The Reality Gap (part II: the danger of Idealism)

Ever been to a perfect church?  Ever heard a perfect sermon?  Ever been in a perfect time of worship?  Ever received a perfect offering?  Ever had a perfect leader’s meeting?

I doubt it.  

Nothing done on earth is perfect.  You might as well admit it as the evidence is totally in your face screaming at you.  However, many Christians are looking for a perfect church or a perfect service or perfect sermon.  The problem is that the search is futile.  It is absolutely futile.  And because you are always looking at the ideal you will never engage with the real.

I know so many Christians who don’t go to church because it’s not the perfect church, they don’t go to a mid-week group because it isn’t perfect, they won’t teach a certain study because it is not perfect, they won’t serve in a particular department because it is not perfect.

Pastors can be the same.  They never delegate their leadership because the other person won’t do it as well as them (what a guy preaching the first week ever isn’t a good as someone with 10 years experience and 5 years training?! Duh!) even though they know they need to start delegating and raising leaders.  They get upset about a time of worship because it wasn’t swinging off the chandeliers.

There are three main problems with idealism:

1. You ignore the real.  You are waiting for the perfect guitarist to join your worship group, you will miss the guy who is practising really hard, full of life and full of energy and wants to serve and honour you and the church.  Now, I’m not saying appoint the guy who doesn’t turn up at practice, turns up late, runs down the church but loves their ministry, and generally isn’t a team player and lacks the character of Christ.  That’s just bad leadership!  But don’t let the perfect blind you to the good and improving right in front of your nose.  

Remember when doing this that gifting and ability is always easier to develop than character.  Put character first when choosing leaders.  There are 16 qualifications for leaders in 1 Tim. 3, and only one of them is about gifting and ability.  Loyalty to the church and to you, a passion for Christ, a heart for evangelism and discipleship – you cannot beat those in any volunteer!

2.  Idealism paralyses you.  If you are waiting for the best time to do something, YOU WILL NEVER DO IT.  I know so many people called to plant churches waiting for the right circumstances.  It will never come, just start.  Don’t strike when the iron is hot, keep striking until the iron IS hot.  Then strike some more.  Do it, do it, do it.  That’s how you start a church.  Right now, Tree of Life Network is starting a food bank.  We don’t have a building, things are going on right now, it’s not the perfect time, but if I wait for a perfect time I will be waiting forever.  Don’t wait for the ideal time, wait for a good time and do it.  Even do it in a bad time – God is bigger than the times!

3. Idealism causes you to become negative.  You hear a sermon with 99 good points but all you think about is the 1 point you don’t agree with.  You go to a church with 99 things you agree with but all you can focus on is the 1 thing you don’t like.  Idealism means you can never sweat the small stuff.  

Now I know everything should be Biblical but the truth is that no two of us agree 100% on anything.  Some things are no negotiable but other things are really not a big deal, even with the non-negotiables, we can endure a lot of give and take if we know someone is real and we know their hearts and we know they are for us.  People come to me after church sometimes and tell me what I said wrong, and what I said they didn’t agree with.  Other people get healed, get their marriages restored, get filled with the Spirit and get lifted and encouraged.  They chose to focus on the bits that lifted them.

Beware the dangers of idealism.  Sometimes it can take you away from interacting with and engaging with reality.

 

Overcoming the Mundane (or: Ministry can be boring, get over it!)

 

One of the things that happens when you become a pastor or leader, especially when you go full time, is that the things of God can become mundane.  When you see the sick healed every weekend, the novelty wears off.   When you do church every week, and a couple of new people come every week, and the church is growing every week – it can get a bit mundane.  It becomes normative, and what is normative is rarely exciting any more.

Even sharing the Word of grace and seeing lives changed and transformed becomes “the day job”.  

I used to see that feeling as something to avoid at all times – and I think that is the attitude most charismatics have.  So they try and make things novel all the time, always looking for the new thing, the new fix, the new source of revelation.  That is why you have churches going loony tunes over angel feathers, tiny diamonds appearing out of “nowhere” – even though people have been caught time and time again planting these things.  This is why there are fads like barking like a dog and having gold teeth (give me gold in the bank, Lord – not in my mouth).  That is why the drunken like crazy dimension of the grace movement is so attractive to people.  People get bored so easily.

