The Truth About Church Competition and "Copy + Paste" Programming

We live in an era of quick fix methodology in life. The church is not immune to this.

As statistics for the American church continue to show decreases in baptisms and consistent attendance, many long-time local churches now find themselves struggling to remain not just relevant to a changing to community, but ultimately alive as a congregation.

The church growth movement of the 1970s and 1980s has left a residue of wrongly placed markers for church health that actually do not reveal health, but just attendance, and when attendance wanes, the church is deemed a failure. The church may be failing, but there are more health indicators than just people in the pews. While some mega-churches and new works have creative footprints online and in their respective communities, there are many other local churches seeking to continue serving the Lord and their community, but find themselves struggling to pay bills, engage those in the community or remain open.

Church Competition

Now, most pastors would never admit they're competitors with other local churches. The sad truth is that over time, churches tend to program, develop, offer ministries, music, and events based not on what may be best long-term, or even with a foundational theological understanding, but more on what seems to be working elsewhere. That’s why so many churches seem to be clones of others (especially of those that market really well).

Have you ever wondered why the new church launch in your city looks suspiciously like the mega-church from North Carolina, Dallas, Southern California, or Australia? 

And while I am as guilty as just about any other pastor in striving to find what “secret sauce” is working now to get people and keep people in church, the fact remains that a short-term fix focused on the latest program, event, staff position, concert, or any other tangible thing will be just that – a short-term fix.

New ministries, new staff members, new leadership, new branding, etc. will not provide that which is most needed. That being said, there are definitely moments where each of the previously listed items, and more, must be addressed. Some things must change. Some ministries need to be shelved. That's a reality and I am for all that. However, what I am saying is that to simply focus on the latest marketed "church fix" would be akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Things would look good for a season, but that shifting and rearranging would do nothing to keep the ship afloat or moving forward.

Knowing the state of the evangelical church in our nation today, and just observing the data from the evangelical churches (especially the traditionally Baptist ones in my own city) it is clear that the next trendy fix will do little more than delay the inevitable.

While I'm addressing the realities of established churches, church planters and new works should take heed as well. 

Copy + Paste Programming

Anyone who works with computers of software to any degree understands the "copy + paste" illustration. Software allows for the copying of text or images from one document or program to another. All you have to do is "paste" the copied item to the new work and, voila, it's a new creation. Well, it's a new look, but there's really nothing new there. It's the same thing, just replicated. This is not new. Andy Warhol make much by copying and pasting images for his modern artistic works. Ever see the Campbell's soup can or Marilyn Monroe work from Warhol?

When I was a kid in Alabama, a new hamburger restaurant opened. It was headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee and apparently the founder was a disgruntled worker from another famous fast-food restaurant. The name of the new restaurant was Judy's. Judy's sold hamburgers with square meat patties. They had sides like fries and chili and shakes. Their logo was a blond girl that looked much like a redhead many would recognize today.

Judy's
Cedar Rapids, IA - Judy’s Home Style Hamburgers & Fixin’s restaurant is seen under construction at 1854 42nd St. NE. Shortly after completion of the new Judy’s stores in Cedar Rapids, a lawsuit was brought against the franchise by Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers restaurant because of close similarities, forcing the closure of the Judy’s restaurants. All Judy’s stores were subsequently absorbed into the Wendy’s chain, including the store in this photo. Gazette photo November 19, 1977.

 

 

The restaurant was not bad. Our family ate there once, but as soon as we went it, it was clear...this was a clone. We were eating in a clone of Wendy's restaurant. The food tasted the same. The building was modeled the same. The only differences were that Judy's was blue where Wendy's was red, the girl was blond instead of a redhead, and they had fruit pies (the good, deep-fried ones like McDonald's used to have) instead of Frostys.

Wendy's took them to court and won a cease and desist case. Judy's closed down. They had to pay Wendy's $10 million. Some of their restaurants became Wendy's and now the copy is just barely found on the internet as a restaurant that "used to be."

I know some Judy-style churches that are little more than clones of other churches.

They have found models that work in certain cities and communities, have sought to copy them exactly and paste them into their systems, expecting healthy results.

It's the easy fix. It's the easy way to launch. Just do what someone else is doing. Makes sense, right?

I've attended some of these churches. Some are wonderfully organized and have moved beyond a simple cloning to develop their own identity and processes. That's been done numerous times and actually can lead to health in the church.

Nevertheless, there are others who have sought to be something they never were supposed to be. Sure, Andy Stanley has a pretty good ministry and maybe you can copy his model, but the fact is - you're not Andy Stanley and you aren't in Alpharetta, you didn't launch with a large group of church attenders decades ago, so just stop. Take advantage of the principles of health and growth perhaps, but stop trying to be Andy.

For some of you, Andy's ministry is far from what you desire, so in your cases, stop trying to be...

