These reflections come in the midst of me leading another small group through Henry Blackaby’s study Experiencing God, and my attendance at the February 2021 SBC Executive Committee Meeting in Nashville as our state convention’s trustee. As I share my thoughts, I do so with some major disclaimers. First and foremost, you need to know that these are MY PERSONAL thoughts. I am not speaking in any formal capacity, nor on behalf of any other Executive Committee member, nor for anyone on the Executive Committee staff. Second, I share them with humility knowing that where you have three or four Baptists gathered together you have at least five or six opinions on any given topic. Chances are I could read this next week and wonder what kind of a nut wrote that! I also share them knowing that my reflections are an extremely simplistic way of viewing some very complex and integrally intertwined issues.
During the Nashville Executive Committee meeting, Dr. Ronnie Floyd recast his Vision 2025—a clear and compelling vision that was to be approved at the 2020 SBC meeting in Orlando, which was canceled due to COVID. Dr. Floyd’s passion was bolstered by the fact that we could hear him in person, and that we have the expectation of meeting in person for the 2021 convention this June in Nashville. Having a clear vision is “Good News!” However, at that same meeting, we had to deal with several issues that fall into the “Bad News” category. Those issues are significant enough that even a clear and compelling vision can be drowned out by the cacophony created by unrecognized and unaddressed conflicts. That reality reminded me of an old Hee Haw skit that Archie Campbell did. In the routine, he contrasted the “Good News” and “Bad News” that can arise out of any given situation: Oh that's good.
As I began to reflect on the Good News-Bad News contrast, I thought about the slogan General Motors used in their 1988 campaign to re-energize the Oldsmobile brand: “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” Stop and think with me for just a minute about some of the huge changes that have taken place in SBC life in the last fifty-plus years:
Before I suggest how the “Good News” in the changes I mentioned above are at the core of some of our “Bad News,” let me suggest some principles that can help us generate “Good News” in any setting.
I hope you were able to “feel the love” as I did a two-week Wyoming cowboy-themed Valentine’s Day pause in my articles. Before I pushed the pause button, I was discussing the self-diagnosis of your church’s spiritual health. So closing out my cowboy theme, let me say, “Meanwhile back at the ranch” we were talking about making disciples. In the process, we talked about several metrics—a fancy city word meaning, “What are we counting?”
The first metric we talked about was “counting the number of new people who had been identified, recruited, trained, and deployed during the time frame being evaluated.” The second metric we discussed was “How many professions of faith and how many baptisms did your church report last year?” A third metric was “measuring your effectiveness in ‘winning your own’—those who grew up and were baptized in your church.” The latter suggested a look back to see if you are actually able to identify spiritual maturity in those who had grown up in your church.
Today I want to mention a fourth metric: “How many do you have attending?” Here again, we face the reality that COVID has significantly impacted our numbers. But setting that issue aside for just a moment, let me point to the reality that in Great Commission Baptist life I have observed a major shift in the last few decades regarding “what attendance we count.” When I served as the Sunday School Director of a church in the ’70s and early ’80s, THE ONLY attendance that was counted was Sunday School attendance. The church I attended did not count worship attendance. Today, when pastors gather and “compare notes”—and they inevitably will—the number one question asked is, “How many does your church run in worship?”
Stop and think about what that subtle shift means. What does it say about our focus? Or maybe more importantly, what does it say about our lack of focus on disciple-making? Now again, I need to interject a reality check. I have experienced “Sunday School done right” while the vast majority of pastors and Christians have only seen it done poorly. What I would suggest is that the BEST disciple-making strategy in the world will not work when it is not implemented well.
