Can These Bones Live?

When I was little boy, I went to a small mill village church in Huntsville Alabama. Our pastor, Reverend G.D. Barrett was a gifted preacher. I think it was listening to him that made me want to become a preacher. He could paint a picture with his words that forced you to do something. After all, you just couldn’t listen to a sermon like that and then walk away as if nothing had happened. I joke with my friends that if “Brother Barrett” preached on hell, your clothes smelled like smoke at the end of the sermon.

His best sermon was from Ezekiel 37, the story of dry bones. Do you remember it? God takes Ezekiel to the place of a famous battle where the bones of the fallen soldiers had been left to bleach in the sun. God asks the prophet, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I can still remember sitting on the wooden pews of Huntsville Park Baptist Church and being mesmerized by the story of the bones of dead people becoming a crowded congregation.

I hadn’t thought about that sermon until a few years ago. One day, I was reading the paper when I noticed several church buildings for sale. I’m a sucker for sacred spaces, so seeing these ads was particularly painful for me. I had noticed this trend before. Church sanctuaries and cathedrals are being converted all over the world. They are taking these sacred structures and turning them into upscale restaurants, condominiums, and office buildings. I don’t blame the people for buying these buildings. They are beautiful structures.

I just hate seeing churches sold. I especially hate seeing them sold in Middle Tennessee.

Now, understand. These churches are being sold by a group of people who are sure no one will come to a group of people who are sure someone will come if there’s something different in the building.

Why can’t a new church be what’s different in the building?

That’s why the revitalization of churches in transition is one of the major efforts of the Middle Tennessee Initiative. There are several advantages to this approach.

The church facilities are still in a good location. True, the neighborhoods around the church have changed, but there are still people around the church. Most of the time, there are a lot of people around the church. Perhaps a different ethnic group has moved in. Maybe a different language group has moved in, but there are still people who need to hear the gospel.

This new neighborhood may not match the old membership of the church. (Most of the time, it’s Caucasians driving in from the suburbs to the old home church. Not always, but most of the time.) If the church can seize the challenge of the new opportunity, the church can be restored to a vital and kingdom-impacting ministry. Yes, it probably means a new pastor and a new staff, but the church can stay alive.

Second, working with a church like this means you have a ready-made facility to use. Sure, there are usually some upgrades that have to be installed, but this can be done for nickels on the dollar. For one thing, you’d never be able to find the land, and second, who can afford a building with stained glass windows?

Third, the neighborhood is usually glad to welcome a new congregation because the church adds value to the neighborhood…or it should anyway. The facility is painted and repaired. The grounds are kept neat and trimmed. People are coming in and out. There’s life in the neighborhood.

We’ve seen it happen again and again. A church that was down to 25 or so members explodes to a weekly attendance of well over 100 and sometimes 200 or more! The looks on the original members’ faces when they hear babies crying in their worship services is priceless.

The last thing about revitalizing churches is you never run out of things to do. There’s always another church, always another people group that needs to be reached, always another challenge. We’re never bored.

But how good it is to see our God work. To stand like Ezekiel and look at the valley of dry bones and hear God say, “Son of man can these bones live?”

I love being able to answer, “Yes, Lord, these bones can live. We’ve seen You do it before.”

Why I Reached Out to Bishop Walker

Bishop Joseph Walker III is one of the most impactful leaders and pastors in North America today. His books, social media engagement, and demanding preaching schedule have spread his influence from coast to coast. He’s funny, energetic, has a faith that’s been tested by fire, and he’s seriously committed to changing Nashville for the better with the power of God’s redeeming gospel.

He’s also one of my best friends. He’s also African American.

When people find out about our friendship, they want to know how we came to be friends, and honestly, when I tell them the story, they are a little disappointed.

It all started with a phone call. I called him. I wanted him to teach me about how he was using social media. If you follow Bishop Walker at all, you know he’s a social media ninja. He’s a master of using a variety of platforms to communicate his message to thousands of people—including Bible studies and prayer times that engage people from around the world.

I’m always looking for people who do things better than I do, and Bishop Walker did social media better than most people in America, especially me. I was hoping he could teach me a few things. We ended up meeting at a local Panera Bread, and we talked about how social media supported his ministry and expanded his preaching. Then, we talked about life, marriage, and what it meant to be a dad in these times. We talked about sports and politics, and before I knew it, we had become friends.

