Wednesday, February 24, 2010

OnFire #216 Church Changes

OnFire Encouragement Letter
OnFire #216 Church Changes

Hi Folks:
I’ve just returned from a pastor’s prayer retreat which was wonderful. I got to see some old friends, and our leader was wonderful. We spent the better part of two days in prayer together. The formula was simple. He guided us along some topics and gave us some scripture assignments. As the time went along he challenged us to go deeper in surrendering ourselves to God.

At times I found myself "lost" in peace and God’s presence. The feeling was like being in a peaceful rest, without sleeping. At other times we got to support each other in prayer as people unloaded concerns. I came away feeling more centered on God.

Jan and Mark are recovering from cold and flu and are mainly back to normal. The boys are looking forward to March break which begins at the end of the week. Ian will volunteer at a children’s camp. Mark and I continue to work on our sport stacking. I will take him to the world championships in Denver in April.

That’s our news. Blessings for your week.

A few weeks ago I asked you to respond to two questions. What are the biggest changes you have seen in church in the last fifteen years? And what are the biggest changes the church needs to make in the future? I want to thank everyone who responded. Here are the results. Agree? Disagree? Have more to add? I’d love to hear what you think.

What Has Changed In the Last 15 Years?
It should not surprise us to hear about changes in worship. Many churches use fewer hymns and more newer music. Dress is less formal, with casual clothing being the norm in many churches. Most thought these were positive changes which helped to retain or draw younger members.

The changes which people wrote about reflected the situations they knew best - their own congregations. Some were hopeful about the future, especially because of the presence of children and young families.

Others, however, lamented a decline of younger generations and feared that aging buildings would eventually become too expensive to maintain. This represented a change from the days when families grew up and attended together. The church had always been there, a symbol of hope. Without the children, there were doubts about the future of the church and a loss of hope also.

I was pleased to hear about some other changes people saw. Some commented that their churches had become more ethnically diverse. This has indeed happened in our own congregation where people of a dozen or so different languages now attend.

Several commented that their churches and denominations had become more aware of the social responsibility of the gospel. "Instead of just presenting the word of God in authoritative (or perhaps authoritarian) ways it seems there is a shift to viewing our society as more of a mission field needing some basic felt needs met before lovingly presenting the gospel."

A few wrote that their churches had become less legalistic, with more emphasis on grace for sinners: "I’ve noticed more teaching about how our salvation is all about God's grace and not about following rules..."

I was surprised when one person commented positively about the public church scandals we have seen in recent years. While these sins were horrible, painful and embarrassing, the fact that they were exposed meant that God was purifying the church. This was a hopeful sign that Jesus would soon come for His "spotless lamb."

I was also surprised when one person felt that a decline in attendance was not necessarily a bad thing since it represented a move away from cultural Christianity. The people who now attend are more inclined to be committed followers, not just going through the motions.

What Needs to Change?
Not surprisingly, not all agreed over the direction of worship style. Many saw a "blended" style of worship, which uses both traditional hymns and new music, as a good thing, but there were those who lamented the lessening role of hymns in worship. I think it would be fair to say that those who wrote felt a little conflicted over this. They missed some of the familiar music but appreciated the appeal of newer music to younger members. In this way I think people wished that there was a way to do "both/and."

One person in particular understood the difficulty in bringing together multiple generations and their different approaches. In the future, she predicted, it will take more creativity to bring the traditions together.

Financial responsibility for the future was on the minds of many. Noting that 20, 30, and 40-somethings do not seem to give as much time or money to the church as older age groups, a few suggested that pastors need to teach more about this.

Again, remember that people wrote from the perspective of their own church. Some wrote from churches where it was evident that they felt joy and hope, while others wrote with great concern, pain even.

After trying unsuccessfully to persuade the congregation to change worship style or offer programs for younger families, one person stopped because it seemed there was no desire to change. Was change really necessary when a few large contributors could keep the church going? "Maybe nothing needs to change. So why do I feel like I'm watching a tsunami off shore, slowly getting closer?"