That leads me back to a book I’ve already mentioned: Effectiveness by the Numbers: Counting what Counts in the Church by William Hoyt. It is the best book on church metrics that I have seen. In it, Hoyt writes:
My voice is but one in a large chorus, all singing the same tune, ‘Small groups are essential to the health and growth of churches.’ In more than three decades of observing churches and two decades of church consulting, I cannot recall a healthy, growing congregation where a significantly small group ministry was not present…A universally common factor in the decline of once growing churches is the deterioration of small groups. Yes, you do grow larger by staying small. (Pages 71-72)
To Hoyt’s observations, I can say a hearty AMEN! As I approach three decades of serving as an Associational Mission Strategist, every health disciple-making church I have seen- has had healthy disciple-making small groups. Next week I will begin to drill down into the Biblical principles I have observed in every “healthy disciple-making church” I have encountered.
Until then, stop and ask yourself, “What attendance number is most important to you and why?” Is it worship attendance or discipleship group attendance?
In my previous post, I pushed the pause button on a series about diagnosing spiritual health. I did that so in this season of love, Valentine’s Day, I could speak to two issues. Last week’s article focused on loving “high maintenance” people. In it I suggest that we love them in a way that permits us, at the end of the day, to still love ourselves. I want to discuss the second issue today: the need to feel God’s love even during times when the challenges of ministry are overwhelming.
Everyone agrees that 2020 moved us into a world of uncontrollable change. So, doing “church” is different AND difficult. As pastors we are called to be under shepherds with Jesus who is the Good Shepherd, for a few moments I’m going to ask you to think of yourself as a Wyoming rancher. Now for those who are not rural oriented, sheep and cattle are VERY different and when the Bible describes us as sheep it is usually NOT a flattering analogy. But for a moment I want you to put down your shepherd’s staff and put on a pair of cowboy boots.
Having done so, you have now found yourself staring at an oncoming herd of stampeding cattle—obviously far more intimidating than a herd of sheep. This stampede is the kind you have seen in western movies. So, what do you do? You could ignore that the stampede exists, and the inevitable result will be that you WILL get trampled, and the stampede will continue. Or you could stand your ground and wave your arms like crazy. Maybe even take off your hat or jacket and wave it over your head. You can shout at the top of your lungs, but let me warn you, the result might be a few seconds slower in coming, but it will be the same. “You’re going to get run over, and the stampede will continue!”
Maybe you’re real lucky, and you’re on your trusty steed. And you’re fortunate enough that he’s a fast horse and you can outrun the herd. But that still does nothing to stop the stampede. Now if you’re an experienced cowboy and you’re on a good cow horse, what you’ll be able to do, over time, is get to the outside front edge of the herd and slowly move the cattle into a circle. It won’t be done quickly, but you should be able to get them to settle down. The stampede will be over.
Jesus encountered people whose life circumstances overwhelmed them, and Matthew records His response: “When He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd” (9:36). When God called me to be an Associational Mission Strategist, one of the responsibilities He gave me was to be a “pastor to pastors.” In today’s world, pastors, who are called to be under-shepherds, are caring for men and women whose lives have become wearied by the ever-changing landscape of life. Plus their own lives have become weary. So let me draw some implications from my stampede analogy in an attempt to encourage you.
First, let me say that standing and waiting for the stampede to stop so that you and your church can get back to normal is not a winning strategy. You and your sheep are weary today, and no one knows if, or even when things will be “normal” again. Second, we can cry out against the darkness that has consumed us. But simply denouncing or complaining about our circumstances will not help either. A third option is to run from the difficulties. Because of the stress placed on pastors today, I believe we will see an unusually high number of resignations in the months ahead. But my prayer is that if you are considering this option, remember you are not a hireling (John 10:12), but a man called by God. My prayer is that you will pursue a fourth option. Make a commitment to address the stampede. Then prayerfully and lovingly begin to apply the basic ministry and pastoral skills and principles you have used throughout your ministry.
Let me expand my analogy for just a minute. Even if you’re a good cowboy and you’re on the best cow horse that’s ever lived, you’ll never get a large herd of stampeding cattle turned by yourself. Too many pastors try to do ministry Lone Ranger fashion. In the book Finishing Strong, the author points to research done by Dr. Howard Hendricks in which he identified three key reasons pastors fail. One of them is that they were not involved in a small accountable support group with other pastors. Don’t try to turn the herd alone!
