"Hi James, it's great to see you again. I'm glad we could get together for lunch." I said that with all honesty - James is one of my favorite mission-minded friends in the whole world. But I had a little tinge of discomfort.
James is a ministry-relations director for a foundation. Our ministry had launched a pioneering ministry
outreach called Send North America - a ten-month training mechanism for young adults. We had asked for a grant to help reach out and recruit young adults to this young, fragile movement. James championed our cause at the foundation and granted us the funds.
It was a relatively small grant for the foundation, but huge for us. We had poured our efforts into the project. The strategy was a miserable failure. In my report to the foundation, I said, "What we tried, failed. We learned what doesn't work." I didn't know what to expect as my luncheon with James began.
James broke the ice, perhaps noticing my nervousness: "You know what is my greatest frustration with pastors and churches?" he asked.
I didn't respond. I didn't expect the question. And, I didn't have a clue.
"It's their unwillingness to risk," he said. "It's their play-it-safe, comfort-at-all-costs approach to ministry," he sighed.
Hall of Famers
Hebrews 11 is a litany of Old Testament superheroes who took enormous risks by faith. They accomplished what the world around them called crazy. They trusted God for what seemed humanly impossible. They made it into the record book of spiritual giants.
Hebrews 11:6 says, "Without faith it is impossible to please God." In this context, that would imply the faith to step out, respond to God's calling, and do what the rest of the world would call crazy.
We Church Doctors get into many churches that are stuck on a faith step: a church in New Mexico that couldn't decide for 12 years to relocate; a church in Omaha that talked about changing worship services for 5 years; a church in New Jersey that wouldn't take the leap of faith to start a preschool for 14 years; a church in San Diego that wouldn't pull the trigger to add much-needed facilities for 7 years.
These churches are led by great pastors surrounded by smart leaders. Yet, they were stalled. Paralyzed, they were worn out from meetings and discouraged from lack of progress. Why couldn't they take the leap of faith to do what God had laid on their hearts? Some of them would look at me and comment, "It's easy for you to say." In a way, they are right!
Think about Noah for a minute. You know the story. As a kid in Sunday school, I saw drawings of these animals getting into this huge boat - how cute! Let's move Noah into reality.
Pastor Fred leads a church of about 270 in worship on the north end of Phoenix. One day God speaks to Fred about building a big boat behind the church - one big enough to handle all those animals. You know, all those cubits high, cubits long, and cubits wide. At first, Fred thinks it's not God, but indigestion. But God is persistent and speaks directly to Fred. Imagine Fred sharing this news with his elders. Really? A boat that large in Phoenix? It is more likely the leadership group would suggest Fred see a therapist than his name be added to Hebrews 11. Sometimes a God-sized vision that calls for risk is, you know ... risky!
How did your church get here? Play-it-safe Christianity, comfort-driven ministry, risk-free faith seems to be the norm. You might respond, "But God does not call us to be reckless idiots." Frankly, most churches are far from that possibility. Often, too far to even be called "faithful."
I think of a church in Portland, Oregon. Their heated congregational meeting went 45 minutes longer because their treasurer reported they had to dip into their $50,000 savings account, used as a "cushion."
"We've got a real problem at the church," said Dawn. "When we borrowed that $5,000 from our savings, it was the beginning of a terrible trend in our church. Who knows what is next? What are we going to do if we only have $20,000 left? We're supposed to have enough money to cover three months of operating expenses. This has never happened before!"
Really? Here's another worldview: If we have $50,000 extra, what ministry or outreach should we be doing with that money? How does this relate to Hebrews 11:6? Where is the faith? Another question: "Could that 'cushion worldview' be related to the plateau the church has experienced for the last ten years?" Not necessarily, but perhaps.
Let me take you to one of the hundreds of churches I have worked with in Africa. This one is on the southeast outskirts of Lagos, Nigeria. Leaders from the church arrived at our hotel early Sunday morning to drive us to this relatively new mission church. When we arrived at the old warehouse they call church, we walked across a narrow concrete bridge, spanning an open sewer. On the other side, gathered in small circles, sitting in the dirt, were the Sunday school children with their teachers. When we entered the concrete building (which had no windows, no toilets), two forces made a major impact: the joyful, exuberant singing of 2,000 people packed into a space for half that many, and the heat from that many people engaged in worship, in a climate already so hot.
