The Great Rescue

This is a blog post I wrote for luminexusa.org on July 16, 2018:

In the space of eighteen days, one of the most riveting stories of our time unfolded slowly and with great risk and uncertainty. By now you know the story …

On June 23, twelve boys and their assistant coach ventured into a cave network in northern Thailand after soccer practice, and were trapped when flood waters rose rapidly.

On June 24 rescue teams found evidence that the boys and their coach were trapped inside the cave, but before they could go further needed to pump water out to mitigate against rising waters. In the next several days, at least six nations provided experts to help support Thai army and navy troops, and volunteers.

On July 2 two British divers found all twelve boys and their coach on a shelf inside the cave. In the next three days, supplies were delivered while experts collaborated on how best to go undergo what was now clearly a perilous, uncertain rescue effort.

On July 6, former Thai Navy Seal Saman Kunan died after running out of oxygen while underwater. The next day, July 7, rescuers determined that they needed to initiate final rescue efforts immediately due to forecasts of heavy rain.

On July 8 the first four boys were brought to safety following an 11-hour rescue operation. On July 9 four more boys were rescued following a 9-hour rescue operation. And finally, on July 10 the remaining four boys and their coach were brought to safety. And there was much rejoicing throughout the world!

The rescue operation in Thailand is a wonderful reminder of the value of life and the willingness of people to sacrifice for the sake of others. And the end result of the rescue was significant indeed, as thirteen lives were prolonged.

For Christians, the rescue operation in Thailand ought to remind us of another rescue operation – the ultimate rescue operation – that does not merely prolong life, but leads to everlasting life. What’s more, what took place in Thailand has something to teach us about living as rescued people who have the joy and privilege of joining with Christ on His Great Rescue. Specifically …

Joining Christ on the Great Rescue means leaving what is comfortable.

Each of the divers in Thailand left the comfort and safety of dry land to search for the lost in uncertain, murky waters. What comfort zones might you need to leave to join Christ in pursuing the lost?

“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)

Joining Christ on the Great Rescue means giving grace to others.

While the events in Thailand have revealed the capacity for good in people, they have also revealed our propensity toward judgement and condemnation. It is well documented that Ekkapol Ake Chantawong, the soccer team’s 25-year old assistant coach, made a poor decision in guiding the team to a forbidden and dangerous area. But as “Coach Ek” was trapped in a cave and doing all he could to keep his team alive, others were taking to social media to ridicule and condemn the coach as reckless, selfish, and clearly undeserving of grace.

Are we too quick to assume the worst about others? And are we too slow to extend grace to others?

“Jesus stood up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.’” (John 8:10-11)

Joining Christ on the Great Rescue means collaborating with others along the way.

While the rescue team discussed a variety of approaches for getting the boys and their coach out, the approach they settled on was to medicate the boys, then place each on a stretcher as they were passed from diver to diver through the cave. This is a marvelous picture of how collaboration works to achieve a result that no single individual could attain on their own. As Christians, God does not call us to go it alone, but to be joined in community with one another, bearing in mind that while we play a role in the Great Rescue, we don’t do the actual rescuing. After all, salvation comes not through people, but through Jesus Christ alone.

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” (1 Cor. 3:6-7)

Joining Christ on the Great Rescue means joining in celebration when the lost are found.

When the last of the boys and their coach were rescued, the world rightly celebrated the miracle of a rescue that seemed improbable from the start. Do we join with heaven in celebrating the miracle of people eternally rescued by God? We should – it’s the best celebration this life has to offer!

“I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7)

From Darkness to Light

“For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.”
Eph. 5:8-11

Darkness, which in essence is the absence of visible light, has some value, especially as a vital means of regulating our bodies and boosting our immune system through proper sleep. But darkness must be compartmentalized, because we were not created to live in darkness, but in light.

So why is it that so many of us – at least figuratively speaking – spend our days in shadows, in darkness? Could it be that we’re hiding from God, and from one another?

It’s telling that the Apostle Paul instructed the Ephesian believers – just as God instructs us – to have nothing to do with the deeds of darkness, but instead to expose them. But whose deeds are we to expose? The truth is that most of us are comfortable pointing out other people’s sin, but not so quick to expose our own sin. Yet that’s exactly what God calls us to do. And it can only happen if we step out of darkness and into light.

