, Crazy Love.  Ages range from the 30s to the 60s, married and single.

This is the group from which our new spark will come.  They are excited, energetic, and want to include others.  For Christmas one member suggested we wrap small, inexpensive gifts to give to our homebound senior adults.  That project really gave the class an opportunity to bond and do something good in the process.

So, I’m with Lyle Schaller — new people do need new groups.  Sometimes it happens unexpectedly.

Sermon: Running To Win

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow from 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.  I hope your Sunday is great!

Running To Win
1 Corinthians 9:24-27

24Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.

25Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
From Accommodation to Competition

Last week we looked a Paul’s testimony in which he said:

22To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 23I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

Paul is explaining to the Corinthian church his credibility as an apostle, which has led him to accommodate himself to various situations so that he can effectively communicate the gospel.

But this week, Paul uses a different metaphor — that of a runner in a race.  And he says,

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.

Paul now compares the Christian life to a competitive race, and he urges his hearers to run to win.  What’s this new argument that Paul puts forth about?  What situation is the idea of running a race addressing in the Corinthian church?  To understand Paul’s imagery of runners in a race, we have to understand the culture of sports in that day.

In the city, there was a place called the Campus . This was the old drill ground for soldiers. It was a large section of plain near the Tiber River. Over time, the Campus became ancient Rome’s field and track playground. Even such famous people as Caesar and Augustus exercised on the Campus. Young men, all over Rome, gathered at the Campus to play and exercise.

On the Campus, men participated in foot racing, jumping, archery, wrestling and boxing. After a bout of exercise, they might jump in the Tiber River for a swim, or wander off to the Baths, to relax. All over Rome, men practiced riding, fencing, wrestling, throwing, and swimming. In the country, men went hunting and fishing. At home, men played ball before dinner, which were games of throwing and catching.

Women were not allowed to join in these games.

The activities on the Campus of Rome were preceded by the Greek Olympic games in which there were several types of running contests:

The Olympic events were held in the stadium and the horse races took place in the hippodrome. The Olympic events included the following:

1) The stadion: a foot race the length of the stadium. The athletes stopped at the end of the stadium without returning to the starting line.

2) The diaulos: a foot race the length of two stadia, where the athletes finished at the starting line of the stadium.

3) The dolichos (long distance race): a foot race which probably had a length of twenty four stadia.. A notable dolichos runner and Olympic winner was Ageus who ran from Olympia to his homeland Argos to announce his victory.

4) The hoplitodromos (race in armour): a foot race the length of two stadia in which the runners were dressed in full armour.

5) The pentathlon: an athletic event made up of five separate events: the stadion, the discus throw, the javelin throw, jumping and wrestling. The winner was the athlete who came first in three of the five events. The pentathlon, according to Aristotle, is the “best event of the Greeks because it is the embodiment of the ideal type of athlete: powerful, fast and flexible”.

6) Boxing was one of the most popular events. The training of the athletes was carried out in the Palaestra and the rules of this event were defined by Onomastos of Smyrna, who was an Olympic winner in 688 BC. The family of Diagoras of Rhodes were the eminent boxers of the 5th century BC. The father, three sons and two grandsons, all earned Olympic titles.

7) The pankration is an event that combining boxing and wrestling. It is a violent event and many times the lfes of the athletes were endangered. One famous pankratist was Polydamas from Thessalia.

As Paul describes the runners in a race, or boxers swinging wildly, the Corinthians know exactly the images Paul is using because they have seen these games, and perhaps have participated in the games themselves.

The Rules of The Race

In a very brief passage, Paul gives us a clear picture of his rules of the race.