  • Matt Chandler
  • John Piper
  • Robby Gallaty
  • Rick Warren
  • J.D. Greear
  • H.B. Charles
  • Eric Mason
  • Or whomever you love to listen to preach

Each of these men, and many others, have great things to offer and their churches do as well. But, you are not them. Even if you live in their cities, you are not in their churches (likely) and God has a calling for you that will differ from theirs.

The copy + paste mentality of church replication may be fueling more of the celebrity church and celebrity pastor growth that we see in our culture today. We should be better than this.

I respect each of the men mentioned above, have read much of what they have respectively written, have talked to some of them personally, listened to most of them preach live and online, and have nothing but respect for them. I have learned from them. I have been blessed by them. But...I am not any of them. And neither are you.

Does this mean that we cannot learn from other local churches? Absolutely not. Pastors continue to meet together, text each other, talk on the telephone, and seek insight into ministries (i.e. programs and events) that prove fruitful.

The warning is to not fall into the trap of believing that simply copying another's contextual ministry model and pasting it in one's church will result in healthy, fruitful, ministry. 

Programs come and go. Styles shift. Methodology changes. Contextual clarity is a must, and is a moving target. Yet, even so, we are reminded that since there's nothing new under the sun, the hope and strength we have as local churches must be founded on the gospel and the greatest commandment.

Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31 (ESV) [1]

So, young pastor just starting out, or seasoned pastor struggling to move your church forward - stop looking around for some "secret sauce" of ministry that will fix everything in your congregation and context. Start with your own heart and personal walk. Talk with friends in ministry and seek wise counsel. Will you be led to change things in your church setting? Perhaps, but remember, most disciple-making takes time. In fact, I believe all disciple-making takes time. Leading a healthy church is about leading a disciple-making fellowship - and it will take time. 

Press on. Be encouraged.

Don't pastor a "Judy's Hamburger Church" that is simply a copy of someone else's work. I'm not sure there's such a thing as spiritual plagiarism, but this comes close. 

 

 

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mk 12:29-31). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.


Black History and White Pastors

In 1926, the second week in February was declared "Negro History Week" by historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Why February? Why the second week? The week was chosen based on the birth dates of two gentlemen revered by many black Americans - Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and Frederick Douglass (February 14). 

The intent was to emphasize and encourage the study of valuable history of American blacks in the public schools. 

Not surprisingly, the first weekly celebration was met with lukewarm response by many. In some cases, lukewarm would be considered an overstatement. Nevertheless, the event was created and became an annual emphasis, gaining strength over the years. It was not long before the Negro History Week was being promoted by churches and groups throughout the nation. 

The week morphed and grew into Black History Month in 1969, first at Kent State University. As you know, the late 1960s were trying times. The Civil Rights Movement had grown from gatherings in 1954 to swell in the late 1960s, leading to long-overdue legislation. Yet, just passing laws did not solve the racial divide issues in our nation. In fact, now almost fifty years later, as far as we have come, there are still great racial divides, distrust, and disunity. Oh, don't get me wrong, I believe we have come far, but then again...I'm a white, middle-class male and my perspective relates that.

I know deeply that though we have come far, we have far to go. 

So, it is February once more. It's Black History Month (or African-American History Month as it is now often labeled.) I read the quote from Carter Woodson today regarding why he felt the need to begin such a focus. 

"If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated. The American Indian left no continuous record. He did not appreciate the value of tradition; and where is he today? The Hebrew keenly appreciated the value of tradition, as is attested by the Bible itself. In spite of worldwide persecution, therefore, he is a great factor in our civilization."

As I pray through the significance of such a focus this month, I cannot help but admit that I do not know much, much less enough, about the significant history of black Americans, not to mention black Christian theologians. 

Some push back and say things like "What about a white history month?" I know they mean well (or maybe not) but the truth is every month seems to be primarily a white history month. There are no labels for such, but I don't have to struggle to remember hearing and reading historical accounts of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Dolly Madison, Napoleon, Queen Victoria, Dwight Eisenhower, etc. World (mostly European) and American history is predominantly white.

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Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images on Visual Hunt / No known copyright restrictions

While there should be emphases on "brown" and "yellow" (pardon the colloquialisms) for great historical achievements from those from Latin American, Hispanic, and Asian heritages, this month's focus is on the historical significance of those with the darkest shade of melanin.

I have heard it stated, or at least alluded to, that to celebrate or focus on such a racially centered month of history means that one is liberal. I reject that. Liberalism and conservatism (based on current American political definitions) should not come into play when recognizing the achievements of those in our nation and culture who should be remembered. 

I'm Not Racist, But...

Have you ever heard anyone begin a conversation with that phrase? Do you know what that means? It means the next words out of that person's mouth will likely reveal the racial or racially insensitive undertones deep within their heart or mind. Many don't even know they have these.

  • "I'm not racist, but I'm not sure my kid will do well at that school. There are just too many people there who are ... different from him." Yep, I've heard this one and I know the school being referenced. What does this statement mean? Well, in some cases it could be a statement about educational strength, teacher qualifications, academic health, etc. But, in this case, it meant one thing. "I'm not sure my white kid will do well in a school with so many black kids." Uh...yeah. 
  • "I'm not racist, but I don't see why we have to study black history every February."
  • "I'm not racist, but I don't like the NBA anymore since Larry Bird retired. It's so urban now."
  • "I'm not racist, but I think different races worship differently so it's okay to have churches for each group." 

