The Best Laid Plans

7 08 2014

Thursday Re-mix:

When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body.  1 Corinthians 15:37-38

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—  1 Corinthians 15:51

TransformationI am no visionary.  I am the first to admit it.  I am envious of those who are visionaries.  I’m pretty quick to admit that as well.  I am impressed with the leader who says, “This is what we will look like in 5 years.”  I very much believe there are people like that…leaders who know exactly what they want to achieve and who know how to cast a laser-like vision to make sure their people make it happen.  So when that leader gets to that 5-year mark and is able to look back and say, “This is exactly where I said we would be in five years, and lo and behold, we did it…” I am impressed and awed.  And if it is a spiritual venture, like a church, I am a little bit sad.

I am sad because that picture seems to leave little room for God’s transforming activity.  You see, there may be some things about the God of the Bible which are predictable, but there is very little about His creative side which lends itself to even the best plans of men.  When God gets involved in something, huge, unpredictable transformations occur…things that are not a part of anyone’s strategic plan.  If we are planning correctly in the church, all we are really doing is structuring so as to enable the organization to respond quickly and efficiently once God’s transformational activity begins.

That is why I love the metaphor of “planting” a church.  There may be some predictable activity associated with planting a seed, but as for the transformation of the seedling into the sprout and then into the flourishing plant, it is all still more mystery to us than science.  And there is nothing about the appearance of the seed that would give you any clue at all as to the ultimate appearance of the plant.  God is unpredictable that way.  And “planting” a church works that same way.  Ask anyone who has been truly successful at planting them…he/she will share story after story of how God moved in totally unexpected ways to bring about results which were not on anyone’s radar screen.  Ultimately, the church ends up looking very little like the original dream.

And so, the church growth testimonies which stir our hearts are not so much the ones which were totally predicted by their leaders; rather, they are the stories about huge, God-sized, unexpected things happening and a church which simply followed God’s activity.  And while we applaud the visionary and the clearly-articulated and well-implemented ministry vision, what moves us is the unmistakable transforming work of the Spirit.

Please don’t hear me saying strategic planning and vision-casting are wrong, even in the slightest.  I believe they are critical.  But the real work, the truest tack for God’s people, is learning to rightly discern the work of the Spirit among us and then mobilizing to join in that direction.  After all, in the end, the clearest evidence of God’s work among us is that none of us envisioned the transformation He would bring about.  His ways…His thoughts…don’t look anything like ours.

© 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




I Want Maturity (and I Want it Now)

5 06 2014

Thursday Re-mix:

Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?” His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind. Genesis 37:9-11

Old and youngMaybe it was youthful arrogance that made Joseph share his dreams with his family.  Or maybe it was just youthful ignorance of how it would be received by them.  Either way, it was not a problem with telling the truth; rather, it was just an ill-conceived manner of handling the truth.  In a word, it was immaturity.

Just a couple of chapters later, after some hard life experiences and some growing up, we see Joseph making much wiser decisions.  Life has a way of doing that to all of us.  When I think back to the naive and arrogant young leader I was 20-30 years ago ,well, it is a bit embarrassing.  Maturity, alas, cannot be learned from books or from classrooms.  Moreover, it almost always requires a generous measure of time and experience.

It is worth noting that Joseph was actually wise beyond his years.  By most standards, he is the model character in God’s story.  He is, from the beginning, a young man of integrity and high character.  His gift of interpreting dreams elevated him to leadership heights at a reasonably young age.  But his youthful faux pas were glaring and ended up costing him years of heartache and hard knocks.  In short, for leaders among God’s people, no matter the talent level, there seems to be no substitute for time spent maturing.

For this reason, I have some concerns about many of our churches’ apparent disrespect for our more elderly congregants and our seemingly obsessive search for younger, dynamic leadership to the exclusion of its older, wiser counterpart.  I do not ever want to serve in a church without plenty of elder wisdom from more mature members.

