The Church’s Influence-Peddling Scandal

Residents of Charlotte, North Carolina, were shocked by news that our mayor, Patrick Cannon, had been arrested by the FBI for influence-peddling. He was accused of using his position as mayor to solicit kickbacks from phony businessmen seeking his help in cutting through government red tape in getting their real estate projects approved.

Influence-peddling is nothing new, of course. People in positions of power throughout history have tended to use their influence for personal gain instead of for the good of their constituents. In 1887, Lord Acton made a famous statement that rarely is proven wrong: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Sadly, we see this in Washington all the time. Politicians crassly offer influence and access to those who give the largest campaign contributions. Lobbyists find ways to influence legislation via money, not just through persuasive arguments about what’s good for the country.

Meanwhile, a similar scandal brews behind the scenes in many American churches: Extra influence is bestowed on those with the big bucks. No honest pastor can look you in the eye and say they have not faced this temptation, if not actually succumbed to it. Churches need money, and those with money often expect power—do you see the potential for an unholy matrimony?

The Bible makes it clear that the selection of those given authority in the church should be on the basis of spiritual maturity and character (Acts 6:3, 1 Timothy 3:1-13, Titus 1:5-9). Instead, the church often has pandered to the proud and courted the involvement of those who have the most to give financially.

When influence-peddling begins to infiltrate church decision-making, godliness often is made secondary, if it is considered at all. Many church boards are stocked with people who have succeeded in business rather than those who have succeeded in shepherding their family or fulfilling the Great Commission.

James saw the same danger in the churches of his day:

My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or “Sit here at my footstool,” have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”  (James 2:1-4)

If James were writing today, perhaps he would ask pastors who deny giving preferential treatment to take a look at their appointment books. “Have your lunch appointments been only with the rich and powerful members of your church?” he might query. “Has your time been spent discipling those who have the most spiritual hunger, or wooing those most able to advance the church bank account and image?”

I’m certainly not advocating that we favor the poor and reject people just because they are wealthy. God forbid. That, too, is an ungodly form of partiality.

There is only one form of partiality that is proper, and it has nothing to do with a person’s financial assets. Paul tells Timothy to give priority to the discipleship of “faithful men”  (2 Timothy 2:2). As pastors and leaders we should give ourselves disproportionately to those who are truly hungry for the things of God.

So be sure to pray for Patrick Cannon and other political leaders who have gone astray. But the next time you read of politicians who’ve allowed financial contributions to determine who will influence their decisions, make sure you haven’t done the same thing yourself.

 

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Preachers: Too Much Credit, Too Much Blame?

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When I first started in ministry, I had a policy to never preach the same sermon twice, even in different locations. But in recent years, I’ve taken a new approach: If God gives me a powerful message, I assume it’s likely to apply to multiple people and places. So why not preach it more than once?

But I’ve learned something shocking in the process: The power of my message often has as much to do with the responsiveness of the people as to my own prayer and preparation beforehand.

Not long ago, I preached a very similar message to two different groups, and I’m convinced the message “fit” both groups equally well. But although my preparation and delivery were the same, the message had a powerful impact on one group, while the other group yarned most of the time.

What is the lesson here?  I asked the Lord.

I was reminded that the impact of a message is greatly affected by the prayerful, responsive hearts of the recipients. People who are hungry for God’s Word will be impacted far more than people who are just sitting in their seats, often with their mind on other things.

Somebody once observed: “If people are eager to hear and be transformed by the Word of God, you can sing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ and everyone will shout hallelujah at the great revelation you presented!”

Of course, sometimes a truly anointed preacher can break through people’s apathy and dullness of hearing. But even Jesus commented that some of His hearers were much more responsive than others. And in some cases, people missed His points entirely.

One of my conclusions is that preachers probably get too much credit  for “good” sermons and too much blame  for “bad” ones. So if you think your pastor has been boring lately, I encourage you to do two things: (1) Pray for him and (2) Make sure your own  heart has been prepared to receive and heed the Word of God.

