A Parable about Ministries
I love to win! Not sometimes, every time. I will not go to a movie if I know it has a sad ending. Why pay money when I can get discouraged for free? I wish that life was a constant celebration of one victory after another but that is not what we read about in the Bible and that is not the life that Jesus called us to. The life of a disciple individually and collectively is a series of ups and downs. Like Peter, we will have times of brilliant revelation and commendation followed by swift correction and rebuke (Mk 8). Sometimes we will walk on the water and other times be exposed for our lack of faith (Mt 14). The Story of the Old and New Testament is a constant shifting back and forth as God’s people alternately choose to serve God and then serve themselves. The principle of repentance is not something that is done once in our lives but rather a lifestyle that must be maintained.

T his principle is true for us collectively as well. Our fellowship of churches has a bright and glorious history of radical faith and devotion that “rang out” around the world. 1 Thessalonians 1:8 The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it. We sometimes forget how incredible it is that God spread the message around the globe in about 20 years! I am humbled every time I share our story with a stranger to see how their eyes widen when I explain all God has done in such a short time. But like our biblical heroes in the faith we have also suffered defeats. The purpose of this article is to provide some helpful insights about the road to recovery.

G od has allowed Joyce and me to serve in two rapidly recovering churches in the last 4 years, Baltimore, Md. and Boston, Ma.. Baltimore was a midsized church of about 250 disciples and Boston was an older larger church with roughly 2,000 members. Both churches had glorious beginnings but had slipped into a period of discouragement. We have seen several principles in these two churches that will be discussed here to help shed light on the “Anatomy of Recovery”.

O ne of my earliest memories as a college student was attending a Bible study in a dorm at Duke University and having a discussion on the “Parable of the Sower”. At the end everyone was asked, “Which soil are you?” I wanted to say “The good soil” but as I listened I knew I was in the weeds and my faith was being choked out. I always liked multiple choice tests and found it helpful to have 4 options to consider. This parable has five stages to choose from and I would ask that you consider carefully where you and your ministry are in this recovery analogy. I preached a sermon on this topic at the recent International Leaders Conference in Kiev. [If you prefer to hear that message you can (click here).] I pray that these thoughts can help you have clarity about what the next step is for you personally and that we can all grow in our walk with God. Standing at the Crossroads Jeremiah 6:16 This is what the LORD says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. We are all tempted to think that we are unique and that our challenges are in some way exceptional and therefore require us to create a new solution. Paul reminds the Corinthians that our temptations are common to man and that God has already provided a solution for us (1Cor 10:13). Jeremiah’s admonition is to ask for the ancient path and walk in it. I am reassured that we do not need to rely on understanding the latest trend in psychology, or philosophy to find our way forward. We simply need to go back to the scriptures and trust God again. Then we will find rest for our souls.

Stage 1 – Darkness and Denial

Jeremiah 6:13-15

13 “From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. 14 They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace. 15 Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush. So they will fall among the fallen; they will be brought down when I punish them,” says the LORD.

Ezekiel 13:10-12

10 ” ‘Because they lead my people astray, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace, and because, when a flimsy wall is built, they cover it with whitewash, 11 therefore tell those who cover it with whitewash that it is going to fall. Rain will come in torrents, and I will send hailstones hurtling down, and violent winds will burst forth. 12 When the wall collapses, will people not ask you, “Where is the whitewash you covered it with?”

Revelation 3:14-19

14″To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17 You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. 18I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. 19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. T hroughout the scriptures we see that God’s people in times of trouble often have leaders who are in denial. In Jeremiah the prophets and priests “dress the wound of the people as though it were not serious”. I had a friend once who had a ruptured appendix which was misdiagnosed as food poisoning. The delay in treatment resulted in internal devastation and near death. If we under respond to a spiritual crisis we risk magnifying the damage unnecessarily. Ezekiel laments that some leaders erect flimsy buildings and dress them up well, only to be utterly destroyed when they are exposed to trials. There are many churches that are dead on the inside but have leaders who are expert at making things look and sound respectable. The church in Laodicea was still functioning and its members felt good about life, but Jesus was nauseated by them.

