Posts Tagged ‘Church’

As the Sunday School Director at my church, I’m keenly interesting in leading our Sunday School toward continuous growth and accomplishing its several purposes well. That is no small challenge in our inner-city congregation that currently runs about one-fourth the number of people present on Sunday mornings as it did when my family first joined there in 1988. There are many reasons for those smaller numbers, but they are not the subject of this post.

I have only been the Sunday School Director for a little over a year since early 2019. My slow approach has been to take time to observe and talk with others – sitting in on classes to see what really happens, taking notes along the way of what is admirable and where there are opportunities for improvement. Many hours of discussion have filled up meetings with my pastor and others as we ponder needed improvements. We’re on the cusp of some significant and necessary changes to accomplish what the Sunday School is designed to accomplish in the local church. That process of change will be yet another post on this blog down the road as we have some successes (and hopefully not too many failures) behind us.

In preparing recommendations for improvements to our Sunday School, my pastor handed me a book off his shelf called Revitalizing the Sunday Morning Dinosaur: A Sunday School Growth Strategy for the 21st Century by Ken Hemphill. To say it is influencing our recommendations for improvement would be an understatement. We are, in fact, completely changing an earlier major recommendation that was nearly a year in the making after running into a wall of opposition from a handful of vocal opponents. We aren’t changing our goals, but we are revamping our suggested means of accomplishing them, and the ideas and insights in this book will help shape the revisions in the plan for the better.

Ken Hemphill authored the book when he was president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His prior service in churches and as director of the Southern Baptist Center for Church Growth as well as pastoring several churches gave him great experience and knowledge to share with others on the subject. Even though the book was published in 1996, I believe it is just as valid and helpful for churches today as it was years ago.

This easily digestible 176-page paperback book has the following chapters:

  • If the Sunday School is a church growth tool, somebody unplugged mine!
  • Is Sunday School a dinosaur in a technological world?
  • Establishing a Great Commission vision for the Sunday School
  • Designing an effective Sunday School
  • Organizing the Bible study program
  • Designing an effective outreach ministry
  • The ministry of assimilation
  • The ministry of teaching
  • Putting it together – keeping it working

The book begins with a brief history of the Sunday School, pointing out the apparent change in focus somewhere in the second half of the 20th century that shifted its focus from evangelism and fellowship and teaching the Bible to only fellowship and then teaching the Bible. Guess what happens when you don’t focus on evangelism? You don’t evangelize! And if you don’t evangelize, you don’t grow. Not only that, but if you do evangelize but then don’t disciple those new believers and assimilate them into the life of the church, the back door will be just as large as the front door and you still won’t grow as individuals or as a congregation. So the opening chapter lays a foundation of six principles of Sunday School growth church leaders should know and implement.

Hemphill is generous with stats that demonstrate the lackluster performance of churches and their Sunday Schools in the latter decades of the 1900s. He offers a number of problems contributing to the decline of the Sunday School: lack of evangelistic focus, loss of emphasis and commitment, loss of vision for the total work of the Sunday School, dismantling the Sunday School’s component parts over time, lack of a clear purpose statement, and fear of innovation. In contrast to these problems, however, he offers nine solid reasons why the Sunday School is the growth tool of the future.

At the heart of the book is understanding the three components of a balanced strategy for the Sunday School. They are evangelism, assimilation, and discipleship. None of the three can be given more weight than the others in importance, or the whole structure will be off balance and will fail to accomplish all three of its purposes effectively. If there is one key takeaway from the book that is easy to remember and to serve as a foundation for your understanding of what the Sunday School is to be about, it is these three terms. In our case, we’ll substitute the word relationships in place of assimilation and we’ll use outreach instead of evangelism as we reshape our understanding as a church of the three equal purposes of the Sunday School, but the three legs of that stool are essentially the same regardless of the term you prefer.