There are more. I've heard them all. I am sure I have said some of them in the past. For that I repent. Why? Because...it's racist and that is sin!

Racial Unity Must Be Gospel Unity

Recently I was asked to co-chair with my friend, Pastor Elijah Simmons of Mt. Horeb Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, a committee, or team of pastors and leaders in our local Baptist association focused on addressing clearly the issues of racial unity and gospel clarity among our churches. As we prepare to meet this month, I am convicted that personally, I have far to go. 

I have far to go because I am unaware of so much that our black and African-American Christian brothers and sisters have offered and have to offer to the world of Christendom. I have far to go because as I look at the books on my shelves, most are, or were, written by white men. I have hundreds of books. I have a handful written by black authors. I have far to go. No wonder many young black men and women believe that Christianity is a white man's religion. 

If you ask the average white Christian church attender to name an African-American pastor in the United States, you will likely get a few names of those who preach prosperity false gospel messages and live lavish lifestyles (BTW - there are more white guys and ladies doing the same) and be unable to name those who preach the gospel with clarity, sincerity, and right division of the Word. 

Yet, there are many whom all would be helped to hear. Just some...

  • Eric Mason
  • H.B. Charles, Jr.
  • Cam Triggs
  • Tony Evans
  • Thabiti Anyabwile
  • Robert Smith
  • Elijah Simmons
  • Fred Luter
  • Eric Cummings
  • Many more (anytime I try to make a list, I leave many off, so this is just a short-list of those I have listened to.)

The skin tone of these men is not what makes their preaching valuable. Their commitment to the Lord and solid preaching of the gospel makes their preaching powerful and valuable.

I know to begin to talk about race relations and black-white issues in our nation, one will be vilified. I know the conversations we will have as pastors come on the heels of hundreds of conversations and prayers of those men and women before us (of all shades of skin tone.) 

It may even be risky.

But, then again, hasn't it always been risky? 

Hasn't it always been risky for Christians to declare truth, stand for what is right and holy, and declare truth as prophets of old did, when the populace refused to listen?

Then again, who ever said Christianity was for those who want it easy?

Unity in the Gospel

I was recently asked why I would agree to serve on the gospel unity commission mentioned earlier. This is why:

Since the inception of the SBC (which, by the way was fueled by the unfortunate and sinful practice of slavery) there have been at least 31 SBC resolutions regarding race. Each has been framed by world events, cultural practices, and even at times, acceptable sins. At times, through God’s direction, SBC leaders have revisited our history and offered greatly needed and rightly worded resolutions centered on repentance of previously held beliefs and practices among member churches and denominational institutions regarding race.

While it is clear we as a denomination have come far from our first gathering in 1845, the facts remains that continued steps of progress regarding race relations among Baptists and all believers must be taken. The need for our member churches to unite publicly for the sake of the gospel requires us to stand firmly as brothers and sisters in Christ, allowing for no form of privilege, acceptance, or even friendship based on race to flourish. Some say that as a nation we are more divided now than ever. I’m sure our black and brown brothers and sisters who grew up during the 1960s in the South, not to mention the ancestors who were owned by other human beings may declare it was worse then than now. Nevertheless, we do know that the division that exists today is very real, and sometimes to our dismay, that divide is not just outside the church walls.

Therefore, our group is coming together, as we have been for years (because we are brothers, pastors, and friends) to focus on this issue clearly. The stand for gospel unity as it relates to racial diversity is a narrow place. Yet, the narrower the place we stand, the broader the influence we will have for the sake of the gospel.

We have come far. We have far to go. Fortunately, we are not creating our path. God already has.

Happy Black History Month. 


When "It Could Happen Here" Actually Happens Here

It has been said that the world is shrinking. With the propagation of 24-hour news channels and the growth of social media, events taking place on the other side of the world (like the Olympics) are viewed in real-time. What used to take hours to be disseminated now is known in seconds.

It's true for global news and sporting events, but those stories pale in comparison to what was made known yesterday.

Yesterday, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida (Broward County), Nikolas Cruz (19) barged into his former high school with a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle and carried out one of the deadliest shootings in modern American history. Seventeen were murdered. A school and community has been rocked. Families are devastated.

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The mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., was one of the deadliest in American history. Credit Saul Martinez for The New York Times

A Columbine-type event happened again. This time much closer to where we live. The images from the news show students, teachers, parents, police officers, community residents who look just like our neighbors...because they are our neighbors (though a few hundred miles south.)

Others are ramping up their lobbying efforts and political pushes based on these events. 