During the three-hour worship service (including the one-hour sermon they expected from me), what struck me most was the offering. It lasted about thirty minutes and began with the pastor's announcement: "Up here in front is a big cardboard box. The worship band is going to play, and we are going to sing and bring our offerings to the Lord and put them in this box. If you have no money, just wave your hand over the box and give yourself." I watched, as row by row, the faithful sang and danced their way to the offering box at the front. I was amazed by the joy and enthusiasm for God. Unlike the church in Portland, Oregon, this church was not plateaued, but had grown to 2,000 people in just two years. They had so little -- and so much. A coincidence? Circumstantial? Too different to compare? Something to do with Hebrews 11:6?
I think about the big stone church I consulted in a suburb of Toledo. They are not effectively reaching their growing community. They have an immaculate building and padded pews. From their $1,000,000 endowment, they provide grants for mission and ministry once a year, but never touch the principal. They have a grant request system that is so complicated, with so much bureaucracy, it rivals the gridlock of Congress. How does this reflect faith? Risk? Bold initiatives? Hebrews 11:6?
We have no right to judge, honestly. But we do, each of us, have the responsibility to reflect. If Jesus returned tomorrow, totally unexpected (as He promised), what would He say to that church near Toledo? "Well done, good and faithful servants. You used the interest and over time were able to generate a lot more money"? Or would He say, "What were you thinking? There are hundreds of people in your community who don't know me - and now it's too late. Why didn't you spend that money to reach these people? A nondenominational church from another community put an extension site in your community and reached hundreds who were unbelievers before. What were you thinking?"
Not Just Money
Finances are just one measure of faithfulness and willingness to risk. Consider the theoretical life cycle of a church. It is divided into thirds. Most churches begin with a high profile of mission outreach - and risk! They make risky decisions to advance the Kingdom. The makeup of the new congregation is often a large portion of "pioneers" and a smaller group of what might be called "settlers." The "pioneers" are spiritual entrepreneurs; "settlers" are more focused on maintenance, safety, and comfort.
As a church grows, it develops "needs": for facilities, furniture, materials. With increased size, and more resources, there is a subtle shift from "needs" to "needs-plus-wants." In this second stage of the theoretical life cycle of a church, the risk-taking subtly diminishes and the priority for comfort subconsciously grows. It is in this stage that the church shifts, subconsciously, from mission to maintenance. (Not 100%, but significantly.) This can be measured by the budget, the focus and effort of staff and members, the agenda of the meetings. At the end of this second stage is the phase called the critical third.
Decline is the last third of the theoretical life cycle of the church. The only way to reverse this trend is to recapture the mission. This requires recalibrating the worldviews of the members: from maintenance back to mission. A visual marker of this "rebirth" of a church is the evidence of risk-taking - Hebrews 11:6.
Living by faith is living on the edge. Many leaders talk about "cutting-edge" churches. They are referring to churches who experiment with new strategies, but do not compromise the substance of the faith. They launch out to accomplish what many people might call "crazy." Some of what they do fails. Occasional failure is a part of life for pioneers, inventors, apostles, missionaries, and Hebrews 11:6 Christians. Hebrews 11:6 churches have a culture that provides permission to fail, opportunity to learn, openness to try. It is living by faith.
Someone once said that Christian faith is like standing at the edge of a huge cliff. God is at the bottom of the cliff - a long way down - with his outstretched arms, saying, "Jump, I'll catch you."
I don't think so. Faith, Hebrews 11:6 faith, the faith of champions -- the faith of mission-effective believers − is more like this: You are standing at the edge of a cliff. It's a long way down, and you don't see anyone. God is standing next to you, and says, "Go ahead, jump. I'll catch you."
And by faith ... you jump. Crazy!
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Be careful not to judge another person's faith. Yet, it can't be denied. There is a direct connection between risk-oriented faith and effectively reaching people for Jesus Christ.
What is it that you won't do to risk?
The world is a better place because...
Michelangelo didn't say, "I don't do ceilings."
Noah didn't say, "I don't do arks."
Moses didn't say, "I don't do wilderness trips."
Martin Luther didn't say, "I don't do doors."
Jesus Christ didn't say, "I don't do crosses."
What is it you won't do?