Reluctant or resistant leadership was a common theme. Fearing the "perfect storm" of aging congregations and crumbling buildings, one person suggested that "by the time these demographic factors hit us, I don't think we will be able to adapt."

Another common theme was the mission of the church. Many wrote to say that we must be more intentional in our outreach. "Ask this question: What would my community look like if the Kingdom of God was more visible?" For that person the answer was very personal: "We can’t just sit back and not get our hands dirty, and we certainly can’t expect our religious professionals (read: pastors) to do it for us. Their job is to lead us to give our lives away, not to do it on our behalf! "

Community was important to many who wrote. "The church needs to be more outwardly focussed, more missions oriented at home, and less about maintaining our comfort and security inside the building." The solution, said another, was not to try to recover the culture of Christendom, but to "embrace the reality of living more like the early church. I see the Kingdom moving forward more in grassroot ways than in institutional ways."

Finally, there was the suggestion that the church needs to find new ways of funding ministry, both here and abroad. Why not use internet giving or automatic bank withdrawal? Why not form partnerships with churches in other countries to fund their ministries? Why not sell homegrown curriculum materials like the megachurches do? Why not create small businesses to sell products or services which fund ministry?

I wanted to see how people felt about the state of church and their role in its future. Most OnFire readers are highly involved in their local churches. You have thought a lot about the future and I knew you would provide valuable insight. As you wrote, I saw two important themes I want to respond to.

False Opposites: Organization VS Organism
I sense growing tension between "organization" and "organism." There is an ever-increasing feeling that we do not need the organization of the church as much as we need to free people to go out into the world to serve in basic ways. In this way ministry is "organic" - growing, changing, dynamic, taking on a life of its own as we engage in hands-on ministry. For many the thought of organization implies sitting through dull and unproductive meetings, when we would rather see the joy of ministry first-hand.

I like organic ministry, and indeed it is exciting to be on the "front lines." But I also think we have to be careful not to discard something very valuable as we discover the power of organic ministry. In Acts 6, the apostles actually created organization in order to feed the poor more effectively. Some ministry is too valuable or too big to be left to a few passionate individuals and this is why God gifted some to be administrators. Let us not let the pendulum swing too far in extremes. Organization and organism are not opposites.

Change or Die
Change is a reality all of our churches must face, but lots of factors lead us to resist it. We have invested a lot of energy to make things the way they are. It takes more energy to change direction, and we don’t always feel up to the task. There is the risk that we may lose congregation members. Someone may disagree with us or criticize us, or we may miss the mark all together.

Change is not all bad, however. Obviously, if we get it right we will see renewal. But more than that, change is an opportunity to see God’s image in people. God is creative, and this did not stop after He made the world. When we set our minds to a problem and rely upon Him for direction and answers, we begin to see the creativity which is part of His image in us.

Those of us in church leadership, whether as pastors or as lay people, need to think carefully about our role in change. Is it true that we sometimes resist change? Do we go along with change reluctantly, or only when we see no other option? Do we sometimes lack courage? Do we sometimes block new leadership? These are tough, but important questions, and if we put them off too long it may be too late.
OnFire is a weekly letter on authentic faith and character written by Troy Dennis. Troy is the Pastor of Family Ministries at Highfield Baptist Church, Moncton NB Canada. This letter published Feb 23, 2010. Scripture references taken from the New International Version. To subscribe or reply, email Archives are located at Blog located at

Friday, February 12, 2010

OnFire #215 Lenses for Life

OnFire Encouragement Letter
OnFire #215 Lenses for Life

Hi Folks:
Some exciting news this week. I have been published in a book. Arrow Leadership produced a Lent booklet for their supporters in which graduates were asked to contribute. They have made these available to others as a pdf file. Email if you want one of these, but be aware that they are large files (7 mb, 84 pages). I am not able to make this available on my website.