Warning Signs of Darkness and Denial • Leadership “Keeping Peace” – primary goal – avoid criticism • Don’t know where you are – membership, attendance, baptisms, etc. • Compare yourself with worst possible scenario o “At least we are not shouting at church” o “At least I don’t feel guilty all the time” o “At least …. • Distorted view of the past – all bad or all good o Numbers 11:4-5 Egypt – great food, free! Solution – Humility Romans 12:3 – Sober Judgment o Drunk Drivers are often unaware – need objective perspective o We only find God’s will when we give our heart, use our talent and stay humble with others Stage 2 – Decision to Get Well John 5:1-7 1 Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews. 2 Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda[a] and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. 3 Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.[b] 5 One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” 7″Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” I t is interesting that when Jesus finds a man who clearly needs a recovery he asks him a simple question, “Do you want to get well?” The obvious answer should be “Yes!” but his reply tells us all we need to know about his heart. He found it easier to excuse failure then to have enough faith to succeed. That is the reality for many leaders and Christians caught in a long cycle of defeat. There were things he could have done to get into the pool to be healed, like sit on the side poised to “fall in” at the right time. He had been there a long time and no longer had the faith to get well. Signs You’re Ready to Decide to Get Well

  • Willing to Accept Personal Responsibility
    • Psalms 51:1-6
  • Comfortable with Confession
    • Nehemiah 1:5-7
    • Deuteronomy 1:22-28

D avid was at the lowest point of his spiritual life when he wrote Psalm 51. He had been sinful and then heartbroken by the consequences of his sin, but he was on the road to recovery. He begins by accepting personal responsibility for his actions. Regardless of the depth of our despair, we only begin to get well when we accept our part of the problem. Nehemiah was a leader who just arrived to help rescue those in distress but he began by owning his sin, not trying to put the blame on others who had gone before. Moses here recounts a decision that “seemed good” to him at the time but ultimately cost him his chance to enter the Promised Land and cost the lives of all but two of his contemporaries. It is important as leaders that we set an example of humility and sober judgment about our sins and leadership. Solution – Bold Humility o Luke 15:17 – Come to Our Senses o The son finally stopped trying to feel good about the pig-pen and decides to go back to the father. Bold humble action is required. o Luke 19:8 – Bold Decisive Plan o Zacchaeus was pronounced saved by Jesus because of his dynamic faith that immediately announced a plan to repent. Are we ready to act?

Stage 3 – Direction Driven by Faith not Fear Deuteronomy 1:29 – 36 26 But you were unwilling to go up; you rebelled against the command of the LORD your God. 27 You grumbled in your tents and said, “The LORD hates us; so he brought us out of Egypt to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us. 28 Where can we go? Our brothers have made us lose heart. They say, ‘The people are stronger and taller than we are; the cities are large, with walls up to the sky. We even saw the Anakites there.’ ” 29 Then I said to you, “Do not be terrified; do not be afraid of them. 30 The LORD your God, who is going before you, will fight for you, as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes, 31 and in the desert. There you saw how the LORD your God carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.”

32 In spite of this, you did not trust in the LORD your God, 33 who went ahead of you on your journey, in fire by night and in a cloud by day, to search out places for you to camp and to show you the way you should go.

34 When the LORD heard what you said, he was angry and solemnly swore: 35 “Not a man of this evil generation shall see the good land I swore to give your forefathers, 36 except Caleb son of Jephunneh. He will see it, and I will give him and his descendants the land he set his feet on, because he followed the LORD wholeheartedly.”

Joshua 1:6 – 9 6 “Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them. 7 Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. 8 Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. 9 Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” A fundamental question that any disciple or any leadership must ask themselves is; “What is my primary motivation?” Is it faith or is it fear? Many churches are guided by a desire to not get anyone upset. These churches will be directed by those with the loudest voice and the least faith. Some one once observed that, “The path of least resistance makes rivers and men crooked.” The opposite of this is to be guided by a faithful vision of what God calls us to do. The Israelites entry into the Promised Land was a dramatic illustration that was recorded for all time. The same land, the same obstacles, the same nation, but remarkably different outcomes. The first time the fear of failure dominated the decision which resulted in death and defeat. Forty years later, with a leadership guided by faith they victoriously entered the Promised Land! Which of those two best describes your current situation?