I have been in churches whose “market” is Gen X and Gen Y, and who have precious little of the kind of mature leadership which only comes from 20 or 30 or 40  or even 50 years of experience in church life.  The best case scenario for those churches is that they are literally filled with young “Josephs”.  Maybe you have seen it happen in your own church…a bright, young leader comes up with an idea for this ministry or that ministry and he/she presents it with an arrogance that suggests he/she actually believes nobody has ever thought of it before.  Yes, 2,000 years of the New Testament church in action, and he/she believes this is actually an original thought.  It is embarrassing.

I believe the church is operating at its best when it has the benefit of both the energy and creativity of young leaders and the experience and wisdom of older leaders, and when there is genuine respect and humility in each of them toward the other.  That, it seems to me, is what “church” should be…young Josephs and older Josephs working side by side and together.

© 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




Creating a Culture of Bible Study

27 05 2014

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.  2 Timothy 3:16-17

Bible StudyAfter some 40 years of studying the Bible and some 25 (or so) years of teaching it, I can safely say I am more thirsty for it today than ever before. My prayer is that God will keep me ever more thirsty for it my whole life. So far, so good.

Today’s post begins a Summer Tuesday series on Spiritual disciplines which church leaders should be practicing and fostering. These are valuable habits in making and growing disciples…routines about which the church should be intentional. You should be teaching these disciplines and, in some cases, you should have a system in place for insuring their practice in the lives of your congregants. The first of these disciplines is Bible Study.

At my church, we call it our Re:Verse system. We all study the same passage all week long, meditating on it each morning, reading our pastors’ daily devotional thoughts on it. We study it again in our Sunday morning Bible Study groups, and we hear a sermon on the same passage in any of our Sunday morning worship services. Lastly, in the following week, we look back at the passage in our small accountability groups, gently pressing the truths from that passage into one another. Of course, the details of the system are not the point. Having the system in the first place is the point. It is important that a church’s structure and programming and culture all hold Bible study as a high value. Few spiritual disciplines will have a bigger impact on our people.

But getting our people to study the Bible is not the biggest challenge. In most cases, getting them to WANT to make Bible study a regular discipline in their weekly routine is the bigger challenge. It requires a culture shift…and that, in turn, always begins with leadership. My pastor reminds the congregation often of the importance of Bible study. He tells the children of our church how much he loves the Bible and its stories and lessons. He casts a vision over and over again of the life change which comes from pursuing a Biblical worldview. Our Associate Pastors and second and third tiers of leadership (lay and clergy) follow suit in their lives and in their conversation.

Again, I don’t share this testimony as if to say everyone else should do this just like my church does it. I only mean to illustrate that creating a culture of Bible study in a church requires intentionality. It requires a strong system of training teachers. It requires a genuine love for God’s Word. And, most importantly, it requires leadership who really do believe that all scripture is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

So, what about your church? What ways have you found to raise the standards of Bible Study for your people?

© 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




Terrorists, Christians and the Walls that Divide Us

15 04 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

Do not withhold your mercy from me, Lord;
    may your love and faithfulness always protect me.
For troubles without number surround me;
    my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see.
They are more than the hairs of my head,
    and my heart fails within me.
Be pleased to save me, Lord;
    come quickly, Lord, to help me.  Psalm 40:11-13

It was one year ago today that the Boston Marathon reached a horrifying and premature conclusion. When the bombs went off, I was right there with you in my response: “Who would do such a thing?”  “How could anyone just kill and maim innocent people like that?”  With those questions and so many others like them, we begin trying to re-order our world by categorizing the good people and the bad people.  It brings us some comfort.  It is how we deal with otherwise “inexplicable evil”.  We find some solace in drawing those distinctions and in placing ourselves on one side and “those kinds of people” on the other side.  Honestly, it helps us sleep at night, doesn’t it?  We feel better about ourselves and about our world when we can identify evil, point it out as clearly “other” than us, and come to terms with the comforting reality that we are, in fact, better than those kinds of people.

brick wallBut scripture does not help us with that worldview.