That is why some grace teachers are now bringing the most outlandish “revelations” to people.  When they first taught the complete work it was so radical and so fresh as people suddenly realized their entire lives were built on the foundation of the sand of their effort, their blood, their tears, their sweat.  Then they found out they could build on the rock of His effort, His blood, His tears and His sweat.  They found the rest of the Lord and their lives were dramatically changed.

Once people are on that foundation – there isn’t much more dramatic change.  You are just building, one brick at a time.  An understanding of grace here, a key of how to apply it to marriage there, a piece of wisdom on how to worship: it’s all brick by brick, line upon line, precept upon precept.  It’s the lifelong task of seeing total life transformation by the renewing of the mind. 

And that process is repetitive, and it can often seem very mundane.  That is why our flesh seeks to replace that process with livelier, more sensational processes like getting zapped by the latest speaker on the circuit, getting drunk on the glory, getting high on the Most High, barking like a dog and clucking like a chicken, and having a burn night where you shout at God all through the night.  All of those processes have two things in common: they are sensational and they bypass the seed of the Word of God.

If you bypass the seed, you then totally bypass the harvest.  It’s that simple.  There is no life transformation except by a regular diet of the Word.  When we come to a Celebration service, it should be to get equipped.

As a leader, as a pastor, your job in life is to equip people to do the works of ministry.  You cannot do this without teaching the Word.  You cannot do this without sowing the seed of the Word into their hearts.  The people might be after something sensational (which, by the way is a direct synonym for carnal.  Both mean to be driven by what you see and feel), but you have to be the leader and give them something real, not something that is phoney.  You need to give hope, not hype; life not just stimulation (Onan died for doing that in the Old Testament, that’s a preaching illustration of the dangers of stimulating the church without providing seed if ever there was one – I dare you to preach it!); and something that works on Monday not something that simply takes their mind off Monday.

You have to lead.  Don’t make your service this weekend “never a dull moment” – get the Word into people, make declarations, lift your voice and teach the Word.

In Jeremiah 18, Jeremiah is told by God to go to the potter’s house (it’s in verse 1-3), and watch the potter make a pot with the potter’s wheel.  For those of you who are city dwellers (and who haven’t seen Ghost), the potter’s wheel is simply a small table that rotates in a circle.  You put a lump of clay on the wheel and spin it around again and again and again and again.  Every time you spin the clay around you make small changes to it, until it eventually takes shape as a vessel that has use.

That is our task this weekend, to take the people coming to our services and spin them around that wheel and see their lives take shape.  It might not be exciting or dynamic – it might be, don’t get me wrong, sometimes it is absolutely life changing – but it is the way to build a church, it is the way to live your life.

Don’t get upset if you feel that you are going around in circles – every time you spin around you are learning a little, growing a little, changing a little, developing a little.  Don’t run from the mundane, overcome it by embracing it and using it to shape your life and shape the lives of the people around you.

Assimilation

 

No – we are not talking about my favourite Star Trek baddie, the Borg.  We are talking about the process that must be in place for making new people feel welcome when they visit a Sunday service.  In the Tree, we call that process “assimilation” – people moving from coming to a church service but feeling “not us”, to coming to a church service and feeling part of “us”.

80% of families who move area and are looking for a new church just go from church to church until they find one that is friendly.  That is all they are looking for – not healings, not miracles, not an accurate exposition of the hypostatic union, not an all singing all dancing youth ministry, but for a church that is friendly.

When I heard that statistic, I thought – I know that’s true.  People come to the Tree who disagree with grace and the complete work, but they know we love them so they keep coming.  Other people would agree with us line by line, but maybe they wanted a leadership position or pulpit or something we were not going to give them, so erroneously feeling unloved they left us.

People have to be allowed to belong to our group before they will believe what we believe.  They have to experience our unconditional grace and love before they will believe in God’s unconditional grace and love.

In Luke 7.11 it said that Jesus was followed by His disciples and the crowd.  We have to allow there to be a crowd – people do not instantly decide to become disciples.  It’s healthy to have a fringe of people in your church still trying to work things out – but while they are working out their response to God and His grace, if they are responding positively to you and identify with you then you need to ensure that they feel part of your church.  That will not happen by accident – or if it does, it will not happen as well as if you do it intentionally and on purpose.

