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Elders & Deacons: Partners in the Gospel

Elders and Deacons

Jesus is the King and Head of the Church. He is the church’s leader and its Chief Shepherd. The church belongs to Jesus, exists for Jesus and is under the authority of Jesus. In God’s sovereign plan and under his authority, he chooses men to serve as elders and deacons to lead, guide, serve and protect his church.

So the question becomes, what’s the difference? The office of elder is an office of teaching and rule. The office of deacon is an office of service. In practice though, it’s less about different roles and more about starting point, as the above illustration demonstrates. The elder typically starts by assessing spiritual needs in people’s lives and moving toward meeting physical needs. The deacon, on the other hand, starts by serving people, moving to a place of teaching people how to grow in maturity as a means of helping them grasp the spiritual implication of the practical assistance provided.

Example: Say a couple’s marriage is struggling and they are falling behind on their bills. Let’s see how the elder and the deacon are likely to respond, starting from the distinct perspective of their respective office.

The elder may begin counseling the couple, assessing their selfish motivations, areas where they are pursuing their own desires rather than seeking to pour the gospel onto the spouse. Out of that counseling and assessing the spiritual needs of the couple, the elder may learn that the couple is having financial problems that are contributing to the marital discord. At that point, the elder may move to provide assistance in meeting the financial problems of the couple.

The deacon, conversely, may start by helping meet the physical needs of the couple: helping with the rent or paying the couple’s electric bill. The deacon, then, started by serving the practical needs of the couple… but not ending there. The deacon then asks diagnostic questions such as:

  • How did you get into these financial difficulties?
  • Is this a one-time challenge or likely recurring? If recurring, what lifestyle changes must the couple make?
  • How is your marriage doing? Are these money problems getting between the two of you?

The elder may start with counseling or teaching a class and move to helping with practical needs. The deacon may start with the practical needs and move to counseling or teaching the couple about Godly approaches to money.

While the starting point may be different, good eldering and good deaconing both require engaging the spiritual and the physical needs of the congregation. And, when done well, they will join hands as partners in the process…


Questions to ask when considering a small group strategy: Part 2

Yesterday, I outlined 5 of 10 initial questions I have for any church that is evaluating their small group strategy. Those questions included the place in the church’s discipleship strategy, goals on involvement, what to do with kids, the definition of a small group and the objectives of a small group. Let’s pick up right there with another 5 critical questions any church must answer in moving forward with a small group strategy.

  • Relation to congregational care: What is the connection between small groups and congregational care? Done well, I believe it can be the primary congregational care structure. When someone is in a small group, it is that group that takes initiative for visiting in the hospital, that facilitates meals when a baby is born, etc. Bill Hybels tells the story of going to visit someone in the hospital only to find the entire small group gathered around the person. He was basically told, “You’re not needed here. We’ve got this.” That is the opportunity of small groups for pastoral care.
  • Connection to preaching: Again, this is a big philosophical question. How is the weekly preaching of God’s Word and the teaching of small groups related. For some, there is no connection. People hear a sermon on one topic and their group studies something else. There are others where every group has to use the sermon as the basis for discussion, with the church providing resources for group leaders toward this end. Then there are some in the middle that take some period of time each year (say, 2 months) where all groups study the same thing built off  and connected to the preaching.
  • Past experience: Is there a past of small groups, or is the church starting from scratch? Either answer affects thoughts on developing a model, timeline and communication with the congregation as to what is happening, why it is important and how to get involved. A church that has never had small groups before has the unenviable task of convincing people it is important to their spiritual growth. On the other side, in churches that has a small group past, there is probably baggage that comes along with it, good or bad. Again, this is not about a right answer, but about honestly articulating what will be involved in making the new small group initiative a success.
  • Transience of population: Is the population pretty stable there or is there a fair amount of population turnover? Mark Dever has articulated that they know that the population of Capital Hill Baptist Church turns over every 3 years. So, at Capital Hill, they need a discipleship strategy that seeks to make the most of that. Instead of bemoaning all the lost people, they intentionally developed a strategy to prepare those people in the time they do have them. This can be a very important question in determining the type of model that might be effective for any local congregation.
  • Leadership development: How is the model that the church embraces raising up leaders? This is a huge one. I just recently spoke with a woman  who, along with her husband, has been leading a small group for a long time. I may be wrong about this, but I heard that Noah originally started this group with his kids when they got off the ark and it has been meeting ever since. Her comment to me: There are people in our group that should be leading groups. One significant hurdle is any system where people get into a group and are stuck there for life. People get comfortable in their group and are content to stay there. That leaves the challenging proposition of always needing to develop new leaders for new groups and having to rely on finding those people amongst those who are not already in a group. And yet, doesn’t it seem that those who are in a group already embrace the philosophy of ministry that says that groups are important?

