Lou Holtz Can Teach Us Something about Church

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Lou Holtz knows how to build a successful football program. He knows a few things about successful organizations, period. After more than 50 years in the sports world, one striking observation he made is that only two organizations looked better on the inside than they appeared from the outside – the University of Notre Dame and Augusta Country Club. Every other entity he has been part of looked worse from the inside than it did from outside.

Churches and ministries could ponder Holtz’s observation and learn from it. Many churches struggle with building a successful evangelism and outreach ministry. Part of the problem is that inside reality doesn’t match outside appearance. Because churches depend on the insiders (attenders) to invite outsiders to come inside (unchurched people), it’s vital that the insiders believe they have something wonderful to offer.

A couple of stories will illustrate what I mean. While in seminary I served as an evangelism intern in a church. I spent five to ten hours each week teaching people how to share the gospel of Jesus Christ and leading them to do it door-to-door. It was a formative experience for me. However, one sad fact in that experience is that I believed there was another church in town that was better than ours. Their pastor was a better preacher (our pastor said he didn’t spend much time in sermon preparation). They planned a more dynamic worship service and stronger mission engagement. I had no problem telling people about Jesus Christ and what He did for them, but it was more difficult to invite them to our church because I feared they would be disappointed when they came.

The second story concerns a church I served as pastor. A fellow minister from another denomination visited with me about joining our church. It was a big step for him and his young family. I will never forget what he said: “I want to attend a church where I can bring lost friends, confident that they will hear a well-prepared message from the Bible, be welcomed and treated well, and where we don’t have to fear something will happen that will make us want to crawl under the pew.”

I’ve thought of that statement made in 1993 many times since. If the church doesn’t look good from the inside, if members and attenders lack the confidence that guests can experience God’s presence, hear a well-prepared message from God’s Word, experience the heart-felt worship of God’s people, be led to God’s throne in meaningful prayer, and experience God’s love through His people, they will hesitate to bring their friends to church.
Our SBC family nationally has experienced a significant decline in evangelistic effectiveness. Fewer people are following Christ in believer’s baptism through our churches. Church membership and attendance has declined. Many are exploring the reasons for decline, most often lamenting that we are not sharing the gospel in our communities like we must. Others complain that we are not receiving the resources and leadership at the national level that our churches need because other strategies have been prioritized.

I believe both of these are true. That’s why in the Northwest Baptist Convention we provide MY316 evangelism resources free-of-charge to our churches (our churches paid for them through their Cooperative Program mission gifts). It’s why we conduct regional evangelism training events like Story Witnessing. Dozens of churches each year host “mystery guests” to help them evaluate Sunday morning worship gatherings. Pastor-clusters always have some emphasis on evangelism and discipleship. At this year’s annual NWBC meeting (November 7-8 in Eugene, OR) every attender will be given a book, Sharing Jesus without Freaking Out, and will have the opportunity to attend a training event led by author, Alvin Reid, to learn how to teach it in their churches. Missions and evangelism is why we exist as a convention of churches. Together we can equip our leaders and extend our missions impact far better than we could if we were alone.

These things being true, at the local church level, it would be good if we asked the question, “Does our church look better from the inside than it does from the outside? Can I confidently invite people to my church, believing they will experience God through our church?” If not, what changes can be made to have that confidence?

Churches with effective outreach and evangelism ministries have attenders who enthusiastically and confidently recommend their church to others. These churches provide opportunities for attenders to learn how to share the gospel, and they provide special events that give attenders easy ways to invite friends and neighbors to church.

If you need help diagnosing the condition of your church and finding a prescription that helps your church get healthy, we have staff trained and assigned to do that. Please call upon us. That’s our job, and more importantly, it’s our joy to assist our pastors and churches as together we strive to reach the Northwest with the good news of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Wept. Will We?

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Jesus issued commands and commissions. He also cried. The commands of Jesus instructed the church from its first days, but so too did His compassion. Jesus wept when He saw Lazarus dead (John 11:35). He was “moved with compassion” and healed those stricken by terrible diseases and malformations (Mark 1:41). He welcomed the weary and burdened (Matt. 11:28).

With all Jesus did as our sinless Savior, crucified and risen, and with all that He said that no other man could ever say, it’s the compassion of Jesus for the bruised and broken, the dirty and disfigured and damaged, that most revealed His heart. Powerful? Yes. Jesus is powerful in creation and salvation and in every other way. Wise? Jesus’ wisdom is perfect. But He also wept. He felt. He hurt. He suffered.

A few months ago, on a day when I learned some disturbing news, I woke up in the middle of the night with the words “Jesus wept” in my mind. Those words haven’t long left my thoughts since.

