Thinking Out Loud

September 30, 2010

The Strategically Small Church: Small is the new Mega

Less than 1% of the total number of churches in the U.S. are what are considered mega-churches, yet in book after book, conference after conference, it is those churches and their leaders who are setting the agenda and the criteria for what constitutes success in ministry.

It can be disheartening for smaller churches faced with the impossible task of trying to keep up when the larger ‘successes’ seem to dictate the programming one needs to have, and even the language used to discuss it.

Brandon J. Obrien, an editor at large for Leadership magazine is figuratively spitting into the wind of conventional wisdom with his new book, The Strategically Small Church.

…If we could just silence the experts for a few hours, we might have the time and imagination to begin thinking about our ministries in a new way.  (p. 156)

He gives example after example of small(er) churches which are able to excel in areas such as authenticity, flexibility, training and equipping; not to mention the growing awareness that new priority needs to be placed on inter-generational ministry, something small churches do well.

But probably his best illustration is one of the two only non-church oriented ones he uses: The example of a small west coast newspaper who are gaining readers at a time that print newspaper readership is in rapid decline by simply refusing to publish anything unless their ‘take’ on the story is unique or nobody else is covering it.

This provides a metaphor for how he perceives American churches are tripping over themselves trying to duplicate services, because the perception is that these programs (and, one assumes, attendant staff members) are the measure of success in ministry.

As I finished the book this morning, I couldn’t help but think of next week’s Catalyst Conference in Atlanta.   A quick look at the list of speakers who come from the world of vocational pastoral ministry bears out O’Brien’s hypotheses.   All of the primary speakers represent the largest U.S. churches, and the same is true for tw0-thirds of the breakout group speakers.

An inspiring group of key speakers?   I’m sure they are, but how do you take what you’ve heard and apply it when you’re back home in your church of 100 members?

O’Brien also — and I wish he had fleshed this out a little more — hints that the mega-church pastors and leaders know that the current model has its flaws.     While some things, like worship and drama, happen with great efficiency and excellence in the larger congregations, the lack of inter-generational contact may signal some long-term problems for those who have never learned to integrate with the larger body.

Though it’s not in the text, I love these words from the back cover blurb:  “Blessed are the small.”    Indeed.

The Strategically Small Church is published by Bethany House; 168 pages; $15.99 U.S.

Other excerpts from the book on my other blogs:

Comparing the small church to the small retail store versus the giant big-box store at Christian Book Shop Talk.  (Brandon’s other non-church metaphor.)

A quotation from Bonhoeffer on the pressures placed on the church by “big vision” leaders at Christianity 201.  (Not limited to big church pastors, but also including those with big church aspirations.)


September 29, 2010

Wednesday Link List

Another mid-week pause to look at some reading I did this week.

  • Our upper and lower comic selections this week are some Christian themes found at the daily newspaper comic, Pardon My Planet.  (Click the individual images…)
  • Here’s a controversial youth ministry concept:  Killing off the youth group as a separate entity within the larger church.   Links to video.
  • In the wake of the whole Glenn Beck thing, Parchment and Pen dusts off the classic question, Are Mormons Christians?
  • Even back in Augustine’s day, the church wrestled with the issue of celebrity conversions, and you may be surprised by his conclusion.
  • Here’s a trade review (for bookstore people) of a little 300-word title for kids and parents titled Our Home is Like a Little Church, a local-church publishing project that got picked up for national distribution.
  • If you found late-night TV Bible teacher Gene Scott quirky, you’re gonna see a similarity in these video clips from corporal punishment advocate Mike Pearl.
  • Another HT to Zach at Vitamin Z:  What constitutes “regular” church attendance?   This is a real issue both for families and for church leaders.    Here’s a comment from a pastor at one of Mark Driscoll’s satellite campuses.
  • Speaking of Mr. D., here’s a sometimes heated 12-minute discussion between him, Mark Dever and James MacDonald on the whole wisdom of multi-site churches.
  • Zac Hicks looks at the lack of spiritual warfare themes in modern worship in a piece on Why the Devil Hates “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”
  • Pete Wilson introduces Stephanie, who is willing to step out and share her story in a five-minute video, highlighting how so many of us have a need for approval.
  • On the occasion of the 25th Anniversary of RZIM, Ravi Zacharias appoints Rick Pease as the new president of the apologetics ministry organization.   Link opens direct to an mp3 file of their radio broadcast.
  • Yes, as a matter of fact some people have updated Bishop Eddie Long’s Wikipedia page.
  • Was it atheists and agnostics or Evangelicals who scored the highest on the ABC News response to the Pew Forum religious knowledge test?  Watch the video or read the story.