Well, there are my recommendations on the 10 initial conversations that any church should have if considering a small group strategy for the first time or evaluating the effectiveness of their current system. As I said in the first post, small groups are a means, not an end. The end: To see disciples raised up in the likeness of Christ who are giving their lives away for the gospel. To the extent that small groups are effective toward that end, go for it.


Questions to ask when considering a small group strategy: Part 1

At Covenant Life Church, where I have the privilege of serving, the church leadership has continually affirmed that true discipleship and life change normally takes place in the context of relationships. That conviction has evidenced itself in many ongoing conversations about the role of small groups in our discipleship strategy and has made it front-burner topic for me. And then, just last week, I spoke with an old friend who just recently accepted a role as Pastor of Small Groups and is tasked with building a small group infrastructure in his church. At his request, I offered to assist him in any way I can thinking through small groups in his context.

What resulted are 10 initial topics and questions that I believe must be asked for a church as it reflects on small group strategy. The first five are here, the second five will be discussed in tomorrow’s post. As an aside, these are in no way ordered by priority, but rather by the way they came out as I was writing them.

  • Place in discipleship strategy: What is the discipleship strategy of the church? And where do small groups fit? For some churches, it is the discipleship strategy. They are looking to get everyone in a group as the primary way that they will be discipled. For others, Sunday School or “Life on Life” type environments are the primary discipleship tool and small groups are supplements. A clear answer on this is, I believe, one of the more critical questions a church must clarify in the processing of planning a small group strategy. At the end of the day, small groups are a means, not an end. The end is raising up radical disciples of Christ. Small groups are a great strategy for that. But knowing where small groups fits in the equation of raising up disciples will help you discern where to push and where to back off.
  • Church goal on involvement: Has the church leadership articulated a specific goal regarding involvement in small groups? It’s easy to say “we want everyone in a group,” but that type of statement often requires a radical reorientation of ministry philosophy and programming that many churches (and the individuals who attend) are not ready for.
  • Kids: Will the church provide childcare for groups? This is a very pragmatic question that comes up in every small group conversation I have. What do we do with the kids? Personally, I love having my kids at the small group I lead. I think they get to see men and women that I want them to look up to, and they get cared on in awesome ways. But, honestly, I think I am in the minority there. Many people look forward to their small group as their “adult time” and don’t want kids around. Thus, childcare becomes a consideration. A clear answer up front regarding childcare is essential.
  • Definition of small groups: What counts as a small group? Is it necessarily a co-ed group meeting weekly in someone’s home for coffee, dessert and a Bible study from now until Jesus comes back? Or does a group of guys that meet weekly and study James for 30 minutes before playing basketball for the next 2 hours count as a small group? Could groups meet on the church campus or not?
  • Objectives of small groups: What is the purpose of a small group? What exactly do you expect to happen there? Is it primarily fellowship? Bible study? Community outreach? Is it some combination or something else entirely? Articulating what you want to happen will shape what actually does happen in those small groups.

So there are 5 of the 10 initial considerations that I would want to explore in any conversation regarding small groups. Check back tomorrow for the other 5, including the relation of small groups to the preaching and leadership development.

For further reading, I highly recommend Activate: An Entirely New Approach to Small Groupsby Nelson Search and Kerrick Thomas.