I, however, am praying for these families of those slain, for the students impacted, for the coaches, teachers, school employees, and administrators who cannot just get back to "business as usual." I'm praying for my brothers who serve as pastors in the community as they serve those in their churches who were impacted, some tragically. I'm praying for those believers and churches who want to do something, and will do much for the sake of the gospel at this time.

I'm praying for justice for the one who committed the crime. And, just in case it's not clear, a prayer for justice can coincide with prayer he finds hope in Christ. Those are not mutually exclusive prayers.

Some state that the #PrayFor_____ movements that come when tragedies occur are empty. In truth, they may be for most, but for believers who follow Christ, true prayer is not a passive thought designed to make self feel good, but active and powerful and real. May we be men and women of prayer, holding up the arms of our brothers and sisters in south Florida who are currently in the center of the tragedy.

It could happen here.

Now, it has happened here.


Church Unity Is Not Always a Good Thing

I came to serve on pastoral staff at First Baptist Church of Orange Park in 1994. Our senior pastor, Allen Harrod saw something in me that led the church to say "yes" when the time came to call a new student pastor. I am thankful for him and his willingness to take a chance on a just graduated (actually not even graduated at the time of the hiring) seminary student who had never even been a member of a church with more than 120 regular attenders. 

In the early 2000s Dr. Harrod retired and moved back home to Kentucky.

It was during this time I submitted my name to the pastor search committee for consideration as senior pastor. This was a huge step of faith, not only for me, but especially for the committee and the church.

In 2005, the church called me to be the senior pastor, a position I have held since August of that year.

As I think back to the process of hiring, I met with the deacon body, the personnel committee, the pastor search committee, and numerous other groups. These meetings took place over a number of months. We had been without a pastor for over a year and a sense was growing among the church members that a senior pastor needed to be called soon. The committees were praying through whether or not to call me and present me to the church body for a vote. It was a time of uncertainty, but I was confident that whether the church called me or said no, God had a plan. In fact, I'm still confident of that and rest in that daily. Nevertheless, the church called me, and as much as I felt unqualified to serve as student pastor at this church in 1994, that feeling was exponentially larger for this new role.

The common, stated desire of church leaders and members was that the church be unified. 

Unity is good, but unity must never be the goal.

Church unity is not always a good thing.

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Photo credit: <a href="https://visualhunt.com/author/a99b2d">tHeDiGiTaLdRoPoUt</a> on <a href="https://visualhunt.com/re/2dad6e">VisualHunt</a> / <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/"> CC BY-NC-SA</a>

Sometimes, unity can be sinful

When churches are sinfully unified the unity becomes a tool of the enemy keeping believers from repentance and holy living.

For example, in 1845 my denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was formed. Despite all the good that has been done through SBC evangelistic and mission endeavors over the years, the fact remains that our denomination was founded, at least partially, on the agreed, and unified belief among leaders that slavery was okay. 

Our own denomination was birthed out of a commitment to preserve and defend slavery. We cannot evade the historical facts. Along with Presbyterians and Methodists, Baptists broke their national fellowship over the morality of slave ownership. The nomination of James Reeve, a Georgia Baptist and slaveholder, to serve as a missionary through the American Baptist Home Mission Society (ABHMS) was a clear test intended to force the society's hand one way or another, to take sides with either abolitionists or with slavery's defenders. The ABHMS chose not to receive the application, thereby trying to avoid making any pronouncement on the issue. When Alabama Baptists subsequently wrote to the Triennial Convention, headquartered in Boston, regarding the board's disposition toward appointing slaveholders to foreign mission work, things took a more concrete form. The board members replied: "If ... any one should offer himself as a missionary, having slaves, and should insist on retaining them as his property, we could not appoint them. One thing is certain, we can never be a party to any arrangement which would imply approbation of slavery." In response, by May 1845 white delegates from the deep South gathered in Augusta, Georgia, and formed a new mission society, the Southern Baptist Convention. The majority of the 293 delegates came from Georgia and South Carolina. After organizing the new fellowship, forged in defense of slavery, the distinguished guests ironically joined together to sing "Blest Be the Tie That Binds." 1

These Christian leaders were unified. They were unified in their sinful and wrongly held beliefs that slavery was okay, or at a minimum not a gospel issue. We could debate the cultural understandings and political ramifications. Some even reference others in Christendom who held slaves. Even some biblical characters were slaveholders. I have had those discussions with others, but I would caution anyone, especially Christians, from attempting to justify the ownership of another human being as anything but ultimately sinful.

Fortunately, God has redeemed our churches from this chapter in history. At least, we hope and believe the process of redemption has begun.

To bring it a bit more to current day, even though slavery was outlawed following the Civil War, the race divide did not disappear in America, even among those claiming the name of Christ. 

Throughout the twentieth century, and sadly even today, there are "white" churches where blacks are not welcome. I'm sure there are "black" or "brown" churches who do not welcome whites either, but that does not excuse the prominent white churches in America. Since I'm a white guy (just in case that wasn't clear from my picture to the left on this blog) I'll speak about the white churches.