B altimore’s board of directors decided to step out on faith and approve a deficit budget in 2005 in order to hire the Doug and Jennifer Lambert for the teen ministry. They had a sizable surplus in the bank, but it still required great faith to present to the church a budget with a thirty-five thousand dollar deficit. God responded to their faith by moving someone totally unexpected in the congregation to give a gift of more than $28,000 two hours before the presentation to the church. That gift combined with the excess giving in the previous few weeks erased the deficit before it was even presented to the congregation. When is the last time you stepped out on faith and put yourself in a position to really depend on God? The Lamberts now lead the entire congregation as God has continued to affirm the leadership’s faith. Signs of Living by Faith

  • Dreaming About What is Possible – “Our best days are ahead of us”
    • 1 Samuel 14:6 “Perhaps the LORD will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the LORD from saving, whether by many or by few .”
  • Willingness to See People Leave
  • John 6:66-67 – Do you want to go too?
    • Mark 10:17-23 – Rich young ruler

T he current goal for the Baltimore congregation is to be their “best ever”. That church will soon have the largest membership, largest contribution and the warmest fellowship in their 10 year history. It is inspiring to think of that kind of goal for all of us. Clearly God blesses leadership which is focused on faith.

I t seems odd to consider a willingness to see people leave as a sign of living by faith. In our sinful nature most of us really want to be liked by everyone. Jesus called us to a radical message that he promised would cause division if we preached it correctly (Mt 10:34-39). In this age of political correctness many disciples are drawn into the false notion that if we are loving enough, everyone will accept us and our message. Their fear of rejection replaces a faith in God to sift the hearts of all men. Solutions – Courageous Leadership & Courageous Congregations

  • Joshua 1:6-9,18 Joshua’s primary expectation by both God and the nation of Israel to be strong and very courageous
  • Joshua 1:16-18 The Israelites promise to follow wholeheartedly and to deal with dissention aggressively. Courage cannot be restricted to the leaders but is a requirement for every disciple.

Stage 4 – A Call Back to Commitment Joshua 24:14-21 14 “Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. 15 But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”

16 Then the people answered, “Far be it from us to forsake the LORD to serve other gods! 17 It was the LORD our God himself who brought us and our fathers up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we traveled. 18 And the LORD drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We too will serve the LORD, because he is our God.”

19 Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the LORD. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. 20 If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you.” 21 But the people said to Joshua, “No! We will serve the LORD.”

Revelation 2:1-6

1″To the angel[a] of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands: 2I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked men, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. 3You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. 4Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. 5Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. 6But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

E ven good people need to be called back to repentance. Joshua has lead the Israelites faithfully for his entire life and he is now at the end of his time on earth. He takes the opportunity to call everyone back to decision about their relationship with God. If we have been through a time of spiritual discouragement it is important and encouraging to realize that we can and need to repent. Repentance brings times of refreshing from God (Ac 3:19). It is amazing that we long for refreshment but resist repentance. A call back to commitment is not something that we need to regret but rather see as key to a fresh and invigorating relationship with God.

I am startled by the long list of compliments that the church in Ephesus receives; hard work, perseverance, endured hardship, strong stand on sin, excellent judgment about false teachers, and not grown weary. This reminds me of so many people that I love and respect for just these reasons! Jesus pours on the praise and then loves them enough to call them back to recommitment. Great people need to repent too. Many of us are good at commending but rarely call others to regain their first love. We all have memories of our best days in the faith, days of zeal and dedication and making a difference in the lives of others. We remember the height from which we have fallen and we like the Ephesians need to repent and do the things we did at first . Without repentance there can be no recovery. Signs and Solutions for a Call to Recommitment

  • Leadership is Required
    • Deuteronomy 1:9-18 There has been a popular myth circulated that God’s people will flourish without any leadership. That is utter nonsense and those that espouse that view have clearly spent more time talking than helping meet needs in God’s family. Leadership is cover to cover in the Bible. It has its downfalls and limitations but it is absolutely essential to the healthy function of any group large or small.
  • Money Matters
    • Nehemiah 13:10-13 Two thousand five hundred years ago God’s people had drifted from him and were in need of serious of spiritual recovery. Nehemiah addressed two sins very directly indeed; greed and mixed marriage. Things are not much different all these generations later. Greed and sexual misconduct are the very first things that enter a stagnant fellowship. Jesus said it is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom, we have seen the pursuit of wealth destroy the faith of many and yet most are uncomfortable talking about the love of money. We need to repent and help others to do the same.
  • Gossip/Slander/Factions/Divisiveness are sin
    • Joshua 1:18, Titus 3:9-11, Mark 7:22, Galatians 5:20 Gossip and slander can bring down sports dynasties, divide loving families, destroy a work environment, and paralyze a church. It is vital that Christians feel that they are free to express themselves in a godly and balanced way (Eph 4: 20-32). This freedom cannot be abused and allowed to damage the hearts and faith of our brothers and sisters around us. We must see this as not just the leaders’ responsibility but rather a conviction that all disciples are passionate about.
  • Devotion to the Fellowship
    • Hebrews 10:23-25, Acts 2:42-47 Devotion is a word that describes a level of passion and dedication that is extraordinary. That is the word used to describe the level of commitment that we are to have to meeting with our brothers and sisters. Many of our fellowships have become lax in this area essential to our spiritual development. Some have become ‘Sunday only” Christians with no hope of helping other disciples or the lost to be saved. We must recommit to being devoted to the fellowship!

