How’s It Going? Part 2: We need a scoreboard

Dart in the bullseyeI’m of the opinion that improving in how we evaluate our ministries can help us be better stewards of the resources God has given us, helping us better meet His intended ends. To do that, we need to set up a scoreboard and figure out the score.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t believe we have the freedom to adjust God’s mission, or what maturity and faithfulness mean. These are fixed by the apostolic witness. But we do need to know how we’re doing in relation to His standards. And we do need to do the hard work of figuring out how we will go about meeting, and preparing others to meet, those standards. We also need to figure out whether our various methods and tactics are bringing us closer to, or leading us further away from, God’s goals for His church. To pull that off, we need to constantly be evaluating. Unless we want to calcify, there must be some form of feedback loop that keeps us reforming how we do things on the ground.

What I’m suggesting is that we can do better than evaluating ministry by sitting around a table with our ministry heads, asking each in turn, “How’s your ministry going?” and then being content with them either pointing to the attendance stats, or giving a subjective rating.

What that requires of us is to

  • clarify what our ideal situation is,
  • figure out what structure best supports that situation,
  • determine the best indicators of whether we are moving towards or away from that desired future state, and
  • choose milestones at which you need to take any actions.

We can then assess where we stand in relation to these indicators, which can be done at a macro level (looking at the whole church) or the micro level (zooming in on one aspect of church life), and adjust our tactics based on that feedback.

Establishing our ideal situation and structures is no small task. They will be informed by the Bible, our context, our moment in time, our tradition, and the collective desires of those whom God has gathered in your local church. Getting clear here is incredibly important, but for another day. We’re going to focus in on indicators.

The indicators (or metrics) are feedback devices that act as co-pilots, guiding us towards our destination. So, the more vivid that destination is, and the more appropriate the indicators, the better placed our group of local church leaders/guardians is to be setting the agenda and faithfully shepherding.

My bet is most of us have some form of what we’d love to see already buried in our heads. And the reality is that, if you do, that is what you are drawing on in your responses to whatever feedback you get. My question to you is this: how confident are you that those you serve alongside share the same mental picture of the future?

How’s It Going? Part 1: An alternative to beating up on numbers

Close of man reviewing a reportSoon after I finished studying at theological college, I was hit with some bad news: my father had fallen terminally ill. He’d invested a lot in me so, when he approached me to help with a succession plan for his company, I was only too willing to help. I got on board and got stuck in. I was unaware of it at the time, but rubbing my theological training up against a business environment flagged a big gap in my formal training: leadership and management. So, when I saw Graham touching on ministry evaluation I got excited.

I’ve noticed the trend Graham points to, of people offering attendance stats when asked about the ministries they’re involved in, but I wanted to offer a different perspective on why they do that. I’m of the opinion that people do this because they don’t have better tools to evaluate their ministries. Don’t get me wrong, I think most people who read this will have a framework for what makes a ministry distinctly Christian, but I haven’t seen many work that out into something that can answer the question, “How’s it going?” So, we default to the situation Graham describes.

We’re ill-equipped here because our formal training wasn’t trying to prepare us to analyse the complex organism that is the local church. A lot of church leadership requires management skills, and management skills aren’t what a theological college is trying to instil. That’s not to say we’re ignorant of the deficiency – quite the contrary! I think this partly explains why we get so excited when someone like Andrew Heard comes along: he offers a deployable package, in the 5Ms, that holds together theological and practical awareness. Even those who want to argue with him usually do so over whether his theological focus is unbalanced or errant, not whether his approach to managing God’s household is useful or correct.

So, over the next few posts, I want to share a few thoughts on ministry evaluation. What do you think would be worth touching on?

John Calvin on Scripture: “The Letter Killeth”

KJVOft quoted, and always from the KJV for effect, is 2 Corinthians 3:6, “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” It is then claimed that ‘Bible heavy sermons’ or ministries overcommitted to teaching from Scripture are unhealthy, even deadly. Instead, the inane logic continues, our ministries and preaching should be ‘Spirit led’ and lively, happily free from the dull old book.

