Are the lines straight or angled?
The number one thing that I have been asked to do in my twenty-seven years as a Director of Missions has been to step in and help a church in a time of conflict. As I have listened, I have heard brothers and sisters in Christ describe what had happened in a deeply divided narrative. Their stories are so different that I wonder, “Can they really be talking about the same incident, on the same planet, in the same universe, in the same time-space continuum?” A statement I always make is “Although your perception IS your reality; your reality is not always TRUTH.” As I say it and then explain it briefly, I try to do it with a little bit of humor knowing that what I have just said carries a little bite with it.
Today we live in an entire nation that is deeply divided. If you listen to a variety of news sources, you will hear a very different perspective on current events. I have found it has become more challenging to have a good conversation with someone who has a very different perspective. All of us have become entrenched in our positions, and to one degree or another have been blinded by our perceptions to the absolute truth of any given situation.
In His trial before Pilate, Jesus stated, “I came into the world, to testify to the TRUTH. Everyone who belongs to the TRUTH listens to my voice” (John 18:37). Unfortunately too often we are like Pilate whose response to Jesus was, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)
When I have encountered conflict in churches and in my own life, I have found that a huge contributor has always been a clouding of TRUTH by each individual’s perceptions. Stop and ask yourself, “What informs my perceptions?” Stay tuned for more to come, but let me suggest two biggies:
My counsel is to approach every challenging situation with a huge dose of humility, an abundance of prayer, and a desire to seek TRUTH from the Lord. Conflicts are a natural part of life, but we can learn to handle them in an unnatural way. A truly Godly way.
This weekend we celebrated the anniversary of our nation’s birth. It falls in the midst of a historic time when all things are being called into question. Many are questioning the spiritual moorings of our history—can a nation claim manifest destiny that legalized slavery for the first seventy-five years of its existence, and that treated the Native Americans so poorly? Historic monuments are being vandalized and removed in an effort to correct or re-write our history.
As my reflections are being sent out, I am actually enjoying a few days of vacation with my grandsons in the Black Hills where I was born and raised. One of the sites we saw was Mount Rushmore during a time when it was drawing significant national attention as President Trump visited it on July 4th. Not only is the area the place where I was born, but it is also the place where I was born again. As a citizen of the great state of Wyoming—the Equality State where women were first granted the right to vote—and of the United States of America—a nation unique in history in many ways—I also became a citizen of the Kingdom of God!
Now, as a seventy-year-old grandpa, I returned to my roots with a different perspective. I have been greatly enriched and unbelievably challenged by my life experiences. But maybe, more importantly, I have been encouraged and edified by spiritual insights gleaned from God’s Holy Word. Some of those passages that speak to the issue of being a patriotic American are:
"I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness."
Part of my heritage is what we called the Mountain West mentality as I was growing up. I have described it as rugged American individualism on steroids. God’s word has both tempered and informed me to realize that I cannot live my life in isolation, but neither can I deny my personal responsibility and accountability to God for all that He has given me. Living out that tension is not easy. There are moments when I want to buy a little cabin in the woods and run from the chaos of society. But my responsibility to God and my fellow man tells me I am to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. In times like these, I am CONSTANTLY reminded by God of the simple, yet profound, prescription He gave us for times when Christian Patriotism is hard:
"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 I will forgive their sin and will heal their land."
On this 4th of July week, like none other in your life, join me in humbling ourselves before God, praying and seeking His presence (knowing everything depends upon Him), and turning from our self-serving individualism. God has promised that if we will do this with pure hearts, then He will hear our prayers, forgive our sins, and HEAL OUR LAND!
Mordecai’s exhortation “For Such a Time as This” was extended to Esther whom he had raised as his daughter after her parents' death. We often quote this as an individual faces a difficult decision. Every pastor in America has had to make difficult decisions in recent weeks, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there will be several more in the immediate future.
The fact is that every pastor has been called of God to under-shepherd a part of God’s flock as its spiritual leader. But not every pastor is comfortable with the reality that along with the call to proclaim from the pulpit “thus sayeth the Lord” there comes a responsibility to step up as a leader and make difficult decisions. Those decisions will need to be bathed in prayer, backed with wise counsel, communicated clearly, and implemented well. If those basic steps are not taken and decisions are not made, then a pastor will find that the broader context of what Mordecai told Esther will likely come to pass.
“For if you remain completely silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
Forgive me for getting “down and dirty” with what I am seeing, but American Christianity is at a critical crossroads. We cannot and will not survive with a “business as usual” mindset. If you think your church can get back to normal church life by simply outlasting COVID and surviving the “current” racial tensions, I am suggesting you will be very disappointed. There were significant indicators that the average American church was not healthy in February. I would suggest that if you have decided to simply wait out our current challenges, then “relief and deliverance will arise…from another place.”
