Are you making decisions by analysis, or discernment?

In the last few months I have had a number of conversations with people about how to discern God’s will. Several people in my life have been looking at big decisions and trying to ask what God’s will is.  In the midst of all of these conversation, I had N. Graham Standish come and do a training with my church on how to be a church based on discerning and following God’s will.  Since issues related to discernment have been on my mind and people have questions about it, I will be doing a few blog posts about finding God’s will.  Today we begin with a basic understanding of what discernment actually is.


Most of the time we make decisions by analysis.  The word means to cut apart or dissect.  We take decisions and divide them into choices, arguments, sides, or parties.  Think about learning to write book reports in school.  Or debate.  Or make decisions using Robert’s Rules of Order. They are all based on dissecting arguments into pro’s and con’s and making a decision based on which side makes the most sense, is the most coherent, and has the most upside.

Christians are not really called to decisions by analysis. We are called to discernment.  Discernment means to separate or sift out.  This way of decision making assumes that God has a plan and that it is our goal to sort out what that is and follow.  Imagine mining for gold in 1849.  You  move a pan or rock around and watch for gold and the larger rocks move to the outside of the pan.  That is how Christians are called to make

Think about the early church in the book of Acts.  When they need to make a decision they stop and pray and ask God to guide them.  When they give a reason for their decisions, sometimes all they can say is that it “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”  (Acts 15:28)

God’s will does not always make sense.  It does not not always have the best upside for us.  In fact, if you think back to all of the Sunday school stories that you learned from the Bible, you will find that most of them were not the most logical choices.

I am convinced that a lot of the problem in our churches and in our denominations today stem from a fundamental confusion between discernment and analysis. Many christians are trying to make decisions with analysis and wondering why they seem distant from God’s will.

We will be exploring how to discern more in the next few posts.



Thanks to Graham Standish (website) in his talks and in his book Becoming a Blessed Church: Forming a Church of Spiritual Purpose,Presence, and Power.  He has really helped me to understand this topic.

Wednesday Book Review: Autopsy of a Deceased Church

I recently picked up Thom Rainer’s book Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive.  It sounds like a negative book, but it is meant to be a helpful resource for existing churches. Rainer did research on churches that had closed and did interviews and analysis of what happened as they ceased to be. The hope of the book is that, by looking at these autopsies, churches can see some of these characteristics coming and find motivation to change.

Rainer lays out 10 trends of churches that have died.  I will share the 4 that hit me the hardest as I read it:

  • The Past is the Hero– Churches that die get stuck in the past.  Most of the time their view of the past is not even accurate, but it does guide the church more than the future does.  The adage becomes “We have always done it that way.”  Churches who get too stuck in the past have not future.
  • The Church Refused to Look Like the Community–  Churches that die have not changed with their communities.  Most of the churches studied had seen dramatic changes in make up of the neighborhood around them.  This change in age, ethnicity, or class is not mirrored in the church itself.  When a church does not look like the community then it is on the way down.
  • Pastoral Tenure Decreases– Churches that die show a very similar pattern in pastorates.  Pastors begin to stay at the church for very short tenures.  The pulpit becomes a revolving door of pastors.  It generally takes a few years for a pastor to get really productive in a church.  With short tenures, pastors never get productive and cannot exert the needed leadership for change.
  • The Church Rarely Prayed Together– This is the trend that was most shocking to me.  Yes, these churches did have congregational prayers like prayers of confession and pastoral prayers in worship.  But these churches did not have deep times of prayer and did not have times of seeking God’s will together.  I realized in reading this chapter that I have not done enough to encourage prayer in my own church.

After talking about what a dying church looks like, Rainer makes recommendations of churches that look sick,  churches that look very sick, and churches that are dying.  These last 3 chapters are great for starting conversation about how to respond to decline in a church.  He challenges churches to make big changes and to consider radical efforts–even considering closing and giving away your building.

I highly recommend this resource.  I read everything that Rainer writes but I found this book and his last book I Am a Church Member: Discovering the Attitude that Makes the Difference to be especially accessible and helpful.  This book would be great for councils and sessions of established churches to read through together and discuss.  I even wonder if presbyteries and higher governing bodies should read it.  So many of our churches are sick or dying.  Very few are truly healthy and fully fulfilling God’s plans for them.