So what is our process of assimilation at Tree of Life Church?  And as I share this – don’t try and copy it wholesale – it won’t seem authentic and people will quickly pick up on that.  A lot of churches suggest getting new people to stand up in the service and give them a round of applause or a small present.  That would not work in Dagenham.  I don’t believe it at all – the church is too variegated for people to feel at home and have that happen.  So we need to be more low key.  

So we have a three fold process, which is working well.  I am also going to suggest two changes that I am considering making in the near future to help us grow.

Firstly, we have a postcard called a Connection Card.  On the front it has a whole bunch of tick boxes that say things like “I want to know Jesus”, “I want to help on Sundays”, “I want to be water baptised”, “I am a first time visitor”.  All our ushers hand these out to anyone.  On the other side, you put your name and address and how you heard about us, and if you have any prayer requests or praise reports.  

Now anyone in our church can fill them out at any time – as the church grows it is difficult to communicate with people all the time, and this means that anyone in the church can write a note that the pastor is 100% guaranteed to read.  

People can then put them in the offering bucket as the offering bucket is passed around.  Now, the 1st or 2nd time visitor can hold onto theirs and hand it in directly to our information desk in exchange for a small gift (chocolates, a book).  This means the person staffing the information desk (who has to be an elder) can make sure that their email address is legible and also spend some time listening to the persons making them feel at home.

Then I read every card personally on Monday.   At the moment, we average between 6 and 20+ cards every weekend across the network, often with five or more from new visitors.  I read everyone, pray for everyone, email everyone and send a postcard to everyone.  That is my number one priority on Monday.  Before I process the counts for the weekend (please please tell me that you do at least a headcount each service as a minimum – if you don’t measure how can you know how well you are doing), before I process the offering, before I do anything.  

Get out of the idea that a pastor should rest on Monday.  Monday is your single most important day – apart from Sunday.  That is the day you deal with what the stirring on Sunday revealed.  Do not rest – strike while the iron is hot.  You can rest on Friday or Saturday, and be able to hit Sunday with full energy and life and smash that service.  On Monday there is work to do!

Those postcards instantly double our retention rate.  The truth is that the average church in the United Kingdom has 4% MORE new visitors per year than the size of their average congregation.  That is a gift from God!  Think about it – if you have a church of 100, you will have on average 2 visitors per week.  That’s 104 per year – MORE THAN YOUR WHOLE CONGREGATION.  Keep 10% of those and you will grow.  We keep 15-16% of new visitors at the moment which means we are a growing church.  Keep 5% and you will stay the same.  If one postcard to every new person and one email to every new person turns your church from a surviving church to a thriving church then this is the single most important decision you will make as a pastor – to build a healthy process of assimilation into place!

So many pastors get hundreds of people pass through their doors per year – a personal gift from the Father to that pastor.  And they let all of them slip through their hands.  Ouch!

Secondly, to ensure their experience from door to service is a positive one, every single service we have 2 people in place whose only job is to deal with new people.  The first one waits outside the front door with our first usher.  But whereas the usher stays in place and greets everyone, the greeter (Greeter 1) takes new people through the path way to the auditorium.  They introduce them to everyone they meet, explain how church works and then pass that person to our second greeter (imaginatively titled Greeter 2) shows them around the auditorium, helps them find a seat, makes sure they have a connection card and shows them love.

Meanwhile Greeter 1 is running back to the front door to do it all again.  We ask people we are not sure about if they are new – because we know regulars won’t mind because they know why we are doing it.  We then smile as big as we can – we want people to know that we are genuinely chuffed they came to church.  They start as guests, but we want them to feel like family.

This is a new procedure for us.  I developed it on purpose.  The first week we introduced the greeters we had a completely unprecedented 15 new visitors.  It was the middle of the holidays, a quieter than normal Sunday with no special programme or special speaker.  But as we put the procedure in place, people just came.  God is looking for churches that will welcome people.

Our third and final piece of the assimilation process is our information desk.  It’s just a table opposite our teas and coffees where new people can ask any questions.  There is always a leader of the church at the information desk and they can answer any question – double check we have people’s details, and just show kindness and grace.

That is how we do it, and that is partly why we are a growing church.  How we deal with new people is process and purpose driven – it is done deliberately not by accident.  We are a friendly church, the Assimilation process just lets us prove it.