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do know we have to correctly define reality and get a better grasp on the Biblical basics of how to make disciples, who make disciples, who make disciples. In doing a re-read of J. Robert Clinton’s book The Making of a Leader, I ran across the description of an epiphany moment that Dawson Trotman, the founder of the Navigators, had.
"Dawson picked up a hitch-hiker whose speech indicated he was not a believer. Within moments he discovered this man was one of his “converts” of the previous year whose decision had not been followed up and who had virtually died on the vine. Shaken, Dawson responded that there must be countless such persons who had sincerely, perhaps with tears, called on the name of the Lord, but whose lives had not been changed. What was wrong?
My prayer is that the current challenges will startle you and begin a journey of self-analysis that will help you choose a better path for your future and by that a better future for your church. Heartland Church Network exists to connect, support, and start churches passionate about changing the world. We are here for you!
The other day I was asked, “What do you see as the number one leadership development issue in the church today?” As I approach the end of my 27th year of serving as a Director of Missions and having worked with hundreds of pastors and lay leaders, I answered without a lot of hesitation, “Pastors and Christian leaders who don’t have an honest assessment of who God has created them to be or a willingness to celebrate how God uniquely created them to serve Him.”
When most of us look into a mirror we want to see someone else: someone we admire and strive to emulate. Psalm 139 quickly comes to mind as a source of wisdom on this topic. David acknowledged that God knows exactly what we look like when we stand in front of His mirror: O Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. You comprehend my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. (1-3) So how should we respond to that kind of knowledge?
David also stated that God’s mirror is a “magic mirror.” It is able to guide us into the knowledge of who He wants us to be: Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed, and in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them. (16) So how should we respond to that kind of knowledge?
How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How great is the sum of them! If I should count them, they would be more in number than the sand; When I awake, I am still with You. (17-18) So how should we respond to that kind of knowledge?
David closes the Psalm by asking God to help him see what God sees today when He looks in the mirror: Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties; And see if there is any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting. (23-24) So how should we respond to that kind of knowledge?
The one thing you don’t want to see when you look into God’s mirror is something like the reflection that is seen in this roadside mirror that was erected along a desert road. In these days that are truly testing the souls of all of us, my prayer is that you will reflect a vibrant radiant glow that comes only when one loves the Lord with all their heart and soul and mind and when they love their neighbor as themselves.
I begin this brief article with the reality that I am touching on an incomprehensibly complex issue that no matter what I say will be viewed by some as inappropriate. That issue is racism. Thanks to the proactive nature of Heartland Church Network’s Moderator, Rev. Dr. Ralph Lassiter, HCN has hosted a couple of opportunities for dialogue around the issue of racism. Although we have barely chipped an ice cube off the top of a huge iceberg, we have begun a conversation that I pray will incite future dialogues. Stay tuned for the announcement of future dates and times.
But for a moment, let me ask you to reflect on a familiar parable: the Parable of the Soils/Sower (Matthew 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20, and Luke 8:4-15). First, I would note that the parable has two titles based on two very different perspectives—that of the soil and that of the sower. Your perspective - who you are and your life experiences- WILL inform your position on race.
Second, I would note that the parable provides a broad and very general description of four types of soil/ways that people respond to Christ:
A third area I see in the parable stems from my agricultural background. For any plant to be healthy, it needs water and nutrients from the soil. And based upon the plant species, the type of soil and specific nutrients needed for healthy growth will vary. The soil will need the right pH; the right texture, depth, and drainage; the right balance of major nutrients (N/P/K); and the right balance of micro-nutrients. In other words, what works for one person to be able to understand and respond appropriately to the race issue can and at times will be different from that of another.
The fourth area of understanding also comes from my agricultural background. Plant nutrients come from both the air (respiration and photosynthesis) and the soil (absorption). From a human perspective, let me suggest that our root structure absorbs from the very soil from which we were created a sin nature. The name Adam is derived from the Hebrew word for earth/soil. In other words, at the tip of each of our roots (and they can number in the hundreds), we will find a single element being absorbed daily: sin. However, let me push the analogy just a bit, and point out that a plant also gets nutrients from the air (respiration). Note that the words for wind and spirit are the same in both Hebrew (ruach) and Greek (pneuma). Also, note that the sun (our source for light) is the ingredient required for plant photosynthesis. Jesus said, “I am the Light of the World.” In other words, we daily deal with the reality of our sin nature being absorbed from the very root of our existence; however, its impact can be countered by our willingness to receive the Light of the World into our life and a willingness to surrender our wills to the Holy Spirit which indwells the life of a believer.
As we respond biblically to the issue of racism, we must acknowledge both its complexity and its singular source (sin) as well as its singular solution (radical life-transforming salvation). Keep praying and keep talking to God and to one another.