  1. A lot of people can run in the race;
  2. Only one wins;
  3. Run to win.

So, Paul’s rules of the race are clear.  And he goes on to point out that runners in a race in Corinth run for a crown that doesn’t last, a laurel wreath.  Paul says Christians are running for a crown that will last forever.  So what’s the point?  I think there are several and here they are:

Paul Is In A Race, a Fight, For The Corinthians’ Faith

Read all of 1 Corinthians 9 and 10 and you get the picture of a man who is making his case in the strongest possible terms.  Paul asserts his apostolic credentials because some have challenged his position.  Paul asserts his right to be supported by the Corinthians, but then says that he didn’t insist on their support.

Paul then reminds them that he has become all things to all men to win some, for the sake of the Gospel.  In other words, for Paul this business of being an apostle, of being sent by God to Jews and Gentiles, has not been easy.  He has had to support himself.  He has not sacrificed having a family of his own to do this work.  He has used his personal skills in speaking and writing to communicate with as wide an audience as possible.  He has traveled tirelessly, been shipwrecked, beaten, arrested, ridiculed, threatened, rejected, abused, mistrusted, misunderstood, and gossiped about.  But still he pushes on for the sake of the Gospel.

From Paul we can learn three things about the race he’s in:

  1. It’s not a game, it’s life and death.
  2. It’s not easy, it requires training and commitment.
  3. It has a goal, a finish line, a winner’s circle, and Paul wants to stand in it.

Why is Paul running this race, fighting this fight for the Corinthians?  To keep them from abandoning the faith they have found in Christ.  And, to help them train to run their own race.  So he counsels them on how to conduct worship, how to solve problems in their church, how to observe the Lord’s Supper, how to practice the spiritual gifts evident in the congregation.

But he also cautions them against quarreling, lawsuits against each other, sexual misconduct and immorality, falling back into the old habits of eating food offered to idols, of disrespecting one another and by doing so disrespecting Christ.

Paul has his hands full with instructions, admonitions, guidance, cajoling, and criticism of the Corinthian Christians.  But this is also personal.

The Race Is Both Taught and Lived

Paul explains it this way:

Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

This is not just a game for Paul, it’s life and eternity.  Paul says, I’m not running aimlessly like those men of leisure in Rome who worked out on the Campus in Rome.  No, Paul says, I’m in training.  I’m focused, I’m disciplined, I’m making my body my slave.  That might sound unusual, until you remember that Rome and the Roman empire was all about appetites.  If you wanted food, the empire had more than enough.  The Caesars kept down the revolt of the poor by handing out bread each week.

The Romans had gods for food and drink, for partying, for love which really meant sex, and for any other appetite you might want to engage.

Paul reminds the Corinthians that a runner in training, a boxer in training, has to follow the rules of training.  To master your own appetites.  Paul’s concern is that the gospel of Jesus that he preaches is not just an abstraction for others, but is real for him, too.

The New York Times carried the story yesterday of the arrest of Bobby DeLaughter.  Bobby DeLaughter was a judge in Mississippi accused of taking a bribe to rule in favor of one party over another in a multi-million dollar lawsuit.

The sad part of the story is that Bobby DeLaughter is the same prosecutor, who in the 1990s, tried and convicted Byron De La Beckwith, a klansman, in the assassination of civil rights leader, Medgar Evers.  Evers was gunned down one evening as he arrived home, killed in his own driveway by an assassin shooting a high-powered hunting rifle.

De La Beckwith and others had been tried twice in the 1960s and found not guilty by local juries, but the word on the street was that De La Beckwith was the killer of Medgar Evers.  By the 1990s when Bobby DeLaughter became a prosecutor, evidence had disappeared, witnesses had died, and yet Bobby DeLaughter believed that justice had not been done.

So DeLaughter reopened the investigation, located a trial transcript that had been missing from a previous trial, and prosecuted Byron De La Beckwith for the murder of Medgar Evers.  DeLaughter was threatened, discouraged, and ignored by those in power in Mississippi.  Men who had known him all their lives refused to shake hands with him, and yet he persisted because he believed that Medgar Evers’ killer should be brought to justice.

