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My beef with the traditional church

churchLet’s start here. I love Jesus. I love pastors. I love my brothers and sisters in Christ. Until recently, I was an every-Sunday churchgoer for over four decades. I believe every Christian needs to be connected with other Christians. I believe in the church.

Don’t bother me with your ministry

Ephesians 4 makes it clear that the role of Christian leaders is to equip people for ministry. Yet many churches I’ve experienced seem to convey this message: The only ministries that matter are those that happen within the four walls of our church building. I’ve seen people in the congregation with a passion (and even a ministry) to heal marriages, to set up community-based recovery ministries, to set up food pantries, to rescue people caught in human trafficking and more—I’ve seen these people marginalized, ignored, forgotten, while the pastor gets up front week after week to beg people to work in the nursery.

In many churches only three or four things matter—in trailing order of importance: the pastor’s sermon, the songs, the offering and the kid’s program. Try to get even fifteen seconds of stage time on a Sunday to promote a para-church ministry or event, and you quickly figure out where the real priorities are.

Don’t take away my money

I’ve heard pastors say that they don’t want to allow missionaries to speak at their church because they’re afraid that people will give money to the missionary that the pastor believes should go to the church.

While we’re on that subject of money, let’s think about church buildings. If a church is successful, it fills a building for a couple hours on Sunday, then most of these buildings lie empty all week long. Meanwhile, the congregation is saddled with mortgage payments and maintenance expenses. Look at your church’s budget. Where does the money go? Once pastor and staff salaries are paid and building expenses are made, how much is left over? Why can’t the building be used during the week to generate the income needed to pay the mortgage so the congregation’s money can be used for other kingdom purposes?

I think it’s very important to give generously to God’s work, but I understand why people don’t want to give to the church. It can feel like so much money is spent perpetuating an institution, and so little money is spent actually advancing the kingdom of God. How many churches spend even five percent of their budget helping the poor and needy? Where’s the budget for helping members of the congregation launch new kingdom endeavors?

Does it really make sense to center our churches around sermons?

In most evangelical churches, the sermon is the centerpiece—it’s the main course of the main event. Some pastors are incredibly gifted in this area. Some are not. I’ve listened to thousands of sermons, and it’s pretty rare that I hear something in a sermon that I haven’t already heard many times before.

Making the sermon the centerpiece made a lot of sense in another generation where nearly everybody went to church, almost everyone in the community shared the same set of values, and there was no access to television, radio or the web to listen to any number of sermons anytime anyone wanted to. But today I question the strategic usefulness of making a sermon the center of everything church.

To be honest, I object to the approach taken by many pastors. Many preachers, like the disciples in John 9:2, seem to be on a sin hunt. They aren’t satisfied until they’ve uncovered at least one area where you’ve sinned and “need to repent.” In some cases, pastors go so far as to accuse their listeners of committing specific sins when the pastor would have no way of knowing if the members are guilty of those sins or not. This all brings to mind Job’s “friends.” And, if I’m not mistaken, the role of “accuser” is already taken.

Some pastors seem to preach the same sermon over and over every week. It all boils down to a sales pitch where you are instructed to “make a decision for Christ.” How does that help the person who “made a decision for Christ” fifteen years ago? In other churches, the sermons seemed designed to reinforce the values of a smug and insular group so that the members can walk away with the assurance that they’re right, and everyone else is wrong.

Don’t get me wrong. Some sermons can be wonderfully inspiring. Some wake us out of our apathy and complacency. Some are dripping with the presence of God. Sermons can be a great tool. But should they be the centerpiece of the church? Should every church service be a concert followed by a motivational speech followed by a brief Christian cocktail party as we pick up our kids and make our way to the car?

Sermon-centered church ignores the reality that God gave different people different learning styles. What about those who don’t learn well from lectures? Where are the visuals? Where are the labs? Where are the small group discussions? Why can’t that be part of the Sunday morning experience?

Sermon-centered church also seems to assume that one person not only has all the answers, but telepathically knows which questions everybody is asking even before they verbalize them.

The missing piece here is dialogue. I’ve seen research to suggest that this is why an entire generation is walking away from church: all monologue, no dialogue. There’s no opportunity for individuals to process their own spiritual journey, to ask the questions that are burning within them, to explore their own and one another’s faith experience.

