Archive for the ‘Elders’ Category


Elderlink: Conclusion

April 11, 2010

In the concluding session of 2010 Elderlink Atlanta, Randy Harris spoke on strategies for addressing the challenges facing churches of Christ for the next generation.  How do we lead our churches in the future?   He proposed an overarching principle for developing leaders for the next generation: “Come follow with me!”

The term “leader” is not a big positive concept in gospels.  Actually “follow” is a much more prominent topic. We need, not to lead better, but to follow better.   To reach the next generation we need leaders who are great followers. Get people to follow with you. Leadership is a side effect of following.

For most of Christian history, most believers did not possess a copy of the scriptures, nor could they even read them.  So how did they do discipleship in a pre-literate world?   In a world where most men don’t read books, we may need to employ methods similar to those used in past generations.  Those methods are not primarily focused “from the neck up.”   They focus on doing things together that build spirituality and character.

Randy presented an illustration from college football.   More and more college football teams don’t have a playbook, because so many players can’t read well enough to get the plays from the book. But they still run plays.  The coach lines up the team on the practice field and shows them how to run the play.  Then they run the play over and over until they get it right.  That is our model.

Randy offered a few examples of the kind of “plays” he is running with a group of ministry students.

  • Make a covenant commitment. Sign formal vows. Take them really seriously. Give one another permission to hold accountable. Include statements like, “If you see me acting like a jerk, here is what I want you to say to me”
  • Scripture memorization
  • Take the group out for a meal.  No one is allowed to get their own food, nor can they ask someone to serve them.  So each person in the group learns to enter a situation where they are focused on serving others rather than on serving themselves.  Run the play over and over until you get it right
  • For 48 hrs, don’t say anything that love doesn’t require you to say.  Then talk about it.   The group came to realize that so much of what their conversation is sarcasm — not compelled by love.

Randy then presented five fundamental boundaries to instill.  These are not the only needed qualities, of course, but are some needed qualities  that are not talked often about.

1) toughness – like Jesus was tough. Quit whining . Whining is not the appropriate response to anything.  He gave the example of a person with cancer who does not complain.  Be like that person!

2) risk taking He painted a picture of a disciple as being absurdly happy, entirely fearless, and always in trouble.  This requires trust in God.  We can’t be inspiring leaders while always playing it safe.

3) mindfulness of God Being calm and not anxious in all circumstances, with a deep sense that God is working in every situation — not just being aware of God when we are praying.  Hold one another accountable for observing 15 min a day of silence. Challenge disciples to have a 90 second prayer, 7 times a day.

4) exhibit and teach persistence Help them with discipline and commitment over time.

5) fun Being a follower with others following you has to be fun, joyful.

Randy closed with a challenge for all of us to get others to follow with us.  When we do that, everything else becomes an annoyance.   This is the purpose for which God called us to be shepherds.  And it must be done if we are to develop the leaders who will reach the next generation.


Elderlink: Competencies

April 6, 2010

After Randy Harris’ opening talk on challenges we face in reaching the next generation, John York took the podium and began talking about the key competencies that church leaders need in order to meet those challenges.  Teaching, he says, is not merely about the transfer of information.  Today’s audiences have access to a virtually unlimited supply of information on their computers and their phones.  No teacher can compete as a source of information.  Trying to do so diminishes the teacher in the eyes of the students.   Instead, the teacher needs to provide meaning, context and relevance for the information.  How does this information change my life?   How can it change yours?

That changes the kind of ministry graduates a university needs to produce.  What are the key competencies a divinity school graduate should possess?  What should a school like ACU do to instill those competencies?   And how can they be measured?

Based on data gathered in previous events, John shared with us the competencies those audiences rated as most important for a church leader:

1) Minister’s spiritual life

2) Exegetical skill

3) Interpersonal relationship skills

4) Family life

5) Conflict management

John commented that training in Greek and Hebrew ranked at the very bottom of the list.  Of course, that doesn’t mean biblical languages are unimportant for a teacher.  But it does mean many in churches don’t see it as very important — far out of synch with the effort and emphasis on them in the university programs.

John then proceeded to collect similar survey results from the Elderlink attendees.  And along the way, he collected our self-evaluation of our own competency in those areas.  Our top areas were:

1) Appropriate boundaries

2) Interpersonal skills

3) Listening skills

4) Mentoring skills

5) Spiritual formation

6) Gospel, evangelism

7) Prayer

It is clear that in the view of this group of elders, high on the list of important skills are matters related to interpersonal relationships and reconciliation.  Interestingly, those are not listed among the qualifications in Titus 1 and 1 Tim 3.  (Although it could be argued that they are demonstrated in the kind of family that those passages describe).   In general, the group rated itself as decent but not great in most of these areas.  There is clearly room for (and need for) improvement. We need a way to develop those competencies in elders and in ministers.