Think of it this way: If you were having some sort of surgical procedure done, would you ask the surgeon to perform it in the dark? Probably not!  Why then should we expect God to free us from our areas of struggle if we are unwilling to step into the light so that our sin is fully exposed?

Perhaps more than anything, living in the light means that we need to become unflinchingly honest with God, with one other, and with ourselves. After all, God has commanded us to love God with every fiber of our being, and to love others as we ourselves want to be loved, but in the absence of honesty our love is incomplete and insufficient. In the absence of honesty we remain in the shadows, hiding from God (as if!) and each other. And so living in the light starts with honesty.

How is your prayer life? Do you pray in a manner that is heartfelt rather than scripted or mundane?

How are your relationships? Are they healthy and vibrant, flavored with both grace and truth?

Who in your life are you able to share openly with about your areas of struggle? I certainly don’t recommend telling everyone you meet about your areas of struggle, but I do recommend that you find at least a few people you can do this with.

May the Lord bless you as you step out of darkness and into light.

Mission Critical

It has long been my belief that a clear, concise mission statement is essential for organizational success. For churches, the mission does not need to be discerned per se because it has been given to us by Jesus himself. The mission of every church is at its core the Great Commission given to us by Christ. Churches can restate the mission for their particular context, but the mission must encapsulate our call to make disciples, bringing people to Christ and helping people to become increasingly like Christ.

This brings us to a difficult reality check. Because if it’s true that the mission of every church is at its core to make disciples, then we must ask ourselves why so many churches have failed not only to make disciples of Jesus Christ, but to drift far, far away from the mission given to us by Jesus Christ.

The answer is nuanced, and like you I can think of a myriad of contributing factors. But for purposes of this post, we’ll consider two overarching reasons. If either of these brings a sense of conviction to you, I encourage you to pray about it, be open to what the Holy Spirit might speak to you, and discuss it with other leaders.

Our Tendency to Settle.
After God created Adam and Eve, He instructed them to, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). More than a thousand years later, after flooding the earth, “God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.’” (Gen. 9:1). Yet just a few generations after Noah, we read in Genesis 11:1 that, “As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.” And you know the rest of the story – after the people “settled” in Shinar, they began construction of the Tower of Babel, a misguided construction project if ever there was one.

The problem with settling is that it runs contrary to movement and multiplication. It’s true in our individual lives, and it’s true in our churches. In both cases, when we settle for what is familiar or comfortable, we invariably move our focus off of Christ and other people, and onto ourselves. We have no effectiveness in fulfilling the Great Commission because we fail to heed the Great Commandment. Slowly and steadily, we become increasingly myopic, to the point where vision evaporates and mission is etched not on our hearts, but on an overlooked placard.

I do not believe it is possible to be fully engaged in mission while settling for what is familiar or comfortable. Rather we are to, “Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16).

Our Tendency to Wander.
In my book, Faith-Based: A Biblical, Practical Guide to Strategic Planning in the Church, I wrote that, “It ought to be easy to craft a mission statement that encapsulates the Great Commission, but there are many pastors and church leaders who are consumed with developing a mission statement that is somehow more captivating, unique, cutting edge, than the mission Christ gave us. The result is that too many churches have mission statements that relegate the Great Commission to an afterthought … The demands on pastors, staff members, and lay leaders to do this and try that are never ending.  Hardly a day passes without being exposed to some new program, idea, or opportunity.  But the risk of constantly trying new things, or forever searching for the next big thing, is that we forget why we exist as a church.”

If settling leads to myopia, wandering leads to blurriness!

I encourage you to safeguard the mission Christ has given to you, and your church. And as you seek to fulfill the mission, I encourage you to be adventurous, creative, bold, humble, and prayerful – for the sake of the mission and the cause of Christ.

8 Lessons for Church Leaders from Acts 2

Acts 2 provides a vivid picture of the intersection between faith-based leadership and the work of the Holy Spirit. This combination gave birth to the early church, and has fueled thriving churches ever since.

