Churches Dying Well

31 07 2014

Thursday Re-mix:

There on the mountain that you have climbed you will die and be gathered to your people, just as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his people. Deuteronomy 32:50

“None of us are getting out of here alive.”  Jim Morrison, Valerie Harper, Evel Kneivel, Colin Murphy, Hilary Swank, Jill Shalvis, Elbert Hubbard (and these are just from the first couple of pages of results on Google)

Life is terminal.  We all get that.  Dying is just a part of living, and that is an eternal truth.  We may not like it, we may not be ready to fully embrace it, but it is truth.  And eventually, it is a truth with which we simply must deal.

abandoned churchBut have you ever thought about it as it relates to churches (i.e., to local bodies of believers)?  Have you stopped to realize that there is not a single “local church” which has been around from the very beginning?  All those “churches” mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3? Gone.  Even the good ones.  And the church you serve right now will die one day as well.  It is the natural order of things.

Churches are, metaphorically speaking, living organisms.  They breathe, they multiply, they regenerate, they get sick, and eventually, they die.  They exhibit all the same signs of life (and of death) as any other living organism.  My perception of “church” changed pretty significantly once I began to consider the implications of this.

In the first place, churches need nourishment and exercise in order to be healthy.  The nourishment is the Word of God.  The exercise is the stretching and bending and reshaping that Word constantly calls us toward.  And it also is the challenges (even the persecution) which God permits us to experience.  Exercise only makes us stronger.

Second, this concept made me look at missions and church starts differently. Reproduction is just a natural function of churches.  Starting new churches is something every church should be a part of doing in one way or another.  It is the natural spread and propagation of the gospel…of making disciples.

But the most disturbing way churches are like living organism is that they die.  It is a part of the natural order of things for them to do so.  Neighborhoods change or go away altogether.  Ministry opportunities likewise shift underneath us.  Key leadership families leave or die off.  Congregations age.  Churches sometimes grow less and less relevant to the rapidly changing communities they serve.  Churches grow older and tired and unable to meet the vast needs around them.  Rather than growing and becoming more and more vibrant, they shrink and wither and find themselves having to make horrendous decisions about personnel and ministries alike.  The difficult truth is, there are churches all around us who, frankly, just need to be given permission to die, to shut their doors and fade away.  There is no shame in that…not after a church has long since fulfilled its purpose for being.

When a church recognizes these signs and decides to wind down, and leaves its resources (its buildings, its assets, maybe even a few of its people) to a new work…one more able and willing to meet the needs of the community it serves, one with youthful vitality and passionate people longing to love and to be loved…when a church is willing to face that music and give birth to something new, even in its death, then its legacy lives on even after it is gone.  That is what dying well looks like for a church.

Maybe you know a church which is just waiting for someone to love them enough to give them permission to enter into rest.  Maybe you’re in a church like that.  No shame in that.  Nothing to hide from.  Embrace death.  It is part of life.  Find a way to create a legacy.  Die well.

© 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




“Look How They Love Each Other!”

1 07 2014

And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. 1 John 4:21

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. Colossians 3:15

sibling hugThis Summer, my younger daughter is living with my older daughter (and her husband and their dog) while she does an internship for her major. This last weekend, I had the privilege of visiting them for the first time since that arrangement started. So far, nobody has killed anyone. I am happy about that.

The truth is, my girls get along really well with each other. They give each other a hard time, but they are also clearly best friends. And when they fight, they fight fair. That’s important. That brings an amazing amount of peace to a parent. I am pretty sure I would never have understood that peace until I became a parent.

There is an aspect of God’s perspective on our love for each other that is “parental” in nature.  Paul references it in Colossians 3 when he admonishes that church to “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts”.  I do not read Aramaic, nor Greek. But I am told that Paul actually wrote peace of Christ in Latin (Pax Christi), so as to make it a play on words for that culture. You see, the nickname for the Roman occupation under which those churches operated was the Pax Romana (“Peace of Rome”). It referred to a kind of imposed peace which Rome enforced in all of its territories. It was an understood connotation of Pax Romana: you and your neighbor are both now  part of the Roman Empire…if you have a problem with your neighbor, you have a problem with Rome. Paul says we should let the Pax Christi rule in our hearts. It was a strikingly “parental” notion of making sure the “children” loved each other well. Of course, those of us who don’t speak Greek or Latin miss this play on words of Paul’s.