I’ve noted before that the ICOC has taken a different approach to building church leaders.  Churches of Christ appear to take people with good academic credentials and turn them into leaders of people through on-the-job training.  The ICOC has done the opposite — attempting to identify people with natural leadership skill, and trying to supplement that with biblical training from time to time along the way.    Neither is ideal, but God can work with weaknesses.  The key ingredient IMO is Lordship.  If there’s one thing the scriptures say over an over, it’s that God can use a person wholly devoted to him, despite great weaknesses.


Elderlink 2010: Five Challenges

April 2, 2010

Randy Harris opened up Elderlink Atlanta on Friday night by stating that the future of the church for people under 30 will be decided by people over 50 who are responsible today.   If we are selfish about how we do that then we will fail.  We must be willing to change and to serve the young.

Randy enumerated five challenges facing today’s leaders in preparing the church for the future:

1) Technology

Technology is a deep distraction among younger people today.  A typical twenty-something will be found today browsing the web on their phones, texting their friends, checking Facebook updates, following people on Twitter…  Whether in the classroom or in a meeting on the job, you never have their undivided attention.  They experience no quiet; seldom pray; don’t know how to pray.  They have constant input from technology.  If they’re only doing one thing at a time, they are bored.  That is a serious impediment to teaching someone to have a relationship with God.

Many of them simply will not read bible. Most men do not read a single book after they finish school.  They consume input in 140 character doses.

How to perform spiritual formation?  It takes 10 years to do anything meaningful. Spiritual formation requires intense attention over time.  It takes a level of commitment that few young people give to anything.

2) The “post-church”era

We are not in a “post christian” era, but post-church.  People are not hostile to church, but see it as irrelevant.  Megachurches are still growing, mostly from people who already share many of their values.  They are not reaching the rest.

We won’t reach the world by improving the worship experience.  They’ll never know about the change, because they don’t come!  It has nothing to do with the quality of preaching, nor instrumental music, nor any of the other things we tweak trying to attract people.

3) Age, gender, and social gap in churches.

Churches are growing older.  There are far more women than men.  Churches of Christ are predominantly southern, white, and well to do. Where are the young men?

4) We need to examine our definitions.

What is the good news? What does a disciple look like? What does a kingdom community look like?   What is important? It’s not all about sexual ethics

Community is overused word.  I can join a community of bicycle riders simply by buying a bicycle.  The community of a church has to mean far more.  Randy used the word “communitas”  meaning a group held together by shared struggles and shared lives.

We need to be committed to reconciliation as a top priority.  The world is tribal and crazy about it. Church should not be Democrat, nor Republican; predominantly rich nor predominantly poor; caucasian or African.

Randy pointed to the news story a while back about a murder in an amish community.  Their public response of forgiveness was a light in a dark world.  We need to be known as that kind of community.

5) What is success, and how do we measure it?

We need to redefine what success looks like.  It’s not “how many people come to church”.  Church attendance  should not be the goal of our love, benevolence, and community outreach.  Church is not all about “butts and bucks.”   Instead it should be about living out values of the kingdom

Success is measured by how many Jesus followers are here — people who are radically walking as Jesus walked.

The dichotomy between men and women in church is a big problem.  “He doesnt ‘get’ church.”  “She doesn’t ‘get’ that he doesn’t ‘get’ it.”  “He prefers his ‘christian’ relationships outside church. Doesn’t like the singing, the preacher… But sees himself as a follower of Jesus.

Young people haven’t given up on truth. (except for college professors and grad students).  But we are not reaching them thru sermons.  And when they attend a sermon they are texting at the same time.  We need a new approach. We won’t reach the next generation thru traditional church.

Hearing Randy’s message, I couldn’t help but think of the way the campus ministries of the 1970’s grew.  It wasn’t by putting on a dramatic, compelling worship service.  Instead it was done one-on-one, and in small groups on campus.  If the church can get back to that model, I think we’ll be ok.


Elderlink 2010

March 28, 2010

This past Friday evening and Saturday, the Atlanta Elderlink program was held at the North Atlanta Church of Christ.

Elderlink is a program from Abilene Christian University providing support to elders in churches of Christ.  I’ve attended in four previous years, with this year being the fifth.

Today I want to talk about the overall structure of the event.  I’ll try to post more on the content of the sessions in future posts.