DeLaughter’s words to the 1994 jury that eventually would convict Byron De La Beckwith were:

“Is it ever too late to do the right thing? For the sake of justice and the hope of us as a civilized society, I sincerely hope and pray that it’s not.”

DeLaughter was a hero to some, an overzealous prosecutor to others, but De La Beckwith went to prison.  DeLaughter’s story was made into a movie, Ghosts of Mississippi, and DeLaughter was played by Alec Baldwin.  He went on to become a judge, and that is where his ambition apparently became his downfall.  He was accused of unduly favoring one client over another in a multi-million dollar civil suit.  Standing in shackles and leg irons, he pleaded not guilty to the charges against him this week.

“It’s really tragic,” said Rims Barber, a civil rights veteran who heads the Mississippi Human Services Coalition.

“DeLaughter stuck his neck out, and learned he could make friends with Myrlie Evers, and he prosecuted that case and got a conviction, and that was an amazing start to something,” Mr. Barber said, referring to the wave of later prosecutions.

“DeLaughter became a hero, and now he’s fallen,” Mr. Barber added. “It’s terrible.”

Paul said, I don’t want to lose the race I’m in after helping others win their race.  I want to run to win.  I want the prize, too.

The prize for winning in the Roman games was a laurel wreath, a branch of green leaves woven into a very temporary crown.  But the prize was not the laurel wreath itself.  The prize was having the emperor place the victor’s wreath on your head and proclaim you the winner of the race.  Paul was running, not for the crown, but for the King.

A stimulus package from the heart

Two stories encouraged me this week — the school employees who took one day’s pay cut to save the jobs of 7 colleagues; and, a politician’s wife who offered a house rent-free to a homeless woman and her family.

In this increasingly difficult economy maybe we are a nation that will begin to look out for each other, again.  Maybe we were waiting for our national leaders to call forth the best in us during these worst of times.  Maybe we will rise to the occasion, filling in the gaps where government has no business and even if it has business, cannot connect as one human being to another.

Chene Thompson, wife of state representative Nicholas Thompson and the woman who opened her house rent-free, put it this way —

“You don’t have to be a politician to put forth a stimulus package,” Chene Thompson said during a joint interview with Hughes Thursday on CNN’s “American Morning.” “This is our own little mini-stimulus package for a person who was a stranger and now is a friend.

“Anybody can help anybody at any time. It doesn’t need to be something that comes from Washington; it can come from your own home and from your heart, even if it’s for a little bit.”

From your heart. Perhaps if our nation can once again live its shared existence from our hearts, and not from our wallets, there is hope.  This economic recovery is, after all, more about recovering a way of life than about recovering a life of wealth.  “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” –Matthew 6:21

Is there a Doctor in the house?

I keep getting emails announcing that I’ve been selected for a PhD.  I wish they would send it to me because I’m actually having to study to complete my DMin at Fuller, not to mention pay the tuition.  Plus, the program at Fuller can take seven years, while my email offer appears to be immediate.

I guess the free PhD folks do have some takers, or else they wouldn’t be sending these emails.  I’m sure there’s a catch — there’s always a catch and most of the time it involves money.

So, here’s the question of the day —

If you could get a degree without studying, would you?  And would you call yourself ‘Doctor?’

Okay, let me hear from you because I bet you’ve gotten those emails, too.   A related topic is resume inflation, so fire away on that one, too, if you like.  Thanks.

500th post: Thank you!

This is my 500th post here at Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor!  Amazing, isn’t it?  I had no idea in December, 2006, that this blog would still be going strong over two years later.  But here we are and you’re the reason for it.  Your words of encouragement, and correction, have kept me at this work of giving hope and help to small churches across the country and around the world.  Thank you for reading, commenting, and sharing.

To make navigating easier, you can now get to Confessions… at the url,  The feed stays the same, so no need to change that.  Bookmark for easy reference.  And, we have a mobile site, too!