“Jesus wept” has challenged me personally. I fear I weep too little, and then too often for the wrong reasons.

“Jesus wept” has also spoken to me about the proper response when our ministry is weak and ineffective. The annual compilation of statistics for SBC churches was released this week. What they reveal is deeply sad. It prompted me to think, “Jesus wept. Will we?”

Before I get into the national SBC numbers, let me say I am most grateful that our Northwest churches have grown in ministry impact by almost every measure. For three consecutive years our churches have baptized more new disciples of Jesus Christ than the prior year, with 2,046 baptisms in 2016, up from 2,007 in 2015. Total worship attendance increased to 30,616 from 30,147. Total missions giving increased to $6,914,914 from $6,129,398, and Cooperative Program giving also showed a significant increase in 2016, though that is not a number included in the annual church profile report.
Probably the most important thing about the annual report is the trend line.

In the Northwest the trends are heading in the right direction, and for this I am grateful. Not that we’re beating our chests in triumphal victory. Far from it. Lostness is so great in our area that at times we wonder if we’ll ever make real progress. Half of our churches average 50 and below. It’s a struggle for many of our pastors and churches just to survive. Still, when we step back and look at the bigger picture, we are thankful to see our ministries inching forward. From the NWBC level, we feel that our focus on evangelism, missions (including church planting), and training leaders is serving our churches well. We exist to extend the missions impact of our churches and to help equip leaders in our churches. We are doing that. We believe in cooperative/collaborative work in the Northwest. This includes cooperating with our SBC partners. Our partnership with NAMB mostly involves church planting, but also some on evangelism. Our East Asia IMB partnership has proven to be a huge blessing to our missionaries and our NWBC churches. Our partnership with Gateway Seminary has had enormous impact on the Northwest as hundreds of our leaders have attended Gateway (formerly Golden Gate Seminary) and graduated from its programs with increased effectiveness.

Although my primary focus is the NWBC, as it should be, I am concerned for the SBC nationally. We are part of this important family. Consider these statistics from the 2016 annual church profile:

Baptisms – 280,773 people in 2016, down from 295,212 in 2015 for 4.89 percent decline. A decade ago we were baptizing over 350,000 people annually. We haven’t reached fewer than 300,000 since the 1940s, until the last two years. Again, the trend nationally has been downward for several years.

Worship attendance – 5.2 million weekly, which is a drop from about 5.55 million, for a 6.75 percent decline.

Church starts – 732 new church plants, down from 926 in 2015. I don’t remember when we’ve seen so few church plants. Until this decade we regularly reported over 1,200 new church plants each year.

Cooperative Program percentage – 5.16 percent of the church budget on average, down from 5.18 percent the year prior. In the Northwest the average is about 7 percent per church, for which we are most grateful. The trend toward lower CP missions giving has been going on for decades and is now less than half of what it once was.

Added to these statistics is the fact that our IMB mission force is 25 percent smaller than it was two years ago with 1,200 fewer field missionaries. Our international missions force has not only been greatly reduced in numbers, but many of those who left the field were seasoned leaders with language and cultural skills developed over ten or twenty years and more. This alone ought to make us weep.

Next week is the annual meeting of the SBC in Phoenix, AZ. While gathered we need to face the hard facts and not smooth things over with anecdotes and a few good stories. Is God at work in many of our churches and ministries? Certainly He is. But the job of leaders requires that we take the satellite view of things. We need to look at the major trend lines. We need to ask the questions, “Why? Why the decline? How did we get here? What do we need to change? How do we move forward?” I believe that we can identify reasons for our decline nationally and each denominational agency and trustee board, each convention of churches, every association and local church leader has a part to play in this. And after saying all that, my great hope is that we will drop to our knees and weep. That would be in keeping with the meeting’s theme – “Pray for such a time as this.”

The great genius of Southern Baptists is that our cooperation is voluntary. Voluntary cooperation through the Cooperative Program has enabled us to develop a system of associations, state conventions, educational institutions, and mission boards unparalleled in history. But for a voluntary system of support to thrive there must a high level of trust and respect for all partners. That’s too often missing in our work these days.

In a voluntary system, when significant problems arise, leaders are often hesitant to talk about them publically for fear that it will demotivate cooperative giving. Let me be clear, there is no other denomination or convention of churches that is doing more to reach the lost in the United States and around the world than Southern Baptists. If you know of one please tell me. We have every reason to support the SBC and to increase our support. No one sends more missionaries. No one starts more churches. No one disciples more people. No seminary system educates more preachers. But we should do better. We used to do better and we can again. If we fail our impact for Christ will grow less and less and less.

I’m going to stop there. I’m going to pray, maybe even shed a tear.

