Church Leaders and Our Hard Hearts

26 08 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

So, as the Holy Spirit says:

“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion,
    during the time of testing in the wilderness,
where your ancestors tested and tried me,
    though for forty years they saw what I did.
That is why I was angry with that generation;
    I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray,
    and they have not known my ways.’
So I declared on oath in my anger,
    ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ”  Hebrews 3:7-11; Psalm 95:7-11

heart of stoneAs it turns out, hard hearts come in a pretty large variety of shapes and forms…even among church leaders.  It is rarely as overt as Israel’s rebellion at Meribah.  More often, it is a mild arrogance or self-reliance or pride at the heart of our hard-heartedness.  So, as I study the above passage, I am reflecting on some of the less obvious (but more common) ways I have seen leaders “harden their hearts”…including me and my own heart.

Hardening our hearts to the power of God’s Word.  Every time we catch ourselves thinking, “what this text needs is a little more of me…a little of my flash and polish will go a long way in helping it hit home in this sermon…” our faith in the power of God’s Word diminishes just a little more.  Every time we receive a compliment for a lesson well-taught and we fail to acknowledge that it was God’s Word and not our communication skills that caused the real transformation, we steal God’s glory, and our heart hardens just a little more to the miracle of His living word.

Hardening our hearts to the power of prayer.  When the priority we give gathered prayer meetings falls somewhere between  repairing the hems of the choir robes and making sure there is toilet paper in the women’s restroom, we miss the mark as spiritual leaders.  When our public prayers reveal just how little time we have spent in private prayer, we set an example of a heart hardened to prayer.  Jesus said his church would be a house of prayer…what type of house are you and your leadership building?

Hardening our hearts to Christ in our brother.  Finding Christ in our people…ALL our people…may be the most critical difference between good leaders and great leaders.  When we respond to criticism by saying to ourselves, “God is not gong to speak to me through THAT ignorant person…” our heart grows a little colder. When we refuse to hear a brother because of some sin in his life or because his choices are not like ours or because he votes differently than we vote or watches a different news outlet than we do…we harden our hearts not only to that brother, but to Christ in that brother…and in doing so, we forsake the single most significant “help” God has for us as leaders: His Spirit living in His people.

Do you see, then, that (especially for leaders who live in the accountability of the lime light) a hardening heart does not necessarily begin with a sense of rebellion nor outright rejection of God. Rather, it more often begins with these much less obvious moments of shrunken faith or heightened sense of self.  Unfortunately, there are many roads that lead to the hardening of the heart…many dangerous paths from which to choose.  They just don’t seem all that dangerous in the beginning.

God has a “groove” of His perfect will for His church and for its shepherds…a “rest” for the weary leader.  But it is not there for the hard-hearted.  It is for the humble leader whose heart remains pliable and moldable and whose faith is strong.  It is for the leader who trusts entirely in the Lord and in His Word and in prayer and in God’s people.  As leaders, we can choose whether or not that rest is ours.  Do not harden your heart.  Enter into the rest that is yours.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Corporate Prayer as a Means of Focus

15 07 2014

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. John 5:19

And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. Mark 1:35

camera lensIf your church is anything at all like mine, there is a pretty limitless supply of human needs and desperation within a 5 mile radius of it in any direction. There are single moms struggling to make ends meet, there is poverty and homelessness, there are drug addicts and prostitutes, there are sick people and broken people…lots of reminders all around us that we live in a broken world. I wonder if all that brokenness causes you to lose sleep at night, trying to discern what needs are your church’s to meet and what ones are not?

You cannot meet them all. And even if you could, it is probably not God’s assignment for your church to meet them all. He is funny that way. Like a tornado which touches down on one house and leaves the one next to it standing, God’s assignments for us often have us meeting needs in one person (or one family or one group), without meeting the needs of scores of others all around them.

That was the disciples’ experience with Jesus in John, chapter 5 at the pool at Bethesda. A pool surrounded by a “multitude” of crippled and lame people. The disciples followed Jesus to the pool, watched him heal one man, and then watched him leave all the others behind. I don’t know about you, but that would have troubled me a great deal! Jesus could have spoken one word and healed everyone at that pool. He did not.

Beginning in verse 19 of John 5, Jesus offers an explanation for how he knew where to work and where not to work. He explains, “…the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing.” It was true of Jesus, and it is true of your church as well. A local body of believers (the body of Christ), can only do what it sees the Father doing. That is how we discern our assignments.

And how did Jesus maintain such a laser-like clarity in his discernment? How did he stay so very focused on the father’s activity around him? Through an extraordinary prayer life. And how does the church likewise maintain an extraordinary focus on God’s activity around it? Through an extraordinary prayer life.

