Proximity Matters

Some time ago, I attended a Century Leadership roundtable that featured Nancy Ortberg as the speaker. She said something profound that day that has resonated with me as I have thought about the state of the church.  Nancy said, “You can admire someone you have put on a pedestal, but you will never be changed by them.” I think what she was getting at is proximity matters when it comes to vital spiritual relationships.

The law of proximity in science states that objects that are close together tend to group together and  become more like each other.  Applied to the church world, we become that which we are close to.  We are changed not by how good the information the person offers, but by how close we are to the person we are learning from. Information without relationship is not enough to be changed or formed.

Which begs a very pertinent question in today’s church culture. A very large percentage of Christians today are attempting to be pastored by men and women they have never even met. The advent of the large church and technology has created this dynamic that has never existed in ecclesiastical history: we have virtual shepherds pastoring virtual sheep Judging by the overwhelming popularity of this model,  both parties seem to be just fine with the fact that they will never meet.

But what Nancy said begs this question. Can the direction of your spiritual formation come from a person you have no proximity to? We can admire what they say, but can we be transformed by them? Relationships without presence are not relationships at all. We may be inspired by someone (a celebrity, a successful entrepreneur, a famous author or a famous pastor) but will we ever changed by them? Is simply good information enough? Isn’t knowing the person we seek to be shaped by essential to our formation?

I don’t know Nancy Ortberg. What she said certainly made me think. I was inspired. But I would imagine, were I to spend time with her or work for her, she would not just inspire me. I would be changed simply by my proximity to her. I would have to think the same would be true in the local church. People can get information anywhere. Just turn on your TV. Just tune into one of thousands of live streaming churches every week.

The church is not a dispensary for good speeches. It is Jesus’ life giving body. Proximity to one another and to our spiritual leaders is not just something we do as an activity. it is the essence of the church itself. Karl Vaters once said mentoring IS discipleship. It is the most natural form of spiritual formation. The larger a church becomes, the more discipleship becomes a program instead of a relationship.  Its does so out of necessity. It seems like church has been reduced to a good concert and a half hour speech by a virtual stranger, surrounded by a bunch of strangers.

Since I don’t pastor one of those churches, I will ultimately never be able to truly be able to evaluate this model. I am simply an observer. It does however challenge me as a pastor of people I know to make sure those I wish to impact know me. It’s a challenge to be known. Without it, I am simply another voice with good information.

As an Average Pastor, you have the awesome opportunity to sit in proximity to your people. You have the opportunity to be known and to know those you are seeking to shape.  Take advantage of this proximity.  Pour into the lives of your people.  Don’t be just another person in their life with good information.  Because you are an average pastor, you have the opportunity to not only inspire, but to transform people.

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Walking in Spiritual Leadership

This Way Is 30:21Leadership has taken over the church world.  Rarely can you find a pastors conference any more. Everything is about leadership.  I am trying to recover from leadership overdose.  You see, if you look at my library of books I have read as a pastor, they are dominated by leadership books.  Many of them I enjoyed greatly and gave me great principles to be a good leader.  But I think I have focused too much on leadership and not enough on Spiritual Leadership.

To balance this over-emphasis on organizational leadership in the church, the Century Leadership movement that my local denomination launched provides good principles from the leadership world without neglecting the role of Pastor as a spiritual leadership.   Darren Pilcher’s passion is to develop true spiritual leader in our local churches. (Darren blogs regularly on this topic. check it out!). It takes more than organizational principles to be a good pastor.

Organizational leadership is necessary in large church organizations that have multi-levels of staff or leadership. But in the average church, the organizational structure is fairly simple and often fairly flat.  Many of the principles taught at leadership conferences only address the experience of the larger church.  The average church operates differently.  It has too.  However, it seem to me that leadership in the small church has some leadership tendencies that I have found out personally never work:

  • Leading by Culture – This is where Pastor decides the direction of the church based on “what others are doing.”  While I certainly never want to become outdated in my leadership, culture should not be the organizing principle of my church. Not even church culture. To me, the drive to imitate what is working elsewhere destroys our uniqueness.  And its never worked for me. What will make your average church successful is embracing its uniqueness.  Be who you are and don’t be driven by where the church world is going.
  • Leading by Fear –  Many pastors are afraid to lead the church into what they feel God wants because of fear of losing people or losing what little financial support they already have.  It is reality we all deal with.  When you lead from fear you always end up with an incomplete version of the church God wants you to become.  The fear of not realizing God’s vision for your church should overrule the fear of those who won’t embrace it.
  • Leading by Knowledge – This type of leadership is the type that is always looking for a magic bullet to success and growth.  This assumes that if you just had the right information on how to do things, it will get better. We fall into this trap so many times.  When we learn something new, we go to our church and say “this is what we should do.”  Meanwhile, our people are saying to themselves, “this is what he about the last idea.”  Gain all the wisdom you can from good knowledge, but realize there is no magic bullet.

I think what is needed today for the average pastor is good spiritual leadership.  There is wisdom in the leadership movement, but true Spiritual leadership is needed in the church because it is God’s church and not ours.  Our agenda for the direction of our church is irrelevant.  We are shepherd, Jesus is the true leader.  Therefore, the only leadership that matters is God’s leadership.