I spent the first part of the week away at a conference with my senior pastor. It was a quick trip, but I saw some good friends and had the chance to slow down and reflect. I don’t often have these times and they are golden. Refreshment in the middle of life’s regular hectic pace.

I have been asking what changes people have seen in church and what still needs to change. Next week I’ll have these answers put together.

Have a good weekend and week ahead.
At about the age of eleven, people started to ask me if I had trouble seeing things. I didn’t think I had a problem because if I squinted my eyes hard enough, I could see. Plus, I didn’t know what I couldn’t see because I couldn’t see it to know I couldn’t see it.

Finally a teacher suggested to my mother that I should have my eyes tested. On the appointed day the doctor revealed a whole new world to me as he dialled and turned the little lenses of his machine. Ever since then I have worn glasses and am glad for them.

Wouldn’t it be nice if life were as easy, that when the future became cloudy or uncertain all we had to do was go to the life doctor to have the prescription for the outlook of our future changed. All would become clear and we could live with perfect clarity and certainty.

There have been times of my life when direction was strong and clear, like the time when I conducted four funerals in eight days. Life was about bringing comfort and aid for that 10 day period and while it was draining, it was exciting to live with that kind of clarity. I feel this way about writing and about being involved in ministry, even if some days I don’t know what it ought to mean practically.

But there are also times when life is not so clear, when direction is vague and hazy, the same way the highway looks when I take off my glasses to clean them while I drive. I can keep on going for a little while if I know the road is straight, if I don’t need to make any turns, and if I have a wide median to keep me on my side of the road.

Nehemiah was absolutely clear as he spoke to the emperor: "If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it." (Nehemiah 2:4-5)

This clarity was no accident. We sometimes think that clarity is only for those random gifted individuals whom God touches, but there are some signs that it was no divine lottery draw.
In verse 4 we see that he wept over the news of Jerusalem’s broken state. He allowed himself to be moved. He cared and was passionate about something. He did not ignore or shove aside these feelings. They moved him to do something.

In verse 6 we see him confess sin. He took sin personally, not as a concept, not as something other people do, but as something personal. Confession softens our hearts and makes us more receptive to God’s voice. We can’t have stiff necks and soft hearts.

In verse 8 we see him quote scripture, which tells us that he had made it such a part of his life that it came back to him naturally and frequently.

Nehemiah was patient. At least three months passed between chapter 1 and 2. We often get in trouble because we want the answer right now and we think that doing something is better than doing nothing. The problem is, we’re wrong. We are not doing nothing, because we are waiting. We are waiting on God, for His decision, His direction, His timing. (Of course, we do need to make sure we are not doing nothing) Sometimes God guides quickly. Sometimes we wait a lot longer.

We can take a lot of cues from Nehemiah. I just came back from some lectures at our seminary. They were OK, good reminders about some important things. But it was more valuable to have the time away to think, pray, read the Bible, centre on God, talk with my senior pastor.
Time away is good, and it is good to plan time away. I’m going on a prayer retreat in a few weeks which I’m really looking forward to. But there are simple things which help me every day. Life always feels out of focus when I neglect a daily routine of prayer and Bible reading. And I can pray specifically for clarity and direction. I know it sounds funny, but when I pray about these things, God answers. And I find writing out my prayers in a journal helps also.

Nehemiah’s clarity was no accident, and we can have clarity also if we are willing to follow his example. I hope this helps. Be on fire.


OnFire is a weekly letter on authentic faith and character written by Troy Dennis. Troy is the Pastor of Family Ministries at Highfield Baptist Church, Moncton NB Canada. This letter published Feb 12, 2010. Scripture references taken from the New International Version. To subscribe or reply, email Archives are located at Blog located at

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

OnFire #213 Organizational Genetics

OnFire Encouragement Letter
OnFire #213 Organizational Genetics

Our new Japanese student has arrived. His name is Zen and we served pizza as his first meal with us in Canada. He is settling in and we are showing him around. His parents sent us beautiful gifts including pens and stationary. Because it is exam week for high school, he will not start until next week. This will allow him to dip his toes before diving in.