And speaking of credit and blame: What about a situation where a church isn’t growing? Typically the blame is put entirely on the pastor. But many visitors to a church are repulsed not by the pastor’s message, but by the unfriendliness of the congregation or the lack of volunteers to provide excellence in the ministry to children and teens.

Instead of blaming your pastor if the church isn’t growing as fast as you would like, how about taking time to regularly pray for a fresh outpouring of God’s Spirit? And what about making a new commitment to invite  people to the church and give visitors a warm welcome?

One thing both pastors and parishioners can be blamed for: Pastors in today’s American church have been put on pedestals that are virtually impossible to maintain. No wonder the pastors receive too much credit when things go well, and too much blame when they don’t.

 

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Are You the ‘Aaron’ Kind of Leader?

I would much rather be a leader like Aaron than like his younger brother, Moses. Aaron was clearly the more popular  of the two, and for good reason. While Moses often seemed aloof—a loner and introvert—Aaron was a man of the people, far more comfortable in social settings.

We see the style of these two leaders in stark contrast in Exodus 32. Moses shunned the people in order to climb Mount Sinai and spend 40 days with God. Aaron stayed down at the bottom of the mountain, where he could hang out with the people.

Which of these leaders would you  like to be? Isolated for 40 days—just you and God—or partying with the people in joyous revelry?

When the people got impatient waiting for Moses to return, they “gathered around Aaron”  (v. 1), the leader they knew would give them what they wanted. Their request was remarkably straightforward: “Make us some gods who can lead us.”

How would you have responded to such a request? Would you rebuke the people or “go along to get along”?

Incredibly, Aaron complied with their plan and asked them to bring him their “gold rings” that he could melt and shape into a calf they could worship (vs. 2-4).

Notice that bad decisions typically end up being about the gold—the money. How many politicians, preachers, and CEOs have gotten themselves in trouble by telling people, “Bring me the money!”

Of course, Aaron rationalized that all of this was done so the people could have “a festival to the Lord!”  (v. 5). Isn’t that astounding reasoning? Yet it has happened again and again throughout history: practicing paganism “in the name of the Lord.”

And you have to admit, Aaron really knew how to throw a party. After going through a few religious rituals to relieve their conscience, the people “celebrated with feasting and drinking, and they indulged in pagan revelry” (v. 6).

All the while, Aaron was the chaperone—the “adult” on duty during an episode of “Israelites gone wild.”

Both God and Moses were livid about the situation. After smashing the stone tablets containing the 10 Commandments, Moses angrily demanded from Aaron, “What did these people do to you to make you bring such terrible sin upon them?”  (v. 21)

Moses apparently thought Aaron must have been tortured or threatened with his life in order to permit such an idolatrous orgy. But no, it was all too easy for the people to persuade Aaron to do their bidding. He was a man of the people, after all.

Aaron seems to have been completely tone deaf to how serious this offense was. First, he blamed the people. Then he acted as if the calf had just miraculously appeared when gold was thrown into the fire.

But his brother had been with God, and he wouldn’t buy any of these lame explanations: “Moses saw that Aaron had let the people get completely out of control, much to the amusement of their enemies”  (v. 25).

Are you a leader, or parent, who allows people to “get completely out of control” in order to have them like you? Do you choose to look the other way instead of take a stand?

When God’s people compromise with sin or idolatry, the result is always the same, as Moses points out: We become a laughingstock to the Lord’s enemies. Instead of being respected or liked, our credibility is undercut.

So I ask you again: Would you rather be a leader like Moses or like Aaron? Let’s be honest: It would be no fun at all to be in Moses’ position in this story. Who wants to be the “bad guy,” calling for repentance and spoiling people’s “fun”?

