I love church history. I took elective classes in it during both my undergraduate and graduate studies. I still like to read about church history today. To me, church history is family history. You know yourself better both as an individual follower of Jesus and corporately as the Body of Christ when you study the story of God’s people throughout the ages. Indeed, I’ve long considered church history something which every Christian should be familiar. This especially includes preachers. That’s why, years ago, I was so pleased to across Iain H. Murray’s article in The Banner of Truth on “Reading Church History.” 1 In it, Murray gives three primary reasons pastors should include reading church history as a regular part of their pulpit ministry.

#1: Knowledge of church history is indispensable if we are to make assessments of the relative value of different periods of Christian authorship

It’s great to read Luther, Calvin, or the Puritans, but if you don’t understand the historical context of their writings you put yourself at a disadvantage on the “why” you should read them. Throughout history God has raised up different leaders to deal with different issues – many of those issues we deal with today. Knowing church history allows you to leverage the “distinctive benefits” 2 of the literature into your own preaching about those issues.

#2: Knowledge of church history is a very important preservative against error.

Murray notes that deviations from the truth take many different forms yet their main features are constantly repeated in different eras. For example, as to the error of thinking truth is proved by ministry “success” numerically or influentially, there have been episodes in church history where certain individuals or groups saw great numbers of “conversions” and large influence in the church only to be squelched as quickly as they began. Knowing this would help teach our congregants that the popularity of today’s church “rock star” doesn’t automatically equate to a revival or reformation. Additional errors such as thinking of spirituality primarily in terms of the visual and external, or placing experience and feeling before belief and truth can be easily highlighted in church history and, consequently, employed in the sermon.

#3: Knowledge of church history is of immense personal help to faithful preachers.

Focusing primarily on Christian biographies and autobiographies, Murray notes they give pastors a vision of what devoted service to Christ looks like in real-time. They also can give ministers fresh guidance and resolution at critical times in their lives. Frankly, part of that guidance may not be encouragement but a humbling which comes from reading about godly leaders in church history. However, Christian biographies can also, by example, give pastors great calm and peace of heart in the middle of troublesome times. Murray concludes with one additional benefit to reading church history as it applies to preaching, namely, the “invaluable supply of uplifting and edifying material for sermon illustrations.” 3

If you haven’t read much church history, if any, consider adding a book or article to your 2015 reading. See if it not only enhances your preaching, but your ministry, faith, and life as well.

Notes:

  1. Unfortunately, I cannot locate the exact issue at hand.
  2. Murray, 11.
  3. Murray, 19.

In reflecting upon my church’s story, there appears to be, generally speaking, at least three phases (as it relates to leadership) through which a growing church can pass 1 :

Phase 1: Entrepreneurial

This is the riskiest of phases. A high-wire act. The church planter is doing everything and anything he can to get the fledgling congregation off the ground. This often results in empowered teams out of necessity. A big positive is that the leadership involves as many willing laypeople as possible. It’s an “all hands on deck” mentality. The entrepreneurial leader thrives because often he or she is given oversight of a ministry with little top-down management. The “top” (aka, church planter) is too busy tackling the thousand other pressing tasks in front of him.

This type of empowerment can be a double-edged sword because while teams feel they own the ministries they oversee, those ministries may not be led with the same values, spirit, or even doctrine as the rest of the church leadership. Misalignment is more apt to occur. Consequently, it’s easier to have rogue ministries, doctrinal compromise, and mission drift in the Entrepreneurial Phase.

Phase 2: Established

This phase finds the church in stasis. The church planter’s fears of “Are we going to make it?” have subsided. The congregation is viable and stable. The same is true of leadership. The planter himself has moved from a lone elder to lead elders. He also isn’t any longer fighting to fill holes in ministry chairs which seem to be vacated every other month. Now ministries aren’t so much being started (with the kind of frequency as in beginning) as they are being deepened, solidified. Frankly, at this stage you feel a greater freedom to be pickier about who leads what, when, and how.

