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Weekend Reading: Fusion by Neslon Searcy

Fusion by Nelson SearcyI have a love/hate relationship with conferences and conference speakers. I love sitting in a big room in a large crowd soaking in the teaching. I love being exposed to new and innovative resources. I love the energy. I love the music. I love meeting new people. I love so much about the conference experience.

And then I come home. What a let-down. At least that is often my perception. That is when I realize that just about everything I have just learned is completely useless in my small church environment.

Several years ago I had the privilege to serve in a support role on the staff of a large church; it certainly seemed large to me. To the researchers who track these things it would be considered mid-sized. Our attendance was somewhere in the 500 range. While serving there, one of the staff pastors and I went to the Innovative Impact conference hosted by Woodlands Church (known then as Fellowship of The Woodlands) in The Woodlands, Texas. One of the speakers at this conference was Nelson Searcy.

Nelson Searcy is the founding pastor of The Journey Church in New York City. He is the author of several books, including Fusion: Turning First-Time Guests into Fully-Engaged Members of Your Church (2007, Regal). Searcy is an engaging speaker and an innovative, entrepreneurial leader. Fusion reflects this.

In Fusion, Searcy lays out a step-by-step plan to take visitors that have been attracted to your church and guide them down a track toward becoming members who are completely immersed in the life of the church. That is a great goal. In spite of that great goal, there are several problems with the book.

Fusion is a business book about becoming more successful at the business of growing the local church. Searcy talks some of evangelism and spiritual growth, but mostly Fusion is about church growth. As if that is not frustrating—or even insulting—enough, he spiritualizes these business principles by adding a variety of biblical proof texts taken completely out of context. Remember, you can make the Bible mean anything you want it to by removing or changing the context. By relying on business growth and leadership principles to build the church, he cheapens the value of the work of the Holy Spirit and minimizes the hard work of discipleship. Assimilating guests into the church becomes a numbers game much like a career in sales. It becomes about the number you can get to stick. We want visitors to stick around, but they are not really part of your church unless they are being discipled.

Fusion is written for the large church trying to become larger. In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a small church pastor. I pastor a small church. Those statements sound like they mean the same thing, but they don’t. I picked up a copy of this book because I wanted to be better at connecting visitors with the church, as we should all be. But Fusion simply is not practical for the small church, at least not for the really small church. One example of this is the sample letters and emails to be sent out to guests. They all recommend the pastor who taught that Sunday should send or sign the messages. Searcy is working under the assumption that churches (at least the ones he works with) routinely have multiple pastors. This is as opposed to most churches, which actually have the pastor as the only staff member.

Fusion is a marketing tool to increase sales of Searcy’s other products. One of the primary products being promoted in this book is “The Assimilation Seminar”. I wish I had thought while reading the book to count the number of times the seminar or the “Assimilation System” were mentioned by either Searcy or one of the testimonials peppered throughout the book. Searcy is as much a salesman as a pastor. His website, www.churchleaderinsights.com, is full of seminars, workshops, ebooks, coaching opportunities, and other products to make your church larger, because that is what really counts.

Searcy implies if you will follow his system your church will grow. In Fusion, Searcy does not provide principles for assimilation that may lead to church growth. He does not provide general guidelines. He does not simply provide examples. He provides a system. Searcy makes no secret he is providing a system. He calls it “The Assimilation System”. The implied guarantee of church growth comes mostly from the handful of hand-picked testimonials scattered throughout the book. It was glaringly obvious he did not include testimonials from those church leaders who had implemented Searcy’s system, prayed, and worked and did not see meaningful church growth simply because that may not have been God’s will for them at that time. These leaders were given a false hope and a false promise.

Searcy implies church growth is the goal. Sure, God wants us to reach new people; but this is apparently so the local church can be bigger. It is not just this book. In the store on his website, there is an entire section devoted to breaking size “barriers” as if we have some biblical mandate to grow a bigger congregation. By the way, I have read the entire Bible. There is no such mandate. That pressure is purely man-made. The goal is not bigger churches, it is healthy churches that disciple believers and send them out to do ministry. On a side note: if you send them out, they are no longer at your church to be counted. GASP!