Book Review: Dangerous Church by John Bishop

I want one thing for my life. I want one thing for the church I serve. That one thing is to push all our chips to the middle and to declare that we are “all in.” It’s to stop playing church and worrying about the next program or whether the offering be enough to prevent that always uncomfortable up front announcement about how we are going to have to cut back on the donuts and coffee.

What I want, what I long for, is to risk big. Either we will fail epically or we will see God do things more amazing than we ever dared to ask or imagine. But either way, there will be a story to tell of how God’s mission was worth everything. It is to this place of risking everything that John Bishop calls us in Dangerous Church.

There are two particularly penetrating (and convicting) insights that from the book that I would like to highlight:

  • It starts with the pastor: Pastors, we are in a strange place. We are just one beggar telling another beggar where to find food. And yet, people look to us to model the gospel in our own lives. If we aren’t gospel risk-takers, why would they be? If we don’t share the gospel with unbelievers, what makes us think they will? If we don’t live out the gospel through caring for the outcasts and outsiders, is there any chance they will? Convicting words.
  • It’s all about God: Ultimately, we – me, my church, any of us – do not have the power to change lives. Only God does. We are called to be faithful and embrace his radical mission in the world. He alone can make the blind to see, the lame to walk and raise the dead to life. Only God. That’s an important truth easily forgotten.

If you are looking for a book that will call you and your church to radical places and to take radical risks for the glory of Christ, this is it. It’s time to stop pursuing being a safe church. It’s time to become a dangerous church. Let’s roll.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free as part of the Dangerous Church blog tour. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Book Review: The Next Christians by Gabe Lyons

The next Christians “see themselves on a mission, partnering with God to breathe justice and mercy and peace and compassion and generosity into the world. They believe that in small ways they are turning back the hands of time to give the world a glimpse of what the world looked like before sin entered the picture” (p. 59).

Many churches are trying to figure out how to reach and engage the next generation. They want to get younger and involve young families. But they come up short because they miss the fundamental paradigm shift that is occurring before their eyes. Gabe Lyons, in The Next Christians, captures this paradigm shift beautifully. For the next Christians, being a Christian is not just about evangelizing, it’s about restoring truth and beauty and grace. It’s about showing the world a glimpse of what the world looked like in the Garden in anticipation of that day of truth and beauty and grace that will be realized in the new heavens and earth. It’s about joining God in his mission to the world.

If you are a church leader trying to figure out how to reach the next generation of Christians, read this book. If you are a Christian who has not been quite able to articulate your discontent with more of the same Christianity, read this book. The next Christians are not willing to settle for mediocre Christianity. They want to change the world for the glory of God. I know that’s where I am. What about you?

Read Chapter One & Two of The Next Christians

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group as part of their Blogging for Books Program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commision’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Bridging the Gap

Today I am in Tennessee doing some consulting with the children’s workers of a church here. This church, like many churches, offers a great assortment of children’s programs. Unfortunately, these programs don’t speak to one another. All churches want to see the children and families reached by their soccer league or other outreach ministries connected to the worship and discipleship ministries of the church? So why doesn’t it happen?

Barb Wagenfuhr of First Pres Colorado Springs often talks about “mind the gap.” That is, there is a tendency for church programs to become compartmentalized, all doing their own thing. The result? A gap that prevents people from taking the next steps of faith and next steps of involvement.

Aware of that gap, the challenge becomes, how do we bridge it? Toward that end, here are 5 strategies for inviting people to cross the bridge and take the next steps of involvement in your church and in their spiritual lives.

  1. Program – As the program itself is designed, plans are included to incorporate sharing the Gospel, devotions, or encouraging someone to take the next step.
  2. Prayer – Ministry Head/Leaders bathe all efforts in prayer.
  3. Promotion – Targeted advertisements inviting people to the “next step” of church involvement.
  4. Personal Relationships – Life change happens best within the context of relationships.  Encourage leaders in the specific program or venue to build relationships and personally invite their friends, family, and neighbors to follow Christ.
  5. Party – Pursue opportunities to celebrate what God is doing. Festive environments have a primary goal of cementing memories from the ministry, as well as presenting the Gospel.