Lesson 1: The Holy Spirit shows up when leaders are united in Christ and focused on God.
“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.” (Acts 2:1)

Like the early leaders in Christ’s church, your leadership team must gather regularly to worship, pray, and wait on the Holy Spirit. Doing so fosters trust, courage, and purpose. Just as the early church drew its life from the Holy Spirit, so must we.

Lesson 2: When and how the Holy Spirit works is not for us to know.
“Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.” (Acts 2:2-3)

We want immediate answers to our questions, immediate solutions to our problems, and immediate clarity for our future. But if we had all of that, would we need faith? Strong, faith-based leaders remain both persistent and patient – persistent to seek the Holy Spirit, and patient to wait on the Holy Spirit.

Lesson 3: The Holy Spirit brings unity through diversity.
“All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” (Acts 2:4)

Left to ourselves, our diversity – of thought, background, ethnicity, gender – will divide us. But when we are fully surrendered to the Holy Spirit, our diversity is beautiful to behold, strengthening and uniting our leaders, and our church.

Lesson 4: Collaboration is key for discerning and following the leading of the Holy Spirit.
“Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’” (Acts 2:12)

The manifestation of the Holy Spirit was so powerful that the people were “amazed,” yet so unpredictable that they were “perplexed.” Thus, the people wisely asked one another what all of this meant, and received their answer in short order from Peter. When we sense the Holy Spirit working in our midst, yet are unsure about what the Spirit is conveying specifically or how we are to respond, we need to ask one another, “What does this mean?” Collaboration is vital for understanding and following the leading of the Holy Spirit, and when we fail to consult with one another, we risk missing out on all that the Holy Spirit is inviting us into.

Lesson 5: When following the Holy Spirit, expect ridicule and opposition.
“Some, however, made fun of them and said, ‘They have had too much wine.’” (Acts 2:13)

The more that leaders step into the call of Christ and follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, the more they can expect ridicule and opposition. The good news is that while facing ridicule and opposition doesn’t feel good, if it comes out of following the leading of the Holy Spirit, it is good.

Lesson 6: Above all else, proclaim the Gospel!
“Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: ‘Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say.’” (Acts 2:14)

We can be so focused on implementing new and exciting initiatives that we lose sight of our primary call to proclaim the Gospel. Paul instructed his protégé Timothy to, “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.” Like Timothy, we too must be steadfast in proclaiming the Gospel.

Lesson 7: Be ready to reap the harvest.
“When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” (Acts 2:37-38)

When the seeds of the Gospel have been sown, we need to be ready and willing to reap the harvest. The workers may be few, but there is no excuse to not reap the harvest in our own backyard.

Lesson 8: Trust God to bring the increase.
“Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” (Acts 2:41)

Three thousand people coming to Christ in a single day? Talk about a good day for evangelism! But even as we celebrate this amazing response to the Gospel, it’s easy to overlook that those who didn’t place their faith in Christ that day likely numbered in the hundreds of thousands. This serves as a simple yet critically important reminder that God alone brings the increase. Peter proclaimed the Gospel passionately and persuasively, and while many placed their faith in Christ, many more did not. Ultimately, our role is to be faithful in proclaiming and living in accordance with the Gospel, and to trust God to bring the increase, whatever it might be.

What Child is This?

What child is this?

“The babe, the son of Mary.”

“She gave birth to a firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” (Luke 2:7)

Far too many people think of the Christmas story as a quaint, cerebral affair – angels with fluttering wings, animals in a comfy manger nuzzling up against sweet baby Jesus, Joseph and Mary admiring the baby, and Jesus sleeping peacefully.

All of that is pleasant to imagine, but woefully inaccurate. In reality there was massive spiritual warfare taking place; in fact, if you want a glimpse behind the curtain of Christmas, study Revelation 12. And beyond spiritual warfare, there was earthly strife. The manger Jesus was born in was not an idyllic haven of peace, it was a stinky last resort.

In many ways, Jesus’ birth was a precursor to the rest of his life: “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” (Matthew 8:20).

What child is this?

“The King of kings, salvation brings.”

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.’” (Luke 2:8-11)

Jesus represents good news of great joy for all of the people! The Messiah wasn’t born to be a savior for the chosen Jewish people only, he was born to be a Savior for all who place their faith in Him.