John used a similar notion in his writings, but much more directly. No fancy metaphors for John. Just a simple, direct warning which cuts right to the chase: whoever loves God must also love his brother. Same concept…”you are now a part of God’s kingdom…if you have a problem with a brother, you have a problem with God.” Loving each other is not a suggestion. It is a requirement. It is not something we do as we feel some warm, fuzzy spirit move us…it is a discipline which we practice as a matter of routine, one at which we get better and better over time. And we do it by faith, which pleases our Heavenly Father.

That discipline of loving each other is also what Jesus said would set us apart from the rest of the world. We would in fact be known by that extraordinary discipline of loving each other. The world will look at us and marvel, and some will even call us ridiculous and unreasonable because of how we love. They will call us naive and childish (and much, much worse). All because of how we love each other. All because our Father in Heaven insists that his children love each other well.

So, what about it? What does the world say when they point to you and your relationships with your Christian brothers and sisters?

© 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




Beware of “Samson” Community Church

29 05 2014

Thursday Re-mix:

He awoke from his sleep and thought, “I’ll go out as before and shake myself free.” But he did not know that the Lord had left him. Judges 16:20

Pride goes before destruction,
    a haughty spirit before a fall.  Proverbs 16:18

It’s an awesome thing, being used by God to further His work in this world.  I am sure you would agree that the empowerment by God to accomplish things bigger and greater than anything we could do on our own is a true blessing.  That is true for individuals and it is true for churches as well.  The problem, of course, with being gifted and blessed is that it can start to go to our heads and we can lose site of any sense of humility.  We can grow so accustomed to the giftedness and blessing, we can forget where it comes from and whose bidding it is for.  That, it seems to me, was Samson’s problem.

Strong ArmBy pretty much anyone’s standards, Samson “had it going on”.  Having taken the Nazarite vows and having committed himself to God’s service, he was empowered with almost super-hero-like abilities.  He became a powerful leader among God’s people and actually served as one of Israel’s more famous leaders (one of the “judges”) for some twenty years.  What was his “super power”?  Uncommon strength.  That giftedness propelled him to great acclaim among the people.

But Samson had a lifelong struggle with self-control and instant gratification.  He had, it seems, a virtually unquenchable appetite for pleasing himself, even if it meant being disobedient to God or to his Nazarite vows.  He worshiped God.  He loved God.  He had great faith in God.  He was remembered by the writer of Hebrews as one of the heroes of the faith in God’s story (Hebrews 11).  But he was seriously flawed with regard to his self-absorbed attitude and notions of entitlement.  And there were consequences to that attitude…dire ones in the end.

With great giftedness and blessings come great responsibility and humility.  That was a reality which seems to have often escaped Samson.  I see it in particularly gifted churches as well.  When a church becomes the popular place to be and enjoys season after season of growth and esteem, and as it becomes more and more effective in its efforts to impact the world around it, its people (and dare I say its leadership) can get a little prideful or even haughty.  I’ve seen churches who were particularly blessed act a little bullet-proof.  I think we are all capable of treating our “successful” church as there to satisfy MY immediate needs and comfort as opposed to humbly thanking God for this season of blessing and turning it all outward to help others.

In short, Samson’s story paints an ugly picture of what arrogance and entitlement look like, even in one of the heroes of God’s story.  I wonder which of our churches today are painting similar pictures in God’s eyes?

© 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




Good News and Bad News for Your Church

1 05 2014

The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. Ezekiel 18:20

I have good news and bad news for your church and for mine. The good news: no matter how many wrong choices your church may have made in the past, God is still willing to work through you today, if you will humble yourselves and seek after Him. The bad news: you get little credit for the amazing things in your church’s past…it is your current testimony that matters. This generation of your church will stand alone in its effectiveness.

standing aloneEzekiel was dealing with the first group of Hebrews exiled to Babylon. They were the young, best and brightest of the Hebrew society. They were the intelligent, creative, young leaders. Before the exile, they had their whole productive lives in front of them. But now, it was all for naught. For all practical purposes, their productive lives were over. They would now spend the rest of those lives in exile. No surprise, then, they felt “robbed”…and they blamed their parents. They blamed the stiff-necked, rebellious nature of the generations before them for their current sad state.