I do not question Searcy’s motives. I suspect his heart is at least somewhat pure in this. I just get so irritated at the arrogance of some (not all, by any means!) pastors of large churches who seem to work under the assumption that since they did X and became “successful”, if you will do X you will be successful as well. The vast majority of churches in North America and around the globe are small churches. They are doing good work discipling believers, performing social work, and planting new churches. Please do not demean those churches and their leaders by implying they are less because they are small.

Have you read Fusion by Nelson Searcy? What did you think about it? You are welcome to add your comments below, whether you agree with me or not!

Weekend Reading: Balanced Christianity by John Stott

Balanced Christianity by John StottEarlier this week I wrote about extremes – specifically relating to law and grace. I made the argument that we should not necessarily look for some middle ground or moderate position, but rather the truth in both extremes.

This is the underlying message of John Stott’s classic work, Balanced Christianity (expanded edition, 2014, InterVarsity Press). Originally published in 1975, this short work draws attention to what Stott calls “one of the great tragedies of contemporary Christendom, a tragedy which is especially apparent among those of us who are called (and indeed call ourselves) evangelical Christians. In a single word, this tragedy is polarization…” (emphasis his) He correctly points out our substantial agreement in the historic doctrines of the faith, yet we choose to make no allowance for those who disagree with us on matters of lesser importance.

The introduction sounds like he is setting up an argument for some sort of trans-denominationalism, but that is not really what he does. Stott does not argue that our differences do not matter, just that we have more to unite over than to divide over.

To be sure, our differences do matter. If they did not, we would not hold them as differences. This is especially true when it comes to doctrinal differences. It is fair that these distinctions keep me from being a member of the same local church as those who practice infant baptism. It should not prevent me from accepting them as fellow believers and fellow evangelicals. It should not prevent us from worshiping together. It should not prevent us from shared outreach and social action. We are still brothers and sisters in Christ. We can choose to not focus on our differences, but rather on the things we hold in common.

Stott identifies and briefly examines four areas of polarization within the Christian church in general, and evangelicalism in particular. It is truly fascinating to me that while he wrote this almost 40 years ago in 1975, the four areas of polarization are still sources of conflict within the evangelical church and Stott’s words still ring true today. The four areas of polarization Stott provides a short analysis of are:

Intellect & Emotion: Stott says, “Some Christians are so coldly intellectual that one questions whether they are warm-blooded mammals, let alone human beings, while others are so emotional that one wonders whether they have any gray matter at all.” Either extreme is too far in that direction, but camping out in the middle where there is some logic and some emotion is not the answer. We are created as rational image bearers of a rational God, in his image. But God also feels. Scripture describes God as having deep feelings of love, anger, compassion, and sorrow. Stott comments, “If it is a serious peril to deny your intellect, it is a serious peril to deny your emotions.” If the polarization existed in 1975, it certainly exists in today’s evangelicalism.

Conservative & Radical: One of the things I really like about Stott and this book is embodied in the beginning of this statement: “We must begin by defining these terms. By conservatives we are referring to people who are determined to conserve or preserve the past and are therefore resistant to change. By radicals we are referring to people who are in rebellion against what is inherited from the past and therefore are agitating for change.” By our cultural, political, and/or religious definition(s), I am conservative; according to Stott’s, I am not conservative. While it is absolutely true that we must remain conservative in matters of Biblical theology, we must avoid the trap of conservatism in every area of life. On the one hand are those who want no change of any kind for any reason; on the other hand are those (Stott refers to them as radicals) who question everything and want “thoroughgoing reform, even revolution.” It appears the only option is to polarize over this, but the reality is we are called to be both conservative and radical. We must be conservative in our theology, in biblical truth. We must be radical in sharing that truth with those around us. Methodologies change over time. They must be evaluated and reevaluated against scripture. We do not “do church” as the disciples or the early church did. There must be room at the evangelical table for those who change more slowly and those who are more welcoming to change. We need not polarize in this area.