What child is this?

“This, this is Christ the King.”

The Bible points to two Advents – the first has already taken place, but the second is yet to come. At First Advent Jesus came to us as an infant; at Second Advent, no one will mistake who Jesus is, because His glory and power will be unmistakable:

“At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory.  And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” (Matthew 24:30-31)

“On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:
KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.”
(Rev. 19:16)

The Thankfulness of Squanto

On December 21, 1620, a group of English separatists – people we now refer to as “pilgrims” – landed at Plymouth Rock. There were 102 people who had boarded the Mayflower when it sailed from England, but two had perished during the disease-ridden 66-day voyage. After reaching land, they entered headfirst into a devastatingly cold and windy winter. Their food supply dwindled next to nothing, and many succumbed to devastating disease and incurable illness. By the time winter gave way to spring, half of the pilgrims had perished.

In the space of six months, an eager, adventuresome group of people were reduced to a downcast, decimated group of people.  In the space of six months, for every two people who set sail, there remained but one – where there were once 102 people, there were now but 50.

And yet throughout that long, deadly winter, the pilgrims continued to trust God for His leading and provision.  They remained thankful while trusting that God would never leave them or forsake them. And God didn’t.

That March the Lord gifted the pilgrims with what William Bradford described as a “special instrument sent by God.”  This special instrument went by the name of Squanto, an Indian who would teach the pilgrims how to plant, hunt, and fish, and who later would broker the 50-year treaty between the pilgrims and Indians that allowed both groups to exist peacefully for five decades – a miracle in itself.

Squanto was exactly what the pilgrims needed at that time, and he was instrumental for their very survival. He knew the land up and down because he grew up there. He knew how to speak English because as a boy he was taught the language by a visiting group of English traders (though a few years later his trust in the English would lead him and other Indians to board an English ship bound for Spain to be sold into slavery). And Squanto knew God, because he was purchased by a group of Friars from a Catholic Monastery who introduced him to the Gospel.

When we consider what took place at the original 1621 Thanksgiving feast – when 90 Wampunoag Indians joined with 50 English pilgrims for three days of celebration – we can’t help but conclude that it was a true miracle of God.

It was a miracle of God because Squanto had ample reason to be bitter after being forcibly taken away from his people for more than ten years, then coming back to his family and people to find that most of them had recently died from what they called “white man’s disease,” possibly smallpox. For Squanto to trust, let alone befriend, yet another group of unfamiliar foreigners is nothing short of miraculous.

And the pilgrims had reason to be bitter as well. They were despised in England because of their open disagreement with the English Act of Uniformity, which demanded that all British citizens attend services and follow the traditions of the Church of England. And so they followed God’s leading by setting sail to the “new world, “ but within six months they were ravaged by hunger, disease and death. Yet, like Squanto, they didn’t become bitter, choosing instead to remain thankful.

Remaining thankful had to have been exceedingly difficult for them, just as it often is for us. The truth is that being thankful – trulythankful – for any length of time is a challenge, so being thankful at all times can seem nearly impossible. And yet that is exactly what we are called to do:

“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thes. 5:18)

God does not call us to be thankful for all circumstances, but to be thankful in all circumstances. Squanto didn’t thank God for being wrongfully enslaved, and the pilgrims didn’t thank God for experiencing so much death and disease. God allows these kinds of circumstances, but they’re not of God. Rather, they are a byproduct of the fall.

Yet for all who place their faith in Jesus Christ, it is both natural and biblical to thank God in all circumstances, including the most extenuating circumstances. And for me at least, this begs a question: Why does God call us to be thankful?

Here is what I have come to believe: God calls us to be thankful because it’s only through having a heart filled with gratitude – with thanksgiving – that we are truly able to live into the fullness of life that Christ came to give us.

We can be so quick to fix our focus on what’s happening in the moment. And to spend more time wishing for what we don’t have than thanking God for what we do have. But being thankful in all circumstances can only flow from a place of deep understanding and acceptance of the grace of God given to us in Christ Jesus.

Have a blessed Thanksgiving!