I know what many readers will be thinking. This is why we have home groups. The reality is this: Most home group meetings are tightly regimented. There’s little opportunity to step outside the curriculum, the agenda, for a conversation about what’s really going on. Which leads me to my concerns about relationships in the church.

What about relationship repair?

If the kingdom of God is mostly about relationship repair, why are those who don’t know how to do relationships often left to fend for themselves? Why is it that some people can attend church for years, and still feel lonely, isolated, marginalized and unwanted? Why are people like this blamed instead of helped?

Sure, we say, “Join a home group.” How well is that working? I’ve seen churches heroically champion home group ministries month after month, year after year, and the result is this: a whopping twenty percent of the congregation enrolls. What about the other eighty percent? And could it be that the people who need the home group the most are the least likely to join?

Years ago when I was a student at a Christian college, a friend said to me, “The problem with the Christian church is that there’s no community.” A member of the dean’s staff overheard the remark and rebuked the young man who said it, assuring us that there’s all kinds of community in the church. I’ve thought about this many times over the years, and I’ve concluded that they’re both right. For those who know how to go after it, you’ll find many good friends in a church. For those who don’t, churches are very lonely places.

Where do we go from here?

Hebrews 10:24-25 makes it clear: We need to meet. We need to use that meeting time to encourage one another to love and to do good. Church as we know it is the Christian community’s best attempt to carry out that requirement. I hope my words here will encourage Christian leaders to explore incremental ways to improve how we do what we do. Pastors, you are loved and appreciated.

After decades of faithful church attendance, I stepped away from the traditional church for the time being. That doesn’t mean you should. You should do what you are sure God is telling you to do. In my case, I do a home church with my sons and their friends when we’re not visiting traditional churches. I attend a weekly home group. I reach out to people through face-to-face and online friendships. And I’m exploring new ways to connect with those who have disconnected with church but remain interested in exploring a faith journey. If that’s you, please contact me here or on Facebook. I’d love to talk with you.

I hope that my words will also encourage you to look for meaningful ways to connect with Christians, talk about your faith journey together, and go out into your world and make a difference.

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The Miracle I Didn’t Expect

All my life I’ve been afraid of dogs. (Sorry, dog lovers.) God is good. He has fixed a lot of that fear. But let’s just say that I won’t be replacing Cesar Millan as Dog Whisperer any time soon.

I tell you that because about 14 years ago my then 9-year-old daughter and I went on a missions trip to Mexico. During our trip, we spent a lot of time at a childcare center in a Mexican village. My daughter played with the other kids, and not knowing Spanish really didn’t seem to be a barrier to friendship.

Compared to the people in Mexico, I felt like my prayers were anemic. At noon the children received what was probably their only meal of the day. It was some kind of pasty substance, like a cross between oatmeal and gruel. Most American kids would turn up their noses and refuse to eat it. But the Mexican children and childcare workers gathered around and simultaneously offered up fervent thanksgiving aloud to God for His provision of food. This heartfelt prayer of thanks went on for several minutes before the children sat down to their meal.

One day my daughter and I were at the childcare center alone with the children and the Spanish-speaking workers. The rest of the Americans were a mile or two away helping someone renovate their home.

Suddenly one of the workers came to me and motioned for me to follow her at once. She brought me into another room where one of the little boys was writhing in pain on the floor. Workers were gathered around him–tears in their eyes. It was clear that they wanted me to pray for him.

Wow. They were asking me to pray, when I felt like I needed to be taking prayer lessons from them.

I’ve prayed for many sick people over the years. Once in a great while, something supernatural seems to happen. Most of the time–nothing spectacular. This was no exception. I prayed. The boy cried.

Suddenly it became clear what I needed to do. I needed to walk a mile or two through the village and fetch the nurse who was a member of our group. I couldn’t call; we didn’t have a phone. I couldn’t drive; we didn’t have a vehicle. I needed to walk.

Only one problem: This village was crawling with dogs. If I got in trouble with one, I would have no way to call for help. I didn’t even speak the language.

But here was a little boy in pain. God help me. I started walking.

It was eerie. The dirt road was completely empty. I didn’t see a single dog. I didn’t hear a single bark. I made it all the way without experiencing the thing I feared.

