Behavior Modification

One of the hardest aspects of pastoring is riding with the Lord’s people (including ourselves) through our tumultuous struggle toward spiritual maturity. Any experienced minister knows the frustration of seeking to direct a disciple or a group toward loyalty to the Lord, only to watch helplessly as they flame out and crash. I think this is why so many of us subtly (or not) shift the foundation of our preaching from who Christ is and what he did, to who we are and what we must do. We change our emphasis from the gospel to character development out of frustration with the “slow growth” we seem to see. To do this we apply “less grace” in an attempt to elicit more obvious compliance. But bare compliance is not discipleship. Pastoral work degenerates into behavior modification. This is a huge mistake. Grace is what actually transforms character in a real Christian. And the real Christians are, after all, the ones the Lord charged us to nourish (Jn.21:15-18; Acts 20:28). Forcing goats to obey rules does not turn them into sheep. This is not to say that pastors should never be direct and forthright to the Lord’s people on moral issues. But the pastor’s theology must be clear on how spiritual formation actually takes place.

The fact is that simple character development (learning how to act better) is not necessarily the same thing as Christian Spiritual transformation. Oddly, it may be the opposite of growth of faith in Christ, the very antithesis of Spiritual development. It may be growth of faith in the Self animated by religious zeal and personal discipline. This is Pharisaism. The key element in this sort of change is human rather than divine, sourced in our effort rather than God’s lordship and grace. But the transformative dynamic in the kingdom of God is grace, supplied and applied by God in Christ through the Spirit—not the un-aided natural energy and will of the practitioner. (Phil.2:12-13; 1 Cor.15:10)

Saul of Tarsus was an outstandingly good man before Christ converted him on the Damascus Road. Many a pastor would love to have had a guy like this on our staff or board. It’s hard to imagine a more passionate, upright, moral, theologically straight (biblical?) “spiritual leader” than Saul. He was by his own admission growing past his contemporaries in religious zeal, traditional achievement, and theological enthusiasm (Gal.1:14). Yet, when Christ converted him his life took on an entirely new sort of goodness (Phil.3:2-11). He did not lose any of his moral integrity, but he changed dramatically in ways that sheer moral rectitude cannot produce. The source of his goodness (righteousness) shifted from his own strength to the grace of Christ. The upshot was that he became kind and loving.

Christian (Spiritual) transformation is a change that God the Spirit produces from the inside out by bringing about radical and repentant faith in Christ as Lord and Savior. He transforms people not through simple self-discipline, but through a change of relationship with God by grace. The moral characteristics of integrity, trustworthiness, honesty, and so forth may be quite evident. But the formation of the spirit of the disciple will be because they actually believe they are sinners that are forgiven by the Lord of the universe, to whom they have given their lives and loyalty. Christian Spiritual Formation has a root system in Christ’s personal grace, radical forgiveness conferred upon a true sinner. It grows out of relief, not threat. Reconciliation and regeneration have been achieved, but not by us (2 Cor.5:11-21; Eph.2:1-10; Col.1:21-23).

So, how can we pastors help our flocks grow in grace and faith in Christ rather than just succumbing to behavior modification? Two suggestions: First we can be careful to preach the miracle of who Christ is and not morality alone as our primary message. Bryan Chapell, for many years the president and professor of practical theology at Covenant Theological Seminary, warns against what he calls the “Deadly Be’s”: By this he means sermons that are aimed at moral transformation by telling people to “be like” this Bible character, “be good” according to this passage, or “be disciplined” so that blessing will come to you. Without meaning to, these messages all put the emphasis primarily on human behavior, sometimes completely ignoring the actual gospel—that Christ’s righteousness (not ours) is the basis of our relationship with the Father. Our sermons must begin and end with Christ, inserting the true biblical mandates for our life of faith between the lines of grace that the Lord has laid down.

Second, we can remember that a very common way to experience spiritual growth in grace (perhaps the most common way) is through brokenness and failure followed by healing and forgiveness. Saul of Tarsus became Paul the Apostle by utterly failing and being restored. Peter had a similar experience (Jn.21). True Christians usually “fail forward” so to speak. Reach always exceeds grasp in the spirit-filled life. Most believers live with a painful consciousness of their own unworthiness (Rom.7). Our joyful job as proclaimers of the gospel is to apply the truth of radical grace like antibiotic to the wounds of life in this age. A Christian’s peace of mind is not due to denial or the perception that they have become perfect, but rather to the deep conviction that they are always forgiven, reconciled, loved, declared righteous and embraced by God Himself in Christ, even when the Lord disciplines them (Heb.12).

We pastors have our work cut out for us and it is the most important work on earth. The Lord uses the gospel to save people (Rom.1:16-17), but He continues to use the gospel, from our pulpits, as the nourishment for continued growth in grace.

Just a Thought,

Pastor Rick

Be All There

Church growth is a big deal for pastors. We sometimes pretend it isn’t so, but inside most of us want our churches to flourish numerically and are worried when they do not. Partly this is for our own validation of course. We, like almost every other person in the western world, want others to see us as valid and successful in some way. But much of our angst is also for the kingdom of God. We want people to come to Christ and grow in Christ. The motives are mixed and we must admit that up front. Part of the way the Spirit sifts our motives and helps us mature personally is by adjusting the size of the church, even from week to week. It makes us check our priorities and bring our thoughts back to him.