5 Things Churches can Learn from the NBA Champion Spurs

I loved watching the San Antonio Spurs win the NBA championship this week.  It was so cool to see a team work as a team.  Though they had a few future hall of fame players, they did not play like a team built around superstars.  No one was concerned about personal statistics or accolades.  What was most important was the team’s success.  Everyone worked to do their part and to make each other better. They were especially focused on details.  Their coach expected pristine passing, exact defensive execution, and hustle on every play.

Because they were such a strong team with such a specific vision of what they should be doing, the Spurs were able to overwhelm the Heat.  The Heat could get on a roll for a few plays, but in the end they could not shake the Spurs.  The Spurs would just ride out the surge and continue to execute until the momentum would turn back in their favor.  The team chemistry and execution was a thing a beauty.

I hope that this Spurs team will act as a model for the future of the NBA.  I have for years now stayed at arms length from the NBA and embraced the college game.  In college, teams cannot ride one or two great players and play for only a couple of good moments in the game.  The great college teams play hard all the time.  I think the NBA will be much better if more teams would play this kind of game.  This could be especially helpful for teams that might have weaker rosters.  The Spurs have also made a blueprint for what a team could try if they do not have the star-power to take over games.

Perhaps the NBA is not the only place that needs to learn from the teamwork of the Spurs.  So many churches I see could learn a lot from the Spurs.

1. Play your own game.  The Spurs knew what their game was and dictated that the games be played in their style.  I have seen a lot of churches try to copy other churches in what they are doing.  You can certainly adapt what other churches are doing to your context, but adoption without adaption is a bad idea.  Be true to your way of doing things.

2. Play with the players you have.  Most churches long for a superstar.  They think (but don’t say it so boldly): “If only we had a dynamic pastor who was young then the young people would file into our church!”  It does not work that way.  God has given you the people that you have.  Do the best with the ones you have.

3. Play with the money you have.  Most churches wish they had more money so that they could do more things.  The challenge is to build the team with the money that you have.  For the Spurs, that meant building around players no one wanted, developing skills, and relying more on the team

4. Dig into the details.  I saw a player (Green) get pulled out of a finals game because he closed out on a shooter (Allen) incorrectly.  He ran past the shooter and allow the 3 pointer to be shot and made.  He got corrected and coached adamantly on the sideline.  Seems like overkill, right?  But it is that kind of intentional focus on every detail of the game that made the Spurs a championship team.  Churches do a lot of things (worship, dinners, hymns…) but most of them are not very intentional.  Details are often “thrown together” in churches instead of being “planned together.”

5. Function like a family.  When the Spurs won there was so much emotion between the players and with the coaching staff.  The sense of family and togetherness was stronger than any other NBA Finals celebration I think I have ever seen.  It seemed that their emotion was so strong because they felt they had won it for each other.  I wish the church had that kind of unity.  So often, we act like a dysfunctional family that are more like political parties than one cohesive team.

It is a shame to see the NBA Finals end because the Spurs’ play was beauty in motion.  I think for me, however, the impact of watching their teamwork will be long term.

Do you have any other thoughts one what can be learned from the Spurs?

7 Tips for Relating to Visitors at Church

We have all been there. We see a face in the church that we don’t know. What do we do? We have problems if we ignore them. We can give them the impression that we don’t want them there. We also have problems if we rush them like sharks on a chum line. This gives them the impression that we don’t ever get visitors here. That is not a lesson we want them to learn. So, here are 7 tips for relating to guests at church:

church sardis

1. Introduce yourself. There seems to be an inter-dialogue that happens in the minds of people in church. It goes like this: “Look, there is a visitor. Should I go introduce myself or just stare at them?” Easy answer- you should introduce yourself.
2. Engage in a longer conversation by asking questions. Conversations are becoming a lost art, so here are a few good ones: Do you live in the area? Did you just move to the area? What brought you to Westminster? What do you do for a living? Do you have family in the area? Do you have kids? What do you like to do when you are not working?
3. Remember that welcoming is not the pastor’s job. People want to like the pastor but they typically stick around a church because of the people that they connect with. Don’t just ask the pastor who that guest is. Ask that guest who that guest is.
4. Try to talk to them after church if you can. Visitors tend to want to jet after church. Try to talk with them after church. Ask them if they had any questions, if something really stuck with them from the sermon, and if they are looking for a church home. Invite them back to church next week or to another special event that might be upcoming.
5. If you have hospitality time after church then invite people down for cookies. I have found that this does not work real well. It is better to invite them down to talk to you more, walk down with them, show them the church, and sit with them to have more discussion.
6. Remember their name, even if you have to write it down. If they come back the next week then use their name, but also re-introduce yourself so that they don’t feel bad if they forgot your name.
7. One of the best things you can do for a person who comes into church is to connect them with another person. For example, if they have young kids, make sure they meet others with young kids. If they are a teacher, see if you can connect them with someone else who is a teacher.

If a person shows up in church, they did so for a reason. Maybe they are struggling with something. Maybe they are looking for a church. Maybe they are seeking God over a particular decisions. They are always more than potential members. They are people with genuine needs. We often only get one chance at a first impression in the church. Do your best to make it a good one.


My Dad’s Charge at my Ordination

I graduated from Seminary in 2012.  Later that summer I got ordained.  It was quite a moving experience, but by far the most moving part was my dad’s charge to me.  Several of my friends have also found it challenging enough to spur on conversations among us a couple years later.  I hope it is challenging to you as well.

dad preaching


Jordan, it is my honor to welcome you to your new responsibilities before your living Lord, and to charge you to honor and fulfill your calling.
I challenge you first to become a life-long learner. The times they are a changing, and you will need to continue to learn if you will be able to keep up and to lead. Specifically I charge you to pick one book of the Bible. It doesn’t matter which one it is but pick one book of the Bible and to make it your goal to become an expert—a living expert in that book. Likewise, I challenge you to pick a theologian, it doesn’t matter who it is, but pick a theologian, a solid theologian and spend your life becoming an expert in his or her life’s work. Let that theologian mentor you and help you in an ongoing way.
I charge you to dare. I believe every person needs a cutting edge in their life—a place or an area in their life where they are pushing and stretching the boundaries, exploring outside their comfort zones. Dare. Push out. Explore the uncomfortable and continue to grow.
I charge you to lead a Word-centered ministry. Ministry is not about our words but about His. We are a people of books, but our identity is that we are a people of The Book. Spend time daily in the Bible.
I charge you to love. You will only shepherd your people well when you truly and deeply and personally care for them.
I charge you to learn and know yourself. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is within you.” And I believe you will learn how to lead your people as you allow the Holy Spirit to lead your own Christian walk. The Holy Spirit is the teacher in God’s school of discipleship. You will learn how to disciple others as He disciples you.
I challenge you to become a man of prayer. This calling demands of you more wisdom and power than you can possibly bring to the task. The real secret of success in ministry is daily dependence of Christ.
And finally I challenge you to walk your own path. God has gifted you with a unique set of talent, gifts, abilities, and dreams. Each masterpiece God creates is an original, and you are an original. Honor His design and follow His plan. All of us here wish you all and only God’s best in your ministry.

7 Ways to Get More People Active at Church

I think every church has a problem getting volunteers for different committees, roles, and positions.  Once we get a person to volunteer we never let people out of the commitment.  The same small group of people do all the work.  I have not totally figured out how to solve this problem, but here are 7 things that I have found helpful.


1. Don’t rely on announcements. If you announce it to everybody, you have asked nobody.  Announcements can be ignored.  If you want people to come and do something then ask them, don’t announce it to them.  And, by the way, anything you announce should be important for everybody.  If 5 people are on a committee then just tell them when the meeting is, not the entire church.

2. Here is the rule of thumb: Ask one on one, face to face, and for specific things and times.  This sounds like common courtesy but for some reason church people don’t want to do it.  It is easy to ignore announcements and to say “no” on the phone or email.  If you ask for specific things face to face you are much more likely to get a “yes.”