I appreciate the author’s reliance on supernatural power in the process of revitalizing the Sunday School. We must remember that we are not just completing prescribed tasks touted by a church growth strategist; we are faithfully working under the leadership of God to accomplish the purposes of the Great Commission for the glory of God. We can’t do that apart from the very presence and power of God at work through us and those with whom we minister and serve.

No major effort of revitalizing the Sunday School is going to happen if you don’t organize (or reorganize) in ways required to accomplish the purpose. Hemphill provides a number of possible structures that will vary depending on church and staff size. While this means that the structure won’t look exactly alike from one church to the next, Hemphill is rightly adamant about the need for strict age grading throughout the Sunday School including throughout the adult classes. I agree with him on that. I’ve witnessed when having fuzzy or no age boundaries for adult classes only leads to groups staying together for decades and feeling quite content with who is in the group, rarely keeping their zeal for outreach as much as they do for fellowship among themselves. New classes or better aligning existing classes with stricter age ranges can help meet the needs of all participants, especially newer participants who are less likely to feel welcome or comfortable among a group of people who have been together for many years. Age grading can also bring into glaring light the age group gaps in your congregation that may not otherwise be obvious.

The chapter on designing an effective outreach strategy gives practical suggestions for visitation, evangelism training, and making contacts. The assimilation chapter is filled with practical tips of how different people and groups can work together to integrate new people into the life of the church and in relationship with one another. The suggested organization for care groups seems critical to making it work through the Sunday School.

If you asked a random group of people, “What is the purpose of the Sunday School?” I suspect most would answer along the lines of “to teach the Bible.” They are right in part given the three areas of focus mentioned above. Bible teaching and learning is certainly at the heart of what happens in the bulk of the time given to the Sunday School when it meets together as a class. Much of what happens in terms of outreach and relationships can happen outside the Bible study time, but the Sunday School is not close to achieving its purposes without strong Bible study and discipleship. To this end, Hemphill provides a number of suggestions for teachers and church leaders to assure quality teaching.

The final chapter provides a host of specific gems of advice to sum up in one place the key points made in earlier chapters and to provide final thoughts. Key points are categorized into sections on integrating the work of the class, building the church through the Sunday School, and creatively providing space. That makes the key takeaways from the book easy to reference in the future and easier to remember.

Many may think the Sunday School is a dinosaur. I disagree or I wouldn’t be a Sunday School Director. I wouldn’t devote time and energy to participating as a student or teacher. I certainly wouldn’t devote many volunteer hours to trying to grow our church through the Sunday School if I didn’t believe it is both possible and the right thing to do for all ages within the church. For those and other reasons mentioned above, I commend to you the book Revitalizing the Sunday School by Ken Hemphill. It is practical, informative, challenging, encouraging, and just as relevant now as when it was first published. Keep an open mind and heart as you read it, then seek the Lord’s wisdom in how you can use this info to strengthen your church through the Sunday School for the glory of our awesome God.

PastorAppreciationMonthThis is Pastor Appreciation Month. Pastors should be appreciated every month of the year for the important, tireless, and unending work they do, but it’s still good to set aside a particular month to show our appreciation.

So let me take this opportunity to publicly thank my pastor, Mark Williams, and my associate pastor, Kris Billiter, for who they are, for all they do for so many people, and for the very positive impact each has on me, my family, and my church.

Mark has only been my pastor since mid-August 2014, but I cannot express how thrilled I am to have him and his great family at my church – Walnut Street Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. Mark is gifted in many ways, but what stands out to me is the powerful preaching that God brings to pass through him every week. I recently heard Mark say that 90% of his time weekly is spent on sermon preparation, and it shows. I appreciate that passion for and devotion to the Word of God. A very high view of scripture is sadly lacking in many churches today, and it thrills my soul to know that Mark understands the centrality of the Word of God in his mission as pastor.

Mark has a great family as well with a wonderful wife and two precious children. It is clear that the family is fully devoted to one another as they serve Christ and others. I look forward to many years together as a faithful servant in the church.