T he best news of this entire article is that if we do decide to come out of darkness and denial and we walk by faith again and are willing to recommit our hearts to God, He never fails to bless our efforts. The Boston congregation is where much of our movement blossomed from. More than 50 churches were sent out from here and hundreds of leaders were raised up in this place. But as one of the older congregations in our fellowship she faced many trials earlier than others and struggled to find solutions. But in recent months she has been blessed with a spirit of revival and a time of refreshment. These victories are shared to give hope to others who have felt stuck in their faith and struggled to find hope. Boston Church of Christ – Signs of Recovery

  • Every Member Into a Family Group and Discipling Restarted
  • Clarified Membership – 1,952
  • Reenergized the Campus Ministry
    • Ministry training program – 8 interns
    • Baptisms increase from 5 to 30
    • 3 new campus graduates hired fulltime
  • Reversed Decline in Missions Giving + $200,000 = 10X Weekly
  • Increased Weekly Giving by $300,000
  • Reestablished Support for HOPEww
  • Increasing Eldership from 5 to 12
  • Congregational Teaching Program Established
  • Surging Singles Ministry – Hired the Folkers Fulltime
  • Increased Disciples for the First Time in 7 Years ~ 80 Disciples

Stage 5 – Returning to the Heart of God Mark 1:35 35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him, 37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” 38 Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” 39 So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons. Luke 19:10 8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”

Matthew 28:16-20

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[a] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

C learly the consistent theme and passion of the ministry of Jesus was a relentless dedication to helping lost people be saved. As disciples of His we must ask ourselves “Am I about my fathers business?” Do we care about what he cared about? Do we cry about what he cried about?

L ife comes at us fast. It is so easy to let ‘the deceitfulness of wealth and the desire for other things’ choke out our eternal purpose as ambassadors for Christ. As I share the blessings that God has showered on us here in Boston in the last few months, I am haunted by the memory of one conversation with some brothers after a midweek service. I was sharing about all the great things that were happening in the church only to have one brother pose a very pointed question, “Those things are amazing, and how many people are you studying the Bible with right now?” he asked with anticipation. My joy turned to embarrassment as I quietly replied “none”. Even as a full time evangelist, I can lose sight of the goal. I think that since arriving in Boston I can honestly say I have never worked harder in the ministry, but I have only studied the Bible with one person who has become a Christian. I am right back where I was in 2005.

A t the leaders retreat in Baltimore in January of 2006 I announce to all of our family group leaders that I was convicted that I had been too much of a “Pastor” and not enough of an “Evangelist”. I explained that I needed to change my schedule to make more time for the lost and less time for the saved. They stood and cheered. In that year God brought me 10 people that had a heart to be saved and the church began to grow dynamically. That will be my prayer for 2009 here in Boston. Solution – Disposition David’s Disposition – Psalms 51 10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. 13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will turn back to you. • Paul’s Perspective – Acts 20

22 “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. 23 I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. 24 However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.

D avid explains so beautifully that the final phase of spiritual recovery is not merely “sitting by the quite waters” but rather sharing the peace of God and turning sinners back to him. That is when we are healed, that is when we are truly happy. P aul puts it quite simply when he says it’s the only thing that matters to him. I long for that clarity in my life and I am thankful for the grace of God which allows me to repent and feel the refreshment. My goal for this “Parable” of sorts is to clarify for myself and perhaps you various stages in the road to recovery and inspire you to have faith to simply take the next step. The time has come for the question to be asked of you. Where do you and your ministry fit among these five choices:

  1. Darkness and Denial
  2. Decision to Get Well
  3. Direction Driven by Faith not Fear
  4. A Call Back to Commitment
  5. Returning to the Heart of God

I pray to God that we will all find sufficient courage to take the next step of faith in our journey towards home.