Then, we started talking about what it is like being black in Nashville. He tried to help me understand the systemic racism he and his congregation face every day. Nashville is a fairly progressive city. Our diverse culture of artists ensures that, but we’re still racist. Some things take a long time to address and heal. Racism is one of those things.

He told me how, when’s he’s leaving a local mall and finds himself walking behind a single white female, he will measure his steps so he doesn’t get too close to her and make her uncomfortable. The woman will be nervous and anxious when she realizes a black man is walking behind her in the parking lot. He’s learned to make sure there’s plenty of room between him and her. He gets pulled over if he’s in certain neighborhoods in his nice car. Why? Because it’s assumed that a black man in a nice car is selling drugs.

These experiences are true. These are the moments my friend has lived.

I’ve had him over to talk to my staff about racism in everyday life. My staff is still talking about the power of his testimony and teaching. Since then, our two churches have become partners. Mt. Zion and Brentwood Baptist have done several projects together. His friendship and grace have made our engagement easy and rewarding. His church is teaching my church how to do ministry better. We’re learning from each other and growing together.

As a result, several of our members have become friends with members of Mt. Zion. They’ve met for lunch. They’ve had dinner in each other’s homes. We’re learning about each other’s worlds and pulling them closer together.

I’m convinced more than ever that the church is going to have to take the lead in the task of racial reconciliation. Only the church has the message of forgiveness, the salve of grace, the gospel of a suffering Savior, and the power of His resurrection. The total gospel in all of its glory will be needed to address and heal racism in America.

I didn’t start out wanting to address the race issue in our nation. I wanted to know more about social media. I did learn about social media.

And I learned a lot more. I learned how subtle and devious racism can be in our country. I learned how this hurts our black brothers and sisters, and I have learned that sitting silently while this is going on is to be part of the problem. I can no longer be part of anything that hurts my brother.

You know my brother, don’t you? Bishop Joseph Walker III. When you see us together, you’ll be able to tell us apart. I’m taller.

You’re Not a Volunteer if You’re Called

If you ask any minister on any church staff to name the most frustrating part of the job, they’ll all say the same thing: “Working with volunteers.” The weekly routine of making sure people who agree to be somewhere are actually there and are doing what they promised they would do is the grind that frustrates most ministers to the point of looking for other ways to make a living.

If you talk with church members, they’re frustrated about the same thing. Church members are tired of being hounded by staff who need preschool workers, group leaders, teachers, ushers, and the list goes on and on. Church members are tired of being manipulated, guilt tripped, and emotionally bullied into jobs and places of service they aren’t gifted for and passionate about.

There has to be a better way—for everybody. I think there is.

Now, before I get too far down the road here, let’s be honest. Church is more like a family than a corporation. We don’t hire someone for everything that needs to be done in the church. We can’t. As a family, all of us have chores. All of us have tasks we may not enjoy, but we know we have to do for the good of the family. Sometimes we all pitch in to accomplish the work that’s before us.

Now, back to my original point.

Every church, like every person, is unique. Churches have unique callings and opportunities just like people. Christ, in His sovereignty, will bring people to a particular church who have the gifts and passions to accomplish the unique mission of that church. Church leadership should be aware of the gifts within their membership so they can better see how God is leading their church to engage in their mission.

Jesus calls us to a relationship with Him. We don’t initiate the conversation. Jesus comes to us. He calls us to Himself, and He calls us to the work. All of us have spiritual gifts to be used in the mission of the church. These gifts are ours to steward. We’re called to develop and employ our gifts for the greater good of Christ’s kingdom.

That means Christ created us and redeemed us to be somewhere and do something for Him, His church, and His kingdom. We don’t volunteer for anything. We obey. If we’re gifted to work with children, we don’t wait for the minister to call. We report for duty.

If we have the gift of teaching, we study, prepare, and present ourselves for service. We don’t wait to be found. We have a duty to engage. We were created with a purpose, and when we know that purpose, we are Spirit-empowered to accomplish that purpose.

