I’ve sat across the table and listened to the stories of discouraged pastors describe in great detail where the ministry took a wrong turn. Often it wasn’t from an evil decision or a judgment from God. People stopped coming. The recession happened and people stopped giving. The church plant didn’t work out like they thought. In all of these cases, the result was the same: We’re shutting the church down.
My heart breaks every time this happens. Sometimes there are good, godly men and women doing their best in whatever capacity the Lord has called them to serve the church and circumstances cause there not to be enough money. Sometimes other resources are the issue, like a lack of volunteers. Regardless, the point is that churches with true believers and well meaning hearts close down all the time. Current statistics estimate roughly 3,700 churches close their doors every year.
But there is good news! First, because of the Gospel of Jesus, no matter what capacity you served your church in the past, you are not a failure. God loved you regardless of the outcome of your work for Him. His death and resurrection means that the work that you carried on for Him was not in vain. Paul, after spending an entire chapter in 1 Corinthians on the subject of the resurrection says this: “So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless,” (1 Corinthians 15:58).
But there’s even more good news: Just because the money and the volunteers and the resources dried up, doesn’t mean your church needs to close. It might mean the church needs to change. The fact of the matter is the Kingdom of God doesn’t run on money, so even though resources are tight, the ministry can continue. Just because the resources have disappeared doesn’t mean the relationships and family of an existing church need to end.
How does this happen? For a church that wants to continue on but doesn’t have enough money to pay for a building or staff or the have the resources to support such things, house churches are a viable option. The existing church would transition to a church or a network of related churches that meet in the homes of its members and continue the work of sharing the gospel, building up the church, and making disciples.
This would mean a lot of changes for a church that was used to meeting as a traditional church on Sunday morning. It will most likely mean the pastor would forsake a salary (if he or she hadn’t already), it will mean that the format of the meetings you’ve become accustomed will change, and the ministry of the church will have be taken up by whatever members of the church remain, not just the pastor. Also, not everyone will want to make this jump, so be prepared for some who would be okay in any other traditional context to not make this jump with you. For those who feel God isn’t done with the church yet, but don’t see a way forward, it’s a viable alternative.
If you’re facing this moment in the life of your church, feel free to contact me at PursuingGlory at gmail dot com or check out my resource page featuring the best books on house churches.
More than that, don’t give up hope in God, the gospel, or the family of God. God loves you. You and your church haven’t failed. He has a plan that continues regardless of the cash flow. God, who raises the dead, can take what seems like has died and transform it into something new.
Recently David Fitch wrote a post called “Self Talk: How to Not Pray to Yourself” and it struck a chord with me because I’ve contemplated the state of the prophetic as of late and peoples’ tendencies to prophesy out of their own soul, not out of God’s Spirit. In the article, Fitch talks about discerning the voice of the Lord and how we get off track when we begin praying only for the things we want without regard for what Jesus wants. This article was helpful, but I still found myself lamenting the lack of an article about prophesy and listening to ourselves instead of the Lord.
The problem, as I see it, is that charismatic prophecy used to be a kind of holy man’s gifting, where the gift was reserved for the truly spiritual and people were only released to prophesy after gaining a significant track record in both their character and their gifting. As the years went on, more and more were ushered into the prophetic and, while we want as many participating in the gifting as we can get, the preparation and forming of prophetic individuals has taken a back seat.
Now, because we want everyone to prophesy, so much of the “track record” that was necessary before is seen as hindering. Many times I see those who are young in the prophetic sharing things they’ve seen in their imaginations, mistaking those things as visions from Jesus. Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited about people stepping out and attempting to hear from the Lord, but I know the danger of people building on what they see in their imaginations, thinking these ‘visions’ are truly from the Lord.
Elementary training in the prophetic teaches that we “hear” from three sources: God, Satan, and ourselves. The trick to dealing with prophecy is knowing where a message comes from. God’s words bring peace, clarity, and freedom to our hearts. They are often accompanied by true confirmation from others who hear from the Lord. Satan speaking to us can be difficult to discern, especially when we’re new. However, usually the voice of the enemy comes with condemnation, shame, and draws our attention away from Jesus and the Bible.