Interact: Where are the gaps in the ministries of your church? What are you doing to bridge the gap?

*Special thanks to Damon Cinaglia and Sherry Bitler who helped me develop this paradigm.

Branding the Church, Part 1: Two Key Principles

This coming week, I will be speaking at the Communicating Church conference on the campus of Carson-Newman College in Tennessee on church branding and identity formation. Now, words such as branding and marketing often make church people squirm because it’s too corporate. After all, Jesus never used the latest marketing fads, such as Twitter, did he?

In the next couple of posts, we will explore the idea of church branding and how to go about it. But first, let’s start with a couple of key principles.

A brand is a promise

The very first lesson you learn from any book on branding and marketing is that a brand identity is a promise. It’s a promise about who you are, what matters to you, why you exist and what people can expect from you. In short, your brand is the promise you make to your community.

The Big Question

Have you articulated the message you want to send? Yes, most churches have mission statements (which, incidentally, I would contend are part of marketing your church), but that is the simple part. After all, the Bible outlines the mission of the church: to make more and better Christians. The challenge is shaping the way you operate to communicate that mission so that people who visit know what they are getting into.

A Word of Caution

Sending the wrong message here is very dangerous. For example, maybe your church has a very formal, high church feel to it and the culture is that most people dress up in suits for the guys and dresses or skirts for the girls. Though that is your culture, your website is very informal and all the pictures of on the website show people in jeans and T-shirts. Imagine the disconnect when someone visits your church for a Sunday worship service wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Imagine how out of place and uncomfortable s/he will feel. That is but small one example of how your brand – your promise or message – has failed to deliver.

A brand is a promise. That means it must be true. It can describe where you are moving to, but you must actually be moving to make that promise a reality. You must deliver on the promise you make.

Your church already has a brand identity

Your church has a name, right? So right there, you are already involved in branding. You have a name that identifies your church. Maybe you have the name of your denomination in the church name. Maybe not. Maybe you have a slogan or tag line that you often use. Maybe you are a very family friendly church. Maybe you want to be known as the family friendly church and are working toward that end. Regardless, your church already has a brand identity.

The Big Question

Who is controlling that brand? If you, as a church, are not intentional about shaping the message of your brand, someone else will. So let’s go to the example of being a family friendly church. Your church looks at your community and sees the opportunity to reach several young families that are moving into the area. Great. You have just identified a target market. But what happens if one of those young families visits the church and has the following experience.

  • They wander around the building for 10 minutes trying to find the nursery for their 2-year-old son because there were no signs pointing them to the nursery and no greeters to assist them.
  • Finally arriving at the nursery, no one greets them. They look around, trying to figure out what to do next. Eventually someone comes and brings the kid into the room, but no sign-in was required.
  • The parents are now getting a little uneasy. Will their son be safe in there? You can see their perspective on the church is already tainted.
  • After the worship service, the parents return to pick the kid up. Everything goes alright, except they realize that they never had to prove they were the child’s parents. Could just anyone have walked in their and claimed their son?
  • Walking back down the hallway, they realize he face is swollen and he has a big rash. The parents recognize it immediately as an allergic reaction. Their son has a dairy allergy that was inflamed by the goldfish served as a snack in the nursery.

What are those parents going to say after the service? When they have dinner that week with some friends, what message will they send about the church? This is precisely why controlling the brand is so important. It is imperative for the church to identify it’s message and then labor to control that message so that what people experience is what you wanted them to experience at your church.

A Word of Caution

The big danger here is thinking that branding is just about having a logo that you pop on some letterhead or business cards. The logo is an important part – maybe the most visible piece – of your brand, but it goes far beyond that. Your brand is your promise and it must be reflected in everything you do from using a logo to the rules governing your nursery to the structure of your programs. Your church has a brand. You already send a message to your community about who you are  and what they can expect of you. Are you determining what that message is, or are those in your community determining it for you?

Interact: What is your church’s message? Does the way the church operates accurately reflect that message?

Digging Deeper: Here are two resources to help you as you begin to think through branding your church.