Right now I am thinking about assimilation as I want our procedures to be even tighter.  One thing I notice is that people normally sit in the same places in churches.  So if a new person is in your zone, you notice if you are even a little observant.  I am considering appointing 6 zone monitors (if anyone has a better phrase let me know!!!) sort of front left, front middle, front right, back left, back middle and back right who will have some cards and a mission to welcome and make welcome any new looking people in their zone.  Even if the response is “well I used to sit over there but…” it’s still nice to make people feel welcome.

My second plan is to start the assimilation process from the car park not the front door.  That’s wrought with difficulties because we are in a cinema and about half the people arriving are for the cinema, but I thought if we baked some freshly baked brownies or muffins then people wouldn’t mind us handing them out and asking if they are here for church, and then walking them to the usher and greeter.  We have set up our “I’m New” page on the website for people to put their car license into so we can go and visit new people, but I am just thinking it through at the moment.

Our goal: to be the singe most welcoming church in London.  We will only achieve it if we do it deliberately and in Him.  But it can be achieved.  And we can mend the nets and ensure no fish escape us!

What Do You Want? (part 1)

I am a grace man. Truly I am. All I want is the world to know about His grace and the complete work.

However, when dealing with pastors who want to leave all church growth to God I get wound up.  I seriously want to spit bricks.  The United Kingdom is in too much of a mess to sit down, sip lemonade and say “que sera sera”.  We need large, healthy, growing churches – churches that change lives, churches that heal the sick, churches that both challenge and welcome the surrounding community, churches where people are getting born again, are grasping the gospel and living the kingdom.  Churches which are not just healthy but safe.  Churches which don’t have a large back door (you will always have some people leave – even Jesus had Judas, you can’t please everyone!) but that are mended nets – whole and secure, keeping the caught fish.

I have a dream.  It is a simple dream.  I dream of a church that is everything Jesus died for.  Miracles are common in this church as everyone in the church is equipped to minister supernaturally.  Lives are changed in this church as the gospel is the central message and foundation to everything the church does.  In short, I dream of a church that looks like Jesus.

But dreams are easy to say.  Anyone can dream.  I am not opposed to dreaming, not in the slightest – I am a dreamer and I want everyone around me to dream and dream big.  Part of our church’s vision statement is “Building disciples who dream big”.   But dreaming can easily become pipe dreaming (a phrase I only recently learned comes from the people who dream after smoking an opium pipe!  We need to be dreamers, not stoners!) unless we make the necessary choices to see those dreams come true.

Easter Sunday 2013 is now gone.  Although I am overwhelmed by the fact we saw 6 salvations, countless healings (including a man healed of MS), and 20 new people at Tree of Life, I cannot rest on my laurels.  I cannot say “Look that at” because we are absolutely not there yet.

This year I have already been to one leadership conference (One Way, at Kingdom Faith – with James Galloway, Clive Urquhart and Colin Urquhart.  Absolutely inspired me to ensure that our church systems are robust and that I am raising leaders – something I am committed to anyway, but we all need fired up and given more wisdom on how to do it!), I have signed up to a leadership training course, we are hosting our own leadership conference in just a few weeks, I am then off to another pastor’s conference with George and Hazel Hill (who have planted 3000 churches in their lifetime!) and then another conference in October.  I am doing everything I can to learn about leadership and pastoring a growing church.  

Why?  Because I want it to happen.  And I know it will not happen by me closing my eyes and hoping and praying.  It simply won’t.

In 1 Cor. 3.9 Paul says about the church, “For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.”

He opens the statement by saying he is a co-worker with God.  Here’s a little bit of Biblical wisdom for you: co-workers WORK.  There is no church growth without work.  Save us Lord from lazy pastors.  Sometimes I outline my schedule of work to other pastors and they cannot believe how much I travel, visit and prepare for everything we do.  But it is only by working with God can we build the churches of our dreams.  So many people have a dream, but never put it to work.  That makes you a stoner not a dreamer.  Get off your backside and do something.

For me I always work with the dream, the scheme and the theme.  The dream is the end product – that is where I am going  The scheme is the blueprint – that is the plans to do it.  The theme is the step I am taking right now.  Now most people get confused because the theme doesn’t match the dream, and a lot of people lack the humility to live the dream by taking the first step of their dream.

