Why church leaders should set their heart on Jesus and not their spreadsheet

A lot of attention is paid to numbers in churches today. Whether it’s Sunday attendances, finances, percentages of people involved in ministry, rate of engagement in the community – numbers tell us important things.

If growing churches are healthy churches – and I think that statement is generally true – then how we use numbers will help us identify areas of growth and areas of challenge. And growth, of course, is considerably wider and more textured than attendance figures or a financial bottom line.

I have sometimes been troubled, however, by a fixation on numbers. A deep discomfort when attendance figures flatten out. An anxious brow when the growth rate stalls.

While numbers help us to see important things, a fixation on numbers is something else altogether. When our sense of security or well being as a church is based on numbers needing to be ever upward and to the right, we have made those numbers more than a helpful indicator. We have made them an idol.

This morning I was struck by a quote from Henri Nouwen in his book The Wounded Healer:


“Building a vocation [or a church – DG] on the expectations of concrete results – however conceived – is like building a house on sand instead of on solid rock, and takes away the ability to accept sacrifices as free gifts … Hope prevents us from clinging to what we have and frees us to move away from the safe place and enter unknown and fearful territory.”

So friends, keep an eye on the indicators. But remember: life is found in setting your heart on Jesus, not your sreadsheet.

Will You Let Your Light Shine?

“To let their light shine, not to force on them their interpretations of God’s designs, is the duty of Christians towards their fellows. If you who set yourselves to explain the theory of Christianity, had set yourselves instead to do the will of the Master, the one object of which the Gospel was preached to you, how different would now be the condition of that portion of the world with which you come into contact! Had you given yourselves to the understanding of his word that you might do it, and not to the quarrying of his word wherewith to buttress your systems, in many a heart by this time would the name of Jesus be loved where now it remains unknown. The word of life would then by you have been held out indeed.”

– George MacDonald, Creation in Christ, 1889

Growing Leaders and Developing Disciples: How To

Last time I made the point that we consistently struggle to train leaders and develop disciples. My observation was that in my own denomination, there have been few systematic examples of intentional, coherent and effective discipleship processes.

What can we do about that?

At the outset I want to say there is no cookbook. What I mean is there’s no sure fire method of leadership and discipleship development that will work in every context. I am often surprised how quickly church leaders will look to one or the other model of something that is working well somewhere else, thinking they can just unscrew it from that local church context and bolt it on to their own. In so doing they ignore the factors of development in the original context, and they underestimate the unique developmental characteristics of their own local church. In reality, every local church is different, and will be best served by an approach that applies Scriptural emphases in their own specific context. Sure, we can learn from what others do, but nothing beats an approach that grows out of the local context, addresses local issues, works with local strengths, and which addresses local challenges.

Growing healthy churches and leading disciples toward maturity will be best advanced by a combination of thoughtfully applied programs pitched toward sound discipleship processes.

Here’s what we are prayerfully undertaking in 2014 to address the ‘program’ or ministry side of things at Gateway Community Church:

Leader & Elder Training

We’ll be doing some focused leader/elder training which will look at – amongst other things – the nature of biblical leadership (which is servanthood), the leader’s spirituality, the leader’s character, the leader’s faith and life, leading and teamwork. There will be extension units available which will address aspects of leadership specific to elders: pastoral visiting, pastoral skills, the call to eldership, elder qualifications.

As we progress through these units we’re hoping various leadership skills and passions will be unearthed among those who participate. The hope is that these training contexts will become a natural breeding ground for all kinds of leaders. The more we demystify the task and calling, and the more we prepare and equip people for ministry, the more depth we will have in our future leadership. Further, the more leaders we have, the more people we will have to train and develop others.

Preaching group

We want to start a preaching group. Ideally, this will develop people with preaching gifts or aspirations, giving them opportunity to discover what preaching is, and develop a few basic skills. This is not to compete with seminary training, but more to recognise the place of the local church in identifying gifts and equipping people for service.

The other advantage is that this group will provide participants with some responsible hermenuetic. Skills acquired will be useful for anyone who wants to lead a bible study, develop a talk, or even just read the Bible with greater understanding and benefit.

Mentoring

We want to develop a mentoring ministry where more experienced Christians lead others. While there are some basic processes and structure to be developed, they big deal is that people have another, their mentor, to pray for them, encourage them, and stimulate them to growth. The prayer is that mentoring contexts will be wonderful environments to stimulate growth in individual followers of Jesus.