Ignoring the laughable irony of quoting a Bible verse to prove that the Bible need not be prioritised, a careful reading of the verse in its context will show what Paul is and is not saying. For starters, the next verse refers to letters carved in stone and Moses (3:7), while a few verses earlier Paul mentions tablets of stone (3:3). Paul is contrasting what he calls the ministry of death with the apostolic ministry of a new covenant in the Spirit. Interestingly, this ministry involved the writing of epistles (like 2 Corinthians) not ‘Spirit soaking’ and ‘fire circles.’ To conclude that the “letter that killeth” is the Bible, rather than the Old Testament law, is to horribly misinterpret the passage.

It seems Christians in the 16th century were making a similar mistake by mangling 2 Corinthians 3:6. In his Institutes, Calvin wrote, “Those who, having forsaken Scripture, imagine some way or other of reaching God, ought to be thought of as not so much gripped by error as carried away with frenzy” (1.9.1). Calvin says we should ask those claiming that the “Spirit giveth life” which spirit they mean since the apostles and early church did not despise God’s written Word. “Rather, each was imbued with greater reverence as their writings most splendidly attest.” Listen to Paul, a few verses on from that verse ignorantly cited, “We have denounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practise cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2). Thus Calvin asks, “What devilish madness is it to pretend that the use of Scripture, which leads the children of God even to the final goal, is fleeting or temporal?”

Perhaps the gravest and most damaging mistake of those who misuse 2 Corinthians 3:6 is the wedge that they drive between God’s Word and the Holy Spirit. Calvin cites John 16:13 to show that the Spirit’s ministry was not the forging of  some new doctrine but the restatement and filling out of the gospel of grace. He goes on, “From this we readily understand that we ought zealously to apply ourselves to read…Scripture if indeed we want to receive any gain and benefit from the Spirit of God” (1.9.2). As I argued in my previous post, God has given us his Word in order for us to know him and to keep us from creating gods in our own image. Those who refer to the Bible as a letter that kills while claiming the Spirit gives life are taking with one hand what they give with the other. Worse, they must either claim that the Bible is not from the Spirit or that the Spirit contradicts himself. Hear Calvin, “[The Spirit] is the Author of Scripture: he cannot vary and differ from himself. Thence he must ever remain just as he once revealed himself there.” Preachers, ministries and churches that claim to be “Spirit-filled” without a serious commitment to reading and teaching the Bible are mistaken at best and fraudulent at worst.

Coming back to 2 Corinthians, Calvin points out that Paul refers to his preaching of the truth as the ministry of the Spirit (3:8). He argues that this undoubtedly means “the Holy Spirit so inheres in His truth, which He expresses in Scripture, that only when its proper reverence and dignity are given to the Word does the Holy Spirit show forth His power” (1.9.3). Baying like an animal, falling on the floor or prophesying in an unintelligible tongue is not the power of God’s Spirit; it is nothing more than frenzy and hype. The seemingly unexciting and dreary practise of opening the Bible is where we will see and experience the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit.

John Calvin on Scripture: Inventing God

IdolI am going to assume that you have noticed the power of social media to provide a voice and platform for opinions, however outlandish; perhaps you are reading this or have previously logged onto Rekindle and consider our biblically charged approach to issues outdated and irrelevant. Though if that is the case I am not sure why you have continued reading. Another thing I have observed on social media is that there are nearly as many opinions about God – ranging from her character to his non-existence – as there are adorable cat videos. God, it would seem, is up for definition. Tragically, it is often those who profess to be Christians whom I hear reimagining or revising God. But this does should not surprise us in a church landscape where the Bible is considered a relic, a quaint piece of our history rather than the living Word of God.