Spiritual leadership is needed in the church because it is God’s church and not ours.

Spiritual leadership is Spirit-focused.  To be “spiritual” is to be full of the Spirit.  To lead spiritually is to have the direction you lead be lead by the Spirit.  The best principle for leadership in your local church is: “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church”(Rev 2-3). The church will go nowhere without the Spirit.   When we don’t listen to the Spirit it is easy to miss God’s purposes for our churches.   Every book of the New Testament was God’s Spirit filled instructions to a church in a particular location.  Let the Spirit of God lead you as you lead your congregation.  The book of Isaiah reminds us that this type of leadership. God says to his people:

  “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.” Isaiah 30:21

The best Spiritual leadership is listening to that voice that tells you, “This is the way.”  Your leadership as a Pastor is not to follow the culture, fear or the latest ideas.  It is to follow the Spirit. That means that the best leadership for the local church is a Spirit-led pastor.  The Holy Spirit is the filter that allows you to sift through ideas that you have for your church.  When you are led by the Spirit, you have the freedom to discern not only what you should do to lead your church, but also the when you should do it.

Keep-in-Step-with-the-Spirit

The Spirit gives us confidence to say no to good ideas when knowledge says yes.  The Spirit gives us faith to make brave decisions that will be in the best interest of our church in spite of the fear of what it will cost us.  The Spirit gives us confidence in who we are instead of measuring ourselves against the paradigm of those around us.    The Spirit leads us into all the fruit we wish for our personal life.  How much more will “keeping in step” with the Spirit produce the fruit we want to see in our church (Gal 5:25)? Today you will make decisions about your church.  Be a Spiritual leader.

A Healthy Church: Reflections from Century Leadership

Mar14fellowshipThere is plenty of information on becoming a “healthy church” out there in the church leadership world.  I am sure as an average pastor you have read many articles on becoming a healthy church.  Most of them usually end up being “why your church isn’t growing” conversations.  But I heard a talk recently during a Century Leadership Roundtable by author and pastor Jeff Lucas.  It was a refreshingly different take on being a healthy church.  It wasn’t about grouchy members or the limitations of the pastor.  It was based on Acts 11 and the Antioch Church. I thought I’d share it with you. I hope it is an encouragement.

Acts 11:19-26

19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.

22 News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.

25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.

Characteristics of a Healthy Church

1.  They recognized the power of the local church.  The Christians in Antioch saw what God was doing and joined in at the local level.  The persecution taught them that the church isn’t just about Jerusalem, it is about what God is doing in local communities everywhere. The local church is the heart and soul of the Kingdom of God.  Jeff encouraged us that instead of looking for revival, that we should invest in our church long enough for God to do something through us.

2.  They were a witnessing church.  The Christians in Antioch weren’t afraid to share Jesus, even with the Gentiles. Jeff encouraged us to find our voices again.  We are becoming good at serving and compassion ministry, but we can’t forget to share the reason why we serve our community.

3.  They were faithful in suffering.  The Christians found themselves in Antioch because of the persecution in Jerusalem.  Yet “the hand of the Lord was with them.” Their church was birthed in pain and continued in pain, but prospered at the same time.  Jeff encouraged us that suffering and the supernatural work together. Don’t run from pain, find God’s power in it.

4. They used authentic vocabulary.  The Christians in Antioch were ‘true to the Lord with all their hearts.”  These believers were gritty and authentic.  A healthy church paints a healthy picture of what following Jesus looks like.  Our songs, rhetoric, language, clichés  and confessions of faith often create a rosy picture of following Jesus that makes people who struggle insecure.  Jeff encouraged us not to express the reality of the goodness of God without the tension of the struggle that we went through.  He said, “Be careful not to paint a picture of following Jesus that resembles the Magic Kingdom instead of the real Kingdom of God.” A healthy church knows how to have good conversations about the tensions in life and faith.

5.  They showed outrageous grace.  The church in Antioch was not afraid to engage a new people with the gospel. Long before Paul went to he Gentiles, the church at Antioch did.  They showed grace to people who no one else were trying to reach.  Barnabas also showed outrageous grace to Saul by bringing him into the church that was in Antioch because of the persecution he caused in Jerusalem.  Jeff encouraged us to build bridges of grace to un-expecting people in our community.  The church always grows with messy people.

I really appreciated this encouragement as an average pastor.  Most of what he identified has to do with attitudes toward those outside our walls rather than a critique of what was wrong inside the church.  These values of a healthy church will help us be better at fulfilling our mission, not just improving our product as a church.

If you would like to listen to this session from Jeff Lucas, the audio is available here.

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If you are in Oklahoma and are looking for a great Leadership conference that is affordable ( a steal at only $49 if you register before March 29th) and has excellent content, then Century Leadership is worth checking out.  It has two components.  A one day conference in April and CL Experience throughout the year. The CLE is a series of 3 round table sessions hosted by OK churches with speakers like Jeff Lucas.  I have enjoyed the past two years of my participation in Century Leadership.  Every session has been encouraging and has built me up as a spiritual leader.

Find out more about Century Leadership Here.