This year’s program took an interesting approach.  First, Randy Harris set the stage talking about the great challenges facing churches of Christ. Then John York conducted an audience survey (using those cool remote clickers to collect input from everyone in the audience) in which we evaluated the “competencies” we considered most important to a church leader, to address those challenges. For each competency, he also had each attendee evaluate his or her own level of proficiency.  Randy Lowrey then led a panel discussion about the challenges Randy Harris had described.  Then we broke out into smaller groups for three sessions where the audience discussed what we had heard so far.  Following those discussions we came back together and heard representatives from each group share what they had heard in the group discussions.  John York then presented the findings of the earlier “clicker” surveys, highlighting the competencies rated as most important, and showing the self-evaluated shortfall in desirable competency. Finally, Randy Harris wrapped up with a discussion of some keys to developing leadership (“come follow with me”) equipped to meet the challenges for the next generation.

What a great idea for a leadership program!  The audience decided what they consider important, and determined where they need the most help.  That’s all the more relevant since there are so few opportunities for elders to get the kind of “continuing education” that many other disciplines receive.  Surely shepherding the people of God is at least as important as many professional fields where continuing education is mandatory.  We really need to find a way to help our leaders to grow.

Among churches of Christ, Elderlink is a lone voice in a wilderness of unmet eldership development needs.  Why any elder within a few hours of Atlanta would choose not to attend, is beyond my comprehension.  We need a lot more opportunities like this.  Thanks to ACU for all their hard work to support elders in the churches of Christ.


Elderlink Atlanta 2009

April 1, 2009

This past Friday and Saturday I attended the Elderlink program at North Atlanta Church of Christ. I previously attended in 2006, 2007, and 2008. Elderlink is a program of Abilene Christian University, with a mission “to equip, encourage, and link those who lead and serve as elders in churches of Christ.” While officially a ministry of ACU, it is strongly supported by David Libscomb University, and this year’s program included several speakers from Lipscomb.

The theme of this year’s program was spiritual formation. I admit that the term “spiritual formation” makes me twitch just a bit. It just sounds too ecumenical for my tastes. But I also recognize that the Christian life has to be concerned with spiritual growth. I can assure you that what was discussed at this conference was not a watered down ecumenical version of spiritual life.

Randy Harris opened the conference with a challenging picture. Imagine that you are in the pit of despair, lying in fetal position on the floor, feeling spiritually devastated about your life, about the sin that has ensnared you and threatens to ruin your life. You wonder whether you can possibly recover from the spiritual disaster you’ve brought upon yourself. As you lie there with your eyes closed, slowly you open them. Who would you want to see there to help you?

As a shepherd, strive to be the person that this spiritually destitute person wants to see — someone who is trustworthy, who is gentle but firm, who knows how to help a hurting soul and has demonstrated that over and over.

He challenged us to be the person who takes a spiritually hollow, shallow, and lifeless person, and walks alongside them to a better place.

In 1 Kings 18, Elijah found the Israelites wavering between two opinions, with divided loyalties. Would they follow the LORD, or would they follow Baal? Elijah dramatically challenged them about their Baal worship, and God demonstrated his power. As a result, those who previously were wavering between two opinions suddenly started slaughtering priests of Baal — quite a dangerous thing to do, since these were the very priests who served the vengeful queen Jezebel.

As a shepherd, strive to be the kind of leader who turns people from a state of divided loyalties to one of “slaughtering priests of Baal.”

Saturday there were several sessions focused on meditation, silence, and prayer. The general idea was that we need to take time to be silent (no TV, no radio, nothing but us and God). We need that silence, and we need to teach our congregations how to be still and know that the LORD is God (Psalm 46:10)

There was also a panel discussion led by the ministers and elders of a congregation in Indiana. This congregation is doing some remarkable things to serve the poor, working together with other churches in the area (including independent Christian churches). They have a food pantry that serves 400 people every month (in a congregation half that size). An outsider’s donation led to the establishment of a thrift store which serves the poor directly, and provides profits to fund the food pantry and other efforts. Their youth program includes significant numbers of teens from the community, and they make a point of accepting these teens without being judgmental about their less than perfect habits. In all these things, they make it a point to serve the community and to make a difference in it.

In the closeout speech, Randy Harris asked what would be the characteristics an informed outsider would expect to see in people who truly follow Jesus. He proposed the following list:

  1. They would be the least angry, calmest people in the world, because Christians know how the story will turn out in the end.
  2. Mat 5:22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

    We live in an angry world. What if Christians refused to get angry? What if we turned the other cheek?

  3. They would care less and less about material things.
  4. Mat 6:24 “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.