This year I added a couple of sites to help small churches, and church leaders of all congregations. features the best of small church news, outreach, discipleship, worship, and leadership ideas from around the ‘net.  We’re still working on the feed, but stop by and check it out.  I post new links everyday, so the content is always fresh and up-to-date. encompasses church news, articles, and blogs from the best thinkers and writers in the church scene today.  You might not always agree with every article, but I select the articles I think represent new perspectives on old issues.  I also enjoy good stories, well-written posts, and secular articles that have application to churches.  I select new articles each day, plus we get newsfeeds from 7 leading Christian news sources each day.

You can also find me on Twitter and Facebook, so let’s connect there, too.

Again, thank you for being part of this effort.  Together we have raised the profile of small churches and small church issues, and that’s a good thing!  Thanks!

Ask Andy Stanley a question

If you could ask Andy Stanley any question about small churches, what would it be?

images-3Outreach magazine wants to give small church pastors the opportunity to ask Andy Stanley a question about small church outreach. Selected questions will be featured in Outreach magazine’s annual Small Church Issue later this year.

If you think Andy is an unlikely guy to know much about small churches, think again.  His experience as a church planter, visioneer, author, and student of church life uniquely qualifies Andy to coach small church pastors and leaders.

What are you waiting for?  Post your question to Andy in the comment box on this post.  Include your contact information — name, church, location, email, phone — so the editors can follow up with you should your question be chosen.  I’m looking forward to your questions and to Andy’s answers!

Dying newspapers, dying churches

images-1Newspapers must either change or die in this new media age, and churches could learn something from them.

My friend, Jim Stovall, teaches journalism at the University of Tennessee, and sees the death of newspapers as a positive development for journalism.  Does that sound strange?  Jim sees it this way:

We who contemplate the importance of journalism look at the future with trepidation.

What happens to journalism, we ask, when newspapers continue on their inevitable decline? The question assumes that journalism itself will be diminished.

I am coming to a different conclusion: 

Journalism will improve once newspapers die or decline to a minor medium.

Jim and I have had several conversations about newspapers and churches.  We both grew up in church, and Jim is a regular United Methodist Church member.  I share Jim’s conviction about newspapers, and have a conviction of my own about churches.

Newspapers need to realize they are in the news business, not the paper business. The high cost of printing, delivery, labor, and organization is bankrupting newspapers.  News organizations that embrace new media are on the rise.  Where do you read your news — a printed paper or online?  And that’s my point.

Churches have a similar problem.  We are trying to hold on to the form of church (our version of the “paper”), forgetting that the message (“news”) is most important.  Almost all denominations are in decline now, including my own Southern Baptist Convention.  In response to that, denominational leaders try to appeal to young people.  LifeWay conducts lots of very good research on how Baptists can reach the under-30 crowd.  We kid ourselves to think, “If we could only add young people to our churches, everything would be fine.”

What we really should be doing is repackaging the message in ways that would carry it better.  For example:  Pick the worst hour of the week to try to get young people to an event and you won’t find one worse than 11 AM on Sunday morning, unless it’s 10 AM on Sunday morning.  Yet we persist in meeting at that time, which started when the farm chores had to be done, the wagon hitched up, and Sunday lunch packed for dinner-on-the-grounds before the family could leave for church.

I could go on and on here about our concern for the “form” of church more than its substance, but I’ll let you fill in your own ideas.  My point, as was Jim’s about newspapers, is that the sooner some of the outmoded forms of church fail or diminish, the sooner we’ll get on with finding new forms for the message.   Of course, that might mean some of the churches we currently pastor go out of business, which would hurt.  But if we remember that the form of church we have now is not that different than it was in the 1920s, then we realize we’re overdue for a makeover. Not much else from the 1920s survives today, and churches and newspapers are about to get added to that list.

What do you think? If you’d like to read the rest of what my friend says about newspapers and the future he sees for journalism, go here. Then think about what a similar outcome might mean for churches.  Let me know what you discover.