John Calvin put his finger on this human tendency when he wrote that the human heart is a “perpetual factory of idols” (1.11.8). Briefly surveying a few Old Testament passages he asserts that idolatry has plagued humanity since time immemorial. Our history and the whole earth is “polluted with idols.” If God did not exist then this would not be a problem, for we would then be free to create him in our own image. However, if God does exist then it is to our spiritual peril that we believe God to be contingent with our feelings and desires. Calvin writes, “Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity.” One of the most prevalent errors heard in pulpits around the world today is contained in the phrase: ‘I think God…’, as if what we think determines who God is. Earlier Calvin says Christians who do not approach God’s Word in order to learn from God who he is “exult in their own vanity” (1.6.2). 

Christians must therefore be committed to the study of Scripture, for the Bible is not merely human words about God but his very words to us. This is how Christians have treated the Bible throughout the past two millennia. Churches that prefer the god conjured up in their own image worship nothing more than an idol. While churches that prioritise Scripture can know God as they encounter him in his inspired word. Listen to Calvin, “No one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture. Hence, there also emerges the beginning of true understanding when we reverently embrace what it pleases God there to witness of himself” (1.6.2). When our opinions about God outweigh what God has clearly laid out for us through his written revelation we demonstrate only our pride in vain musings and obtain nothing more than the idols of our hearts. “Errors can never be uprooted from human hearts until true knowledge of God is planted therein” (1.6.3).

Do not accept opinions or settle for feelings. The next time your pastor or a preacher prefaces a point with ‘I like to think God is’ or ‘I cannot believe that God would’ tell them you prefer God’s truth to their thoughts. “God has provided the assistance of the Word for the sake of all those to whom be has been pleased to give useful instruction…Hence, we must strive onward by this straight path if we seriously aspire to the pure contemplation of God” (1.6.3). Calvin goes on to say that those who turn from God’s eternal Word wander from the only path, never reach the goal, and stagger blindly in vanity and error even though they seek God (1.6.4). To seek God is to search the Scriptures. Anything less is to search for God where he cannot be found or known.

Chris Pratt: The Church’s Responsibility to the Next Generation

Generation AwardAppearing repeatedly on my social media feeds this week was Chris Pratt’s speech, after accepting the MTV Generation Award. What has garnered a lot of attention was his ninth rule for living: if we are willing to accept that we are imperfect then we can experience grace. “Grace is a gift, and like the freedom we enjoy in this country that grace was paid for with someone else’s blood. Do not forget it. Don’t take it for granted.” Putting aside the fact that Pratt accomplished in 15 seconds what Bishop Michael Curry failed to do in 15 minutes at the Royal Wedding, I want to pick up Pratt’s understanding of this particular award and the expectation tied to it. Pratt said, “This being the Generation Award I’m going to cut to the chase and I’m going to speak to you, the next generation. I accept the responsibility as your elder.”

Having recently had our first child, the reality of being responsible for the next generation has become both unavoidable and uncomfortable. I confess it is very likely an indication of my own selfishness that no meaningful thought on this task preceded the arrival of my son, which is to sideline the New Testament model that makes older and more mature Christians responsible for the younger. Pratt seems to understand this call in an age when many Christians only invest in their peers and the nuclear family. In 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You, Tony Reinke argues that one of the imperative responsibilities we have for future generations is the discerning use of pervasive technology. If we fail in this area those follow us will suffer the consequences. But I want to highlight another responsibility we have towards the next generation, specifically in the church.

God's WordIn the Old Testament book of Amos one of the themes that emerges is Israel’s rejection of God’s truth. As God’s covenant people Israel were entrusted with God’s law and expected to live in accordance with it (2:4-5). His law should have governed their lives and given shape to their worship. Yahweh also sent prophets but Israel silenced them (2:12; 3:7), hating those who spoke God’s truth (5:10). Appropriating Paul’s words in Romans 1, Israel exchanged God’s truth for a lie, for idols, and in order to live independently of God’s rule. How did this happen? As Amaziah said to the prophet in Amos 7, God’s words were unpleasant and uninspiring. They were burdensome, ‘Come on Amos, your unhealthy fixation on sin and insistence on God’s judgment simply isn’t what Israel want to hear. You need to adapt your message for the people, for the culture and their felt needs.’ But listen to Amos’ reply: The LORD took me from following the flock and said to me, “Go prophesy to my people” (7:15). The popularity of God’s truth does not alter its significance.