Prayer together, you see, is the vehicle God has given the church to bring clarity to its vision. It is the lens through which His people see the world around them. It is the means of understanding the will of God for the church. Corporate prayer life, then, is so much more than just remembering the sick congregants or the upcoming surgeries and hospitalizations. It is how we discern God’s will together. My understanding of God is shaped and molded by how I hear you pray, and vice versa. If the discipline of prayer is the gradual process by which we begin to see the world through God’s eyes, then gathered prayer is the means by which a church does that corporately. There is a reason, you see, Jesus insisted that the church be a house of prayer…there is a great deal riding on it.

And, all of a sudden, Wednesday night prayer meeting takes on a whole new purpose.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Loving Obedience is Caught, not Taught

8 07 2014

Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
    as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
    and to heed is better than the fat of rams. 1 Samuel 15:22

loving GodMy dear (now deceased) friend and Board member, Warren Clark, loved telling a story about teaching some of our materials on reconciliation in a church in Eastern Ukraine some years ago. He was in the middle of the teaching when people started getting up and leaving the church building. Not all at once…just a few here and then a few more there. During a break in the conference, he asked the pastor if he had done something wrong to offend them, since they were leaving. The pastor smiled at him and said, “No, brother, not at all! They are hearing a word from the Lord about reconciliation and they are going to reconcile with brothers and sisters. Isn’t that what you want?” Well, of course it is. We in the American church would just never have expected it.

Immediate and complete obedience is really the only obedience.  Anything less (delayed obedience, partial obedience, etc.) is just a form of disobedience. That was Saul’s lesson in 1 Samuel 15. And that will be the lesson ultimately for the American church, I fear. We talk a lot about God and Jesus and God’s Word and other such spiritual things…we can argue theology all day long, thanks to 200 years of freedom to study it…we can write books and blogs about building churches and vision and preaching and small groups and creative programming…but in the end, it is going to matter to God that his people followed some social or political or personal agenda first, and His agenda second. Any agenda, you see, which comes before God’s agenda is disobedience plain and simple. It was for Saul and it is likewise for us.

In the wake of a busy week of arguing about Hobby Lobby and Independence Day and the “correct” Christian view of those social and political issues, I wonder if God is feeling the love? I wonder if the church (and more specifically, those of us who have been called to lead the church) has truly loved God more than we have loved politics or social agendas or being on the “right” side of either one? You see, being truly faithful and truly obedient to God is a simple function of one thing: our love for God. That was Saul’s problem. He did not really love God. He acted as if he had a fear of the Lord, but ultimately, it was not God’s agenda driving him. It was some different agenda.

Our various agendas are, I believe, at the heart of all our rebellion and disobedience. We are very much like Saul. It is not a hatred of God. It is not even a dislike. It is simply that we do not love God enough to allow Him and Him alone to set our agendas. We would rather trust our own understanding (and the understanding of our news syndicate of choice), rather than demonstrating to our people a complete dependence on God and on an unbiased interpretation of His Word. That love for the Lord, after all, is the only right motive for obedience. You and I talk about loving God, we try to grow our people’s faith in God, and we devote hours of study to the teaching of His Word. And then we complain to God that our people are still living in disobedience to Him and wonder out loud why they do. You see, as it turns out, loving God is most often caught more than it is taught.

The American church today is not wanting for leaders. There are plenty of voices speaking loudly and clearly from leadership platforms in the church. But my fear is that we are wanting for leaders whose demonstrated love for the Lord and respect for His Word cause them to rise far above all political and social agendas…leaders whose love for the Lord is contagious, and who make us all want to love God with that same faithfulness and obedience. The church today doesn’t need leaders who will inspire us to be “right”…we need leaders whose faithfulness will inspire us to love God more and more.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Being the Orange

24 06 2014

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect… Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Romans 12:2, 9-13

Apples and OrangePaul seems clear enough in his letters to the churches…the community of believers (Christ-followers) should look different from the other communities in our world. We should not conform to their ways. Rather, our community should stand out in several ways. The church should stand out in several ways. Here’s a partial list. See how we’re doing…

Our love should be genuine. I read that as real. Not fake. Not conditional in any respect. It is true agape. I do not love you because of what you do or don’t do…nor because of who you are or are not. My love for you does not depend in any way on you or on circumstances surrounding you. I love you for one very simple reason: because Christ lives in me. And as long as that is true, I will keep loving you. Period.

Abhor what is evil…cling to what is good. This is much more than just a moral compass. Morality, in fact, just scratches the surface of this calling. This is about recognizing the work and influence of our one and only spiritual enemy among us and standing against it. And it is about recognizing the work and influence of God’s Spirit among us and standing with it, no matter the cost. This requires a level of discernment, doesn’t it?