Times of significant interruption can be used by God to bring greater clarity as we pause to ask, “Why?” It might be “Why me, God?” And if we are willing to listen carefully and look deeply within, we can usually find something that needs to change if we are going to be all that God wants us to be.
In our current setting where pastors and churches have had to make significant changes in their weekly activities, some are beginning to ask, “Why haven’t we tried this before?” Remember, the primary mandate of the church is to make disciples, who make disciples, who make disciples for the glory of God. Let me suggest that it is also imperative that we ask, “How well have we been doing?” An honest analysis would say that Christians look more like the world, than we look like Jesus. We are to be in the world, but not of the world. That reality forces us back to asking, “Why have we been doing the same thing year after year, expecting different results?”
One small change that can make a big difference is if we quit thinking of disciple-making like we were putting on our socks, and begin thinking more like we have to think when we put on our shoes. Socks can go on either foot. Shoes are specifically designed to fit a single foot. You can put your socks on in the dark, but you have to pay attention when you grab your shoes and try to put them on.
Recently, God convicted me with the reality that too often we look at people as if they were socks and try to put them into any one of the numerous open or underserved positions we have in our church. Since God has given church leaders the primary purpose of “equipping the saints” (Eph 4:12), we should be treating people like they were shoes, uniquely designed for a specific application.
That brings us to a tension that all church leaders have to face. Is it more important to staff the organization we have created or to equip the people God created and has called to serve Him? Are there activities and ministries in your church that are not being staffed? If so, are you asking, “Why are we doing it?” Or are you more concerned with sustaining those ministries than you are with helping believers evaluate, identify, and enhance their God given giftedness?
I truly believe that if every pastor and every church would focus first and foremost on equipping the saints that God sends their way, then the ministries God needs us to establish in our churches will be adequately staffed. That means, we have to stop treating people like they were a sock and treat them like they were a shoe.
Many of you have heard me talk about the need to maintain a healthy balance when it comes to major theological and ecclesiological issues. Often major issues fall into a paradoxical tension where we have to hold two contradictory opinions or ideas as both being equally valid. As such, when we don’t maintain the appropriate tension, we end up out of balance, and we WILL eventually end up in unhealthy or even heretical territory. Obvious examples are God is three but also God is one. Jesus is 100% man but Jesus is also 100% God.
Let me be so bold as to suggest that God can use our forced time of not being able to meet as we normally have for large group events to help bring back into balance: the tension between large group worship and small group discipleship. I believe we have placed so much emphasis and value on the worship event that we have taken our eye off the best place for deep discipleship to happen: the small group. Let me illustrate. At the height of the growth of Southern Baptists, the Sunday School was viewed as THE outreach and evangelism arm of the church. It was also the primary discipleship arena. When pastors gathered at various events their number one question was, “What’s your Sunday School attendance?” Then they might ask, “How many did you baptize last year?” Very few SBC churches even bothered to count worship attendance back then. Fast forward to today. When pastors gather today, the only question I hear being asked is “What’s your worship attendance?” We have slowly crept out of balance.
Now, anyone that knows me understands I am not suggesting large group worship is not important, because it is! However, with the advent of radio and television and now the internet, a significant emphasis has been placed on those few who have been uniquely gifted by God as orators—like Apollos in the book of Acts was. Most of us are called and equipped to be pastors (shepherds) and teachers. Those roles are better lived out in smaller group contexts. Let me again be so bold as to suggest that in times like these, the shepherding and teaching skills are in particular demand. So, recognize that you are probably NOT one of the small handful of great 21st century orators and begin to strike a healthier balance between your emphasis on the preaching time. I will even go to the point of suggesting you shine a bright spotlight on the small group discipleship times you currently have in place. And then, begin to think of how you will equip new leaders, increase the number of groups, and ramp up your promotion of discipleship groups.
May God be glorified and your church be edified as you find the right balance between worship and discipleship! Remember, we are called to make disciples, who make disciples, who make disciples!
How Do you Provide a Personal Touch In an Impersonal World?
During a time of restricted personal interaction, we have had to get creative in how we connect with one another. Many of you have heard me refer to “social media” as the “anti-social media,” because it provides a way for me to communicate with people without having to have a personal relationship with them. Additionally, it has created an environment where people say inflammatory things they would never say if they were face-to-face with someone.
But, I have to admit that the anti-social media has proven to be a valuable tool and even a lifesaver in recent weeks. However, instead of looking forward to calling someone I’ve never met a friend, it has provided me a way to stay connected with family, friends, and co-workers.
During multiple conversations with pastors on dozens of zoom meetings, I have consistently heard stories of how they are using technology to stay connected with people. And it goes way beyond putting sermons or worship services on-line. Personal phone calls, text messages, zoom meetings, and prayer notes are just a few of the ways pastors are caring for their flocks. Let me share two somewhat “old-fashioned” ways that have been used to put a personal touch on things.