On the way back, the dogs were everywhere once again. But it was okay now. People were with me. They were comfortable with dogs, so I felt comfortable being with them.

We got back to the childcare center. We found some medication. We gave it to the boy, and prayed for him again. His pain receded, and he soon recovered.

So why didn’t God answer my prayer to heal that boy? I think Lorinda had the best answer: “Miracles show us God’s heart.” God chose to heal this little boy in such a way that also showed His love and power for me.

Well, hey, for the benefit of those of you who can’t be with us for Empower Good, I wanted to share with you a little of what went on this weekend.

We talked about the different flavors of faith. Hebrews 11–the faith chapter–was our jumping off place. (See below.)

Here are some quotes I wrote down from the weekend:

“Spoken words are powerful because we are made in God’s image. God spoke the whole universe into existence with His words.”

“I told My people that they can have what they say, but they say what they have.”

“Don’t talk about what you’re not going to be; talk about how you’re going to be like Jesus.”

“Say no to doubt.”

Hebrews 11: The Power of Faith

How do we reconcile the trouble we experience with the good God has promised us? Faith! Faith assures us that our hope in God is rock solid; it opens our eyes to see what others cannot see. Throughout history the great men and women of God had one thing in common: faith. God Himself spoke highly of their faith.

Faith enables us to understand the power of God’s word: He spoke and the whole universe came into existence. What we see now was made from what cannot be seen.

Faith caused Abel to bring to God a better sacrifice than Cain brought. Because of faith, God spoke well of Abel and his sacrifice. Because of faith, Abel’s life still speaks to us, even though Abel died a long time ago.

By faith Enoch sidestepped death and walked straight into heaven. Back on earth people searched for him, but he was gone. Before he left, however, he was known as a man who pleased God.

Do you want to please God? It’s only gonna happen one way: faith. You gotta believe that God is there and rewards those who sincerely pray to Him.

Faith gave Noah the sense to do something that would otherwise be crazy: He built a ship in the middle of dry land. Why? Because God had warned him that the flood was coming. His faith stood out in contrast to the evil all around him. What made him a good man? His faith.

It was faith that caused Abraham to set out on a road trip with no map and no clear destination. God promised him land, so he went to get it. When he got there, he camped out like a refugee rather than a landowner. His son and grandson, Isaac and Jacob, did the same. But he held on to the promise: an unshakable city designed and built by God.

Remember Sarah? She was way too old to have children. And Abraham was a hundred years old. But they had a son. Why? Because she believed that God would keep His promises. From that son came countless descendants.

The people I’m telling you about died without getting everything God promised them. Instead, they saw it at a distance, and realized that this world was not their eternal home. They had their eyes set on something better. Could they have turned back? Sure. But they were looking for God’s good promises. God is proud to call them His children, and He has that eternal city ready for them.

When God tested Abraham’s faith, Abraham obeyed God by offering his son Isaac back to God. He held onto God’s promises, and released his only son, even though it made no sense because God had told him that through Isaac his promised descendants would come. Abraham reasoned that God could give him Isaac back from the dead, and, in a sense, that’s exactly what happened.

By faith Isaac foresaw the future when he blessed his sons Jacob and Esau. By faith Jacob, as he was dying, blessed Joseph’s sons, worshiping God as an old man. Faith caused Joseph at the end of his life to predict that the Israelis would leave Egypt. He even instructed his people to remove his bones from Egypt and bury them in Canaan when that time came.

By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months. They saw that God had a purpose for their son, and they chose to disregard Pharoah’s orders that all baby boys be thrown into the river to drown. By faith Moses, when he grew up, walked away from a life of royal privilege as the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter. Instead of indulging in the temporary pleasure that sin provides, he chose a life of hardship as a member of an oppressed people group. In his mind, suffering and humiliation for the Messiah was better than anything Egypt could offer. Why? Because he could see far enough into the future to see God’s reward. This faith caused him to walk away from Egypt, not bowing to the anger of Pharaoh. Instead Moses saw the One who is invisible. By faith, Moses observed the first Passover, so the angel of death would not harm the firstborn of Israel. Faith brought the Israelis through the Red Sea on dry land. When the Egyptians tried it, they drowned.