Love one another with brotherly affection. The thing about real brothers is that, no matter how annoying and irritating they might be, they’re still your brother. My South African friends would call this concept “ubuntu”…that deep most, fundamental, irreducible bond which cannot be broken. It is the bond which holds us together after all other bonds have broken. It is family. Maybe that metaphor works for you…maybe it doesn’t. Maybe your actual family is not nearly as unbroken as this implies, and the whole illustration falls a little short for you because of that. But you get the picture. Even if this calling is not what your actual family has, it is what you have always wished your actual family had. In that regard, it is a high standard.

Outdo one another in showing honor. Honoring others above myself, always. Jesus was a masterful example of this. Whether it was a Samaritan woman or a lame man…a high ranking city official or the lowest of street beggars…he always related to others as being more important than Himself. It is the “mind of Christ” of which Paul speaks in Philippians 2:5-8.

Be zealous and fervent in our service to the Lord. Zeal, I believe, is a character trait with which many of us struggle. After all, we do not want to be viewed as too radical, i.e., too “out there” in our faith…unless, of course, we want to actually become the person Christ calls us to become! This thing we call Christianity is a revolution, my friend. We are about changing the world. That is not something that can be done nonchalantly. We can be one of the cool kids, or we can be radical followers of Christ. But we cannot be both.

Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. In short, see the world through God’s eyes and respond accordingly. We can never, ever be without hope. Not in the church. We will always have trials and difficulties and we must show the world patience in the face of them. And we must be a people of prayer. Always.

Generous giving and hospitality. Giving in a way that makes no sense at all to the world. Giving beyond expectations. Giving unreasonably. Caring for each other’s needs without ever growing tired of doing it. This is a lifestyle which will totally separate us from the world, who gives strictly out of surplus, if it gives at all. Being outrageously generous is the calling. It makes us different.

I believe scripture is serious about the church looking different from the world’s communities in all of these respects (and more). The question is, how are we doing?

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Hope for the Barren Church

19 06 2014

Thursday Re-mix:

Because the Lord had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. 1 Samuel 1:6-7

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-image-cracked-land-image22328576In ancient times, being barren was a major affliction.  I suppose it probably still is in many parts of the world.  But for Hannah (and for all the other women in the Bible whose stories begin with being barren), it meant no security at all for their future.  Once their husband was gone, with no children of their own and with no ability to own property or earn a living, they would be destitute.  Desperation, then, does not even come close to describing the state of being for them.

Churches often go through seasons of desperation as well.  Maybe you know well what I mean. After years of budget shortfalls and then an economic crisis, there is suddenly a severe conflict and families leaving the church, and then the sudden death of a key leader and then a moral failure on another’s part and so on and so forth…the desperation can all pile up pretty quickly.  Then there are the anguishing cries to the Lord, “How long will you allow this to continue?!”  Month after month of praying can turn into year after year.  The landscape of the church turns into a parched, dry, barren land. Heretofore strong, faithful members begin to question whether the Lord has simply lifted his hand from the church…His glory has departed…He has written “Ichabod” across the door.

In such “barren” circumstances, hope for the future is all but waned completely.  It becomes impossible to even imagine a future.  Only the most faithful few even remain.  It can feel awfully destitute…much like Hannah no doubt felt in 1 Samuel 1.

It bears remembering during such a season that the same God who answered Hannah’s desperate cries (as well as the desperate cries of the other barren women of the Bible) hears the cries on behalf of your church.  That same God whose timing for Hannah’s pregnancy was perfect also has the perfect timing for accomplishing His purposes through your church’s barren season.  Why did the Lord close Hannah’s womb? So that He would be glorified when Samuel was born.  Why has He permitted your church’s curent struggles? So that He will be glorified when the blessings come.

Keep the faith, my friend.  He has not forsaken His church.  Humbly cry out to Him, seek His face, and He will hear and will answer.  In His perfect time.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




Making Your Church’s Path Straight

10 06 2014

In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.  Proverbs 3:6

My GPS and I have a tense relationship. I often don’t understand her directions. I can be traveling 70 mph down the highway, and she will tell me “in a quarter mile, stay straight on.” What does that even mean? And why does she say “In 200 feet, bear left…” when what she means is that I should take the turnaround under the next intersection and head back the opposite direction? Sometimes, I just would rather have my old, folded map! I just want to get to my destination with as few mistakes as possible!

So, God has my full attention when he makes promises in scripture about “making my path straight”. With promises like that, who needs maps or GPS? The promise in Proverbs 3:5-6 is not only true for the individual but for the church as well. It actually resolves quite a few problems for the local body of believers. Not all problems. But quite a few.

straight pathHere are some thoughts about what the promise of “straight paths” means for us as church leaders as we lead our churches forward:

Be willing to go beyond what you can understand. If you think trusting in the Lord and NOT on our own understanding is scary as an individual, you just try it as a church! With all the added pressures of “worldly wisdom” and fear-based group think, finding our way forward as a church body can be daunting. Learning as a church body to trust in the Lord’s direction, even when we cannot see all the dots connect ahead of time requires a huge cultural shift for most churches.