Does the Law of Mobility apply to churches?

The Law of Mobility, generally credited to Russ McGuire and also known as McGuire’s Law, states –

The value of any product or service increases with its mobility. – The Power of Mobility, Russell McGuire, p 42.

In his book, McGuire cites several examples of companies that increased the value of their product or service by increasing its mobility:

  • Domino’s Pizza.  Domino’s took a very familiar food item, pizza, and added wheels to it by creating the first delivery-only pizza chain.  Prior to Domino’s pizza delivery was available, but as an added service from a pizza parlor.  Domino’s changed the culture with their “30-minute guarantee” to deliver a fresh, hot pizza to your door or your pizza was free.  The company later dropped the time limit for safety concerns, but by then Domino’s dominated the “mobile” pizza market.
  • Avis Roaming Check-in. Avis moved rental car check-in from the rental car office out into the rental car return lot.  Within seconds of arriving, and stepping out of your rental car, Avis handed you your receipt and you were on your way to the shuttle bus.  As a frequent flier, I appreciated this new service which all major rental companies have since adopted.
  • The Sony Walkman.  Sony designers faced initial corporate resistance to the Walkman because it did not have a record feature.  Some were still thinking of the Walkman as a full-fledged tape machine, while Sony designers were thinking of the Walkman as a mobile music machine.  Sony changed the way music was delivered from a fixed location or device (remember boomboxes?) to a personal, mobile music player.

One question mobile device makers ask is, Does our customer take our product with them 100% of the time? With the convergence of cell phone, camera, GPS, internet navigator, email device, and mp3 player customers can now carry one device instead of six or more.  By 2020, industry watchdogs predict that mobile phones will be the primary means by which people around the globe access the internet.  In some developed countries, that goal is already very close.

What implication does the future of mobility have for churches?   How can churches make their ‘services’ more mobile for a mobile generation?

Here are some of my predictions about our mobile future:

To use the Domino’s analogy, churches will “deliver” opportunities for service, prayer, bible study, and community through mobile technology using social networking media.  Imagine  getting a text message from another church participant that your bible study group is going to meet for lunch today at the deli around the corner from your office.  Or imagine that your Friend Locator app alerts you that four other church members are a few blocks away.  Starbucks is within 5-minutes of all of your locations, so you text the others, inviting them to meet you for coffee and a quick rundown of your next ministry project.

I believe that churches will provide opportunities for “as you go” meetups for church members which will have the same validity as Sunday church attendance does now.

Participants could twitter their small group attendance and outcomes to the church Facebook page, allowing others to keep up with their progress.  Of course, our 5 hypothetical members will be checking in on Facebook, too, to track what other groups are doing.

Prayer  requests get Twittered the instant prayer is needed.  The church YouTube channel runs creative videos of church members sharing personal experiences of what they like about the church.

Church may meet once a month for a big gathering, or once a quarter, but the big meeting is no longer the only way to access church.   Community participants, no longer called  ”members,”  get and give regular feedback on their groups, or join other groups spontaneously for prayer, bible study, and service projects.

Big gatherings are held once a month, or several times a month, in different locations depending upon the size of the group.  The church is fluid, functioning, and financially sound because overhead is very low.  Money is invested in people and projects, not buildings and upkeep.

Discipleship materials are also always available.  Online mobile Bible applications,  study guides, and other resources appear as an online menu.  Participants can read the Bible while waiting in line at the grocery, the carwash, or the school car line.  Study groups can meet face-to-face accessing that week’s topic via their cell phones, and texting participants not able to attend.

Participants invite their friends to become fans of the church Facebook page, creating a wider network of potential participants who can be called on for community service projects, or just invited to lunch.

Does The Law of Mobility apply to churches?  Look at the ministry of Jesus for the answer.  Of course, Jesus did not use a cell phone, but he was out among the people most of the time.  The gospels only record a couple of instances of Jesus in a synagogue or the temple.  His ministry was mobile before anyone understood its implications.