Cowboys who can get the stampede stopped are those who are simply doing what they have done hundreds of times. They learned in Herding 101 class to make sure the cattle out front are headed in the right direction and that the stragglers aren’t wandering off. Researchers tell us that it takes 10,000 hours of experience to master a task. If you’ve been pastoring very long, you know the basics. They are second nature to you. And getting back to the basics is THE BEST thing that you can do in times of duress.
When things get dark and difficult, stop and look up to God until He refreshes your call. Then look out unto the fields that are white unto harvest and unto the sheep that are weary and scattered. Then reach within yourself and find the strength to keep doing the things you already know need to be done. Get back to the basics. Keep the main thing the main thing. Being “exciting and exotic“ might be something God can use in a different season, but TODAY is not that day. My prayers are with you.
I'm going to hit the pause button on my discussion of metrics for self-assessing your church’s spiritual health. One reason is that it’s Valentine’s week, and a good pause would be to ask you to redirect your focus and ask yourself, “How can I demonstrate Christ-like love to members of my church?” Another reason I wanted to push the pause button was that I needed to acknowledge that the basic tools I have mentioned the past few weeks have overwhelmed some pastors.
Let me lean into my Wyoming ranching heritage for a couple of analogies that speak to the realities of life in which many of us in ministry dwell. So let me address two broad issues. The first relates to how we love people in our world who make it hard for us to love. The second is how can we respond better when we are faced with overwhelming and unmanageable circumstances.
To address the first issue, I will use a verse that everyone who has been around me the last few years has heard me quote: Proverbs 14:4. Some of you even have it memorized: “Where there are no oxen the stall is clean, but great gain comes through the strength of an ox.” I can remember growing up on a ranch the times when the loafing shed needed to be cleaned out. Now we didn’t have a big fancy ranch, so I didn’t have to learn how to handle a skid-steer or a tractor and front-end loader. I just had to know how to use a shovel. But I was blessed with the fact that Wyoming is a low humidity state, so what I handled was dry. And of course, we couldn’t afford a spreader, so I got to load the pickup and then spread it with the same shovel that I had used to load it. Even though it was dry—it was a messy job.
A very loose paraphrase of Proverbs 14:4 for a pastor and church leaders would be, “Ministry would be great if I didn’t have to deal with messy people; however, ministry ‘by definition’ is caring for the messy people God sends my way.” Every pastor can name the “high maintenance” people that are part of his world. Some of them are constantly making bad choices, and until and unless they begin to make better choices there is NO ONE in this world who can help them—not even God. The soft heart of a pastor can make it difficult for him to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). A pastor’s response for those individuals should be something like the concept found in the Hippocratic Oath of “doing no harm,” or the phrase “benign neglect.” So, in love, quit hitting your head against the brick walls that are the hardheaded people in your world. When they are ready to listen to the conviction of the Holy Spirit, then you can be of help to them. But until that takes place, stop beating yourself up and stop thinking that you are a failure.
At other times it is hard for a pastor to be direct with “high maintenance people” because doing so would offend a family member or friend who has enabled that person for years. In these situations, my task-oriented personality would recommend an intervention. The admonition “Speak the truth in love” does require us to “speak the truth!” But to do that correctly, it means things are going to get messy! My caution here is that until and unless the family and friends are willing to support you in a Biblically-based intervention, your efforts will fail.
There are other situations where people find themselves in the “high maintenance” category through no fault of their own. In my small world, there are several who have recently found themselves in this category. I know of a pastor whose wife is struggling with severe, chronic, and disabling health issues. In this situation, the primary causes for those physical circumstances are their genetic makeup. I also know of a young mother of two who was the victim of a violent drive-by shooting. She is confined to a wheelchair and is doing long-term rehab. Her father happens to be a pastor. I know of a mother of three whose house burned to the ground. They escaped with their lives, but only with the clothes on their back. Her father also happens to be a pastor. I also know a young church planter and father who started chemo treatments this week to deal with his Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis. Again, a physical challenge linked to his genetics.