It pleases me that Mark is as young as he is – 31 years old – because it increases my hope in the future of our church and the rock-solid grip God can have on people of all ages who willingly surrender their lives to His lordship. With my sons’ ages 31 and 34, my manager at my work being 31, managing a small team at work of others in their 20s, and having loved my college ministry years hanging out with those much younger than me, I have an affinity for a younger generation and am excited to see them lead others of all ages.

It has also been a tremendous blessing this past year and a half just prior to Mark being called as pastor to have our associate pastor Kris Billiter serve as interim pastor while we went through the long pastor search process. Kris is about to leave us to plant a new church elsewhere in the county, so we will be sad to see him go, but he goes with our blessing and heartfelt gratitude for the phenomenal way he led us in the interim period (and in other capacities for years before). I count him as a trusted friend and I know he will be used by God for great service now and in the years ahead. I would have been glad to have Kris as my pastor should that have come to pass, but God had other plans that we all now see as better for all concerned.

I was never a pastor, but I have served as associate pastor, minister of education, youth minister and college minister in a variety of paid ministry and volunteer roles. I can’t completely understand the thoughts and daily concerns of a lead pastor since I haven’t been one, but I can well imagine the joys and the difficulties of the role as one deals with fickle human beings (like me) while trying to be a faithful servant of the Most High God.

Through the years I haven’t always been the exemplary church member and am surely not now either. I had some adversarial times with a previous pastor – a dark and difficult period for my wife and me that is thankfully in the past. I don’t ever want a repeat of those days. The pattern of my life is to respect the person and the position of pastor and that is the way it should be.

So as I ponder ways I can continue to show appreciation to my pastor, here are some things that come to mind:

  • Pray by name daily for my pastor, his ministry, and his family.
  • Be an eager, active and vocal supporter of his ministry.
  • Make my default answer to requests he may make of me be “yes” unless there are extremely unusual circumstances that prevent doing so in particular situations.
  • Be reasonable in my expectations of him as a person; He’s not superman.
  • Respect his time and the time he needs with family as well as down time to get away and recharge.
  • Serve tirelessly in ways God has gifted me for the good of our church.
  • If I disagree with a leadership decision, either accept the authority of the position of pastor (barring clearly unbiblical decisions) or at least have the respect to first approach him privately with concerns rather than publicly.
  • Seek to give more than I take in the relationship.
  • Trust that in God’s sovereignty He has plans I know nothing about, and this pastor at this time in this place is a part of that eternal plan.

I’d love to hear what other ideas you may have.

To my fellow believers everywhere, I encourage you to go out of your way this month (and every month) to show appreciation to your pastor. Let him know you’re praying for him. Be kind. Say words of encouragement. Be a blessing to him and a helper in your shared ministry at church. Love him and those dear to him as though they are a part of your own family because they are. They are a part of a spiritual family that will spend eternity together. We would do well to work hard this side of heaven on getting a great jumpstart on that forever friendship.

Thank you, Mark, and thank you, Kris, and heartfelt thanks to the many other pastors I’ve had in 57 years on this earth who have all played a part in shaping me into who I am. The ripple effect of your work is incalculable. You are loved and greatly appreciated every day of every year.

May God richly bless you and your loved ones as you continue to faithfully serve Him.

Millennials WorshippingI recently reviewed the book The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation by Thom Rainer and Jess Rainer.  Because of my love for the church as well as for Millennials, and because I believe many American churches are at a critical crossroad for their future, I want to devote a follow-up post to the subject of Millennials and the church, borrowing from and commenting on the information in the last couple of chapters of the book.

The last two chapters of The Millennials are titled “Their Strange Religious World” and “The Church Responds to the Millennials.”  I don’t like to quote too much from a book, but in this case I feel several quotes and summary statements are necessary to set the stage for the conclusions and personal application that follows.