There have been/are "white" churches who are unified in their beliefs regarding the acceptance of blacks in their membership. Their unified beliefs that churches should remain segregated by race are wrong. Those beliefs are sinful and do not honor God. 

Yet, they're unified.

In some cases, Christians accept people of other races into church membership, but if one were desirous to marry their child, the issues of what is right and holy come up. I even had a former church member come to me for counsel, seeking biblical references affirming the sinfulness of interracial (black and white in this case) marriage. That church member did not receive the counsel desired. There is no biblical support for such. 

Yet, some churches are unified in their abhorrence to inter-racial marriage.

They are wrong.

See what I mean.

Since some of you wish I would get off the race issue, let's address another area where churchgoers are unified and wrong. As the cultural revolution continues to change what is considered normative and acceptable in our society, churches and denominations are having to answer questions previous generations never considered. 

Gender issues and identity questions are at the forefront and unified statements regarding acceptable weddings and other issues now make the news. While some wish to equate the gender and sexual identity issues to those of race, I would see those as not comparative. 

Some churches have abandoned what I deem as biblical teaching to acquiesce to the new cultural norms. 

From my perspective, there are churches standing together in unity, but abandoning the full teaching of the gospel (not unlike our SBC fore-bearers).

So, unity is not always good. 

When Unity is Godly

When the church is unified, there is power, but the key question is "On what are we unified?"

This is not about opinions regarding church methodology. This is about unity in Christ.

Unity within the body of Christ must be centered on the truth and person of Christ. Unity must affirm and focus on the Trinity. The foundation of the unified church must be the gospel.

To be unified on other issues, allowing those to become primary, may lead us down a road far from the gospel and the mission of the church. For that we must be cautioned. Yet, unity in the gospel is to be sought. Jesus' prayer speaks of this.

“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. 11 And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. John 17:6-211 (ESV)

May we be unified in Christ.

____________________

1Jarvis J. Williams and Kevin M. Jones, Removing the stain of racism from the Southern Baptist Convention: diverse African American and white perspectives (Nasvhille, TN: B&H Academic, 2017), p. 10.


Why Didn't Any Black Employees Come to Work Today?

Well, I know the title of this post may draw some attention (and that's the intention) but to be honest, this was the very naive question that I had almost thirty years ago when I was interning at a Fortune 500 company. I shared an office with another student - an African-American young woman (we were all young back then) who was getting her degree at another university in the city. Trina was a great office-mate and became a good friend. We worked together for just over a year and a half.

It was on a Monday in January back in 1989. I worked in an executive marketing office as computer support staff. The employees on our floor, whom I supported with my technical know-how (I could reboot computers and put dot-matrix printer paper in their printers) had worked for the corporation for decades. They were a professional, diverse, and experienced sales force. 

On that Monday, I came to work and noticed that Trina was not there. Then I noticed some of the sales force were gone as well. Normally that happens when trade shows or conferences are scheduled and a group are on the road, but that wasn't the case on this day.

It didn't take long to notice the common denominator of all the absent employees was skin color. Our African-American coworkers were not present. Oh, there were some others gone as well, but the entire executive office building was void of black and brown employees on that Monday, and it was obvious.

I don't think I asked the question aloud, but I did think, "Where are all the black employees?" 

Naive? Clearly.

The fact I had no idea why a large group of employees would be off work on MLK Day in 1989 is embarrassing. The corporation had set holidays where employees were off, plus an option for a few "personal holidays." Apparently, this allowed those who celebrated certain religious days to not work without the corporation being viewed as endorsing a religion. I imagine that was the reasoning for MLK Day to be a "personal holiday" as well. From my perspective, however, it positioned the holiday to second tier and not that important.

About ten years ago, I chose to have our church office closed on MLK Day as a time of remembrance, and honoring of the memory of what Dr. King represents in our nation. 

Yep - prior to that, First Baptist Church of Orange Park viewed MLK Day as just another office work day. A hold over from a prior era? Perhaps. Maybe the changing "white-ness" of our community actually opened our eyes to the reality of Gospel ministry and racial reconciliation, which in my view cannot be separated. We do close the office now. It is a time of remembrance and hopefulness for the future. 

Why Does This Matter?

There are numerous reasons Americans should seek to be honor the ideals of racial reconciliation. In our current era, the racial divide, especially between blacks and whites in our nation, seems to be widening rather than shrinking. Oh, there are good stories that abound as well, but as far as we have come from the days of slavery, the era of segregation, and the push for civil rights, it is clear we have far yet to go.

Nevertheless, for me, a Southern Baptist pastor at a Southern Baptist Church, there are some glaring reasons why we (especially Southern Baptists) must not ignore this day, much less the ideals and message of Dr. King.

For decades, since the inception of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), race has been an issue. In fact, the SBC was actually founded in the 1840s by slaveholders who were opposed to the abolitionist movements and the fact the national denomination would not send missionaries who were pro-slavery.