What is the outcome of Israel’s rejection of God’s truth? Look at Amos 8:11, “I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.” He goes on in 8:12 to describe people desperately searching for a word from God without finding or hearing it. D. A. Carson comments on these verses, “The point is that people who do not devote themselves to the words of God eventually lose them. The loss is catastrophic.”

What does any of this have to do with Chris Pratt or the next generation? In the next verse we are told that by abandoning by the words of God and God allowing that decision spells death for the generation to come, “the lovely virgins and strong men” (8:13). Israel’s rejection of God’s truth, his life-giving word, would lead to spiritual death and exile. Part of this tragedy we often miss is that those who came next would suffer a similar fate. The next generation will experience God’s silence and judgment because the current one had abandoned God’s truth. This should jolt us from our complacency and impress on us the responsibilities we have for the next generation in the church. The church that undervalues God’s gospel, contained in his inspired and true Word, brings death on the generations that will follow. The church that undervalues the Bible is not relevant, they are robbing the next generation of hearing from God.

Steve Jobs and the Creep of Technology

Steve JobsThough originally said in dismissal of market research, Steve Jobs’ now famous words, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” teach us something about consumerism and technology. Who would have thought before 2007 that you needed a cell phone as powerful as a computer? And just three years later we were convinced that everyone needs an almost identical device, just with a larger screen. I am talking respectively about the iPhone and iPad, two pieces of technology I cannot imagine my life without. So perhaps Jobs was right. In fact he most certainly was. But notice that he refers to what people want, not what they need.

As I wrote in a previous post, the choice to live in the modern sea of technology is unavoidable. But the flood of devices, social media, and apps means we are in serious danger of drowning in it. Technology is not merely tailored to meet a need while remaining hermetically sealed from the rest of our lives. They almost always demand more space than we intend to give them. As James Sire puts it in The Discipleship of the Mind, technology imposes how it is used. When I finally got my hands on my iPhone 3G it was so that I could have a cell phone and music player in one device. But six years later my iPhone – no, not the same one – has crept into most areas of my life, shaping how I do things, and even my thought processes.

The word technology is derived from older ones meaning ‘craft’ or ‘skill.’ And many Christian authors trace it back to Genesis 1-2, understanding it as a part of God’s appointing mankind to subdue and cultivate the creation. With this perspective we can rightly view technology as a tool. Theologians have observed this as a distinguishing mark of our species and indicative of the image of God.  One of those authors, Elaine Graham, in her essay The “end” of the human or the end of the “human”?, says that technology is a gift from our Creator, who has made us like him, to be creators. Technology, therefore, is God-given and we should ensure that our use of it is God-honouring. The question to ask then is: What does discerning use of technology look like?

The most obvious point to make is that in an age where early adoption is gospel, we should approach technology cautiously, gauging its usefulness and potential invasiveness. For companies and developers are certainly offering us what we want but not necessarily what we need. Technology is pushed onto us every day: friends, adverts, and recommendations suggest that every product is one you cannot live without. But I did live without it, for years. I managed to have meaningful relationships apart from Facebook and Whatsapp. I was productive before the rise of productivity tools. I found music that I liked without being told, ‘Those who bought this also bought…’ Those are trivial examples but the point remains: the Christian is called to be discerning and measured, perhaps especially with regards to technology.

Let me conclude with one last point. We have seen that technology is a useful gift and tool from our Creator God. Ultimately our technology should serve us and help us to serve God and love our neighbours. But the inherent danger of technology can be summarised under two paradoxical urges: control and idolatry. Firstly, technology promises power, sometimes even omnipotence, as it enables us to control everything around us. In a sense, the elevation and heightened expectations of technology deceives us about the human condition, and its limitations. We must remember that we are creatures, given tools with which we can serve God. Secondly, we must remember that those tools are not God. When we find they are beginning to control us, determining how we live and demanding our worship, we must turn again from idols to serve the living and true God.

This post originally appeared on at LifeWay Media blog and is published here with minor changes.