In these situations, another Biblical passage comes to mind: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (II Corinthians 1:3-4). Yes, praying for them. Yes asking the right people, “How specifically can we help in this situation?” Yes, stepping in and stepping up as God provides an opportunity. And yes, doing so will require us to get messy!
In my next post, I will touch base with the situations where ministry becomes overwhelming. But until then, use the season of love, Valentine’s Day, to show love for “high maintenance people” in healthy and helpful ways. Do it in ways that don’t enable their bad decisions. Do it in ways that support and encourage those who genuinely need a loving touch. Do it in ways that permit you to feel God’s love and affirmation of your call to serve messy people
In last week’s article, I talked about what I believe is THE quickest and easiest way to self-diagnose your church’s spiritual health: Ask yourself, “Do we have enough spiritually maturing leaders?” Before I mention several other simple diagnostic questions, let me share two areas of concern.
The first is, “What happens if you wait too long before you discover you have a spiritual health problem?” How many people do you know who went to the doctor for a routine physical, and then they walked out of the office with a diagnosis that they only had a few months to live? Don’t let the day-to-day and week-to-week challenges of ministry keep you from taking time every few months to step back and ask yourself critical spiritual health diagnostic questions. Do it before it’s too late!
The second relates to the limitations of self-diagnosing. In this day and age, when we have physical ailments, our first response is to check out our symptoms on the internet to identify what might be causing them. Or there are some of us who listen to commercials we see on TV that are run by drug companies, class action lawyers, and various disease advocates, and we suddenly discover we are sick. In either case, the next call we make is to our primary care doctor to let them know what is causing all of our symptoms. My guess is that most doctors prefer to listen to your symptoms and with their education, experience, and personal knowledge of your health history suggest what the underlying health issues might be.
In our information overload era, what I have observed is that the primary challenge for pastors and church leaders isn’t getting enough information. The problem is understanding what information is actually relevant for their context. Biblical principles transcend time and culture; however, the application of those principles will look very different from one church to another. If your self-diagnosis reveals that you have spiritual health issues, let me exhort you to invite an objective, spiritually mature, and experienced consultant to help you further process your issues.
The best self-diagnostic resource I have seen is William Hoyt’s book Effectiveness by the Numbers. In it, he notes, “The actual metrics involved in measuring your church’s effectiveness in developing leaders is infinitely easier than the task itself. You simply count the number of new people who have been identified, recruited, trained, and deployed during the time frame being evaluated.” But beyond that Hoyt discusses the following vital statistics areas that should be monitored. Just like the nurse takes your temperature, blood pressure, and weight when you go for an appointment, these are vital statistics you should know about your church.
Hoyt states, “If you could count only one thing, you should count conversions. On the day of Pentecost, they did not count attendance. They counted conversions measured by baptisms (Acts 2:41). So a simple self-diagnostic question is, “How many professions of faith and how many baptisms did our church report last year?” As quickly as I typed the question, I heard you say, “But 2020 was not normal!” So let me ask you to look at the last five years in your church and ask yourself, “What was the average number of professions of faith, and what was the average number of baptisms per year?” You might also ask, “What has the trend been?” “Have they increased, decreased, or stayed about the same?”
In the chapter on counting conversions, Hoyt writes, “The rule of thumb I hold up to the churches I coach is a minimum threshold of one conversion per ten worship attendees. If a church has an average weekly attendance of 300, it should aim for thirty conversion baptisms.” He then notes, “Functionally what this means is that, on the average, each attendee would have to be used of God to help produce one conversion every ten years. Is this too much to expect? Is it enough to expect? The good news is that the God who wants all people to come to faith in Him will gladly help us overcome our failure and make our evangelistic efforts bear fruit.”