Form & Freedom: Stott identified a move in 1975 (it was not new then, nor has it diminished) calling for a new and unstructured kind of Christianity without the structure and baggage inherited from previous generations of the church. He identifies three main expressions of this way of thinking.

…first, that many are looking for churches without a fixed form. Groups of Christians, now meeting in many parts of the world, are breaking away from tradition and doing their own thing in their own way. Second, there is a desire for worship services without order, in which the minister no longer dominates everything but congregational participation is encouraged, in which the organ is replaced by the guitar and an ancient liturgy by the language of today, and in which there is more freedom less form, more spontaneity less starch. Third, there is a rejection of denominationalism and a new emphasis on independency. The younger generation is quite content to cut the cords which tie them to the past and even to other churches of the present. They want to call themselves Christian without any denominational label. (emphasis his)

Personally, I do not have major issues with the first two observations. Tradition, unlike biblical truth, must be evaluated and can be changed. Since I hail from a church tradition without a formal liturgy and hold tightly to the priesthood of the believer (and personally prefer guitar to organ), the second is also somewhat acceptable. The third is troubling. We have things that tie us together. Those should be recognized and celebrated. To be clear, denominational loyalty must not come before loyalty to scripture, but associations are important. Form is important. The problem is when form does not allow for the movement and work of the Holy Spirit. Stott makes the case that scripture calls for structure in three areas. First, there is a structured church with leadership, membership, and some forms. But there is flexibility in all this for freedom. Second, there is formal worship. There is room for exuberant worship alongside more reverent worship. “Some believers seem to assume that the chief evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit is noise. Have we forgotten that a dove is as much an emblem of the Holy Spirit as are wind and fire?” Third, there is a connectional principle. We often focus on independence—autonomy—to the point we forget our local church is part of God’s larger universal church.

Evangelism & Social Action: This fourth polarization identified by Stott is the one that, in my opinion, has been most improved since the original publication of this work. While it is true that mainline churches still try to affect change in society and politics without the benefit of evangelizing that society, and while it is true that some “evangelicals” are only interested in evangelism, a great many evangelicals have come around to the truth that evangelism and social action can be two sides of the same coin. Stott notes, “If Jesus so loved the world that he entered it by incarnation, how can his followers claim to love it by seeking to escape from it? As Sir Frederick Catherwood has written, ‘To try to improve society is not worldliness but love. To wash your hands of society is not love but worldliness.’” Once again, the answer is not to find some middle ground. Jesus did not give us the Great Commandment (Mark 12:29-31, especially 31) and then override it with the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). We are not to pick the one we find easiest or the one we most relate to; we are to strive to keep both. Our love for others and our desire to see them have a relationship with God trough Christ Jesus must co-exist.

The sixth and final chapter of this wonderful little book, and the chapter that makes this an “Expanded Edition”, is a reprint of an interview of John Stott conducted by Roy McCloughry in 1995 for the British magazine Third Way. The interview was republishing by Christianity Today. This is easily the longest chapter in the book. While it is interesting and helpful, it is not as inspiring as the previous chapters, nor does it contain the depth. Topics of the interview include Stott looking back over more than 50 years of ministry; the way society, the church, and the author’s ministry have changed in those years; changes in Stott’s own Anglican Church and the evangelical movement; and a host of other issues.

Balanced Christianity by John Stott is one of those more modern classics that should be read by most everyone who professes to be a believer, and certainly should be read by those with a position of leadership and influence in the church.

Have you read Balanced Christianity? What did you think about it? If you have not read it, does this review help convince you to? Leave your comment below!