The church in the Established Phase naturally moves toward centralization. Mission, vision, and values that were set in the entrepreneurial stage with ministry teams (but left largely unchecked or at least loosely checked) now have a tighter set of screws. And while lay leaders still abound, most, if not all, critical ministries are now overseen by full-time or part-time staffers. This gives another reason for a strong alignment in this phase.

Decisionmaking from the highest level of leadership becomes more strategic. The Lead Team moves from working in ministries to working on ministries. They lead leaders. Yet in this stage, churches can lose their missional edge. Get fat and happy. Content with where they are and what they’ve done. Leaders can be praised for merely staying true to who “we are” as a church instead of looking outward and onward. This is one reason why larger churches need to consider a third phase.

Phase 3: Reproductive

This phase find the church reproducing herself for mission. This could be seen in another campus, an independent congregation, or something else that shows the church wants to give birth in a congregational sense for gospel ends. Let me continue thinking about this phase with a church who has decided to add campuses (since that’s my experience).

This phase is challenging because it demands that you act differently than before. Indeed, it’s somewhat a call to dance in two worlds. It’s to re-engage elements of decentralization and empowerment of Phase 1 while retaining certain elements of centralization and alignment in Phase 2. As you might imagine, this is more art than science – hence the allusion to dancing. At times it will [frustratingly] feel you are taking steps backward as you fight battles you knew were settled in the Established Phase. Really? Yup. Why? Because to enter into the Reproductive Phase with any sense of effectiveness is to re-introduce leaders with entrepreneurial spirits. You cannot move forward without them. They will lead the way for reproduction just like you did when you planted the congregation that is sending them out. But it’s not just them, it’s you with them and them with you.

That’s why the crazy demand on the current leadership will be learning how to dance in Phase 3 well. For example, if you reproduce campuses, how much freedom do you give your campus pastors? Do they set the vision for the student ministry or does that happen in concert with the Lead Team centrally? What input and leverage do campus pastors have in the worship service planning? How different and how similar are campuses to be from one another? How should we related to our teams? Vertically, horizontally, a matrix of both? This is just the tip of the iceberg. However, the tensions of centralized/decentralized and empowered/aligned teams/staff/leaders are part and parcel of becoming a reproducing church. I believe the biggest challenge for leadership will be deciding how best to dance in this phase. I know it is for my church!

Which phase is your church in? One way to tell is how would you characterize your leadership culture? Is it one of building, aligning, empowering, stabilizing, depending, expanding? Know that each phase has its strengths and weaknesses. But knowing where you are can help you decide where you need to go.

Notes:

  1. I first heard these three terms by Bruce Wesley as he was reflecting on CCCC’s leadership journey.

Best of 2014

December 23, 2014 — Leave a comment

With 2015 around the corner, here is my best of 2014…

Best Ministry BookThe Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton. Walton’s book views the creation account of Genesis in light of the Ancient Near Eastern literature from which it came. However, while many theologically liberal schools would do the same in order to belie its inspiration, Walton steadfastly holds to the full inspiration and authority of Genesis 1 (he’s professor of Old Testament at Wheaton). The big question for Walton isn’t the truthfulness of Genesis 1 but the intention of it. Using the language, ideas, and understandings of that specific time and context, Walton asks, “What is Genesis 1 trying to communicate? How would the ancient Israelites read it? Are we making Genesis 1 answer questions it never meant to address?” He sees the arrangement of Genesis 1 as a “cosmic temple” construction. I found his conclusion both plausible and informative for Bible students who wrestle with the purpose behind the creation account. While Walton isn’t without controversy (he gives a nod to theistic evolution), his short book is definitely worth the read and my favorite book of 2014.

* Honorable Mention – Preaching Christ from the Old Testament by Sidney Greidanus. I ran across Dr. Greidanus during my doctoral work. His insights on biblical theology were astounding to me. They still are. His title says it all. Greidanus seeks to give the preacher a sound, repeatable way he can preach through the Old Testament with an eye to Jesus as its end. I really enjoyed his description of how preachers can incorrectly preach the Old Testament stories. There was a lot of repentance from me after reading PCFTOT. Greidanus’ work would be a cherished resource for any preacher for years to come.