Standing Firm in the Gospel

The Gospel must be central to all that we do, say, and think.  The truth of the Gospel – God’s unfathomable love (John 3:16, Romans 5:8), our inherent sin (Romans 3:23, 5:12), salvation by and through Jesus Christ (Romans 6:23, John 1:12) – is the Good News that we are called to live out and carry to the very ends of the earth.

Straightforward? Yes!  But easy to stand firm in?  Not so much.  The truth is that standing firm – and I mean really standing firm, as in being squared, centered, immovable in the Gospel – doesn’t come easy, nor does it come naturally. And the real kicker is this: The biggest problem we have when it comes to standing firm in the Gospel is ourselves.

Here’s how author Michael Horton describes the problem:

“In such a therapeutic, pragmatic, pull yourself up by your bootstraps society as ours, the message of God having to do all the work in saving us comes as an offensive shot at our egos. In this culture, religion is all about being good, about the horizontal, about loving God and neighbor. But all of that is the fruit of the gospel. The gospel has nothing to do with what I do. The gospel is entirely a message about what someone else has done not only for me but also for the renewal of the whole creation.”

The slippery slope that Horton is referring to is what he terms “Gospel Plus.” Here, there’s an understanding that God did in fact descend in Christ to save us, but added to that is a belief that to be truly reconciled to God we must also somehow, someway “ascend” to God.  In the early church, the tendency was to add in Old Testament Law, which of course diluted the true Gospel.  And while today we don’t mix Law with the Gospel, we do tend to add in things like good deeds, religiosity, and self-actualization.

But anything we add to the Gospel of Jesus Christ results in a hybrid, diluted Gospel – Gospel Plus.  So why do we tend to veer in this direction so easily? Mostly because it’s just plain less offensive to us. That’s why we’re drawn to alternative forms of the Gospel, and why it’s so important to reaffirm on a regular basis the centrality of the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Praying Through

Several years ago, the church I was a part of held a multi-day prayer summit with a guest facilitator named Gerhard Du Toit. One phrase that Gerhard used repeatedly throughout the summit was, “Praying through.” In general, what Gerhard was conveying is that the more deeply we live for the cause of Christ, the more we can expect resistance – including in our prayer life – and the more imperative it becomes to “pray through” the resistance.

Resistance in prayer may be self-induced (a product of our sinful nature) and often takes the form of fatigue, distraction, or doubt. Resistance may also be at times demonic, given that Satan will do all he can to try to disconnect us from Christ, since apart from Christ we can do nothing (John 15:5). Whatever the source of resistance may be, you can count on the fact that if you are serious about prayer, you will face ongoing resistance, and in a variety of forms.

Someday soon – maybe even today – you will wake up feeling more tired than usual, and find it difficult to stay focused while praying. And you will need to decide whether to give up, or whether to pray through trusting that the Holy Spirit will intercede on your behalf (Romans 8:26-27).

In the not too distant future – maybe even right now – you will experience a dry season, when your prayers seem to be ignored, falling on deaf ears. Will you give up? Or will you pray through, believing that the God who invites us to approach His throne (Hebrews 4:16) is the same God who answers our prayers according to His will and timing (1 John 5:14-15)?

Perhaps you have been praying for a particular person to place his or her faith in Jesus Christ. Maybe you’ve been praying for that person for a long, long time, seemingly without success. Is it time to give up? Or will you pray through, believing that God desires for all people to be saved (2 Peter 3:9)?

A final thought: Most likely, you are familiar with the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18. But have you considered why Jesus told this parable? It seems that the answer to this question is so important that Luke was compelled to give it to us before going into the parable itself:

“Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” (Luke 18:1)

Finding Your Mountaintop

Confidence and assurance for what lies ahead is rooted in understanding and appreciating what has already taken place. The whole of scripture reveals the breathtaking dimensions of God’s unfolding plan of redemption and restoration, which is assured in Christ.

Scripture connects what was with what is, and what is yet to come. Knowing what has already taken place, and what is promised, instills in us a deeper understanding that God is indeed sovereign, that Christ is indeed building His Church, and that the Holy Spirit is indeed bringing about transformation.