For example, you might have a dream to pastor a church of 3000.   I know I do.  But unless I am prepared to pastor a church of 10, I will never get there.  There are no churches of 3000 in this nation that will phone you up and invite you to suddenly be the new senior pastor.  And if they did you wouldn’t have a clue what to do anyway, and would lose and hurt, and seriously injure a great deal of people.  So what is the first step?   For me, it was building a church website and putting an invite in the local paper.  One person came to our first meeting.  We had no denomination, no back up, no covering, no help, no money, no wisdom, no nothing.  But we treated that one person like a princess – loved her, taught her the Word.  And then there were 5 (six months later, mind you), and then 7 and then 10 (double digits was revival in those days!), and it took on from there.  All the time I was working as a teacher, working as a postman, my wife was working two jobs most of that time just to pay the bills.  It did not look like my dream, but it was the first step towards our dream.  It takes guts, character and wisdom to take that first step.  It is my firm belief that most people know what the first step is, they just need to take it.

Your dream might be to lead worship in front of thousands.  Guess what – your first step is when everyone else is going to the party, everyone else is watching the cool TV programme, you are sitting in your room on your own strumming and plucking, reading and praying.  It doesn’t look like your dream, it doesn’t feel like your dream – but it is the first step to your dream.

You might dream of preaching like your hero – so go and learn more about the Bible.  Go and study the Word, sign up for a course, systematically read the Bible.  It won’t look like your dream but it is the first step to your dream.

Today – find out the first step.  Before the end of this week, take it.  If you want to build a Paul-kind of church, you need to be a worker.  Make a decision that you want your church to grow.  God wants your church to grow and He is willing to be a co-worker with you, so why not make the choice to be a co-worker with Him!

In the next part of this article, we will look at gardening!  But until then – what is the first step and take it.  Let me know if this inspires and challenges you because that is what I am praying and believing for!

Do Yourself a Favour!

It’s Easter Sunday tomorrow.   That is the single most important day of your calendar as a pastor and leader.

People will come to church who have never been before or only been occasionally.

There are many things you could do to make this service great.  Advertise, encourage people to invite friends, plan a new series and start it this Sunday to draw people in to returning next week.

It’s probably too late to make major changes this late in the day, but if you are pastor or preaching tomorrow, let me tell you one thing you can do.  One favour you can give yourself.

Make an appeal for salvation.

At the end of the service, clearly explain what Jesus did and how to become a Christian.  Then boldly ask if anyone would like to make that step today.  Then invite them forward.  Then…

1.  Pray with them.  Lead them to Jesus

2. Record their details.  Name, address and phone and email as a minimum.  Then call them in the week.

3. Lead the church in a little rejoicing.  Let them know heaven rejoices.

What if no one responds?  My first answer to that is stop being so negative.  What if someone does?

My second answer is this: even if no-one responds … you are creating a culture where people expect altar calls and expect non-Christians to actually be in church.  That can only help you build a growing, missional church.

Social Media

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One of the key facets of planting a church is social media.  We have a very tight social media strategy that involves key posts every day of the week.

On Monday, we celebrate the weekend.  If people are becoming Christians, getting healed, or have stories of how God has helped them, then that is shared.  We celebrate the people who invite people, the people who are serving above and beyond what you would imagine, and we tell you who the superstars of the week are!

On Tuesday, we always promote our leaders and just praise them so people get an idea of what it means to be involved in Tree of Life Church.

On Wednesday, we post a reminder of our purpose, vision or culture.  Our purpose is to “inspire you to dream, challenge you to live the dream”, our culture is “Full of the Word, Full of the Spirit, full of the nations, full of love”, and our vision is to build a church on the complete work of Christ that inspires and challenges people to dream big and live their dreams.  So we pick at that, reinforce it, elucidate on it.

On Thursday, we start to get people excited for Sunday (and Saturday now!).  We tell people why our church services are going to be awesome.  Why not only should they not miss the service but they should round up their unchurched friends and drag them with.

On Friday I share some personal stuff about my life.  People like to know that stuff!

On Saturday, it’s all about the weekend.

Sunday I rest from social media apart from to go on a few friend’s pages and see how they are doing!

Everything we do on social media is deliberate and intentional.  That way we are building a community.  Over 200 people a month find our church website from a social media site.  Over 300 people go straight to listen to a message on our church website from a social media site.  There is power in this.  Real power to influence and help people to know who you are and know what you are.  In this age, brand is everything and social media is a great way to share the brand and brand values.