I received a simple and practical piece of advice from an older pastor that has helped me tons through the years. He told me that on Sunday he would only think about, pray for, and teach to the people that are there, not the ones who aren’t. I once overheard a member comment during a slim summer service (lots of folks were on vacation), “Hey, where is everybody?” It stunned me and tempted me to obsess on the empty rows instead of praying for the full ones. That fellow was focusing on the church instead of the Lord and I needed to avoid slipping into the same Slough of Despond. We should trust the providence of God, the work of the Spirit that brings precisely those on this morning that He wants here. It’s an exercise of faith for us as pastors! But isn’t that what we’re telling our folks, to trust the Lord? The habit of focusing on the people I am with at the time, of being “all there” when I’m in ministry situations, has strengthened and stretched me much over 35 years of pastoral work.

Just a Thought,

Pastor Rick

 

A Good Elders’ Meeting

All churches have boards that in some way work with the lead or senior pastor. Different churches use different titles in their constitutions, calling these leaders elders or trustees or whatever. They also have different official ways in which authority flows between the board and the pastors in the church. Frankly, it’s pretty well known that not all board meetings are pleasant or useful. Many are contentious or unproductive or both. Things can get pretty unspiritual the moment after we’ve “opened in prayer.” I read years ago about a church in which the deacons’ meeting got so heated that one of them pulled a gun and shot another board member, wounding him gravely! The guy didn’t die, but one would hope that the results of a Christian board meeting might have a higher standard of success than simply that nobody got killed. Fortunately, this was an isolated and rare incident (I hope).

So, assuming that your leaders are mature Christians (1 Tim.3; Titus 1) who actually want to do the right thing in discerning the Spirit’s guidance for the church, what are some practical pointers on a good meeting? I’ll offer just four of the many things I have learned in 34 years. We do have a unified, loving and very effective elder board in my opinion. But it’s not because I figured it all out as the senior pastor. It’s because through the years the Lord has brought mature guys who often added large pieces of wisdom to our way of doing things so that now we have a pretty smooth-running and Christ-centered model.

First, prioritize specific and personalized prayer over everything else in your meetings. Prayer meetings degenerate quickly into planning sessions and in doing so leave the Spirit out of most of their thinking. Take a long time of prayer at the beginning (not the end) of each elder meeting. Use a list of all the various ministries in the church, the missions, the departments, the key personnel. Work your way around the room until every ministry has been prayed for by the name of the director. We take at least 45 minutes, sometimes an hour or more, to pray for the church this way. Then and only then begin to look at the decisions and reports that will require board input or decisions.

Second, don’t let board meetings become staff meetings. Distinguish between what the board does and what the pastoral staff does. The staff implements the theological vision adopted by the board. When board members try to micro-manage staffing decisions it gets weird. The board should do large-scale and directional decisions, shaping a budget, discerning new overall ministry outreaches and directions, making sure that the church is “on mission.” If there are other pastors on the board than the senior pastor, these brothers need to know which hat they’re wearing when they come into the meeting. We have on many occasions had to redirect discussions back to policy and philosophy issues. It’s very helpful if the entire board knows that this is a point of organizational clarity. And it is increasingly important as a church grows numerically.

Third, use a real written agenda and stay on task with it. It’s amazing how many church meetings don’t use a serious agenda, so they have no way to know if they’re making progress. It helps to elect a moderator to keep the meeting on track, too. It’s his job to go through the agenda point by point until everything has been covered. We used to have an “open forum” time when anybody could bring up anything at the end of the meeting, but it was not helpful. Discussions arose with no actual shape, no real proposals, no research and no homework. We don’t do that anymore. If an elder wants to get something on the next agenda, he talks to the senior or executive pastor (who writes the agenda) and it gets added if there’s room. Many of these concerns are handled at the staff level before they even come to the board. It has streamlined our meetings wonderfully.

Fourth, be more patient than you think you need to be. Create enough emotional and temporal space to hear from each elder about any and all serious issues on the agenda. Here the lead pastor often needs to bite his lip, frankly. We pastors are accustomed to making intuitive spiritual discernments quickly in our daily work. That’s a good thing. If we were really unsure of spiritual things we shouldn’t be pastors in the first place. But a board meeting is a place to seek communal discernment from the Spirit. That means we need to take time for all the hearts to understand and bear witness to any new proposal. If a member is impatient (especially the senior pastor) he rushes the decisions. There is a saying, “Decide in haste and repent at leisure.” Take the time to get consensus. There must be no manipulation, just clear proposals that are presented well and defended practically, followed by enough discussion to reach true communal discernment. If members feel pressured into a decision they don’t have spiritual peace about, it comes back to bite the board later if anything goes wrong with the implementation.

There’s more to good leadership meetings than what we see here, of course, as any experienced pastor will attest. But we have found these four practical points foundational in creating an atmosphere of unity and spiritual decisiveness.

Just a Thought

Pastor Rick