September 28, 2010

The Tranquility Prayer: Spiritual Wisdom from Planet Trid

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:06 pm

A re-post from September of last year…

It was a dream that I woke from remembering it vividly.

I was living on Planet Trid, very similar to ours in many ways. I was an activist, an angry activist pushing for every type of change, from major social change to why the clothing store never stocked enough of the statistically verifiable most common sizes.

I wrote letters. I left messages. And they even had blogging on Trid, and not to be outdone, I had a dozen of them; venting each day on a variety of topics that were the target of my latest frustration. I would be attacking the government for a flaw in its tax plan on blog one, while on blog two chastising a local restaurant for having seating capacity for 200 but only a dozen parking spaces.

Ranting had become a lifestyle. It was hard to change this pattern because, for one thing, I was always right. Not that everybody else was dead wrong, they just didn’t have my wisdom. How could I see these anomalies, I could I know so many better ways of doing things, and how could I be aware of so much injustice without commenting?

Then some of the Tridians came to me and had the nerve to suggest that it was I who wasn’t getting it.

“Nonsense;” I replied; “Yes, some things are good; but some could be better; others are on the threshold of being great. What’s wrong with a little concrete criticism? What’s wrong with a little objective commentary?”

“We have a something here;” the Tridians informed me; “It’s called The Tranquility Prayer, and it goes like this:

“God give me the peace and tranquility to realize that I can’t reform or renovate everything; the insight into those situations and structures that are actually pliable; and the discernment to know which is which.”

I paused and thought about the wisdom that one sentence contained. You can’t fix everything; certainly not all at once. And where I came from, only one man ever lived about whom it might be said he truly, totally revolutionized the world.

It was time to relax and experience the tranquility about which the Tridians spoke instead of trying to force my suggestions or my agenda on their lifestyle.  Their little one-sentence saying had much wisdom.

“Alright then;” I said; “We need to get that sentence on some plaques, and maybe some posters and bookmarks and greetings cards, and then after that we need to…”

(NIV) Phil 4:11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

September 27, 2010

Top 98 Blogs: Somebody’s Idea of “Best” Isn’t Mine

I suppose if you want to draw a lot of traffic to your blog, all you have to do is notify a number of the hottest blogs that they have been “selected” to appear on a list of the Top 98 Christian Blogs, and then watch as they mention your site and engage the question; Why 98 and not 100?

That’s what the people at Christian Counseling Degree did — nope, it’s not going to be linked here; they’re getting enough traffic — last week.   I’ve actually seen their list before, and I’m not 100% sure that they even bothered to do an update.

John Saddington wrote:

We’ve written a few times about lists like these and how it’s pretty subjective at times. We’ve come to the conclusion is that, in general, our audience is mature enough to handle these types of lists and see them for what they are: Lists.

To save you some time looking…

  • A couple of these blogs have totally lost their way in terms of faith focus… they’re great blogs and they’re written by Christians, but the similarity between them and the rest of the list ends there
  • A couple of them haven’t posted anything new in six months; instead of being “top” blogs, I would call them “dormant” blogs.
  • The list is very strongly biased toward blogs with a bent toward Reformed theology; it doesn’t stand up to the test of being a true list of the top Christian blogs, because Christianity is so much wider than a single denomination.

Okay, so now you’re curious.   Fine.  Go ahead and read the list, but read it at John’s Church Crunch blog.   I still refuse to give in.

When you have a minute, check out this blog’s blogroll.  There’s a site section called “Oh, Oh, The Places You’ll Go;” which is a mixture of various websites;  but then further down the page is a list of just blogs called “A Sampling of My Weekly Blog Stops.”   If you hover your mouse over each one, you’ll see that some of them comprise a wide range of doctrinal perspectives, including a Quaker, Charismatic, Catholic, Wesleyan; and writers in the U.K., Australia, South Africa supplementing the usual suspects in Canada and the U.S.

Recommendations are welcomed — I’ll bookmark them and follow them for a few weeks — and if you find a dormant blog on the list, let me know.   (I know one of the cartoon blogs fits that category, but his perspective was unusual and I’m hoping he’ll be back.)