The first time I read the book, I was deeply challenged by two follow-up metrics he suggested. One related to measuring our effectiveness in “winning our own”—those who grew up and were baptized in the church. Hoyt suggested:
“The ultimate way to measure our effectiveness at winning our own would be to track the children you baptized over time, recognizing evidence of lasting Christian commitment. Imagine how informative it would be if we were to measure, at five year intervals, just four things:
In the area of penetrating the lostness in our community, Hoyt suggested we could do an in-depth self-diagnose in two additional ways. The first is one many pastors have used and seen: “What is the ratio of church members to baptisms.” Because many churches emphasize worship attendance versus membership, you will note above that Hoyt suggested the ratio of attendees to baptisms. Hoyt suggested an additional metric I had not previously used. With my undergraduate degree in economics and with a deep passion for being a good steward, it really hit me hard. He suggests you divide your annual church income by the number of baptisms per year. He gave three examples in the book that ranged from $72,340 to $270,554! Now Hoyt wasn’t, and I am not suggesting you think in business terms of improving your return on investment. What I am asking is, “Are you stewarding “the widow’s mite” well?” and, “Are you investing God’s resources in the things that produce the greatest fruitfulness?”
Stay tuned for more self-diagnostic tools. But until then, consider using the self-evaluation tools mentioned above. Then prayerfully ask God to give you a discerning spirit to know what the next right step should be.
In the field of medicine, there are two very broad umbrella categories under which everything is categorized: Diagnostic Health Care and Preventive Health Care. Diagnostic care is what you receive when you have symptoms or risk factors and your doctor seeks to diagnose them—when they identify the root cause and prescribe a solution. Preventive care is given to you when you're symptom free and believe you are healthy—the basic care that you get when you have no reason to believe you are sick.
In last week’s article entitled “How’s Your Spiritual Health?” I pointed out that the average church in America is not healthy. I also pointed out that our actions and attitudes, even after a year filled with unprecedented challenges, still suggest that we think we are okay. We are only seeking preventive care for our spiritual health needs. What I hear from most pastors is something like this: “Yes, things are difficult, but it is because we are living in a very unhealthy culture—one filled with physical health care problems, political strife, economic disparity, and racial tensions. And yes there are unhealthy churches, but not ours.”
One of the reasons for our attitude is that the spiritual health decline we’ve experienced has been very slow. In fact, it has been so gradual and taken place over such a long period of time that we are almost completely unaware of it. Although I could provide all kinds of statistics as proof of the decline, even in the face of those statistics, many would remain unconvinced that “our church” is unhealthy.
I am living proof of how oblivious we can be to gradual health declines. Last year at some insistence from those who “say” they love me, I took a hearing test. This wasn’t just the “Can you hear the beep?” kind of test. They made me repeat words they were saying. I wasn’t totally convinced I had a problem. The test indicated that I wasn’t hearing exactly what they were saying, BUT I’m sure I was hearing what they “should have been saying!” Setting aside all my rationalizations, I had to admit that I needed hearing aids. They were ordered, and when they arrived they were synced to my telephone, and I left the doctor’s office. I did notice some immediate changes. And as I headed down the road, I heard some “new” sounds emanating from my car. My first thought was, “Wow! I’ve got to get that fixed.” One noise that startled me was a clicking sound I heard every time I turned a corner. What I was hearing for the first time in a long-time was the sound of my turn signal. The next morning I had a similar experience as I sat down at my desk and began to reply to my e-mails. I thought I had a nice quiet keyboard. It turns out that I actually have a very loud keystroke.
Today we have nice soundproof rooms with electronic testing tools to determine if we have hearing loss and then pinpoint the specific frequencies where that loss is occurring. What would happen if we had technology capable of diagnosing the root cause of our spiritual health problems? Would the average church even use them? Over twenty years ago, I was trained and certified to use one of the simplest and best church health diagnostic tools available. I promoted it and encouraged pastors to take advantage of it, but over the years only a handful have used it.
So in lieu of recommending any existing diagnostic tools, let me suggest some self-evaluation questions you can ask to determine the health of your church. Last week I stated that the number one problem we have in the American church is the lack of mature leaders. So, one way to know if you are a healthy church is by asking yourself, “Do we have enough spiritually mature leaders to do all that God is asking us to do in our church? If the answer is yes, then you are a spiritually healthy church.