Gospel and life

We want to encourage clarity around the core truths of the Christian faith, and we’re wanting our church to be united around those truths. We have already worked through Matt Chandler’s Explicit Gospel in our leadership. This year we’ll be asking all ministry leaders to work through this book. It’s the best book available to help people understand the broader cosmic implications of the gospel, as well as the individual implications, and how the two relate to one another. This book will also be a tremendous resource for mentors, developing leaders, and future elders.

Witnessing and sharing

Related to the above, how good would it be for people to be confident in simply sharing ‘the gospel’ without using typical Christian or ‘Churchian’ jargon. So, we also want to run a few seminars that will – we trust – develop these proficiencies in Christians.

We know this will not be a perfect raft of ministries. From time to time we’ll need to assess what we’re doing and see if it’s meeting our goals. We also know that even if all of these ministries work really well, they still might not lead people into growth, or the church toward health.

To do that, we need a tool that will help people work out where they are in their Christian development, and then move them on into growth. I’ll be writing about that in my next post.

Church Health & the Challenge for Leaders

Striving for church health has some very challenging implications. In future posts I’ll look at the implications for the church as the body of Christ, and following that how striving for how we engage with the world around us. Make no mistake: the call to church health is not for the faint hearted. It is as demanding and unrelenting as it is a path toward maturity and spiritual formation.

What I want to mention now is the implication for leadership. There are lots of things that work toward church health, but if leadership is not fully supportive of and engaged in the pursuit of Scripture’s call to church health, nothing else the church does will be sustainable.

At this point the sobering reality is that for churches in my own denomination, NCD results show the area we consistently struggle in is this very area: leadership and discipleship. Is it that we don’t want to do it? Or we are not interested? Or we just don’t know how? Unsure. Maybe it’s more something that we’ve never really been skilled to do. Some will look back with longing eyes to the good old days of full on catechism process, where children commenced catechism classes at age 12 or 13 and finished at about age 18, hopefully with a profession of faith. I acknowledge that this system created some reasonable depth in understanding our confessional perspective. I also acknowledge that where this is no longer practised there has been little else to grow an appreciation for our reformed confessional heritage. An additional and more serious complication is there have been few systematic examples of intentional, coherent and effective discipleship processes.

The call to church health is not for the faint hearted. It is demanding and unrelenting

There is little sense in belting ourselves around the head because of this. What we need to do is recognise how we pull up short, and then do better. Fellow elders and pastors: this is where we must shoulder God’s call. Paul expresses it this way: “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.” (Colossians 1:28–29, NIV)

Paul was consumed with the goal of bringing the church to maturity in Christ. He placed this call before the leaders of the church in Collosse. Presenting everyone mature in Christ was the focus of every proclamation, admonition and teaching. This was the ‘heavy lifting’ ministry of heavy lifting which consumed all his energy.

Big question: is this the focus of your ministry? Are these the goals you are striving for as a pastor or as an elder? Is this the focus of your church council? Is this what the people in your church would say is the priority of your leadership?

This is such a humbling call, friends. I am so far from this goal, and the shortcomings I mentioned above are clearly there in the congregation I serve. What we are doing is making some changes this coming year. It might seem a cop out to just talk about ‘plans’ at this point. We all know what really matters is whether plans get implemented, and whether that implementation yields desired outcomes. In the next post I’ll go through some of our specific plans for 2014. For now, I’m praying our ongoing discussion and collaboration will help us become better builders of discipling culture. It would be tremendous if we could do this work together.


Q: what are your suggestions for building a better discipling culture? Leave a comment and become part of the discussion.

Church Health and the call to change

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My last post addressed the need to be clear about the Gospel: bringing the person and work of Jesus to expression in everything we do. This is not a new challenge. Church history shows how keeping Christ at the centre of public, corporate and private life has not been easy.

This was the burden of the protestant reformation in the 16th-17th Century. The church had become bogged down with theology, structures and traditions which, to put it mildly, did not help people know Jesus and grow in him.

People like Martin Luther and John Calvin sought to bring the church back to the centrality of Jesus, clarity in the Gospel, the supremacy of the Word. This sounds good to us, but it was not a popular move with the established Church hierarchy. Luther ended up with a bounty on his head. Calvin had to move several cities before his teaching base could be established.