Acknowledge him in all your ways. Part of “doing church together” is the learned corporate skill of discerning between that which is God and that which is flesh. Too often, I think, we celebrate human achievement by calling it an act of God…and on other occasions we take credit for something God actually did among us. Both set a dangerous precedent and make for a rough and winding path rather than a straight one.

The path may be straight, but it still requires a journey. It seems that, in this “instant gratification” culture, even the churches (who are supposed to be distributors of wisdom and perspective) grow impatient with the journey. We want it all and we want it now. Our preferred reading of Proverbs 3:6 is In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will transport you directly to your destination without any journey at all. In the body of Christ, it is really not about the destination at all…it is all about the journey. The real joy is in the journey.

Moreover, the journey will take effort on our part. It will be hard work. That effort, in fact, is part of what makes the journey so worthwhile. Having a “straight path” does not mean everything about is easy and is handed to us. Not by any means.

The way forward is clear enough. Isn’t that the point of “making the path straight”? It is removing the forks in the road along the way, and making it easy to see next steps. It is taking away the guesswork of turning right or turning left and helping us know–really know–the way forward. For the church who truly trusts the Lord even more than it trusts its own understanding, and works to rightly discern the work of the Spirit in its midst, and is willing to patiently stay on the journey God has for it, the way forward will be clear enough. Always.

You know what churches really need? A spiritual GPS! They need a voice that knows the way and will communicate spiritual wisdom and God’s perspective to them all along their journey, so that they really can learn to trust in the Lord and not on their own understanding. And all that wisdom should be written down, maybe into a book form…or maybe even an app on our smartphones. And it should be translated into every language and put into the hands of all our people and studied together! Oh, wait…

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com




The Church of Dry Bones

13 05 2014

Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”  Ezekiel 37:4-6

Dry BonesEzekiel’s “Valley of Dry Bones” can represent a lot of things beyond just the exiled Hebrew people of his time. It can represent the state of our souls prior to salvation, the spiritual state of most nations today (maybe especially including the U.S.), or it can symbolize churches. For our purposes here, let’s take up the latter.

You know I believe in the church, right? I believe it is God’s unbelievable and completely unorthodox (is it OK to call the church unorthodox?) plan to reconcile a lost and broken world to Himself.  First, He created us in His image with the free will to choose a relationship with Him or not. Then He sent His son (the Word become flesh) to atone for all of our wrong choices and rebellion in order that we, His regenerate people, might be reconciled to Him. And then, He sent His Spirit to fill His people (His church) and to work through them to continue to bring lost sons and daughters to Him. I believe that has always been His plan and that it will succeed, just as scripture foretells. That is the meta-narrative underlying all of the churches’ successes and failures and seasons of triumph and seasons of brokenness.

But it is against that greater backdrop that Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones paints a sobering picture of your church and my church today. Filled with human frailties at every level, when it comes to being God’s instruments of life change and peace, our churches fail at least as often as they get it right. Churches of every shape and size and demographic and denominational affiliation are missing the mark God intends for them. And please do not miss this…there are plenty of churches in our culture today who get very high marks in terms of “success” by human standards (lots of people, huge budgets, massive buildings, widespread missions and ministries, vibrant worship) but who, spiritually, are still dry and brittle bones.

In reality, the valley of dry bones is not a problem of form, which can be fixed simply by finding the right worship style or the right pastor or the right structure for governance or the right system for discipleship. All our human or material resources will not breathe life into these dry bones. The most relevant worship music will not do it. The very best preaching in the world will not do it. Nothing of any human doing can make spiritually dead bones come back to life. The harsh news here is that only the Spirit of the Sovereign God can accomplish that. Short of that, we are (even in all our giftedness) dry and lifeless bones. That is the hard news.

The good news is this: God is both able and willing to breathe new life into His people. He will do it…in His time and in His way. You see, in the end, He wins…and His church wins. And in the meantime, He will continue to manifest Himself in powerful ways as and when He sees fit. There will be periods of amazing revival. Your church and mine will see those days, not because we have earned that right in any way, but because it is God’s nature.

Ezekiel’s vivid prophecy is an encouragement to all of us today, because it tells of times of spiritual renewal in our churches. Those dry bones of a church which bear witness of spiritual death and decay will again come to life when the Spirit of God breathes on them. If you look at your church and see spiritual lifelessness, take heart…there is a new day coming. Until then, you should be prayerful and preparing for that day. You should continue to trim sails, making your church ready for when the winds of the Spirit blow. That better day could come tomorrow, or the next day. It could be next year. But know this…that day is coming. Watch and pray, my friend. Watch and pray.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com







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