One was by Pastor Aaron Householder of Southview Baptist Church in Lincoln. He had his secretary put together church member’s addresses in specific areas of the city, and then he stops by for a quick visit: rings the doorbell, steps back the prescribed social distance, and visits with those who came to the door. What he anticipated would be a quick ten-minute stop, has often turned into a 30+ minute, greatly appreciated conversation.
Another example was used by Kelly Wallace who is the children’s minister at LifeSpring Church in Bellevue. She bought A BUNCH of ding dongs and made snack sacks for each of the church families who had preschoolers or children (yes they were prepared in a hyper-sensitive sanitized manner). Then she enlisted volunteers who went to each home. They rang the doorbells (ding dong) and using approved socially distanced methods, they shared the snack sacks which along with the ding dongs included a cute card that said, “Knock knock. Who's there? Justin. Justin who? Just in the neighborhood and thought we’d say hello and we miss you!"
When I heard the story, I asked Kelly, when’s the last time you went to the home of all your families? The answer was never—we wouldn’t normally have time to do it. I affirmed her efforts and suggested that the children and their parents will always remember that you stopped by. And not just because of the ding dongs or the cute card, but because you cared enough to provide a personal touch in the midst of a very impersonal world.
Having just come through an Easter season that challenged our traditional thinking to its very core, let me encourage you to keep shifting your thought process in one critical area by asking yourself, “Is my church attractional or attractive?”
The word attractional has developed a negative connotation in many Christian circles as it is associated with glitz, glamor, and over the top techniques to attract a crowd. An attractional strategy forces a church to continually create bigger and better ideas to keep people coming because what you use to attract people is what you have to use to keep them.
Let me use a common magnet as an analogy. There are two simple principles we know about magnets:
I would suggest we focus on becoming a more attractive church. I’m not talking about having your building and grounds committee create a more aesthetically pleasing physical facility. Rather, I suggest we prioritize time, energy, and resources to create more attractive people. Remember, God cares about what is in the heart, not what we look like on the outside.
The attractive vs attractional wordplay came to my mind as God put me in touch with two books. Gene Stockton recommended Frances Chan’s book Letters to the Church. In chapter four he uses the experience of a friend who was saved out of a gang lifestyle to challenge churches to model for the world supernatural unity and love. In my role as a DoM, I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been invited to intervene in a “church family squabble.” At some point, I will tell them, as lovingly as I can, “We don’t need to teach the world how to fight. They’ve got that figured out pretty well. What we can show them that will be attractive is how to have genuine differences, but still be able to love one another.”
The second book was recommended by my daughter, Emily, and is entitled: Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger. The book points to PTSD research and uses the term “tribe” in a similar way that Chan uses “gang.” Polite church circles would prefer the words “community’ and “family.” A point in Junger’s book is that many soldiers experience “tribe” while deployed, but have no similar support network when they return home, causing mental and emotional stress.
In a post COVID-19 world, don’t return to an attractional model. Instead, place your energy and focus on becoming a loving, caring, unified body of believers. Be a family that welcomes other members into your community and loves them and disciples them so they become attractive and welcoming to others. Become a Christian gang, a Christian tribe.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Mark Elliott, DoM
I’ve heard a few people suggest that we should remove March from our calendars since the last two have not been very fun here in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa—2019 floods and 2020 COVID19. And after being involved in a series of tough decisions to cancel a host of events, I have concluded that American’s are being asked to either cancel or postpone 2020. My oldest grandchild will hopefully graduate from high school this year; however, the May 23rd graduation ceremony that is on my calendar will not happen as scheduled. I heard on the radio that 2020 UNL graduates will be invited to “walk” with the 2021 graduates next year. We were going to do an “all-family” vacation in Florida the week before the SBC Convention, but both of those events have been canceled.
As I have reflected on the host of cancellations, I found it interesting that the first events to be canceled were major sporting events: March Madness and the 2020 College World Series. I’m wondering what God might be trying to tell us? We have become a nation where we have pursued sports, personal pleasure, and the accumulation of possessions at an ever-increasing almost frantic pace. If we were honest with ourselves we would admit that these things have become our gods. MAYBE God is trying to redirect our focus and energy. Maybe God telling a nation that believes we can continue to living at an ever-increasing frantic pace that it is time to slow down; to be still and to know that He is God.
As we are forced to change our daily life patterns, let me suggest that we don’t swap one hectic and harried lifestyle for another one where we just hop from one on-line meeting to the next. My prayer is that we will be able to reprioritize our time, energy, and resources to put more emphasis upon God, upon our marriages, upon our relationships with family and friends, and upon identifying and engaging in what God has uniquely called and equipped us to do.
Mark 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.