If you answered no, then your church has some spiritual health issues. Let me suggest some diagnostic follow-up questions:
If your only answer to my last diagnostic question above was, “We have been praying that the Lord of the Harvest would send us laborers for our harvest field,” then I hope you can hear me saying with love and as much grace as I can express in written words, “You have ceased to be a church, and you have become part of the mission field.” The first step in making a change is acknowledging your need for change! Stay tuned as I continue to discuss spiritual health issues.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, DoM
Over the past ten months the word COVID, which many of us had never heard before, has become a word we use at least once a day. The average American has been exposed to more information and disinformation regarding a single strain of the COVID family of viruses (COVID19), than they can handle. One virus has created a global concern for our physical wellbeing.
What has intrigued me during this season is that it hasn’t generated an equal concern for our spiritual health. Most pastors and churches are working hard to find ways to survive until they can get back to normal. The goal seems to be to get back to where we were a year ago. But stop and ask yourself, where was the American church in January 2020? Was the average church a healthy church? The reality is that in every statistical area we use to evaluate a normal American church, the average church was not healthy a year ago. From my perspective, THE number one symptom that tells me we have a significant spiritual health crisis in our nation is our lack of mature leaders. Let me elaborate a bit on how I arrived at this conclusion.
Phyllis and I began the New Year by beginning the study of Experiencing God during our morning devotionals. Phyllis had never done the study, and I have found it to be very useful at times in my life when I needed clarity from God. In our chaotic world filled with COVID, racial tensions, political polarization, economic stress, and Christianity’s declining influence, I figured it might be a good time to seek clarity from God. The first principle you study in Experiencing God is that God is always at work around us. The question is, “Am I even expecting God to be at work?”
So I started to pay closer attention. I have been doing a major edit on material I have used for decades to help pastor search committees. In preparation for the edit, I read the book Next: Pastoral Succession that Works by Vanderbloemen and Bird. Although they specifically state, “We are not primarily writing on how to establish a pastor search committee;” it has been a helpful resource.
At the same time, I have been working with several pastor search committees. In the process of helping one, I ran across an “interesting” resume. The candidate had sent a self-composed, in depth cover letter that basically described himself as a superman kind of pastor. It emphasized all that he could do and all the knowledge that he had that would transform their church. It was very “me-centered.” His perspective comes from a faulty definition of spiritual maturity. Disciple-making is not simply the transfer of information but is about life transformation (Romans 12:1-2).
All of this, and a variety of similar things, began to create a swirling vortex in my mind. Ultimately, God used these experiences to create an “Aha moment!” If we, Christians and churches—the body of Christ—really addressed the core issue of our spiritual health problem, I wouldn’t need to help so many pastor search committees and Vanderbloemen and Bird’s book wouldn’t have been so popular. The average American church is not raising up leaders from their own harvest field. This is what Jesus commanded us to do in the Great Commission—to make disciples in Matthew 28:19-20. It is what He had told His disciples to do when He sent the twelve out two-by-two in Matthew 9:38. It is what Jesus told the seventy to do when He sent them out two by two in Luke 10:2. But since the average church in America is emphasizing doing and knowing rather than growing in obedience and Christlikeness, when they need a new pastor they have to find one that some other church has been preparing. And because so few churches are raising up leaders for the harvest, it has become more imperative that I have good resources to share with search committees and Vanderbloemen and Bird’s book will continue to sell well.