We’ll look at Nehemiah for a little while. He is an inspiration because of his faith and leadership. We’ve been studying him this fall in my college-aged Sunday school class and he is too good to pass by.

I’m starting a new round of questions. I haven’t done this since the Million Dollar Question (OnFire #44-45). They’ll make more sense after reading today’s letter. Hit reply to respond.

**What have been the biggest changes you’ve seen in church in the last 15 years? **
**And what do you think are the biggest changes the church needs to make in the future?**

"I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father's house, have committed against you." (Nehemiah 1:6*)

I look at myself and see the traits of both sides of my family. When I was young, I had my mother’s thick curly black hair. Now I have her family’s male pattern baldness, which resembles a road in a snow storm - bare down the centreline. I have my father’s height and my mother’s eyes. People tell me I stand and walk like her father, my grandfather.

These traits are not only physical. Like my father, I seem to have the ability to speak with anyone, on almost any topic. And like my mother, I seem to be able to remain calm in a storm. Like my mother’s side, I’m usually fairly quiet, but like my father I sometimes enjoy being the centre of attention. Music comes from both sides. When it comes to making big decisions I like to take my time, something I get from my mother.

It is interesting to see this influence in my body and character. Of course, there is still lots of room to change, learn and transform, and I can point to lots of people who have helped to mold and shape me along the way. But today I’m thinking primarily about genetics.

Here is Nehemiah, cupbearer to the king (a highly trusted security officer who thwarted plots to poison the king) living in exile in Babylon in the 440's BC. His people had been there at least 140 years and in that time two groups had returned from exile.

The latest group had gone back to Jerusalem about a dozen years before and life was very difficult. Nehemiah’s brother reported that the walls and gates of the city were still in disrepair. The temple had long since been completed, but there was still no safety or security for the Jewish inhabitants. This troubled Nehemiah for days until ultimately he prayed to confess his sins and the sins of his people.

This intrigues me. That he confesses his own sin is understandable. Confession to God ought to be a regular part of our spiritual life. But he confesses the sins of his "father’s house," an expression which means his ancestors and the people of his Jewish heritage. Why would he do this?

Nehemiah recognizes that he has the spiritual genetics of his ancestors in his heart. He knows from Scripture that the reason they went into exile was because of their rebellion and unfaithfulness. The closing words of 2 Chronicles make this very clear and Nehemiah was well versed in their history.

It would be easy for him to blame his ancestors for his current plight, but he does not. He does not consider himself an individual detached from his past. Rather, he knows that unless something changes the pattern will be repeated again and again in the future. If they have any hope of going home, then they will have to live differently from their ancestors, and it must begin with him. And so he confesses his sins and the sins of his fathers.

We can learn from Nehemiah in this. We think we stand isolated from the past, that our current situation is somehow unrelated to those who have gone before. But how do we explain churches where the same problems come up again and again, decade after decade? How do we explain families where the same issues are repeated generation after generation?

We could perhaps call it "organizational genetics." Churches, families and organizations develop and pass along traits and values which become part of the make-up of the group. We’re not even always aware of them. We sometimes call it the "culture" of the place because "that’s they way things are done here." Sometimes these traits are good, sometimes they are poison.

I’ve been pondering this for months, ever since I began the class in September, and it still bothers me. But Nehemiah teaches us that we all share responsibility for where we have arrived collectively, and for where we will go in the future together. If we want to change direction, it starts with each of us recognizing our own part of the past, and determining that we will act differently in the future than we have acted in the past.

I know, heavy thoughts. But I hope life changing for all of us, our churches, and the organizations to which we belong.

Hope this helps. Be on fire.


OnFire is a weekly letter on authentic faith and character written by Troy Dennis. Troy is the Pastor of Family Ministries at Highfield Baptist Church, Moncton NB Canada. This letter published Jan 26, 2010. Scripture references taken from the New International Version. To subscribe or reply, email Archives are located at Blog located at