Romans 15:4 conveys this dynamic beautifully:

“Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”

The unfolding biblical narrative is ample in itself to strengthen us for what lies ahead.  But let’s not stop there; let’s make it personal. Whether your church has been in existence for two years or two-hundred years, God has been at work throughout its history. Before forming ideas and plans, pause to reflect on and be strengthened by recalling how God has worked in your church.  Think on days past when God’s providence was unmistakable and God’s movement undeniable.

In fact, why not gather your leaders for a time of prayer, reflection, and thanksgiving in a specific place in your church or community where God was clearly at work in the past? It could be the sanctuary that God provided at a point in time. It could be the building the church used to worship at prior to its present location. It could be a meeting room where an important leadership decision was made many years ago. What place in your church or community can you gather your leaders to help remind them of God’s faithfulness?

The precedent for this approach was set by Christ Himself. Just prior to His death, Jesus instructed His Disciples to meet Him on a specific mountain in Galilee following His resurrection (Mt. 26:32, Mt. 28:16). Meeting on a mountain would have made for a difficult, uncomfortable journey, but Jesus called the disciples there because throughout the Scriptures, time and time again, God reveals who He is on mountains. God gave the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai; God reigned down fire on Mount Carmel; Jesus was transfigured on a “high mountaintop.” In bringing the Disciples to a mountain in Galilee, Jesus takes them back to the origins of their faith. It was in Galilee that Jesus first called most of them, performed His first public miracle, and preached the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus knew the importance of having His disciples look back before receiving the commission He would give them while on the mountain:

“Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Mt. 28:19-20)

Where is your mountaintop? What place will you gather the leaders in your church to reflect on and be strengthened by who God is, and what God has done?

Leading Through Apathy

Even the most healthy and vibrant churches experience pockets of congregational apathy. While apathy can emerge for a variety of reasons, it is always heightened – paradoxically so – during seasons when church leaders are working to implement significant change. Apathy becomes contagious when some church members believe that leaders are forcing too much change too quickly, while others believe there is too little change too slowly.

Too much change too quickly.
For some people, absorbing significant change in a compressed period of time causes them to tune out altogether. Still, church leaders are wise to not mistake apathy for negativity. In fact, I would dare say that most people who struggle with accepting change are much quicker to numb themselves to what’s happening around them than they are to intentionally sabotage change efforts.

Too little change too slowly.
Whereas some people are naturally resistant to change, others are quick to embrace the promise of change and become frustrated when it is slow to arrive. But if these same people expect others to be the sole agents of change, and are themselves unwilling to get involved, they too can become apathetic.

Different people react to change differently, and for some change represents a gateway to apathy. Hence, a key leadership challenge during seasons of significant change is to selectively help church members to move from apathy and disconnection to enthusiasm and engagement. Here are three ways to help do so:

  1. Meet people where they are at.
    This may sound easy, but it is not. It’s difficult because many people who are apathetic don’t recognize their own apathy. And others who do acknowledge their apathy can’t tell you why they’re apathetic. Finally, there are some who are apathetic but not open to being ministered to – they’ve already given up, and that’s that. Still, as leaders, we need to do our best to meet people where they are at, which means that for people who dislike the nature, volume, or pace of change, we must reassure them that while the church is changing, our commitment to the mission of making disciples, and loving God and neighbor, has not. While it seems overly simplistic, reassurance is often enough for apathetic people to become more engaged, and to have faith that change will happen at the right pace and in the right time.
  2. Be firm.
    If leaders have prayerfully discerned God’s leading for their church, and have courageously endeavored to follow God’s leading, then they must stay the course. It is a colossal mistake for leaders to abdicate forward movement in favor of helping apathetic people feel more comfortable.
  3. Be gentle.
    In his excellent book Replenish, Lance Witt makes the point that gentleness is a key component for leadership. Witt goes on to cite four specific examples:

    • Jesus says he is gentle and humble in heart;
    • Paul says an overseer should be gentle;
    • Paul told Timothy to pursue gentleness;
    • Paul says he and his fellow workers treated new believers with gentleness, like a mother caring for her children.

In the supercharged, win-at-all-costs world we live in, displaying gentleness to others can have incredible impact. In many cases, a gentle, pastoral approach to people who have succumbed to apathy is exactly what is needed for them to move from apathy to enthusiasm, and from disconnection to engagement.