The list Kent Shaffer posts annually is also a little skewed doctrinally — perhaps Calvinists just blog all day while the rest of me is out saving the world — but is much more scientific.   Click the image below to see the entire list.


The above reference to Reformers reminded me about another group that does a lot of talking, Christian academics.   Here’s my concerns with that group, as expressed in January, 2009.

The predominance of Reformers and “New” Calvinists in the Christian blogosphere may represent the kind of necessity that exists when you’re spearheading a change in direction or starting a new movement.   I see that happening in so many ways, as I wrote just a month ago, in August, 2010.

September 26, 2010

Frontline Ministry

I was going to just casually include this in one of the Wednesday link lists here, but I realized it needed a longer setup.

Tony Miano has a blog, The Lawman Chronicles, which gets its name from the years Tony spent in law enforcement, which I’ve been reading for a long time.   He does a lot of street preaching, and seems to strongly subscribe to the Ray Comfort school of evangelism, sometimes referred to as “The Law and The Gospel” approach to what is termed “soul winning.”

Now right away, I know there are people reading this who I have immediately alienated because that whole methodology is about 180-degrees different from what you believe in.   But you know, I think you need to give the dozen or so minutes it takes to watch the related video because I think we all need to see ministry on the frontlines.

I’m not doing this blog post today because I necessarily agree that this is the best approach, or that everybody should be called to evangelism, or that other methodologies are not as good.   Nor do I do this solely so that we can sit on the sidelines and critique the process like Statler and Waldorf, the two guys in the upper balcony on The Muppet Show.

I admire guys like Tony.   They are doing something, something they believe in with great passion, while other people are doing nothing.   In fact, I would want to disqualify anyone from commenting on this unless they have shared a verbal witness with at least one person in the past fortnight.

Of course, where we might differ is what constitutes “sharing a verbal witness.”    For some, like William Booth, that meant putting a uniform to distinguish himself from the surrounding culture; to take his turf with him so that everyone was meeting him on his turf.    Then, a step or two down from that type of identification there are contemporary street preachers like Tony.   And then there’s people who prefer “witness lite.”

The trouble with “witness lite” is that it’s often neither Biblio-centric or Christo-centric.    It neither draws directly on the source (the Word) nor the object (the Savior) of its intent.

I don’t necessarily agree with “The Law and the Gospel” approach as an all-purpose template.   It seems very formulaic.   Eric, the guy in the video in this link, is coming from a Roman Catholic background, and I think there are ways of identifying and connecting with that personal history and ‘tweaking’ the approach accordingly.

But again, if you’re reading this and you’re not doing anything, you’ve got to have something to fall back on.   The “Roman Road;” the “Four Spiritual Laws;” the “Bridge Illustration;” etc., are all examples of materials you want to always have, at least figuratively, in your back pocket.  Scripture tells us to always be prepared to give a response for the hope that we have.

I also realize that someone will want to note that the video linked here documents a somewhat artificial example of one-to-one street ministry, since Eric was fully aware of the camera; fully aware that he was being filmed.   I thought about that in the first three or four minutes, but I’m not sure it really distorted or affected his responses.   I do question the presence of cameras on this type of outing, though I suppose if this serves as a model for others, it has some validity.

It doesn’t always though.   Some of the other videos of this ilk include some rather tense exchanges involving street preaching to larger crowds.   Occasionally, someone versed in less confrontational approaches will question whether or not this more traditional approach conveys Christian love and compassion.    Sadly, it’s at that point some polarization takes place with the street preachers suggesting the post-modern Christians are “false converts.”

Knowing many genuinely-converted, Spirit-indwelled Christ-followers on both sides of this divide, I can say honestly that at this point it becomes a battle that nobody will win.    The “Law and Gospel” people feel that more modern approaches neither produce an acknowledgment of sin nor do they convey the essence of the hope of the gospel.    The new “Missional” believers are committed to outreach, but know too many statistics proving that guilt and fear produce short-term decisions but not long-term disciples; and showing that many a hasty conversion just doesn’t ‘stick’ over time.

What is the solution?

I don’t believe in formulas or templates.   I believe you should know a basic plan for conveying the essence of the following: (a) that we are sinners in need of forgiveness; (b) that such forgiveness is offered in Christ’s work on Calvary; and (c) how a person avails themselves of this forgiveness and moves, as the older Bibles put it, “from death to life.”   But it should be unique to your personality and flexible to the situation you’re in.   Jesus healed one blind man in an instant, but with another, it was a more tentative, two-step process.