A Person of Value

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Last summer my son recommended a book by Cormac McCarthy, considered by some as America’s greatest living novelist. McCarthy is a storyteller whose pulsing prose and inventiveness reveal rare brilliance. His masterly-crafted sentences are a joy. What draws me to his books is his insight into human nature.

Consider these statements from All the Pretty Horses: “No creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold” (p. 11). I have thought of that sentence as I prayed about my own ability to care about what God loves. Is my heart rightly shaped?

How about this one: “If one does not come to value what is true above what is useful it will make little difference whether she lives at all” (p. 240). That statement brings names to mind of those I fear are putting usefulness above truth. Many of them are in leadership roles. I don’t want to be that kind of person or leader.

Chapters could be written on both those statements. But the one I want you to think about most is this: “I wanted very much to be a person of value and I had to ask myself how this could be possible if there was not something like a soul or like a spirit that is in the life of a person and which could endure any misfortune or disfigurement and yet be no less for it. If one were to be a person of value that value could not be a condition subject to the hazards of fortune. It had to be a quality that could not change. No matter what” (p. 235).

The character speaking these words is a high-society Mexican woman whose hand was disfigured when a gun she fired exploded destroying two of her fingers. Even her father viewed her differently after the disfigurement, causing her to question her value.

When Christians think about the value of a single human life we begin with Genesis 1:26, “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according Our likeness.’” If every human is created by God in the image of God then every human being has value, equal value. Jesus’ attention to individual people shows the value God places on every human being including notorious sinners like Pharisees and tax-collectors and adulterers and cross-killed thieves – and me. The gospel means that disfigured humans are so valued that Jesus suffered and died for them, providing the only means by which their disfigured lives might be restored, including the internal spiritual disfigurement created by their own sin.

McCarthy’s character reveals that every human wants what only God can provide – value that does not diminish with time or circumstance – value that transcends the quality of our brains or bodies or personalities – value that is equal at birth and death and beyond death – value that is not diminished by an early grave or added to by a long and fruitful life.

Every person who ever lives wants to be valued, and I would say valued equally to all others. But like ocean waves pounding relentlessly, tirelessly on the scarred shoreline, our world pounds and hammers on the hearts and minds of every person everywhere. The principalities and powers of darkness are working to diminish us. You see it on the playgrounds and in the boardrooms and even in church houses. A person’s value rising and falling according to what they and others think they’re worth. It’s a dangerous way to live. Placing differing values on individuals according to a genuine or perceived defect has produced enormous suffering and evil. We see this clearly in the abortionists and the terrorists and any person who sees other persons as expendable or merely useful for accomplishing certain ends. I recently toured the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. which testifies to the evil humans can do when they think some possess greater value than others.

The value of a single person is the heart and passion of the gospel. It is the heart and passion of the Body of Christ if she is a true witness to God’s heart. Everything that a church and a Christ-follower do should demonstrate the pricelessness of a single human soul. It meets with the yearning for value that all people have, and most importantly it reflects God’s heart toward “the least of these.”

This understanding of value can only be true if we are created by God and if we are indeed spirit, soul and body, created to live forever in relationship to Him. This understanding of value has profound implications for the church and for how we live our lives. Let me suggest two conclusions.

First, we must have deep compassion for every individual human being who is oppressed and diminished by the forces of evil, with all of the attending effects to their personal lives and to society. Christ-followers are not seeking to “win” a war with unbelievers. Our mission is to serve. Our purpose is to demonstrate that only the gospel is good news for people. No other message reveals the character of God and the value He places on a person. Only the gospel provides what every human wants and needs – value undiminished by misfortune or disfigurement.

Second, Christ-followers must be ruthless in our efforts to do no harm to another human being and to place great value on every single human being. I’m not advocating pacifism here. The Bible upholds the principles of self-defense and opposing evildoers with force. What I am saying is that people must come before strategies.

I have seen great harm come to people in Christian organizations because of commitment to a particular strategy or idea, most often an unproven idea at that. I believe the diminished impact of certain churches and larger religious organizations can often be traced to putting strategies above people and self-interest above the interests of others and even above Kingdom concerns. When even one person in an organization is devalued and treated wrongly, it sends a message to every other person in the organization, and every person associated with the organization, that they too would be poorly treated if leadership deemed it helpful to accomplishing the goals. I understand that decisions must be made that are not always popular, and might even cause hurt to certain people. Too often, however, I’ve seen leaders act with recklessness toward others. The truth is that devaluing people is never right and it never works.

A few questions for you and for me: Do you believe that you possess value equal to all others? Do you place equal value on every human being? If not, is your heart shaped to hold this truth and live accordingly?