Best Fiction not by Cormac McCarthy 1–  The Passage by Justin Cronin. This book was recommended to me by a friend who would preface with the phrase, “Now, I this book has vampires and stuff, but it really is a good book. Like really good.” Well, I pushed it off for a year until I decided I wanted to read something fun and spontaneous. I couldn’t have been more pleased. Cronin’s novel is about a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by beings bent on seeking the demise of humanity. Sound silly? Try it! The Passage truly was a page-turner with little cliffhangers at the end of most chapters. What’s sad is that because it deals with vampire-like beings, the book might get marginalized. But I believe Cronin not only has a good story but writes one as well. It’s thoughtful, powerful, and exciting to boot! I was so taken with it that I immediately read his sequel The Twelve. My greatest problem is having to wait for the last book of the trilogy and Cronin, a Houstonian, is taking more time than his fans (and apparently his publisher) want. However, if City of Mirrors lives up to the first two books, it will be well worth the wait.

*Honorable Mention – The Power and The Glory by Graham Greene. I’m kinda on a Mexico kick. It started when I began to teach myself Spanish a couple years ago. Latin American countries fascinate me, so I wanted to read novels which included them in some form or fashion. Greene’s book is about a “whiskey priest” in Mexico who, although given to the bottle, is compelled to minister to the humble and broken people all the while his life is in jeopardy. The Power and The Glory is considered a classic by critics. I can see why. This book touched me not only for its human element but also its transcendence. This could easily swap with The Passage as a 2014 favorite since the two are such different genres.

Best Album – I listen to a lot of music but don’t buy many albums. However, I do have This is All Yours by Alt-J. This sophomore release continues to walk the path tread by the English band’s first album. It’s an eclectic mix of techo, rock, pop, acoustic, and whatever else they can find in the musical junk drawer. Somehow, they pull it off. This is one of the most originally sounding bands I’ve heard in a long time. Their critically acclaimed first album An Awesome Wave is amazing as well. Truly what indie rock should be about.

*Honorable Mention – Missio by Missio. This got in at the wire, I literally picked up this album less than a week ago. And even though it’s had little rotation in my earphones, I can say without reserve it’s absolutely fantastic. The sad truth is much Christian music is often syrupy, trite, or just bad art. Missio’s Matthew Brue is the welcome exception. This Austinite has created an album that stands on its own. It’s sounds big, ethereal, soundscape-ish with lyrics that actually mean something. I don’t know if I’ve heard an album like it. What I dig even more, is that Brue is integrated into a local church and doesn’t do high flying detached from the real world of God’s people. What a joy! Oh, if more Christian musicians would leave the ghetto of unoriginality and copycatism and push toward originality and excellence, the church might truly find herself in another renaissance. Kudos Matthew!

Best Movie – I don’t watch many movies. This year was no exception. The movies I did see I wouldn’t consider noteworthy. For example, I’m a Tolkien fan but thought Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy was extremely disappointing (in contrast to his excellent LOTR trilogy). Also, I really dig Wes Anderson flicks but felt The Grand Budapest Hotel was cute but a little too formulaic. I must say, however, Ralph Fiennes was amazing. The only movie I want to see but haven’t as of yet is Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. I love Nolan’s work and hope it’s exceptional.

Best Trip That Wasn’t Fandango – Grand Opening of McLane Stadium as it hosted Baylor first football game against SMU. Baylor is my alma mater. Some of my closest friends were my schoolmates. The fact that I not only attended the first game ever at the beautiful McLane Stadium but did so with some of my buds, made the trip a highlight of my year.

Best Moment of 2014 –  Said alma mater winning back-to-back Big XII Championships in football. ;)

Notes:

  1. I’m a Cormac McCarthy fan. I’ve read all his works; three books this year including re-reading one of my favorite all-time novels Blood Meridian. So, I cannot be impartial when it comes to books and McCarthy.