But not everybody has the gift of “closing the sale.”   You may be a major influence in someone’s life, but it may be God’s choice that someone else is the chosen instrument to help that person “cross the line of faith.”   Bill Hybels devotes a chapter — and a moving example — to this in Just Walk Across The Room; and Mark Mittelberg and Lee Strobel bring no less than 42 different examples of varying forms of witness in The Unexpected Adventure.

My bias is a little toward Hybels, Strobel and Mittelberg; but I raise this whole topic today because I think you’ve really got to watch the video and look at the other things people are doing; not to armchair quarterback their approach or critique them, but to allow it to inspire you to do more.

Here is the link to the video, and also embedded in the comments section of this very post.   But if you link to Tony’s blog, take some time to click over to other posts and get a feel for what he is doing, because the major take-away from all this is that he is, in fact, doing.

You can also click through from the video itself (see comments) or from this direct video link to more than two dozen other videos the group that filmed this have posted at YouTube.

Related post on this blog:  Considering Deborah Drapper (May 15, 2009)

September 25, 2010

Post-War Missional Christians

So let’s pretend that you go to a megachurch in a large urban area.   Oh wait, that’s not a ‘pretend’ for many of you.   Now let’s pretend that your church is one of the really “hot” churches in town; you’ve got a great children’s, youth and college and career program, and nobody would consider missing a Sunday service if at all possible.

But let’s pretend that if you were to take a drive and head about an hour — at least an hour — out of town,  where there were people in a small town or village who simply didn’t have the same exposure to an urban church like yours.   And let’s pretend that you took some other people with you, and also took some of the passion and excitement you had about your faith.

Maybe your end product would look different than the kind of “road show” that the man pictured at left was part of.   Russell Wilkinson lived in a different era to be sure, but his weekly trips to the little town of Mount Albert were no small adventure.  It was a long, long drive northeast from the city of Toronto; especially on the rare occasions where they picked up children and teens there, drove them to a special service in Toronto, drove them home to Mount Albert and then drove back again.   In a post-war time before freeways or even good roads.

I like that they (a) identified a group of people who were unable to connect with the church ministry programs going on in the city, and (b) did something about it.   The term “missional” may not have existed back then, but this was classic “missional” thinking.    I am sure that their willingness to do this also had some measurable impact on the parents of the youth they got to know.

They didn’t just absorb all the great music and teaching that went on at their big-city church, but they shared the gospel of Jesus Christ out of the overflow of all they had received.

I still have the trumpet in the picture.   Until today, I’ve always thought of it as a musical instrument, but it was an instrument of ministry, too.

What are you doing this fall to connect people with Jesus?

September 24, 2010

Perry Noble’s Top Ten Personal Growth Questions

This blog mixes original and reprint items.   Often my head is filled with several days worth of post ideas, and then on other weeks, I sometimes find myself “mining” the Alltop Christianity pages in search of something that is of lasting value.   Something a little less “wood, hay and stubble” and a little more “gold, silver and precious stones.”    This piece from Perry Noble definitely meets that criterion.

#1 – Am I reading my Bible for information or transformation?  (James 1:22-25)

#2 – Am I allowing people or circumstances to steal the joy that Jesus promised to me?  (John 10:10)

#3 – Is there anything in my life that God is consistently dealing with that I am trying to ignore?  (Ezekiel 14:1-5)

#4 – Who are the people in my life that God has placed around me for the purpose of me sharing Christ with them and/or inviting them to church?  (II Corinthians 5:16-21)

#5 – Is there anyone I need to apologize to?  (Ephesians 4:25:27)

#6 – Is there anyone I need to forgive? (Ephesians 4:32)

#7 – Is there a sin I need to confess to others and ask for help? (James 5:16)

#8 – Am I fully utilizing the gifts and abilities that God has blessed me with…or am I simply choosing to waste my life?  (I Peter 4:10)

#9 – Do I know more lines from the movies [or popular songs] that I love than verse from the Bible that I read? (Psalm 119:11)

#10 – Is there anything going on in my life privately that, if it became public, would cause me and/or the body of Christ to be embarrassed? (I John 1:9, James 5:16)

September 23, 2010

The Congregation as Seen by the Worship Leader

This is something my wife came up with a few days ago.   Have you ever wondered what the congregation looks like when you’re standing at the front leading?   Fortunately, the ones you notice most are people really entering into worship; but if you look more carefully, it probably looks like this:

September 22, 2010

Wednesday Link List

The links are back!   Here are some highlights of my past seven days online…

  • The upper picture is another classic entry from the classic photo site,; which I’ve mildly colorized.    It’s an auditorium in Ocean City, NJ set up for a revival meeting sometime in the time period 1900 – 1910.   Click here or  on the image all the way through for a full size image.  (It’s my computer desktop this week!)
  • Donald Miller explains why, for now, the movie based on the Thomas Nelson book Blue Like Jazz isn’t happening.
  • Elsewhere in film production, City on a Hill, the people who brought you the Alpha-Course-alternative known as H20 have brought Kyle Idleman back to host  a new series titled Not a Fan.
  • Bill Mounce wades into the subject of accuracy in Bible translations in the first of a weekly series.
  • Randy Morgan gives you an inside peek into the world of pastors, and how and why the whole guest speaker thing occasionally happens.
  • Okay, that fun, but maybe it was a little superficial; so do this instead:  Click on Randy’s home page, and scroll back to September 13th and then check out his five-part series on his visit to the local AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) chapter.   Long, but worth it, especially if you have family or personal history with AA.
  • Link list links

    Preparing for the upcoming Eighth Letter conference in Toronto, Matt at the blog, The Church of No People, delivers his pressing message for the church in North America.

  • It’s 7-pages long, but Christianity Today gets into depth on the church’s relationship with sex offenders.
  • CNN boldly goes into a full scientific explanation for what happened when Moses parted the Red Sea.
  • A repost of a classic poem asks the question What would He say, if He should come today?    Also at Christianity 201, the Love Chapter from I Corinthians rewritten for kids; and something borrowed from David Hayward, aka Naked Pastor.
  • Following in the tradition of Russell D. Moore — who this week deals with a tough dilemma — and inspired by the Desiring God video series, Randy Alcorn is inviting questions at Ask Randy; but the deadline is today, Wednesday the 22nd.
  • Zach at Take Your Vitamin Z linked this week to this New York Times article which is self explanatory:  Deciding Not To Screen for Down Syndrome.
  • Seen something online you think should be here next week?   Try to get to me by noon on Tuesday.
  • Well…choosing a cartoon for this week’s list was no contest after Abraham Piper reminded all of us of this classic:  Solomon’s ideal woman as reflected in Song of Solomon interpreted literally; just as it appeared all those years ago at The Wittenburg Door.

September 21, 2010

What Practicing Spiritual Disciplines Has in Common With Practicing the Piano

An excellent post today from Chaplain Mike over at the Internet Monk blog:

Let’s say I’m in a room with three adults, all seated at pianos. I want to find out their ability to play the instrument. I ask them all to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” The first has trouble. The keyboard is unfamiliar. She stumbles around and finally finds a few notes that resemble the simple tune. The second and third pick out the notes right away.

Then I ask them to play a four-part hymn from a hymnal. I hand each the same book. Once again, the first struggles, stopping with each chord and passing note to look at her hands, then back up at the music. She finally gives up. The second plays the notes as written. The third also plays the tune, but enhances the hymn with additional chords and rhythmic patterns.

Finally, I turn to these three friends and say, “OK, for your final challenge, I would like to hear you play Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” The first laughs. She barely knows who Bach is, and has never heard of this particular piece. The second has heard of it, but has no idea how to play it. The third pauses, sets her hands on the keyboard, and begins playing the opening aria.

All three of these friends have a relationship with the piano. One is an obvious beginner, still trying to grasp the basics. The second is a competent pianist. She can read music and play from a book. The third is much farther advanced. There is no hesitation about picking out simple tunes. Not only can she read and play from a score, she has the ability to improvise and explore a song’s possibilities. And she has obviously studied and mastered classic pieces of the repertoire. In fact, she can play complex works on the spot, upon request! They all “know” the piano. Only one has the capacity to make music at any given moment, solely from the resources that lie within her.

The goal of spiritual formation is to be a person that would do what Jesus would do, say what Jesus would say, think and feel what Jesus would think and feel, at the moment when it is required—the moment of crisis or need or opportunity. As Dallas Willard so helpfully reminds us, the question “What would Jesus do?” is not enough. Instead, we must be driven beyond that query to ask, “Why would Jesus do what he would do?” and, “How can I live and walk in relationship with God as Jesus did, so that I too might do as he would?”“

…you’re a third of the way through the article…don’t stop now…keep reading…

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