There always are consequences to Aaron’s kind of people-pleasing leadership. “Then the Lord sent a great plague upon the people because they had worshiped the calf Aaron had made”  (v. 35). At the end of the day, the pleasures of sin were replaced by a plague of judgment.

From my perspective, this week’s decisions by World Vision and its president, Richard Stearns, are a sad example of the Aaron kind of leadership. After announcing that World Vision would now be willing to hire openly gay married couples, the Christian humanitarian organization reversed itself just two days later because of the public outcry.

But with Exodus 32 as a backdrop, I can’t help but wonder if both of their decisions were based on fear rather than faithcompromise rather than conviction…and popularity  rather than passion or prophecy.

And if my suspicions are true, both  of the decisions were more motivated by “gold” (money) than by God. Why? Because the Aaron kind of leader always looks to money rather than God’s anointing to grease the wheels of ministry.

I guess I would rather be a Moses kind of leader after all.

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Do You Need a SELFIE Sermon?

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I’ve been teaching and preaching the Word of God for many decades now. If you can guess how many  decades, I’ll be happy to send you a complimentary cassette tape of one of my original messages.

My first official sermon was given about a year after I gave my life to Christ. I was glad to have the opportunity, and I shared just about everything I had learned that first year of being a Christian. The sermon included such things as my testimony, the claims of Christ, the story of Nicodemus in John 3, a little bit of Bible prophecy, and a defense of why the Scriptures are truly the inerrant Word of God.

And I said all of that in just 20 minutes or so.

I thought I had done a pretty good job. After all, it was certainly fresh material to me.

But fortunately I had a friend with me that day, an impartial observer of what had just occurred. “How do you think it went?” I asked him, confident that he would give a glowing report.

Although I don’t remember everything Geoff said in his reply, the punch lines still resonate: “That’s what you call ‘shotgun preaching,’ he said with a faint grin. “You shot at lots of things, but you didn’t really hit much of anything.”

Hmmm…

I still  probably cram too much material into my sermons, but I sincerely believe they are much better now. If I still had Geoff’s address, I probably would send him a recent CD to get his input.

My sermons now tend to be more story-oriented than in the early days. I still cover a number of Bible principles in each message, but no longer just in bullet point style. And I’m much more aware that the job of a preacher in not primarily to communicate information, but rather to change lives.

One thing I’ve wrestled with lately is the difference between a narcissistic sermon and a “selfie” sermon. You’ve probably heard some narcissistic messages, where the preacher goes on and on about himself, his family, or the church, often in a self-aggrandizing way. After he’s done, you’re still not sure what application any of the message had to what you or the rest of the audience happen to be going through.

Although a selfie sermon runs the risk of being narcissistic, it ends up being much different. By “selfie sermon,” I mean that preachers much preach to themselves  before they take the stage to preach to anyone else.

Preachers who take the selfie approach avoid the hazard of becoming smug finger-pointers, with no self-awareness of how they’ve fallen short of the glory of God in their own  life. They don’t share principles about marriage without first examining their own  marriage in light of God’s Word. When preaching about the power of prayer, they first take an honest look at any struggles they’ve had in their own  journey of faith.

Jesus quotes an interesting proverb in Luke 4:23 that may have some of the “selfie sermon” principle in mind: “Physician, heal yourself!” In other words, if you purport to be a spiritual doctor, able to bring others to better health, you better make sure you’ve first tested the medicine on your own life.

I’m sure some of my preacher friends would protest at this point, “But, Jim, my life is far from perfect. I want to hold up God’s Word as the infallible standard, certainly not my own life.”

This totally misses the point, however. Of course  our lives are far from God’s perfect standard. But unless we do a painfully honest selfie sermon before preaching to others, we’re liable to give the false impression that we’ve fully mastered the scriptural truths we are proclaiming to others.

One of the reasons the Pharisees became hypocrites is that they preached Bible truths to their followers before they ever took a selfie and applied those truths to their own lives. No wonder they ended up being so pompous. No wonder people’s lives weren’t transformed by their teachings. By failing to take a selfie, they became self-absorbed  without ever become self-aware.