As a Southern Baptist who is actually proud of all we do as a network of churches throughout the world in our churches, through missions, disaster relief, orphan care, and racial reconciliation, the fact remains we have a sordid past and numerous embarrassing and sinful chapters. When the SBC passed a resolution a number of years ago apologizing for the covert and overt racial separations of leaders generations prior, many white Baptists were vocal in their opposition and their belief it was unneeded. In a brief reading of SBC history, one can find resolutions on race from all the way back to 1845 at the convention's inception. Reading these "whereas" statements are interesting and sad at points, as it seems more should have been done. This is likely true, but even as white as the SBC is today, it was even whiter in the past and the resolutions, even the very best ones (and there are some great ones) were penned by a white majority with good intent, but at times not enough vigor or clarity.

Of course, that's my opinion.

Even last year at our annual meeting in Phoenix, when a resolution regarding the denouncement of the racist "alt-right" movement was brought to the floor, it was not until it failed to pass that the voting messengers realized a missed opportunity and the mistake it was.

Eventually, a resolution on the subject was reintroduced and the overwhelming affirmation was heard throughout the evangelical world. But, I caution the white pastors of SBC churches from straining their shoulder by patting themselves on the back too hard. I have talked with a number of my African-American SBC pastor friends and they have expressed a question of belonging and acceptance. 

It seems that I cannot help from viewing the world through my white American lenses. 

Neither can my black, brown, or any other melanin shade help but view the world from their respective lenses.

So when a moment is before us - you know, something like acknowledging the federal holiday known as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it is wise to not ignore it. 

However, more than acknowledgment of the past must be done.

The Dream Remains

Dr. King's most famous speech shared in August 1963 in Washington DC resonates with Americans. Yet, the dream of equality among the races remains something yet to be fully experienced. So, it remains.

I believe the racial unity expressed in Dr. King's dream is more than a man-made desire. At the core is the gospel.

Dr. Jarvis J. Williams of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary writes...

In the Bible, racial identity is not based on pseudoscience, which wrongly argues one's racial identity is based exclusively on biology. We must understand that the Bible's category of race has absolutely nothing to do with racial hierarchy based on biological inferiority. We must also understand that the gospel of Jesus Christ is a message about the vertical reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles to God and a message about the horizontal reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles (of all skin tones - my addition) to one another.

Some have argued that racial reconciliation is not a gospel issue. I strongly disagree with that concept. Some like Pastor Randy White, in his 2014 post "The Evangelical Response to Ferguson and Why I Don't Get It" assert that the issue is social, not gospel. In his assertion, he limits race to skin color when defining it. He, as well as others, have criticized other Southern Baptists who have asserted in light of Ferguson that the gospel has anything to do with race and racial reconciliation. 

Clearly, I disagree with Pastor White. Strongly.

There's much more to be done and said and perhaps, if nothing else, the celebration of this holiday will force us as Christians to pray for and with our brothers and sisters in Christ, seeking gospel unity (which includes racial unity) for the glory of God and ultimately the good of his people.

For my African-American brothers, sisters, and friends, please forgive my naiveté of the past (and even the present.) It's clear why so many co-workers took a personal holiday. I wish I had as well.

Mlk 2018

BTW - I highly recommend this book by Dr. Williams and Dr. Kevin M. Jones - Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention.

Also, for my white pastor friends, in order to broaden your concepts regarding a black Christian perspective on things, check out my friends at the Jude 3 Project. Insightful, and challenging videos, postings, and resources.

And, to answer the oft-asked question - Yes, there are more "races" than black and white, but in our context in America, with the holiday we celebrate today, and the history we own collectively, the black-white divide is the one where healing must begin, continue to grow, and expand. Remember, it's a gospel issue.


Pastor - Are You Prepared to Preach a Funeral?

I have the honor of serving with and leading numerous young pastors and church planters. These men have a passion for God and a heart for the gospel. Yet, there are those moments when pastoral expectations and responsibilities are thrust upon them that are far from what they were thinking when they first surrendered to God's pastoral call.

One such responsibility is preaching funerals.

We are only four days into 2018 and so far we have hosted one funeral, have two more Friday, one next week and another pending.

Since 1994, when I first began serving on pastoral staff at our church, I have attended and preached at well over 100 funerals. I have most of my messages saved. I have learned some things through the years and while this is not an exhaustive list, perhaps it may be helpful for young pastors and those who find themselves having to speak at a church member's or loved one's funeral service.

EXPECTATIONS

Everyone has their own expectations of what a funeral service should be. In fact, each region of our country expects different things. In our area, the visitation held the day before the funeral service is mostly gone. Yet, in some small towns in the South, I know that this continues. For example, in the small Tennessee town where my parents live, a dear friend of our family died on January 1 of this year. I received word of the service with the announcement that visitation would be held at the funeral home on the day prior to the service for three hours with an additional two hour visitation at the church where the funeral would be held. 

There's nothing wrong with that tradition, it's just an example of something that is rare elsewhere. 

Therefore, if you as a pastor are new to the community and have not attended a funeral in the area prior, ask some questions. Find out what is the norm for the region. There's no reason to push against what has been done prior, especially if it is simply traditional preference and not biblically wrong (I'll address biblical issues later in this post.)