Avoiding Extremes

OppositesIt is so easy to think in extremes. This is not true only of Christians or of the church. We live in a society of extremes. There is no such thing as a moderate in the public square; you must either be liberal or conservative. Liberals are portrayed as more liberal than ever by conservatives. Conservatives are portrayed as more conservative than ever by liberals. Anyone who tries to occupy a middle ground gets shot at by both sides.

We act as if this is new problem when it clearly is not. The apostle Paul wrote regularly about this in his letters. In responding to those who wanted to take advantage of God’s grace by living as they wanted then wrapping themselves in the banner of grace as a protection, Paul wrote in Romans 6:1-4, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” We are to enjoy life in God’s grace; but we enjoy it by living the new life he has called us to. We live in liberty but are not to be libertines.

The other extreme says that God’s grace demands we keep all the religious law God established. Paul answers this claim in Galatians 5:1-6, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” We have been granted freedom from the yoke of slavery. We are free to live the new life he has called us to. We live in liberty, not slavery.

So if we are to avoid these extremes, how are we to live? Is there a middle ground? Sort of, but I prefer not to think of it as a moderate position. I prefer to think of it as the best of both worlds. We have liberty and are not “bound” by the law. This is God’s grace. There is forgiveness when we fall. This is God’s grace. Jesus made it clear he would not abolish the law (Matthew 5:17-20). This is also God’s grace.

So, the law is still valid. We are not “bound” by the law. We live in liberty. How do all these truths work together? I believe the answer is in Galatians 5:13-18, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” If we walk by the Spirit, we will fulfill the law. Don’t work to keep the law, keep the one command to love your neighbor and the law will have been kept!

Real Quirky

I try to invite a lot of people to our church. I don’t do this because I want a large church. I really don’t care if our church becomes large or not, but that is a different subject. I invite a lot of people to our church so they have one more opportunity to spend time around people who love Jesus and they have one more opportunity to have the truth of the Word of God spoken into their lives.

Not long ago when inviting someone to our church, they asked me what kind of church it is. This person clarified that they were asking about style rather than denomination. This person wanted to know how formal we dressed and what style of music we sang and what kind of rituals we preformed. I honestly did not know how to answer.

I tried to explain what things are like here. I talked about how we are a group of broken people who are trying to follow Jesus. I explained that we don’t have a set liturgy. I described our music as an eclectic mix of songs we sing to honor the one who created us then re-created us. I told stories of changed lives and struggles. I am sure I did not paint a very flattering picture, but it was honest.

Karl Vaters, blogger at newsmallchurch.com and author of The Grasshopper Myth, has given me a new descriptor for our church: quirky.

If your idea of quirky is to play games with foundational biblical theology – that’s not quirky, that’s heresy. Quirky churches don’t change the things that matter – they cling for dear life to them.

If your idea of quirky is trying to be cool and relevant – nope, not that either. The cool kids don’t do quirky. They do cool. Cool is overrated.

Quirky churches aren’t stuck in old, dry, irrelevant ruts, either. Genuinely following Jesus will always keep us from that.

So quirky churches don’t mess with the fundamentals. And they don’t worry about passing fads. They’re not chasing culturally relevance. But they are contextually realQuirky churches are the ones that dare to do the bible stuff in a way that works for them and the people God is calling them to reach. No matter how strange it looks to everyone else. 

This means we will not always look like the other churches in town. That is not necessarily a bad thing! It may also make your Be Realchurch a little difficult to describe. It’s alright; you will survive without a label. What it will make you is real!

My heart’s desire as a pastor is to be bold with the truth. I pray God gives me the freedom to change plans and programs that are not working, but not to change simply for the sake of change. Most of all, I want to be honest and real. I want the people God puts under my teaching to know the real me. I realize it will not always be pretty or pleasant. I want the members of my church to be equally genuine and real. The community around us can spot a fake or a salesman a mile away. If we are honest about our past and honest about our present, people will trust us – and Jesus – with their future.

Small Church Pastor

Hi, my name is John and I am a small church pastor.Hi. My name is John and I am a small church pastor.