By faith the walls of Jericho fell after the Israeli army marched around that city for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute survived the conquest of Jericho because she sheltered the Israeli spies. The people in her city who refused to obey perished.

I could go on with example after example—people like Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets. Faith empowered them to overthrow kingdoms, bring about justice, gain what was promised. They were protected from lions, walked through flames unharmed, escaped death by the sword. God turned their weakness into strength. They became powerful in battle, causing foreign armies to flee. Women received their loved ones back from the dead.

Others were tortured, refusing to turn away from God, so they might gain a better life at the resurrection. Some endured humiliation and abuse, beatings, chains, imprisonment. Some died by stoning. Others were sawed in half. Some were murdered with the sword. Some went around wearing animal skins, destitute, powerless, persecuted, mistreated. The world was not worthy of them. They wandered through the mountains, living in caves and holes in the ground.

All these people were praised by God for their faith. Did they receive what God promised them? Not in this life. But God had a better plan. Together with us they become whole, and together we will receive every bit of God’s perfect promise.

NOTES:
How do we reconcile the trouble … implied by the context. See the last several verses of chapter 10.
pray to Him or seek Him. The idea is that God becomes our priority, our focus.
offering his son Isaac back to God. See Genesis 22 (Day 72).
that’s exactly what happened: God stopped Abraham just before he put Isaac to death. Later passages show that God hates human sacrifice. Clearly God had no intention for Abraham to kill Isaac, though Abraham did not know that going into this experience.
Canaan or Israel.

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7 questions you must answer before you write your book

Failure to answer these questions can result in disappointment and 100s of hours of wasted effort

Writing and publishing a book can be a rewarding or frustrating experience depending on how you approach it. These seven questions will help you avoid frustration, and focus your energies on the steps that will bring you the best results for your investment of time, money and effort.

#1 / How do you define success with your book?
People write books for wildly different reasons; you need to be clear on yours. Are you writing because you want to see your name in print? Are you putting together a book to raise your credibility with your (potential) clients? Will the book be a failure if it fails to sell 100,000 copies? Do you mainly want to share an important message with family and friends? Do you want the prestige that comes from being published by a major publishing house? Are you seeking to start a movement or influence an election? How you define success will determine every step you take in writing and publishing your book.

#2 / How does this book fit into the big picture for you?
Does this book extend your career or ministry? Will you, for example, take this book with you on speaking engagements to reinforce and extend your message? Will you require your students to purchase it as a textbook for the course you offer? This is important to consider. If you are an established expert on microbiology and you write a book on microbiology, you have the contacts and the credentials to get your book into the hands of many people. But if you write a book on stamp collecting, you may need to start from scratch, requiring you to make a much greater investment of time and money to get the same results.
You will also want to consider whether your book will fit into a series or package of resources. It requires much more effort and expense to find a new customer for a new book, than it does to sell a second book to the same customer.

#3 / Who is your reader?
New authors frequently make the mistake of thinking everyone will be interested in their book. Bad idea. When you market to everyone, you interest no one. But when you identify a specific reader, e.g., single moms in their 30s, professional chefs, backyard mechanics, you give definition to the marketing process and make it much, much easier to sell your book. You should know who your reader is before you write your book. It helps you include and exclude material based on your reader’s interests. Yes, you might have secondary audiences for your book. That’s fine. Begin by marketing to your #1 target reader. Once you’ve achieved success there, you can branch out and begin tackling other groups.

#4 / Why will your reader want to own and read your book?
What motivates your reader? Will your reader get excited about your book because it will show her how to save money at the grocery store? Will she learn how to ask for a raise? Will your conflict resolution strategies empower your reader to enjoy a more satisfying marriage? What are your benefits? What does the book do for your reader, and why does your reader care? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, it might be good to organize an informal focus group (invite a few friends over who represent this reader group) to talk about this so that you can hear the benefits expressed in the reader’s own words. Take careful notes; this will be the foundation for your marketing campaign. By the way, even if your publisher takes care of marketing your book (a rarity for new authors), you need to have answers to these questions so that you can understand and contribute to your publisher’s marketing efforts. Even if your book is fiction, you should have some idea who reads the type of fiction you are writing and why they read it. What does it do for them? If you don’t know, start asking.