  5. They would be less tribal than the rest of the world. Jesus loved sinners, Samaritans, fishermen… in short, all people. His followers would be the same.

Randy’s closing challenge was for leaders to be authentic. What the church needs from its leaders, more than anything else, is for its leaders to be better followers of Jesus. Are there passages we cannot preach with full conviction, because we are not living them out ourselves? More realistically, how many passages can we find that we are fully obeying? We can’t lead others where we aren’t going ourselves.

I’ve just hit a few highlights of the weekend, and I haven’t done justice to the quality and depth of the presentations. Once again, Elderlink hit the nail on the head. I appreciate the high caliber of spiritual leaders they bring each year to teach and inspire a room full of elders. I appreciate the chance to fellowship with elders from many places. Many of these elders take off time from work, drive from multiple states and stay in hotels to attend this event. I cannot imagine why elders in easy driving distance would pass up the opportunity to benefit from such a rich program of spiritual nourishment. It was time well spent.


ElderLink Atlanta 2008

March 30, 2008

Yesterday my wife and I were blessed to attend ElderLink Atlanta 2008. This has become an annual event hosted at the North Atlanta Church of Christ. Saturday was the third time my wife and I have attended.

The program opened with Earl Lavender speaking on the problem of pain. One of the responsibilities of elders is to prepare the church for suffering. By helping people to glorify God in the midst of suffering, we help them understand the meaning of their trials. Christianity is not always a comfortable life. Paul was willing to share in the suffering of Christ when necessary in order to bring glory to God. We should prepare people so they will be ready when they encounter suffering.

John York spoke about leading relationally rather than judicially. Often elders govern like a supreme court, hearing hard cases and announcing verdicts. In churches of Christ, our view of scripture has been judicial / legal. The hermeneutic “command, example, and necessary inference” is a legal approach to scripture, deriving laws from the text. Instead, we should read the scriptures from a relational perspective. Jesus taught us to pray to “Our Father” in heaven. The concepts of being “In Christ,” “the bride of Christ”, “the body of Christ” etc are all relational concepts, and are central to scripture and to the church. The scriptures emphasize relationship, but taking a legal approach to the scriptures causes us to miss much of that.

During the breakout sessions, I attended the two sessions on how elders should handle sexual abuse cases in the church. Among the shocking statistics we learned, 20% of girls and 18% of boys in the US have been abused sometime in their childhood. There are an estimated 39 million survivors of sexual abuse in America. We learned how one congregation dealt with a sexual abuse situation, including the need to take care of the victim, the victim’s family, the perpetrator, the church, the government, and the church leaders themselves. The sad truth is that we will all probably have to deal with this issue at some point.

John Siburt spoke on the relationship between ministers and elders, and the “tools of the trade” that each group uses to carry out their responsibilties: worship, conversation with scripture, spiritual disciplines, stories (ours and those of others), and relationships.

One of the highlights of the day for me was meeting Jay Guin. I’ve enjoyed reading his blog and comment on it frequently here. Among other things, I learned that I have been pronouncing his name wrong! (it’s pronounced “Gyoo-win” or something close to that, not “Gwin.”) We talked about blogs and opportunities to influence the church toward a better place through writing. I wish we had more time to talk!

I also was blessed to encounter a brother from my college days (just after the earth cooled…) who is now an elder in Raleigh. We had lost contact over the years, and it was great to reconnect. He traveled with another brother we both knew from college, whom I have seen at past ElderLinks. It is encouraging to see what God has done in these brothers’ lives over the years.

I very much appreciate the North Atlanta Church of Christ for hosting this event, and also Abilene Christian University for making this event available. For me, the opportunity to learn from church leaders in other places is invaluable. The mature perspective and practical experience of the speakers at every ElderLink helps me to carry out my responsibilities in a better way. I need a lot more of this kind of thing!



March 22, 2008

On one matter, the vast majority of churches of Christ are in agreement: a church cannot have only one elder. If the congregation does not have two or more men meeting the biblical qualifications, that church does not appoint elders. And if, for whatever reason, the number of elders in a congregation is reduced until only one remains, that individual can no longer serve as an elder.

While this is a reasonable conclusion to draw from the scriptures, I believe it is an incomplete picture. Our understanding of the scriptures on this subject (and on many others) is tainted by our modern preconceptions about the church. Further, our understanding is clouded by our reaction against practices of other groups that we believe to be wrong. As a result, while we have very definite and strong convictions about the subject, our convictions are not completely aligned with scripture.

The basic idea of a plurality of elders comes from passages like these:

Act 14:21-23 They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.

Act 20:17 From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church.

Php 1:1-2 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers [elders] and deacons: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

1Ti 5:17 The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.