There. I finally said it. What a relief!

Over the past few months, I have been reflecting a lot on the many ways I am a failure as a pastor. I have been the pastor of New Beginnings in Bryan, Texas for about 16 months. In that time I have managed to grow the church from about 45 down to about 30 (on a pretty strong Sunday). After several years of operating a “Fall Festival”, this year there will be none. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, we don’t have Sunday school for anyone except the older members. I am pretty sure we won’t make the “Outreach 100” anytime soon!

I know—and I think I have always known—that there is far more to growing a church than numbers. But over the past few months I have begun to realize just how unimportant numbers really are. Don’t get me wrong; we count attendance every Sunday. Metrics are important. You have to know how many bulletins to print and communion cups to fill. I just don’t let numbers become my barometer for spiritual health.

Rather than focus on numbers, God has recently given me a hunger for overall spiritual health, both for the individuals who are part of New Beginnings and for the corporate body as well. This has renewed my passion for pastoring the local church.

New Beginnings will likely never be a large church. In fact, I am pretty sure I don’t even want that anymore. I would rather see us grow to a level of health and numbers where we are consistently sending people out into ministry. I dream of sending about a third of my church out to plant another local church in our area. I want to stay in the category that church growth experts call a “small church”.

I want to spend some time having a conversation about ministry in small churches. I would like for you to be part of that conversation.

Hi. My name is John and I am a small church pastor.

Will you leave a comment telling me about your church? Is your church a small church? Let’s talk about some of the joys and challenges of ministry in the small church context! (I want to say a special “Thank You” to Karl Vaters at newsmallchurch.com. You are doing a good work! Thanks for your transparency, encouragement, and practical help to your fellow small church pastors.)

Weekend Reading: The Map by David Murrow

The Map by David MurrowI do not read a lot of fiction. As a general rule, I simply do not enjoy it. However, I do have an appreciation for its value. As a communicator, the best way to make a point or teach a lesson is often through the use of a well told – or written – story.

The Map (2010, Thomas Nelson) by David Murrow is a unique blend of fiction and non-fiction. In the first part of the book, Murrow tries to write an adventure story. This story serves as an illustration that will be explained in the second part. I commend Murrow for his creativity and novelty, and it almost works. Part of the problem is that the fictional story is only pretty good. I realize the blurbs and book descriptions on the back cover of the paperback are there to help sell books. That being said, the quote from Robert Lewis (founder of Men’s Fraternity) only sets the reader up for disappointment: “the spiritual punch of C.S. Lewis, written in the style of a Jason Bourne thriller.” Let’s just say it’s a bit of over-kill.

That is not to say the book is bad. Actually, it is quite good! The Map is a follow-up to Why Men Hate Going to Church, and provides some much needed balance. The second half of the book is all about the path men should take to spiritual maturity.

With the understanding that many, if not most, men need visual cues to help them learn, Murrow lays out the journey to maturity in the form of a map. Reaching spiritual maturity is like climbing a mountain, and Murrow’s map is designed to help get us there. To draw this map, Murrow took cues from major sections of Matthew’s gospel. In analyzing the book of Matthew, Murrow saw three journeys Jesus made:

  • Matthew 1-7: Jesus is mostly humble, meek, and submissive. His life and teachings reflect a classic feminine pattern. (the journey of submission)
  • Matthew 8-25: Jesus is mostly powerful, bold, and outspoken. His life and teachings reflect a classic masculine pattern. (the journey of strength)
  • Matthew 26-28: Jesus is mostly meek, passive, and sacrificial. His life once again reflects a classic feminine pattern. (the journey of sacrifice)

Murrow understands that everyone—men and women—have personalities that include both masculine and feminine traits. When he uses the terms masculine and feminine, he makes in meaning and intent clear—and I appreciate that.