It’s much harder to discern whether what we hear is from ourselves. Many times the things we hear touch areas that are so near and dear to our heart that it’s had to remain objective. I find that the church has a difficult time prophesying politically, for example, because often people are very biased about the topics they are praying and speaking into. Christians know the right answer, the answer that is ultimately right, and I’ve watched as they have prophesied out of “the right answer” instead of what God is truly doing.
The danger in all of this is that we become trumpets for our own hearts and desires and not a vessel for the Lord to speak through. Instead of hearing and declaring what the Lord is saying, regardless of how much it challenges conventional wisdom, we become mouthpieces for what our minds can dream up. God over and over again in Jeremiah and Ezekiel challenged the prophets who prophesied good out of their made up prophecies. This kind of prophecy doesn’t require any obedience. It promises us what we want without submission to the Lord or His process. Like Peter, we end up telling Jesus He’ll never have to suffer and find out later it was the Father’s will for that to happen.
The fix for this is to learn true listening and obedience to what we hear. We have to begin to spend time in prayer listening first and leaving our agendas either till the very end or out entirely. Periods of time spent in silence or asking God questions instead of intercession and request are the beginnings of relationship with God outside of what we want. When we learn to wait on God, to dialogue with Him rather than supply our own answers, quickly we will learn there is a God who answers that is beyond our definition of right and wrong. He is real and wants to interact with us. He will speak, we don’t need to supply the right answers.
In order to grow out of listening to our own soul and truly hear God, we also need to learn how to deny ourselves. Most inaccurate prophetic activity I see both in the New Testament and in the current day stems from a failure to see God’s activity through the lens of the cross. Anyone trying to regularly practice hearing the Lord’s voice ought to focus a specific part of their prayer life asking the Lord to help them lay down their agendas. So much of imaginations that get passed on as prophecy stem from the fact that people are emotionally tied to what they want to see happen. Learning to separate ourselves from what we want and submit to what God wants helps us to see beyond our own personal desires.
Lastly community is key to this process. When I share what I believe I’m hearing with other believers, it gives my community the chance to reflect what they see back to me. Remember, even the most prophetic among us only see in part. When I trust my brothers and sisters with what I’m hearing and allow them to help me discern what is from God, I’m actually getting help seeing beyond myself, which is so hard for all of us, not just those of us with prophetic gifts. Jeremiah was told by God that a key part of his prophetic ministry was to separate the precious from the vile (Jeremiah 15:19) and sharing what we hear with others and letting them weigh our words is a critical part of this process (1 Corinthians 14:29). I don’t know a mature prophetic individual that hasn’t learned this process.
God has an incredible journey ahead for us in hearing His voice. He is not silent and wants you to go on a journey of hearing Him and believing what He is speaking. Critical to that is us learning to separate our own internal voice from the voice of the Spirit that comes and speaks to our hearts. When we separate the precious (God’s voice) from the worthless (our wants and desires) in what we’re hearing, that’s when we become God’s spokesman.
And isn’t that what all of our hearts are truly hungering for?
Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.
-Jesus, Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29, 3:6, 13, 22
For a long time I thought these verses meant that we should pay attention to what the Holy Spirit was saying. That seemed pretty straightforward.
I also used to think the reason that God asked us to share what we’re hearing from the Holy Spirit with others was to keep us from being deceived. And I’m still sure that’s part of the reason.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen the Holy Spirit speak to people from different backgrounds and locations about the exact same thing, weaving a tapestry of a message that could never be accomplished if only one person or even one church was the only one hearing what the Spirit was saying. It’s got me thinking that maybe God has something more for us in sharing what we’re hearing than just accountability.
I think there is a place where we can listen to the Holy Spirit ourselves, but when we bring together what we hear from Him, there is a richer, more in-depth, more accurate picture of what God is doing in the Earth. It only takes us being willing to listen with other believers, being willing to wait together to discern His voice, listening to what the Spirit is saying to all of us.