Scripture does not paint a picture of a world divided.  If we go to our Bibles and read the stories of our heroes and heroines and hope to be able to place David and Joseph and Moses and Peter and Paul and you and me all on the side of “good”, and then place the murderers and adulterers and rapists and terrorists all on the side of “evil”, we are hugely and humbly disappointed.  Scripture does not divide the world between the good people and the bad people.  It divides the universe between the holy and everything else…and this world ALL falls into the “everything else” category.  You and I are part of that.

I heard an interview with Rudy Giuliani just after the bombing.  The interviewer asked him, “Is this just the world we live in now?”  His response was that this is the world we live in ever since September 11.  But that’s not really accurate, is it?  Scripture says otherwise.  It says this is the world we live in ever since the fall of man.  And, by the way, you and I don’t just live in this world, as if we are innocent bystanders…we are participants in it.  We have contributed to the brokenness.

This is why one of our heroes of God’s story, David (the “man after God’s own heart”) could say, “May all who want to take my life be put to shame and confusion” and also, in the very same psalm, “my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see..They are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart fails within me.”  Scripture does not teach us this tendency to “otherize” people, even bombers and terrorists.  Scripture does not comfort us with categories and levels of unholiness, so that we can distance ourselves from those who seem “more evil” than us and thereby find rest.  Rather, God’s Word throws us all into the same unholy, murky mire together, and then says to us all, “you need a savior”.

That is the truth, is it not?  We may engage in the hair-splitting of comparing our own sins with the sins of “those evil people” and tell ourselves that we come out on top.  But do we?  When we are compared to the holiness to which we are called, do we come out anywhere near the top?

As I reflected on the horror of last year’s bombing in Boston and its devastation in the hearts and minds of so many fellow humans, and as I then looked to scripture for some perspective on it all, I was left with two realities: (1) this world is horribly broken and in need of a savior, and (2) so am I.

Come quickly, Lord.

© 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 Future of the Church…It’s Complicated

3 04 2014

“For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon,I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:10-11

Then the Lord said, “I have pardoned, according to your word. But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord, none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it.When it comes to understanding the God of the Bible, context is everything…and perspective counts for something as well.  Numbers 14:20-23

My brothers and sisters who preach a prosperity gospel (i.e., that God intends for you to have material wealth and to have it right now) claim Jeremiah 29:11 separate and apart from Jeremiah 29:10. complicated journeyIn other words, they catch the good news of the promise of hope and a future but they gloss over the bad news that it would come only after a  lifetime of exile and hardship (and for many who would die in exile, it would not come in this life at all).

By the same token, my brothers and sisters who favor a dark, judgmental, angry gospel point to Numbers 14 and God’s judgment on the people of Israel who rebelled against Him, but they tend to miss the unbelievable mercy He showed in allowing them all to continue living in the first place (thanks to Moses’ pleading).  Consequences? Yes, but with a heavy dose of mercy mixed in.

Context matters. And so does perspective.

The “hope” and “good news” Jeremiah preaches in Jeremiah 29 includes a timeline of hardship almost twice as long as the 40 years of exile in the wilderness for the Hebrew people in Numbers. Hope and welfare? Absolutely. But with a heavy dose (70 years) of consequences mixed in.

So what do we take away from these realities in scripture? For me, it is that God is…complicated.

And so are our lives and the life of the church corporately.

We should probably stop measuring God’s “favor” on us or on His church by whether or not we made budget this year or by our percentage of growth in numbers attending worship.  Rather, we should stay focused simply on whether we are being obedient to the things we know God has required us to do and say, and leave the results up to Him. We should probably stop stressing over the fact that there is disagreement within the church. Rather, we should stay focused on how we love each other even in light of that disagreement.  We should probably quit agonizing over why God would permit all the pain raining down on us and on our church today and start remembering that, as Christ followers, the world WILL hate us and life will be difficult, even unbearable at times, and that our treasure is in Heaven…along with our real home.

We have all peeked ahead and have seen the ultimate outcome…good news, God wins in the end! We’re on the winning team!  Bad news: we still have to fight the fight and play the game, and there will be set backs and injuries along the way. Embrace it. And rejoice!

© 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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