October 2010

The 20-year test

October 19 2010 by Bill Wilson

There is a school of thought running rampant in congregations these days that sounds something like this: “This is the worst Pastor/Group/Recession/President/Situation/Era/Event that we have ever known! We must get rid of him/her/it/them immediately or we are doomed.” As a result, we hear regularly about congregations and clergy that make hasty and ill-informed decisions that actually extend and expand their problems rather than resolve them.

Let’s think for a moment about what we are saying in the midst of difficult days. Something bad happens at our church or with a minister, and we react by saying: “This is awful.” Right so far.

We then go on to say: “This is the worst thing that has ever happened to us.” Could be, though we tend to under and over-remember such things.

We close by saying: “We are doomed.” Whoa. We just went from being God’s people walking by faith to being fatalists. This is a huge leap into despair.

Let me suggest another way of thinking about difficult days that is at once more biblical, more hopeful, and more likely to be true.

In the city where I last pastored, the local high school football had a remarkable record of success. The Dalton High School Catamounts, should they have a winning record this season, will have amassed a winning record for 50 consecutive seasons. That is nearly unprecedented in high school athletics. Over many of those 50 years, Bill Chappell served as the head coach. Now retired, Bill is a humble, intense, and thoughtful man. He is a person of strong character and integrity, and is beloved by nearly everyone in the state of Georgia.

One day, at an obligatory preseason dinner appearance before local fans who are way too invested in high school football, Bill was asked “What kind of team are we going to have this year, Coach?” He thought for a moment and replied: “Ask me in 20 years.” Thinking that the coach had not understood the question, the fan asked his question again, with more passion. Bill calmly responded with the same words: “Ask me in 20 years.” Exasperated, the fan raised his voice and asked more ardently, “Coach, what is the team going to be like this year?!?” Bill responded: “Look, I know what you are asking, but what you are asking is the wrong question. We’ll have a fair football team, but we won’t really know what kind of team this is until 20 years have passed. You see, we are about building character in young men, and we won’t know how that turns out for at least 20 years.”

I’ve adopted The 20-Year Rule for working with churches and clergy. I urge you to do the same. When someone looks at a painful situation in your congregation and asks you if you think that all is lost, just respond by saying “I don’t know, ask me in 20 years.”

It’s biblical. Think about all the characters who, had you asked at the moment, would have failed the success test. Moses as he runs from Egypt with blood on his hands into the back side of Midian. David as he sends Uriah into the heat of battle. Peter as he denies knowing who Jesus is. Saul as he executes innocent believers. Think about all the churches across the ages who were brought to their knees by scandal or sin or foolishness and who seemed on the verge of closing.

The 20-Year Rule says that biblical faith and faithfulness is more of an endurance contest than a quick victory. Some of God’s finest servants have had to navigate personal failure, deep heartache, and devastating loss. Some of the most remarkable congregations I know have endured trials and tribulations that seemed overwhelming in the moment. By remaining faithful over time, what they have found on the other side of despair is HOPE.

The good news is that God’s people can recover from mistakes and that life can regenerate even when it seems all is lost. That is the gospel story that we want to personify to a world wondering if, indeed, this is a time to give up on the future.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health.)  
10/19/2010 3:18:00 AM by Bill Wilson | with 1 comments

A good word about preaching

October 12 2010 by Bill Wilson

Healthy churches hear good preaching.

Few would disagree with such a statement. However, the definition of good preaching is about as easy to agree upon as is good taste in fashion. Our definition of good preaching usually reflects our point of view and the preaching we are accustomed to. Unfortunately, for many clergy and laity alike, the preaching event has become associated with personal criticism, unfair expectations, and disappointment.

These days, the pressure to deliver a powerful sermon is higher than ever for clergy. Everyone has access to a variety of media outlets that feature superb preaching and create high expectations for your local pastor. Pastors know this and recognize that our skill sets may not measure up to those of the high profile pastors many laity measure us by.

For most clergy, preaching is at once the most challenging, humbling, rewarding, and frustrating endeavor we engage in. Most pastors I know treasure the time in the pulpit, and regard it as an awesome privilege and responsibility that demands ardent study, divine inspiration, and thoughtful preparation. Most lay persons I encounter come to worship hoping to hear a fresh and encouraging word from The Word. When we can put our agendas and egos aside and invite the Spirit into the equation to both inspire the one who delivers the Word and the one who desires to hear the Word, the result is usually an event that honors God.

I hope you will find ways to affirm your pastor and his or her sermons. Know that their sermons are labors of love that represent their interpretation of what God intends for you and your congregation to hear. To be sure, preachers are flawed, earthen vessels who often distort or confuse the Spirit’s guidance, but the miracle of grace happens every time we serve up the Word, and God’s insights bubble up in spite of our shortcomings.

If you are a pastor, I hope you will be reminded of the centrality of the spoken word, and the hopeful expectation your people bring to worship each week. Make it your highest priority and give it your best effort.

I recently heard a beautiful word about preaching form Dr. Brett Younger, the gifted preaching professor at McAfee Seminary in Atlanta. He was speaking to a group of preachers about the value of preaching. He said:

Several semesters ago, I had a good but petulant student, who said on the first day of class, “I’m not sure I believe in preaching. Why should we preach at all?”
I wish I had been quicker with my response. The next day I said: Why should we preach? 
We need to preach because the world lies, and someone needs to tell the truth.
Because we love war, and innocent people die.
Because children starve, and we could stop it.
Because our neighbors are lost, and we only wave as we drive by.
Because advertisers tell us to want everything, and we forget to give. 
Because entertainers teach us to lust, and we don’t know how to love. 
Because People magazine is dull, and the stories of faith are anything but.
Because creation is being destroyed, and we have to sound the alarm.
Because we live in denial, and don’t remember what honesty sounds like.
Because we are tempted to despair, and we need hope.
Because the church has gotten lazy, and we need courage.
We need to preach because when people have been tempted to compromise, Moses, Jesus, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Jr. and thousands of preachers we’ve never heard of have taught us to dream again.
Why should we preach? Because the world lies and God needs us to tell the truth. 
How about we resist the temptation to critique and criticize the preaching we hear, and instead renew our commitment to be thoughtful listeners? How about we pastors redouble our efforts to speak the truth in love and take ever more seriously the privilege of preaching?  

The world desperately needs healthy churches and clergy who love to preach and hear God’s word. I hope your pulpit will be that wonderful place where His truth is thoughtfully shared in the midst of a supportive and encouraging congregation. When that happens, God’s Kingdom truly comes on earth, as it is in heaven.  
10/12/2010 10:52:00 AM by Bill Wilson | with 0 comments