But here’s the thing: These men never assumed that once they had corrected the emphases of the church of the time, once they had returned to a more biblical base, that their work was over. They knew it wasn’t possible to reform the church once and for all. They knew the human heart, even the redeemed human heart, was slippery and mercurial. So any effort to draw the church toward a more biblical base would never be a perfect work, and those men and women who strove to give good leadership knew the fallibility of their own perceptions and conclusions.

This is why we’ll often say ‘a reformed church is always reforming’: the work of reformation is ongoing.

we can be faced with a situation where we really need to change some of our established ways, but find it very hard because we love those traditions too much

This presents us with a challenge. Churches work with people, and are led by people. Over time churches develop established ways of doing things. These established ways become traditions because they work well and give people a sense of security. This is good as far as it goes, but it gets complicated because culture moves on, and our ways of relating change. At such times we can be faced with a situation where we really need to change some of our established ways, but find it very hard because we love those traditions too much.

So much of what we call the ‘worship wars’ would have been avoided if we all recognised that the Scripture’s call for us to effective Gospel communication requires the positive embrace of change to that end. Perhaps this is the biggest challenge to the established church today: to be both diligent in ensuring the biblical basis of the church is retained and vigilant in doing the best it can for Gospel transformation to take root in the lives of people.

Question: how do we strive for a positively cultural relevant Gospel without accommodating our culture, thus making the gospel devoid of power?

PS. All the very best of the Lord’s richest blessing for the New Year. And yes, I am on leave, but while on leave I still do the things I love and which energise me.

Growth, Health & ‘The Gospel’

Here at Gateway Community Church we’ve been listening to God’s call to make and grow disciples, to have a healthy church, to ensure our structures work best for these ends. We have a long way to go, but there are a few things we want to start doing. The next few posts will outline what some of them are.

Our first priority is this: we want have clarity and unity in ‘the Gospel’.

This is not always straightforward. R C Sproul has written about some of the distortions and over simplifications of ‘the Gospel’ here. For some, ‘the Gospel’ amounts to jargon: ‘we’re here for the Gospel’, ‘this is a Gospel church’, ‘what matters is the Gospel’, ‘nothing but the Gospel’, ‘I love Gospel music’ – all well and good, but what do you actually mean by ‘the Gospel’?

Amongst the people of the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia, ‘the Gospel’ is commonly a set of orthodox truths about Jesus, for example:

  • Jesus is the eternal Son, only begotten of the Father
  • he became a man, born to Mary
  • he lived a sinless life, suffered and was put to death on the Cross
  • his death bore the sin and punishment his people deserved
  • he rose from the dead, winning their rescue, restoring them to life, and reconciling them to the Father
  • he ascended to heaven, and now sits in the most powerful place in the universe
  • he will return to judge all humanity and to recreate the universe which now, rightly, belongs to him

These truths are crucial: If I fudge on one aspect, I don’t have the full picture of who Jesus is. This is why good theology matters: it helps me think clearly about who God is, what he has done in Jesus, and why it all matters. I believe the statements above are objective realities, absolute certainties. They remain true whether I believe them or not. In this sense, the Gospel simply is.

Even so, when at Gateway said ‘we want to have clarity in the Gospel’ we were, however, talking about more than agreeing to a raft of objective truths. This because it is possible to accept those truths but still not live under them. Think of it this way, I believe Capt. James Cook sailed Endeavour into Botany Bay in 1770. I can study the accounts of his voyage, read his diaries, and get some sense of the man. But when I roll out of bed in the morning, James Cook is not going to make a difference to how I live. Why? Because acceptance of historical truths is not necessarily life changing.

The Gospel is considerably more than a happy announcement of forgiveness to a lost sinner.

So, how is ‘the Gospel’ more than a statement of objective truth? How is the Gospel the transformational good news? In this sense: The Gospel is the person of Jesus and everything he has come to do. John Piper opens this reality beautifully in his 2005 ‘God is the Gospel‘. I would just change Piper’s title to make it read ‘Jesus is the Gospel’. I say this because ‘accepting the Gospel’ is more than agreeing with a set of truths: accepting the Gospel is accepting Jesus, bowing the knee to him, naming him as my Lord, my Leader, my Rescuer, the Redeemer and ultimate Restorer of my world and this universe.