The irony is that, for generations now, those very Hebrew people had been living off of the “favored” status of their own forefathers before the Lord. They had all the stories of a mighty God who had faught their forefather’s battles and who had miraculously saved them time and time again. They were living off the very spotty righteousness of their forefathers. “God promised our father, Abraham…we are his favored people.”

Do you see the pattern?

Ezekiel had a sobering word for them…and for us.

If you and your church are still living off the “glory days” of your past, if the last evidence of real Spiritual activity among you was an especially powerful Experiencing God weekend in 1996, if the prevailing wish of your people is to go BACK rather than venture forward, then Ezekiel has a harsh word for you. You cannot go with God and cling to the glory of the past. Those past victories will not carry you today. You stand today on your own feet, with your own choices, irrespective of those victories of yesterday.

By the same token, if your church has a horrible legacy of conflict and damaged relationships and a bad reputation in your community due to wrong choices in the past, be encouraged. Our God is a God of fresh starts. You can turn it all around today. The Lord has not forsaken you. Humble yourselves before the Lord and stand on your own before Him, unhindered by the poor choices of your church’s past. Start new. Today.

Maybe this word is good news for you. Or maybe it is bad news for you. Either way, one thing is certain…the responsibility 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




The Disgrace of Breaking Rank

22 04 2014

Tuesday Re-mix:

Lord, the Lord Almighty,
    may those who hope in you
    not be disgraced because of me;
God of Israel,
    may those who seek you
    not be put to shame because of me.  Psalm 69:6

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Against such things there is no law.  Galatians 5:22-23

disgraceA revolution, pretty much by definition, represents a significant shift, a new way of proceeding, a new way of thinking.  Any significant shift requires intentionality and direction.  It requires vision and a strong sense of mission. And it requires a clear communication of that vision and sense of mission.  That means there will be some mantra which reflects some well-defined values to which all the “revolutionaries” ascribe.

The mantra of the American Revolution was “Liberty”, perhaps best captured by Patrick Henry’s famous quote: “Give me liberty or give me death.”  The mantra of the Mexican Revolution was “Tierra y Libertad”, or “Land and Liberty”.  Every revolution has some clear objectives in that regard.

When a rebel or soldier in a revolution “breaks rank” and places some other (personal) agenda above that of the revolution, it brings disgrace to the revolution.  It is treason, disloyalty of the highest order.  It is Judas “selling out” Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.  It is horrible and devastating by just about anyone’s standards.

Christianity is a revolution.  It has represented the single largest and most sustainable “shift” the world has ever known.  In the face of oppression and hardship, it has only grown more quickly and flourished.  In the face of suppression by governments and education systems, it only gains strength and sustainability.  It is perhaps the clearest example of “revolution” the world will ever see.

What is the “mantra” of this revolution?  What is it’s highest value?  Morality? No.  Doctrinal purity? No.  Truth?  Well, yes but no.  All those are high values to be sure, but none of those are the highest value.  None of those are the things for which Jesus said this revolution will be known.  Rather, any fair reading of the gospels and of the early church history will show that the clear and inescapable “mantra” of this revolution we call Christianity is…love.  It is unconditional, unreasonable, inexplicable love.

And, just to keep this from sounding like some shallow, worldly version of it (“What the world needs now is love, sweet love…”) let me give a little more detail.  At the heart of this revolution is the Spirit of God, living and manifesting itself through God’s people.  And the fruit of that Spirit, according to scripture, is love.  And joy, and peace, and patience and kindness and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control.  Those are the kinds of qualities and characteristics which are earmarks of this revolution.

If these are the hallmarks of this revolution, why do you suppose we “break rank” and exhibit radically different attitudes with such alarming frequency?  How is it that, from the very beginning of this revolution, no matter how clearly Jesus illustrates what our attitudes SHOULD be, we are willing to bring disgrace to Him and to the revolution by rather exhibiting personal agendas, selfish ambition, fits of rage, bitterness, envy, and dissension?  Why is it that, in our very “fight” for the revolution, we break rank and treat even our fellow revolutionaries with disdain, not to mention those outside our ranks?  How can we justify that? And why do we shrug our shoulders with such shock and surprise when those outside our ranks point at us and laugh and scoff and call us hypocrites?

I’m meditating this week on the 69th Psalm.  I’m having some trouble.  Can you tell?

© 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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