The 21st century explosion of mobile technology offers the church a wide variety of opportunities to create and sustain community in an increasingly mobile culture.  The challenge will be to take advantage of that opportunity for the Kingdom’s sake.

(This post originally appeared at, which I have taken down for now.  If you’re interested in mobile technology and how it affects our culture, including churches, go to, a joint-venture with my friend, Dr. Jim Stovall, distinguished professor of journalism at the University of TN.)

A different take on Michael Phelps

Youth culture sees the Michael Phelps pot-smoking incident much differently than the adult world does.  Three Billion, a blog about youth culture, says,

You’ve got to feel sorry for Michael Phelps. A lifetime of training, early mornings, injuries, pain, performing on a global stage to billions of people to ultimately become the worlds greatest Olympian. And then…he’s brought down to earth with a bump after pictures of him smoking a bong are circulated around the world.

That’s a big contrast to the Kellog’s company who terminated their agreement with Phelps this week, saying that his actions did not fit their corporate image.  It’s also a different take than USA Swimming’s suspension that they handed Phelps.

The Three Billion piece explains it this way —

The great thing about being young is that you experiment, you try new things, you do things differently than your parents and teachers. This experimentation means that you sometimes walk with one foot in illegality (would it be as much fun if you weren’t?).

They key is that this doesn’t apply to a small section of the youth population, it applies to pretty-much all of them. Whether that be drugs, sex, climbing buildings, stealing stuff, driving too fast…we’ve all done it and they are certainly all doing it. Young people are not criminals, they are just young people. It’s the universal indiscretions of youth.

In order for those of us in church to even begin a conversation with the younger unchurched, we need to hear their rationale and consider it seriously.  Ed Stetzer’s new book, Lost and Found, is the best resource I’ve seen addressing the issue of 18-29 year olds who are unchurched.

I expressed my views on this subject here earlier this week.  I wanted you to get the view from the other side, too.  What challenges does the prevailing youth culture present to the traditional church today?  How do we deal with that point of view that says, “It’s the universal indiscretions of youth?”

What your church members want from their pastor

Looking at the Pastoral Ministry section of almost any Christian bookstore, you might get the idea that congregations want great preaching, inspiring vision, and larger-than-life leadership from their pastor. While those extraordinary gifts are possessed by some pastors, most church members want four very simple things from their pastor:

  1. Your time. Your members know you are busy, but most of them want to spend some time with you — a meal, a cup of coffee, a conversation, or a moment where you both connect.  You can’t give all your time to all your members everyday, and they know it.  But make it a point to give some time to someone everyday.  I try to spend my afternoons visiting, calling, or meeting with my members.  My schedule doesn’t always work out, but when it does I am always blessed.
  2. Your ear. People like to know they have been heard and their opinions valued.  You may not always agree, but you can always listen.  Most people want a fair hearing even if the outcome is not their preference.  Really hear what your members are saying to you, acknowledge their comments, and assure them that you appreciate them sharing with you.
  3. Your presence. When people go to the hospital, they need the presence of their pastor to strengthen them.  When family members gather at the bedside of a dying loved one, they need their pastor.  When a father loses his job, or a single mom faces surgery, or an elderly couple makes the decision to move to assisted-living, they need a pastor to talk to.  Your presence represents God, their church family, their faith, and their hope.  Nothing else will do in those times except your presence.
  4. Your prayers. Concerns about family, worries about health, decisions, and mistakes — members have asked me to pray for these concerns and many others.  Take those requests seriously, pray earnestly, and follow-up later find out how you can continue to pray.

Great preaching and inspiring vision are a plus for any pastor.  But the real work of ministry happens in real life situations, especially in the small church.  Spend time with your members.  After all, it’s a compliment to your ministry that they want to spend time with you.