So go ahead and take a selfie. It will give you a chance to take the log out of your own eye before you preach to others (Matthew 7:3-5). And when you’re finally ready to give your message, you’ll be certain the principles really work. You’ll find yourself speaking with new confidence and authority, and you may even find the boldness to discard your old cassette tapes.

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4 Leadership Lessons from My Local Publix

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Here in Charlotte, North Carolina, the Harris Teeter grocery store chain has had a virtual monopoly in recent decades. There is a smattering of Food Lion and BI-LO stores in the area, but they’ve never been a match for the quality and customer service offered by Harris Teeter.

But the entrance of Publix into the Charlotte market may well change Harris Teeter’s dominance. They’ve opened two new stores near where I live, and I’m already a huge fan. The Publix slogan is “Where Shopping Is a Pleasure”—and I’ve found the slogan to be quite accurate.

In the short time I’ve been exposed to Publix, I’ve already observed a number of important, but very rare, leadership lessons on display:

1. They care for their employees, not just their customers. Publix has been named one of the “100 Best Companies to Work For.” The employees radiate a positive attitude, as if they love their work and love serving the customers. Publix is “employee owned,” meaning that employees not only receive a salary, they also become invested in the company’s stock. Leaders of every organization should learn from this principle and ask themselves: Do our employees have a sense of ownership, or do they just “work here”?

2. They provide a clear path of upward mobility. When a new Publix store opened here recently, I got talking to one of the workers during the grand opening. Little did I know at the time, but it turned out he was the president of the entire Publix organization—with more than 1,000 stores in all! I found out later that he had started working at Publix as a food bagger, working his way up the ladder until he became the president. Rumor has it that he’s now worth more than $200 million, not just because of his salary, but primarily because of stock he’s accumulated in the company. Does your organization enable people to grow into increasingly influential roles? Or do employees get the sense that your leadership team is a “closed club” that they will never have access to?

3. They are already great, but they’re hungry to get even better. When I unknowingly talked with the Publix president that day, it was to provide a suggestion—in fact, it was more like a complaint. He listened intently and even took a few notes. Then he walked me around the store to show me some of the things I had missed up to that point. I left the encounter with him with the clear feeling that I had been heard. And I saw that even though the Publix organization has been in existence since 1930, they weren’t resting on their laurels as some other grocery chains have done. They still are eager to receive feedback and keep improving the customer experience. What a great lesson for every organization. We should always want to grow and improve, no matter how successful we’ve already been.

4. They’ve trained their workers to lead, not just point. If you ask a question to an employee of most grocery stores, they will politely give you an answer and point you in the direction of what you’re looking for. For example, if you ask where you can find the apple sauce, they will say, “It’s over there on aisle 3.” There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but Publix employees often take an additional step. “It’s on aisle 3,” they will reply, “and let me take you to the exact spot.”

Do you see how significant this leadership principle is? Many CEOs, politicians, preachers, or other leaders are great at pointing the way, but they often do a terrible job of leading the way. For example, if you ask a preacher how you can have a better marriage, he is likely to refer you to a book or sermon series on the subject. If you ask a politician what it will take to make the country better, he will probably give you some platitudes from his stump speech. But where are the leaders who emulate the Publix model—taking people to the destination instead of merely giving out advice and pointing?

The Bible has many examples of leaders who truly led the way. They weren’t just “do as I say” leaders, as so many are today. Aren’t you glad Moses didn’t just stay in Egypt and give the Israelites a map they could follow to the Promised Land?

Yes, it’s important to point people toward the precepts and principles we are called to follow as believers. But the apostle Paul emphasized that he wanted people to follow his example as well: “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1, 2 Timothy 3:10-11, Philippians 4:9).

I encourage you today to do an assessment of your organization’s leadership culture. I think there are some things we all can learn from Publix.

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