Family members of the deceased often have expectations as well. This can range from having things they want done at the funeral to trusting you to plan and do everything at the funeral. Again, not an issue, just be aware. 

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Here are some bullet points on dos and don'ts for funerals (in no particular order):

DO

  • Pray before you meet with family that God will comfort them in their grief and provide you with wise words of counsel in preparation.
  • If you sense division among the family, take control of the planning of the service in a loving way, offering to ensure that God is honored. 
  • Ensure you know how to pronounce the name of the deceased.
  • Ensure you don't use a given name that was not preferred by the decedent or family members when referencing the individual.
  • Meet with the family members, or a family member, prior to the service when planning what to say.
  • Share stories of the decedent that bring smiles to loved ones and remind them of the life of their loved one.
  • Realize that a lifetime cannot be encapsulated in 30 minutes.
  • Have appropriate songs played, sung.
  • Ensure doctrinal teaching is biblically founded and correct.
  • When allowing family members or friends to speak, ask them to write down what they will be saying. Be firm in this. There's always that person who says "I don't need to write anything down. I'll just share from the heart." That's a mistake. You may find yourself correcting bad theology that is espoused, or sitting behind them as they speak, not hearing what they are saying. This may lead to you repeating what has already been shared. And, if they have it written down, you can provide them comfort in case they cannot finish when they began to speak by just reading their notes aloud on their behalf.
  • Remind family members that no one other than you is expected to speak, but if you would like to offer them the opportunity, do so (see above point.)
  • Pray during the service.
  • Pray for God to comfort those who grieve.
  • Create an order of service that flows naturally. (Example: Obituary Reading, Prayer, Family Message, Song, Pastoral Message, Prayer, Closing Song.)
  • Communicate with the funeral home representative regarding the order of the service so you know and they know what is coming next.
  • Ensure the casket is closed when the service begins. It's hard on the family and challenging for the pastor to speak behind an open casket. 
  • Offer hope - real hope founded in the gospel. You know this. Just make sure it's in your notes so you don't minimize it.
  • Ensure the message focused on Christ and that he is presented as the only one worthy of worship and that God alone can bring the peace, hope, and life celebrated on this day.
  • Make each funeral unique and special. The biblical message is unchanging, but the family stories and memories are unique. 
  • Offer a call to salvation. This does not have to be a "come down the aisle invitation" but should at a minimum be an invitation to come to Christ and speak to you or another Christian following the funeral.
  • If military honors are going to be provided, clarify when (likely at the graveside) and work with the honor guard to ensure a smooth transition. In most cases, at graveside service following the funeral, I will simply read a passage of Scripture and pray and then step back, turning over the remaining graveside service to the honor guard. If the folding and presentation of the flag is to take place during the funeral service, I finish my sermon, pray, then step back turning over the closing of the service to the honor guard. Communication and coordination is key to allow for proper service and protocol.
  • If the deceased was a believer, ask if he/she had a Bible they used and perhaps highlighted verses or took notes within. You may find some treasured memories or insights into what to share.
  • Pray and prepare and trust God.
  • Use Scripture (Some passages I've used in the past - Ecclesiastes 7:2, John 5:24, John 13:7, John 14:1-6, 1 Corinthians 15:50-58, Philippians 1:20-24, 1 John 5:13.)

DON'T

  • Forget that this is a time of worship, where the Bible is preached, God is worshipped, and hope in Christ is made clear.
  • If at all possible, do not have an open microphone where people are invited to come forward and share about the decedent. It can be an wonderful moment, but it can also be stressful. If no one stands up to speak, people will be hurt. In most cases, it's because people are not comfortable speaking in front of a crowd. If people do begin sharing, the time could go on and on and be stressful for family and friends as well. However, if this becomes something the family really, really wants, ask if they have a few people who would agree to speak and then share with the congregation that you'll open up the floor to two or three more just to share a brief, two or three sentence testimony about the deceased. It may sound uncaring, but actually provides for an orderly service where God is honored and the loved one is remembered well. Also, be prepared if you have to do the open mic to have some things shared that probably should not be.
  • Allow music that is dishonoring to Christ. That does not mean every song must be a hymn, but some songs are inappropriate. Had one request for the decedent's favorite song to be played during the pre-service slide show. I had never heard of it and didn't know it was a request, but received a call from the funeral home asking "Is this song okay?" I guess the part about smoking pot and getting drunk on Courvoisier raised the question. We opted to not use that song.
  • Forget who your audience is. You're speaking primarily to the family members and close friends who are sitting up front. Focus on them. Don't worry about the others who came to the service.
  • Forget to offer hope in Christ.
  • Give false hope. If the deceased was not a believer, don't say "He/she's in a better place." You don't have to be rude. You don't need to be mean. Just don't give the family and others in the room the false hope that everyone gets to heaven. 
  • Share or affirm unbiblical ideas. No, dead people do not become angels. No, your loved one is not your guardian angel. No, your loved one is not watching over you. No, your loved one is not in your heart. No, your loved one is not in heaven just doing bigger versions of earthly hobbies (i.e. golfing in heaven, fishing in heaven, watching football in heaven regardless what Audio Adrenaline said, eating ... well, okay, there's eating.)
  • Talk forever. 
  • Let the video slideshow run during the service. It's great for pre-service, but distracting during the service.
  • Invite everyone to the meal following the service unless you've been instructed that everyone is invited and there is enough food available (if the post-service lunch is a custom in your area.)
  • Allow an open casket during the funeral. During the visitation prior that is fine (if the family chooses) but preaching behind an open casket is difficult, not just for the pastor, but for the family sitting before it.
  • Presume the family wants you to preach at the funeral. Clarify the ask.