When it comes to our spiritual health we are usually treating symptoms and ignoring or glossing over the underlying cause of our spiritual health crisis—our failure to make disciples, who make disciples, who make disciples (II Timothy 2:2). My prayer is that your personal walk is significantly better than it was a year ago. But, to be all that God wants us to be, we all need to regularly ask God to put a spotlight of truth on areas where we need to grow (Psalm 139:23-24) and be willing to listen to genuine friends—those will to speak truth into our life (Proverbs 27:6). As we do that, we will be able to diagnose some underlying issues that are negatively impacting our spiritual health. Go and become all that God desires for you.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, DoM
There is no one who is able to set themself outside of our current historical events and view them with absolute objectivity. As we are watching these unprecedented events unfold, we do so with personal perspectives shaped by our life experiences. Having said that, ALL OF US should be able to say that violence and attacks on persons and property are never a proper response. I would suggest that if we can’t denounce violence, anarchy, and murder without adding a single qualifier—anything that in anyway, shape, or form provides a rationalization for them--then we have already lost objectivity and will lose credibility.
As a nation, we are experiencing an increased polarization and calcification that has destroyed any remaining lines of communication that existed between factions. We have also experienced a series of events that have increasingly desensitized us. It has become so common that we dismiss it as normal. We lose our sense of outrage and righteous indignation. Some of us simply “tune out.” The net result is demoralized and defeated people watching as warring factions escalate their response to one another.
But humanity has been down this road before. Genesis 6:5-7 speaks to a time much like ours is rapidly becoming.
“Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them."'
If you were to stop at verse seven and not know the rest of the story, you would become despondent. However, verse eight says, “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.” God provided light and hope through the obedience of a single man.
After Joshua led the nation of Israel into the Promised Land, and he and his generation passed away, a four hundred year period of time passed that Biblical scholars call the Period of the Judges. For four centuries the “People of God” experienced a cyclical life that moved from obedience and blessing to disobedience and social decay. Judges 2:17-19 describes it this way:
“They turned quickly from the way in which their fathers walked, in obeying the commandments of the Lord; they did not do so. And when the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge and delivered them out of the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who oppressed them and harassed them. And it came to pass, when the judge was dead, that they reverted and behaved more corruptly than their fathers, by following other gods, to serve them and bow down to them. They did not cease from their own doings nor from their stubborn way.”
God provided light and hope through the faithful obedience of various men, and at least one woman named Deborah.
The prophet Isaiah lived in a time of national despair. Assyria had conquered and destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and almost did the same thing to the southern kingdom of Judah. The first seventeen verses of the book of Isaiah picture Judah as a nation that had turned its back on God. After sowing seeds of sinful rebellion they were now reaping the harvest of cultural decay and national decline. But God gave Isaiah a word of hope to share with the nation:
“‘Come now, and let us reason together,’” Says the Lord, ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, They shall be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They shall be as wool. If you are willing and obedient, You shall eat the good of the land; But if you refuse and rebel, You shall be devoured by the sword’; For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 1:18-20
God offered the nation hope in the midst of darkness by declaring, “If you are willing and obedient you will eat the good of the land.”
These are but a few of the many examples we have in scripture. In the darkest of times, God has always set before us the possibility of a future full of hope and blessings. However, it is always a conditional promise that requires repentance, faith, and obedience on our part.
It is interesting to note that in times of cultural distress we most often quote a promise from God that was not one given during a season of difficulty, but at the pinnacle of Israel’s global prominence—the dedication of the first temple during Solomon’s reign. It was God’s response to Solomon’s dedication prayer that is recorded in II Chronicles 6. In his prayer, over and over again he beseeched God to listen when people cried out to Him in times of trouble—troubles that will often be caused by their own sinful actions. You will note that Solomon did not pray “If trouble comes” but “When it comes.” God’s answer was:
“If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” II Chronicles 7:14
Because we have personal perspectives shaped by our life experiences, we will respond differently to current events. Those various responses will be packed with emotions and driven by our basic human instincts for survival. As I struggle and seek to rise above emotions and human instinct by listening to the indwelling Holy Spirit, let me encourage you to do the same. Let us come together with ears to hear one another’s pain AND to raise our prayers of confession and intercession to God. In the days ahead, Heartland Church Network will be scheduling specific times for pastors to come together, to share with one another, to pray for one another, and to lift our unified voices to God in prayer.