We want to be clear about this: The Gospel is considerably more than a happy announcement of forgiveness to a lost sinner. It is that, for sure, but the Gospel announces Jesus’ restoration, his new creation, his Kingdom coming to expression in our here and now. It proclaims the inexhaustible hope that Jesus is reconciling all things to the Father. Can we find a more earth shattering, life changing, heart transforming statement of the Gospel than what we read in Colossians 1? …

“For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:19–20, NIV)

We want Gateway to understand this glorious Gospel. We want this reality to be the ground for our unity. We want this Jesus to be the focus of our ministry and mission. This Gospel, Jesus Himself, has staggering implications for how we live and behave, for how we engage our community and our world. Perhaps the most humbling reality of all is the wonder that through Jesus we now get to bring new his creation to expression (see 2 Cor 5:17-21).

As leaders we are convinced that the more unity we have in this very big picture, the more we will all pull in the same direction, and the more glory will be given to Christ our King.

Why your church needs effective structures

Night watch

In my last post I spoke of the need for church health, and how God changes churches one life, one decision at a time. It would be nice if all that growth would happen automatically.

Problem: growth and health are never automatic. If we go back to my vegetable garden analogy, we’re reminded how you have to do a lot of work to get good growth – especially in Perth. We had to turn 10 square metres of sand into arable land. We added all sorts of stuff: Organic matter. All round fertiliser. Bentonite clay to help the sand clump into something like loam. Bags of sheep manure (apologies to my neighbours). On the top we mulched with nitrogen rich lucerne hay. Add to that more water than our rainwater tank could hold, and we were starting to head in the right direction.

We did this because (A) we looked at what we had, and (B) we knew what it needed to be. Once we knew those things, we could work out (C) what we had to do to our garden to get to where we wanted to be. Through it all our goal was to create the best environment for growth.

We can use a similar process when we’re thinking about bringing our churches to health. It is the task of the church, and in particular the leaders of the church, to set the best environment for growth. So leaders need to (A) take a realistic look at how things are, and (B) listen to God’s word to determine where they should be. Once they know these things they can (C) develop strategies to reach their goal.

I actually think this method is pretty helpful. (A) – where are we? (B) – where do we need to be? (C) – what do we need to do to get there? Sure, there are lots of little things to complicate the picture: what factors have led us to this point? What barriers might we encounter in the future? What limitations do we face? But the basic method is still helpful.

And just so we’re clear, moving toward health is more than a matter of method. The questions of A, B & C are best addressed in a spirit of humble dependence on God, of prayerful searching of God’s will, and a deep desire to honour Jesus and bring his new creation to expression. So we need pastors, elders and leaders with more than a smart methodology. They need to be people with a Gospel heart, who are rich in the Word, and filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom. People who can honestly assess their current situation, and interpret relevant factors and influences.

When leaders like this seek to move a church toward health, they will be wrestling with the need to have the most effective structures, systems and ministries. They will be seeking to create the best context they can for growth and health. They will be working for a church that embraces change.

The church needs leaders who seek the best context for growth and health


We all know change like this is hard. We will need to let go of some things we love. Things that make us comfortable. Mostly it is hard work, but if these are the changes God calls us to, they are right and they are good.

‘The Night Watch’ is a colossal painting by Rembrandt van Rijn. Measuring around 3.5 x 4.4 metres it dominates an entire room in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. The painting was completed in 1642 – the height of the Dutch golden age. Over the next 300 years, the painting was lovingly preserved and maintained. The custodians of the painting no doubt had the best intentions, but all those coats of lacquer darkened to tones of the painting so much that people thought it was a night scene, hence the popular title. After Word War II, however, the painting was restored to reveal its well lit early morning hues.

Here’s my point: for the first 300 years the restorers had the absolute best intentions. They were the experts in their day. No one better for the job, and no better methods than the ones they employed. But in time more effective preservation methods were discovered, and the old methods were dispensed with. See, the method was not the important thing. What really mattered was the end result, and the beauty of the work.

Sometimes Churches focus on the wrong thing. And the methods, the well worn practices become the focus. These things might not be wrong in themselves, but when they become the focus, the beauty of what needs to be seen can be so easily obscured. What started as clear as day might end up dark as night. And then we need the courage to undergo a work of restoration and transformation. Hard work. And those focused primarily on the traditional methods and practices may find this an uncomfortable and disturbing process. But at the end of the day, our prayer is that the work of the Master will be seen for what it really is, and that he will receive the praise which rightfully belongs to him.

Q: Are you aware of methods and practices in your church which obscure the Master’s work? What might you do to address this?