Before we go any further, let’s not run aground on the words masculine and feminine. I’m not saying that strength is manly and submission is womanly. I’m simply pointing out that, throughout the literature of a thousand cultures, attributes such as strength, aggression, goal orientation, competitiveness, and conflict are most often identified as male. On the other hand, love, communication, family, nurturing, and harmony are regularly understood as female. (Even modern bestsellers such as Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus follow this line.)

So please don’t judge me when I use feminine to describe the soft virtues and masculine to describe the hard ones. The purpose of this book is not to stereotype. Nor am I assigning certain traits to males and others to females. Quite the opposite. My prayer is that men and women will develop both sides of their personalities. I’m pleading with women to be strong, and with men to embrace weakness. My labels may not be PC, but they’re instantly understandable. (page 105)

After introducing the concept of the three journeys, Murrow spends three chapters examining and describing them in greater detail. He does a good job of continuing the metaphor of map and mountain as he describes these journeys. He also offers biblical examples of men on these journeys, highlighting their successes as well as failures.

The last few chapters were the most helpful to me personally. In Chapter 16, Murrow identifies seven points where men “get lost on the mountain”. I found this encouraging. Some of these are points I have been stuck or have seen other men stuck. It was encouraging to see that my experience is not isolated and that it is possible to get unstuck and continue on the journey.

The remainder of The Map is devoted to incredibly important, but often forgotten (or neglected), task of applying what you have learned to your life and/or ministry context. Please do not miss this step. Murrow good advice in this arena. The reality is that, as men, we are on these journeys. The question is whether we will realize this and allow the journeys to grow, shape, and mold us into the men God has designed us to be—and calls us to be.

I started reading The Map almost hoping not to like it. I wanted to take what could be called an elitist or condescending view of a simplistic, purely pragmatic Christian “how-to” book. Alas, I cannot. It is a good book with simple, but rich, insights into a journey to biblical manhood.

Murrow writes in a style that is easy to read which would make The Map easy to hand out to men you know. I would recommend this book to anyone who finds this an important topic. Church leaders, including lay-leaders, may find it particularly helpful as they provide ministry opportunities with and for men.

Weekend Reading: Luther and Calvin by Charlotte Methuen

Luther and Calvin Religious RevolutionariesWhile I am neither Lutheran nor Calvinist (I am Reformation Arminian, or Classical or Reformed Arminian), I still trace the history of my theology directly through Calvin and Luther to the Bible. Luther and Calvin: Religious Revolutionaries (2011, Lion Hudson) by Charlotte Methuen provides insight into the dramatic and lasting influences these men left on Christianity, European society, and ultimately all of western culture.

Charlotte Methuen holds the position of Lecturer in Church History at the University of Glasgow. She teaches in the areas of Early Church, Reformation, the Church in the Twentieth Century, and the history of the ministry of women in the Church. She has written several books, contributed to several others, and published numerous articles.

I really only have one complaint of any significance. The book is difficult to read. It is evident that Methuen is not American and that she typically writes for an academic readership. It is a good book, but it is dry and difficult to digest.

Luther and Calvin checks in at just under 200 pages. At that length it should have only taken me under a week to read with my limited time and outside distractions. Instead, I did battle with this little volume for weeks. And battle is what it sometimes felt like.

The book is divided into two sections of two chapters each. There is a section on Luther and one on Calvin. Each section has a chapter regarding the theologian’s historical context and a chapter covering his theology. It really is quite simple. The trade-off for the simplicity is that the chapters are long and a bit unwieldy, adding to the difficulty of the book.

Where Luther and Calvin succeeds is important. Methuen does a good job of putting each man in his historical context. This is critical to understanding what they taught and why they came to that conclusion.

Like all of us, Martin Luther and John Calvin were products of the times in which they lived. Many of the theological conclusions they drew were determined by the personal and cultural contexts in which they found themselves as the studied the Scripture.

Luther and Calvin is a good primer on these two reformers. While I would not give this volume a strong recommendation, I would not recommend against it. There are likely other resources that are a little easier to digest.

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