In the first of these chapters, we read the following:

  • “There is no majority spiritual position in the entire generation.  To the contrary, many have such a hodgepodge of beliefs that it’s difficult to give them meaningful labels.”
  • Only 13% surveyed identified spiritual matters as really important in their life.
  • The authors estimate about 15% of the generation to be true Christians.
  • About 24% of Millennials are active in a church, while 25% strongly agree with the statement that the Bible is the written Word of God.
  • “Those who are Christians demonstrate fervency about their faith.”
  • About 70% of the generation believes that American churches are irrelevant.
  • The church’s challenge is not overcoming an adversarial attitude, but overcoming apathy.
  • “A Millennial with parents who were nominal Christians is likely to divorce himself or herself from Christianity and churches.”  They will probably not adopt the lukewarm faith of their predecessors.

In light of the above characteristics of Millennials, what then is today’s church to do if it is to be a place where Millennials choose to be and to serve?  That is the subject of the final chapter, where the authors suggest the following:

  • Millennials “will connect with churches only if those churches are willing to sell out for the sake of the gospel.”
  • Churches focused mainly on themselves rather than others will not attract them.
  • The American church has two related challenges: connecting with Millennial Christians, and reaching the 85% of Millennials who are not Christians.
  • To connect with Millennial Christians, churches must:
    • Become radically committed to the community (missional and incarnational),
    • Go deep in biblical teaching,
    • Love the nations,
    • Direct revenue outwardly,
    • Demonstrate transparency, humility, and integrity.
  • To reach non-Christian Millennials, churches must:
    • Remember the indifference a majority feel toward Christians and the church,
    • Unleash the simple power of inviting,
    • Connect Boomer parents with Millennial children,
    • Demonstrate the deep meaning of following Christ,
    • Demonstrate concern for others,
    • Demonstrate transparency, humility and integrity (again).

With all the above in mind, I cannot help but think of my church.  It will soon be 200 years old.  Its largest demographic is its senior adult population.  It says it wants more young adults and young families, but the past decade has seen more Millennials exit the church than enter.  The weekly attendance is less than half what it was when my family started attending in the mid 1980s.  A large majority of its $1.75 million budget goes to paying for salaries and facilities.  Still, it does many things right.

I love my church and have wonderful friendships with many people there.  Each week I get to participate in the best adult small group Bible study class I’ve ever experienced.  As an inner city church, we have some opportunities to do things that will not happen in other settings.  I am committed to serving my Lord through this church and am hopeful for its future, even in this time of searching for a new pastor to lead us.  While I was at times sorely tempted to leave in recent years due to some frustrations, God would not let me go, even though I visited and deeply enjoy and respect other nearby churches dominated my Millennials.

One of the thoughts that I walked away with after reading the book The Millennials was this: No church – mine included – will be successful attracting Millennials as a result of implementing a program to reach them.  We can’t hire a staff person to do it.  We can’t expect a new pastor to magically make it happen.  We can’t vote to take some action in a business meeting that will suddenly result in being the kind of church Millennial Christians are drawn to and Millennial non-Christians care anything about.  We have to actually be the kind of church daily at our core – naturally, honestly, genuinely, individually and collectively – that Millennials and others serious about the faith are drawn to.  We need to be doing the things mentioned above not to attract Millennials, but because doing so is at the heart of our faith and practice.  We must do them because of who we are, not because of who we want to attract.  Millennials will see through anything less.

Given the impatience for slow change demonstrated by many Millennials, most young men and women aren’t inclined to take on a project of the magnitude of turning a 200-year-old church around.  I can imagine many thinking “Ain’t nobody got time fo’ dat!” as they head off to another established (or brand new) church that is already living out the radical Christianity they expect.  Where does that leave my church and so many others as we look to the future?  I’m not sure.

This I know, however: God isn’t finished with His church yet.  He may well raise up new ones as others no longer serving His purposes fade away.  He may choose to bring new life to many currently struggling.  As we ponder what it means to be a church member and then live out that faithfulness, God can still surprise and amaze us all.  I’m eager to see that happen at my church, and I hope I witness it alongside devoted, faithful followers of all ages, especially Millennials.

(Note: The photo above comes from the USA Today article “Pastor Mark Driscoll: Millennials are honest on faith.”)