It is apparent in each of those cases that there were more than one elder in each of these churches.

Let’s consider another passage:

Tit 1:5 The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.

Here, Paul instructed Titus to appoint elders in every town. One might reasonably ask whether these elders were associated with a single congregation or with multiple congregations within that town. J. W. McGarvey comments on this passage:

Titus was left at Crete to ordain Elders in every city, which is equivalent to ordaining them in every church, because there was but one church in each city.

Later he states:

It is true that in these cities the disciples often had several meeting places, but there is no evidence of separate and independent organizations.

It is easily proven that first century cities often had multiple congregations. Romans 16 mentions at least three separate house churches (verses 5,14,15), along with numerous individuals who were not included in any of those three groups. The churches in Jerusalem, Antioch, and Ephesus were especially large, perhaps tens of thousands of members. It is quite likely that those groups seldom if ever assembled together as a single group after reaching such large numbers. The same may have been true in other cities as well.

The church in Jerusalem is particularly instructive on this question. Consider the following:

Act 21:17-19 When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers received us warmly. The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.

When Paul arrived, he found all of the Jerusalem elders meeting together with James. That is very significant, since verse 20 tells us the church was exceedingly large:

Act 21:20 When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law.

Verse 20 speaks of how many “myriads” of Jews have believed — literally, how many “tens of thousands.” Suffice it to say that the Jerusalem church was huge, by modern standards. It seems completely infeasible for so many to assemble together regularly for Sunday worship in ancient Jerusalem. Communion alone would have been a logistical nightmare — not to mention such mundane concerns as restroom facilities (without indoor plumbing).

So the Jerusalem church was really made up of many smaller congregations. There must have been many elders in Jerusalem, but no elder could have served as shepherd for every one of those thousands of disciples. Instead, they would have divided the work so that each of the available elders could focus on a manageable group of disciples.

Yet, when Paul arrived, he found the elders meeting together with James. And the group of elders together addressed the controversy of Paul’s arrival and asked Paul to participate in some Jewish purification rites. In their shepherding role, they must have divided the labor. But in their overseeing role, they made a joint decision.

Today, when we read these passages, we naturally picture a church like our modern-day congregations — a few hundred at most, in a modern church building, with a group of elders who serve only the people who assemble in that one place. In many cities there may be a dozen or more of these churches of Christ, each of which acts like it is the only church in the city. The leaders of those different congregations might get together on rare occasion for a fellowship breakfast, but you can be sure that the business of city-wide congregational oversight will not be on the agenda. We hold our autonomy dearly.

What if we acknowledged that there is one church of Christ in our city? Could we have one eldership in the city? Could we jointly oversee a collection of smaller congregations within the city?

James wrote to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations — believing Jews in many remote places. In chapter 5 he instructed them:

Jas 5:14 Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.

What would one of these Jews do if he needed to call elders, but there were none in his remotely situated house church? Wouldn’t he call for the nearest elders he could find? Would those elders refuse to come because the sick one was a member of a small autonomous congregation lacking its own elders? Or was James only providing instructions for those lucky enough to be in a congregation that had its own elders?

In Acts 15, we have another instructive incident:

Act 15:1-2 Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.

The church in Antioch sent to Jerusalem for an answer to their dispute, even though they already had an apostle present. They specifically went to hear, not only from the apostles, but also from the elders in Jerusalem. As we know, the apostles and elders met to discuss the matter, and that same group wrote a response to the church in Antioch. No dominant elder nor apostle made the decision alone–despite the presence of numerous men possessing the gift of prophecy. The decision reached was a group decision.

Furthermore, the decision was delivered to many other congregations in the region besides Antioch:

Act 16:4 As they traveled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey.

The elders in Jerusalem participated in a group decision which the congregations in the region were expected to obey. This incident sets a precedent for elders in one church to provide support for congregations in their region who did not have their own elders.

What should we make of all this?

First, it appears that our concept of a church is quite different from the biblical concept. There really is only one church, and parts of it meet in many places. In each city, a group of elders should oversee the church (singular) in that city. Their role can even extend beyond the city to support nearby congregations that lack elders.

For the purpose of shepherding, the work can and must be divided up into manageable portions. A shepherd must know his sheep. But for oversight, there needs to be a plurality. The group of elders should work together to come to decisions. No single elder is the emperor of his own little kingdom. Instead, the elders hold one another accountable to the high standards of the eldership, and make decisions as a group. That is the biblical example.

We who serve as elders need to take down the barriers between our congregations. We have been appointed by God to oversee the welfare of His church. We are only doing a limited part of that job.