#5 / How do you want your reader to respond?
What action do you want your reader to take as a result of reading this book? Examples: Plan a short term missions trip. Invest in gold. Enroll in your course on real estate development. Change the way he thinks about marriage. Will you include any type of response device such as an order form in your book itself?

#6 / How will you get this book into the hands of your readers?
Examples: Offer the book as a premium for ministry donations of $50 or more. Promote it to your email list. Back table sales at speaking events. Make it an add on sale on your sales route. (Also consider: What is your marketing strategy? How will you use your email list, bookstores, website, speaking engagements, joint ventures, ministry premiums, radio and TV interviews, press releases, volume sales, corporate sales, secondary rights to promote your book? What kind of sales do you project? Upon what do you base your projections? Have you published other (similar) books in the past?)

#7 / How are you going to meet your goals?
Do you know what steps you will take to achieve your goals? Do you know what to include and what not to include in your book? Do you have a clearly understand how you will frame your main message? (This is different than a topic. Marriage is a topic. “Your marriage will improve if you pray together with your spouse daily” is a main message.) Do you know what book features you will need to accomplish your goals? About how long will the book be? How many pages? What will the book look like? Will the book require any special features or formatting? Illustrations, charts, diagrams, footnotes, index, bibliography, photographs, etc. What publishing arrangements will you make? Will you self publish or work with a traditional publisher? Will you go with hard cover, paperback, digital download or audio book? What is your level of competence with each of these areas? How much time—realistically—do you have to do this? What do you want to do yourself, and what do you want to hire out? What source material will your writer use to create your book? Recordings of presentations? Interviews? Written or online materials? Other research?

The above is an excerpt from my book, How to Write and Publish Your First Book, available here.

front_cover_how2write-publish

Check out Dwight’s writing and publishing services here…

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Is your writing good enough to be published?

Five qualities separate writing pros from wannabes

Are you getting your point across?
Quality #1: Clarity
Is your writing clear? Good writing communicates. It gets your point across. Without clarity, it doesn’t matter how profound your thoughts are; they stay locked up inside of you. If your reader doesn’t understand your message, it’s up to you to fix the problem.
Here’s a simple test. Find a one-page sample of your writing. Give it to five people. Ask them to read it and tell you in their own words what they just read. Did they get it? Do they understand? Or do you need to explain it a different way?

Do you know why you’re writing?
Quality #2: Purpose
Beginning writers write first and figure out their purpose later. That’s okay for a private journal, but it won’t work in the world of blogs, books, letters, reports and scripts. Professionals know their purpose before they write. Before the first keystroke, they ask: Who is my reader? What do I want my reader to do or to experience? If you don’t know where you’re going, you won’t get there. Professionals write with purpose.

Are you bringing value to your reader?
Quality #3: Value
Write well and you add value to your reader. You enrich your reader’s life. Have you ever been to a restaurant where nobody cares if you get served on time or if the meal is properly prepared? If you have, you probably never went back. Businesses must add value to your life, or they lose you as a customer. In the same way, people won’t waste their time reading your book or blog unless they expect to get value from it. You must deliver, or they will write you off as an author.

Does every word count?
Quality #4: Focus
Have you ever started a fire with a magnifying glass? By focusing the sun’s rays, they become much more powerful. In the same way, your writing becomes more powerful when you focus every word on your purpose. Good writers learn to clear away the clutter and get to the point. They write tight, concise prose focused on the message they want to convey and the purpose they want to achieve. Every word that doesn’t move them toward those objectives is trimmed. In the end, every word counts.

Are you distracting your reader from your message?
Quality #5: Accuracy
Have you ever been at an event where the sound system wasn’t working properly? Remember how distracting that was? Errors in your writing distract your reader in the same way and keep him from focusing on your message. For example, I cringe every time I hear the word administrate; the correct word is administer. Did he really kiss you on the creek? Did you mean wench or wrench? Bullion or bouillon, prostrate or prostate, raze or raise? Choosing the wrong word is distracting for the reader and embarrassing for the writer. Did you mean your or you’re? There, their or they’re? Use the right word and spell it correctly. While nobody’s writing (including mine) is 100% error free, keep your mistakes to a minimum. Learn these language skills and/or hire someone to proofread your work.

If you need help bringing your message to your reader, contact Dwight Clough here.

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