Who knows? Maybe God wants to weave what you are hearing from Him together with what He is speaking to others to accomplish more than you could ever imagine. Maybe, just maybe, if we begin to listen together, we can confirm and establish the reality of what God is doing in our day.
But it starts with us sharing what we’re hearing, together.
Are you listening?
Are you sharing?
It’s a tragedy that’s been around for thousands of years. But every once-in-awhile God lets you see old truth through new eyes.
In short, the story goes like this: David had sinned by dealing deceitfully with Uriah the Hittite and sleeping with his wife, Bathsheba. The judgment, according to Nathan the prophet, was a sword of violence being unleashed in David’s family. This prediction begins to come true when Ammon (David’s oldest son) is killed by Abasalom (David’s third oldest son). Abasalom is banished from Israel, then restored, and once restored he begins to quietly launch a revolution to take the kingdom from David.
When the revolution happens, David is banished from his own kingdom. He takes a remnant with him and begins a war with Absalom that culminates in a final battle. It’s during this final battle that David forces his commanders to swear that if they capture Absalom they will not kill him. All of the commanders take the oath, but Joab, one of David’s most trusted commanders finds Joab hung by his hair in a tree and kills Absalom anyways.
And it’s here that our story really begins–David does what any good father would do–he weeps for his son. We see David’s heart on full display as he cries out “How I wish I had died instead of you!” Now, Joab tries to be the sensible one in all of this. He reminds David that Absalom was his enemy and that many men fought (and died) in order to restore his rule, but that matters little to David. He eventually did pull himself together and honor his army, but we see his true heart on display in his lament.
This is where God began speaking to me. I was reading this story to my sons and my daughters and I could so identify with wanting to take their place even though one of them had tried to lead a rebellion against me. “No parent should have to bury their child,” says Theoden in the Two Towers and it’s this kind of love, however misguided it may seem to others, that fills parents when they think about the demise of their children, even ones who are their enemies. As parents, it’s only right to want to die, believing our children have a better future ahead. It’s what makes us parents.
As I read the story, I began again to see the heart of God–A father who loved his children so much, that even though they participated in a horrible rebellion to overthrow His Kingdom and replace it with their own, would rather die in the place of His children than see them perish. If we feel this way…if us natural human parents feel this way towards our children…if David feels this way towards his son who sought to overthrow him, then how much more must our heavenly Father feel towards us?
Today is Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Since there’s not much to write about the day where Jesus laid in the grave, I thought I’d take today and reflect a bit on how the cross affects the life of the believer.
The cross and the resurrection began a revolution in the life of humanity. Humans, who had lived under the thumb of sin for thousands of years, finally were freed from its dominance. They could have a relationship with God! We can draw close to God in a way that was never possible. But the cross changed more than just our position before God. The cross changed how we live with one another.
Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God.
-Paul, Ephesians 5:2
Paul (and the other apostles) constantly call us to not just accept the work of the cross in our life. They also call us to follow the example of Jesus in how we relate to others. Many of us will read Paul’s letter and hear a call for Christians to “be nice.” Paul points us to lay our lives down in love for one another in the same way Jesus gave up His life on the cross.
This is a whole different level than just doing good to others. Jesus’ example means giving up our lives for the betterment of others. It means entering into situations others have created for no other purpose than to love and serve them. It often means you absorb the cost for others’ actions.
I remember a time back in college when we planted our first house church. I had just gotten done taking care of all my bills with my meager college income and I had just gotten paid and had a little extra cash in my pocket for the first time. It was at this exact moment that a single mom in our house church shared a need she had. She was behind on her electric bill and needed to come up with the cash to pay it. Somehow between all of us we came up with the cash, but the lesson I learned was this: My money isn’t just my money. In order to love like Jesus, I needed to lay down my life for others. In this case it was my excess cash that I was so happy about.
Friends, Jesus didn’t owe us anything. He entered our world and paid the price of our sin because He loved us, not because we deserved it. In the same way, He calls us to follow Him into the lives of others and love them in the same way.