3. Make a habit of asking new people first.  The first people that come to mind for particular tasks are probably the ones that always get asked.  They are the easy targets because they will probably say yes.  Try to make it an essential element of your church culture to ask people who do not normally be asked.

4. Don’t be too picky.  Sometimes we have too many criteria for volunteers.  Sometimes we need to ignore abilities.  Also, don’t be afraid to ask busy people or people who have said “no” in the past.  The Biblical paradigms are willingness and the ability to listen to God.  Let God take care of the rest.

5. Cultivate specific people.  We need to invest ourselves as leaders in developing new leaders and volunteers at the church.  Sometimes new people need to mature and to feel the support of good relationships in order to be willing to volunteer.  Help them with it.

6. Encourage people who take a number of roles to release some control.  They sometimes complain that no one else gets involved but they also do not know how to give up control.  New volunteers do not want to do things the way others have done it.  They want to create their own projects and committees.  Help those who currently volunteer a lot see the value for your church of bringing others on board.

7. Leave rough edges.  Sometimes we want everything to be perfect, but it is often the rough edges of our work that get new volunteers.  If you do not have enough people to run a particular ministry, shut it down for a few months and see who feels called to see that thing continue.  Do you want a drummer?  Leave a new drum set up front that begs to be played.  Need help decorating?  Leave the area undecorated until the right person cannot take it anymore and comes forward to volunteer.

Above all, you want people to be and feel called to the work they do.  Give people permission to say “no” but also give more people a chance to say “yes.”

Any other thoughts on how to get more people involved?

Finding New Metaphors for Pastors


One of the things I have wrestled with as a pastor is my own view of my work.  What really is the job of the pastor?  A pastor is expected to be so many things: preacher, teacher, moderator, worship leader, worship designer, counselor, executive, trainer, financial guru, fundraiser, funeral director, wedding planner, writer, publicist, activist…  The list can go on and on.  Sometimes we feel like janitors, complaint hotlines, and conflict mediators. Some pastors get specific jobs on a team, many of us are in smaller churches where we are forced to be general practitioners.

The main Biblical paradigm for a pastor is a shepherd.  How many of us today have ever seen a shepherd or even smelled a sheep?  The metaphor has little meaning to us.  Dr. Craig Barnes, my professor in seminary and now president of Princeton seminary, once looked at pastor as a “sheepdog” bringing the people back to the good shepherd. Dr. Barnes has also written about the pastor as minor prophet.  (Pastor as Minor Prophet)   He looks at pastors as the people who spin words to comment on culture and the larger realities that people are not seeing.  His ideas have some parallel to Walter Brugemann who uses the prophets of the Old Testament as a model for pastoral ministry.  The Bible uses other metaphors, including gardener, spiritual parent, and maybe even good Samaritan.  Church history adds other metaphors like physician of the soul.  While I learned a great deal from these metaphors, none have ever really connected with me as my own paradigm for ministry.

I see three models of pastoral ministry pushed in the world today.  The first is the pastor as the CEO of the church as an organization.  This comes a lot from large churches that function a lot more like a big business.  This model tends to read a lot of business literature.  The second model is pastor as counselor.  In this model the pastor is all about making people more emotionally healthy.  Pastors in this model do a lot of private counseling and group sessions but also preach on emotional topics.  The third model is pastor as charismatic figure.  These pastors function as religious rock stars whose sermons are posted online and whose stage presence can fill auditoriums. I am being a bit sarcastic as I portray these models.

I find some value in each and read from pastors in each camp, but none of them resonate with me.  They don’t ring true for me in my own calling.  These models also have 2 major flaws.  First, they often lead to burn out because they are so demanding on the pastor.  Second, they will not be accepted in a postmodern world that rejects authority and is suspicious of structured leadership.

So I have been wondering what needs to be done about the metaphors for pastors.  I am looking for thoughts and input as I am considering this for a future Doctor of Ministry thesis.  What are your thoughts?

  • What can be done to reconnect pastors today with classic metaphors?  
  • What new metaphors may need to be created?  
  • What narratives are pastors actually living into?

I am looking for thoughts and input as I am considering this for a future Doctor of Ministry thesis.  What are your thoughts?  Post a comment on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments section and add to the conversation.