Pastor Tim Johnson of New Covenant Community Church sent me the following link to an article entitled "Help! I’m Pastoring in the Wilderness.” Let me throw out a couple of quotes from Pastor Cole Huffman’s blog that I pray will encourage you to read the whole thing. I was challenged and encouraged by it and pray that you will be as well.
“On a recent Saturday night, I told my wife I was going to resign in the morning. After 18 years in the church. Just like that. I’ve taken enough shots! She cut my bowstrings and walked me back from the ledge. I’m a pastor, which means I have to navigate this wilderness the church isn’t just “in” but “is.”
In last week’s article, I mentioned the book Life is all about Relationships by Leo Endel. In the opening chapter, entitled God is about Relationships, Leo points to one of the clearest passages in scripture regarding the triune nature of God—John 14:23-26.
Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine but the Father’s who sent Me. These things I have spoken to you while being present with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.”
As Christians, we believe in one God who has described Himself in relational terms as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Genesis tells us that humanity was created by Him in His image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). We too are relational beings, and as such, our spiritual and physical health depends upon having good relationships with one another and with God.
Another recent read of mine has been Finishing Strong by Steve Farrar. [You can find a discussion summary of it on the HCN website resource library] In it, Farrar reminds us of four different research projects that point to the importance that relationships play in our physical health.
At Ohio State University College of Medicine, scientists found that patients who scored above average in loneliness had significantly poorer functioning of their immune system.
As we enter the New Year, Be It Resolved that we will place a higher priority on relationships. One way we can do this is by not letting the “new normal” blind us in this critical area. A prime example of “relational blindness” comes from what we now accept as an appropriate response to COVID. I am absolutely convinced that as serious as this virus is; as many unknowns as there are related to its long-term health impact; and as many variables as there are regarding the vaccines being developed for it; that politicians and medical administrators, for the most part, have been blind to the relational needs of people as they are establishing COVID protocols.
Doctors and nurses, who are already under great stress, have to constantly adjust to ever-evolving protocols with little, if any, input into what makes sense. Patients are being isolated as hospitals don’t permit even a single family member to visit. This isolation is creating emotional stress for both the patient and the family. As such, they are ignoring the findings of long-established social science AND the basic relational nature of human beings.
Be It Resolved that those of us who have the responsibility to make decisions regarding how our church responds to the ever-evolving COVID restrictions, that we will not fall prey to “relational blindness.” Every church will have people who are spread across the full spectrum of the COVID Perspective Scale. As such, any decision you make will upset someone. Be patient with those who take these positions. My council has been for everyone to use common sense, common courtesy, and uncommon grace. But as is often the case, it preaches easier than it is lived out.
Be It Resolved that you will sustain key relationships in spite of the challenges. One of Satan’s tried and true ways to keep pastors and church leaders from long-term success is to get them isolated—to cut them out from the herd. Relational blindness applies to those of us who think we can do ministry alone. Farrar’s book on finishing strong points out that one of the key indicators for failing to finish strong is not being involved in a personal accountability group (page 40). If you are not currently involved in a small accountability group with other pastors or church leaders, then I exhort you; I plead with you; I beg you to give me a call, and we can work together to get you plugged into one.
May your 2021 be filled with healthy growing relationships!
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, DoM
Mark is in his twenty-seventh year of serving as an Associational Missions Strategist. He served in western Iowa for almost eight years, and is in his nineteenth year with HCN. He has a passion to see pastors and church leaders grow in their abilities to lead their churches. He continues to have a heart and desire to see new churches planted and God continues to use his strategic thinking skills in this area. Mark also has a wealth of experience in helping churches clarify who God has created them to be, and what they can do best to reach their community. He has had ample opportunities to help churches in times of conflict, and has seen God do exciting things to restore a spirit of harmony, returning churches to a time of fruitfulness. He also helps churches in transition by working with search committees. Mark and Phyllis who were married in November of 2018 have four children and three grandchildren. They will enjoy their combined 87th anniversary in just a few days.