When I first started in ministry, I got pretty good at getting people to “volunteer.” I would persuade, manipulate, guilt trip—whatever I had to do. I could get the positions filled.

But I’ve changed my mind. Too many people got burned out and were frustrated by being in the wrong place and doing the wrong thing.

Now, I talk to people about their gifts, and from there we try to find a place where those gifts can be used. People who use their gifts find the joy of being where Jesus wants them to be and doing what Jesus wants them to do. This brings an energy all its own.

I don’t think the church needs any more volunteers. I believe we need people who are called by Jesus to serve His church and kingdom. We need people who are obedient to that call.

That’s the church I want to pastor—a fellowship of the called, not simply a gathering of volunteers.

Any Volunteers?

If you talk to anyone who works on a church staff, they will tell you the most difficult part of their job is recruiting and maintaining enough volunteers to accomplish their ministry. According to some ministers, they spend all of their time trying to run down enough volunteers to run their (fill in the blank) ministry.  No one can seem to find enough volunteers, and once found, volunteers are almost impossible to keep.

What’s the problem? People who love Jesus should be eager to serve His church…right? Well, in theory, but it doesn’t really work that way in real life.

Here’s the usual drill: a minister will realize they need someone to do something this coming Sunday. It could be anything from taking up the offering to teaching a class, but the minister has to find someone, and that person has to be found fast. So, phone calls are made.

The first people called are those people in our churches who always say “yes.” We know who they are. In fact, every minister knows who they are. It’s one of the reasons so many of our members are burned out. We ask the same people to do everything. Why? Because they will. For the minister, it doesn’t matter if the person has any abilities or gifts in the area of need, it only matters that they are willing to fill the empty position for one hour this coming Sunday. When we get through this Sunday, we’ll start the chaotic process of finding volunteers for next Sunday.

Now, church members aren’t dumb. They are catching on to what’s going on. They’ve learned not to return phone calls, not to read emails, and to ignore texts. No amount of “guilting” them will work anymore. They’ve become calloused to our pleas. Every minister complains about not having enough volunteers, and every volunteer complains about ministers who don’t understand the demands of their lives. Our members are angry because too many times, ministers make them feel guilty for saying “no” even when they have a perfectly good reason for declining.

There has to be a better way.

There is.

First, ministers have to make identifying, training, and supporting volunteers a priority of their ministry. Most of us don’t see it that way. Volunteers are last minute thoughts, and we think that once we get SOMEBODY in the position, we’ve accomplished our goal. No, we haven’t. The goal is to find the right person for the right job.

With that in mind, every position should have a written job description with the expectations and requirements clearly written down. When you talk to your potential volunteer, you should be able to walk down a one-page list that lays out what kind of time requirements exist, exactly what the job entails, and what success will look like.

Be sure the job only takes about two or three hours a week. People are maxed out with their time. If the position requires too much time, they won’t do it. Don’t bait and switch. Don’t tell them it won’t take much time when, in reality, it takes a lot of time. There are lot of very talented people sitting in our pews who won’t volunteer for anything else in a church because another ministry misled them in the past about how much time a position in the church actually required. You may have to split one job into several pieces in order for volunteers to be able to handle the responsibilities. That, however, is better than not having your volunteers engaged.

Second, stay in communication with your volunteers. Your volunteers are people. They have real lives outside of what you’re asking them to do in the church. They have ups and downs as everyone does, and they need to know you care about them AS A PERSON, not just as someone who’s filling a spot for you.

Third, listen to your volunteers. Sometimes they have better ideas about how to do something, and often, they are hearing things you don’t. They can be valuable sources of information about pastoral care needs, new families, and other circumstances involving church and community life.

Lastly, appreciate your volunteers. No, you don’t have to bring presents to them every week (although good coffee is always appreciated), but you do have to appropriately recognize their value and efforts. Did they go above and beyond? Then, drop them a note. Did they have good day? Be sure to say thanks or give them a quick call later in the day or week…or text them. Anyway, find a way to make sure they know you appreciate them being there.

The church simply can’t function without volunteers. The impact they have on the lives of others can’t be calculated. That’s why selecting, training, and effectively leading your volunteers is the most important job of any ministry. It’s the way the ministry of the church gets multiplied into the rest of the world.