Today (and tomorrow, and the next day, and the next…) as we remember the price Jesus paid for our sins, commit yourself to share the kind of love you’ve received from Him with other believers in your life. Share the love you received in the same way He showed it to you.
[Update] Frequent commenter Dan left this well stated truth in the comment section:
He died once for sin but daily, moment by moment, gives Himself to us. We died once to sin, but daily, moment by moment give of ourselves to others.
A short meditation for Good Friday:
For some, today looked like chaos. An angry, ugly mob finally turned on a man from Nazareth who had aspirations of something greater. Having brought Him to Pilate, this mob finally got their way. For those who were following this man, this was unthinkable. He had healed the sick, raised the dead Himself, and had been confirmed by so many signs that the idea of Him going to the cross was unthinkable. And He was crushed. And along with Him, their hopes.
God can take our chaos and crushed dreams and make something beautiful.
For one man, this day was the culmination of everything he deserved. He had spent his life stealing, swindling, and escaping the law. His life benefited no one, only took took from those who surrounded him. He deserved this day. He deserved to find himself on this cross. His sins brought him here. But next to him was a man he had never met before, gasping for the same air he was trying to swallow. Between the pain and not being able to breathe, somewhere he had a revelation that this man dying next to him was more than a man. He confronted the mocker on a third cross and called out to the One in the middle of them. He heard that One, that “more than a man” whisper to him “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
God can take the worst of us in horrible situations and change our lives.
Post the cross, first hundreds, then thousands, and then millions have accepted the reality of the cross and the man who rested on it. The meaning of this day, looked back on throughout history has become a point of both deep grief and deep relief. That Jesus lost his life on that cross was the beginning of God’s plan to liberate us from our sin and the enemy of our souls. But for the first believers and those that have followed in their steps, this day has not only become a day to celebrate but an example to follow. This became a day that not only defined our freedom from sin, but a freedom from the way this world would seek to control us.
God can take this day and not just forgive us, but define us.
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
-Paul, Philippians 2:5-11
Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?… Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
This may come as a shock, given what you’ve seen and what you heard from Christian ministries in the past, but the Kingdom of God is not dependent on dollar bills in order to keep expanding. Let me explain.
When you came to Christ, regardless of the context you heard the Gospel in, the critical element was the exchange of the message of Jesus from one human being to another. Now, there were probably multiple things involved in that moment that were paid for: a Bible, possibly a building, maybe a paid speaker or pastor, but at a basic level the Gospel was freely given to you.
In China and in many other countries around the world, the Gospel spreads not because the people are able to give exorbitant amounts of money–they can’t. The Gospel spreads there because people received the true Gospel and they are willing to give up every part of their life so that others can hear the same transforming Gospel. So without buildings, paid pastors, and often without Bibles, the true message of Jesus continues to spread.
But in the West, we’ve become so consumed with money and the place it plays in our lives, that to suggest that the Gospel could spread without it is met with charges of heresy. Who will shepherd us? Who will teach us? Who will share the Gospel with others if we don’t pay someone to do it? And what about the building? How does that work?
The reality is these things can and do work without money. House churches, for example, work regularly without paid staff, dedicated buildings, or a ministry budget. Small groups of believers meet in each others’ homes, teaching each other, caring for one another, and sharing the Gospel all without any cost. Missions? That can still happen, depending on how you define it. Locally is easy, non-locally is tougher but can be achieved through relationships, hospitality, and tent-making.
My point isn’t to glorify house churches in writing this, but to open our eyes that ministry can happen with little to no budget. If you are a traditional church with a building and staff, that’s not an evil thing. It’s just that often I’ve seen ministry stop when the money stops flowing, but it doesn’t need to be like this. We need to lower the power of the dollar in the minds of the church and lift up the ability of Jesus to not only to sustain the church, but extend the Kingdom, with or without money.
The same Jesus that told us to look to the birds and the flowers for our personal natural provision is the same Jesus that can bring ministry forth with very little (and even no) money. May God help us see that there’s no amount of money that can achieve God’s purposes, only hearts fully surrendered to Him.