There are many more things to do and not do, but as you serve God's church and the community during times of grief, these are some guidelines I believe may help. What are some other suggestions you have? Leave them in the comments. 

 


Should I Visit or Join This Church?

A few weeks ago a gentleman came to our Sunday service and afterward shared his desire to know Jesus, follow in believer's baptism and become a member of our fellowship. These moments are always exciting and remind us that God is working at all times. 

We talked about baptism and the membership class and covenant to come, but that's not what this posting is about.

Yesterday, I talked with him again. He shared that he has a brother-in-law who has done mission work in East Asia and now is attending seminary. He (the new church member) shared how God had radically changed his family members' lives. He has seen it first-hand. 

When God began to work on our new friend and the Holy Spirit's draw became stronger, our friend knew he needed to be in a local church. He did a search online and found our church website. He noticed our Orange Park campus is near where he lives. Online, it looked good. The commute was workable. Everything seemed okay, but he needed to ask his brother-in-law.

This is not uncommon. I get emails and phone calls from friends and former church members who now live in different communities throughout the US, and even outside the US. The question I'm asked is the one this new member asked - "Is this a good church?" referring to the one that is in their neighborhood.

Despite what some believe, all pastors do not know all other pastors. Yet, there are connections. Even when a personal friendship is absent, sometimes a cursory overview of a website and pastoral biographies can help answer this question.

So, our church and I were presented to the brother-in-law (whom I do not know.) After some searching and reading online, the brother-in-law gave us the okay. 

Our new church members stated "I just needed to know you guys were the kind of church that I should be part of." 

And that's a great question and a great reason!

There are many churches in our community. There are really good, solidly biblical, gospel-centric churches. Any of those would be good for this brother to join.

Yet, there are some that...well, let's just say have a different take on doctrine and church polity that may not be the best fit.

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When the brother-in-law checked out our site, he did what I do. He checked that which was presented (knowing that sometimes churches look much different online than in person.) Here are some of the things I would research when asked this question about which church to join:

  • Is the doctrine of the church clearly available online?
  • In the doctrinal statement, what is revealed regarding belief about God, the Trinity, nature of man, salvation, baptism mode, gifts, family, etc. In our case, we have an abbreviated list as delineated in the Baptist Faith & Message (2000) which is the doctrinal confession we affirm. We link the full document as well. Read here.
  • Who is the Lead Pastor?
  • What is known about the pastor and his family? Did he go to seminary? Where did he go? What are some interests he may have? While these are not make or break details, education and seminary training often reveals the doctrinal leaning of church leadership. In my case, I'm a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. I am attending the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary now. We have pastors on staff who have graduated from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. We have almost all SBC seminaries represented (just need someone from Gateway.) 
  • Is the church complementarian or egalitarian when it comes to pastoral leadership?
  • What does the church believe and teach regarding biblical inerrancy?
  • What are the affiliations of the church? This could be denominational, associational, network, etc.
  • What are some of the ministries offered by and through the church? This will reveal much about priorities.
  • Does the church site show a centeredness on the gospel or some other focus, like politics, patriotic Christianity, social gospel only, etc.?
  • Is there a focus on prosperity or poverty gospels?
  • Will my family and I be welcomed? This question was asked by a brother who was being very clear and focused. He is an African-American and said "My wife is white. Will the church welcome us?" With race relations in our nation prominent, the church must be clear that racism in any form is not only unacceptable, but abhorrent to the gospel.
  • Are sermons available online? It helps to listen or watch a sermon by the pastor to get a feel regarding doctrinal soundness.

This is not a complete list, and discernment is needed in all cases. Some things are deal breakers for church recommendations. Others are not. Things that are not are items such as worship style, preferred Bible translation, dress code, etc.? Those elements are preferential at best, though Bible translations used should be considered, the fact there are numerous good English translations available should be understood. 

Nevertheless, I was encouraged when our newest church member joined, as led by God, with affirmation from a pastor he trusted. 

It's never wrong to ask "Is this the church I should join?" Membership matters and the wise would make this inquiry.


Thank You for Your Prayers, but You Can Keep Your Prayer Requests

Any long-time church attender in our nation, who has been part of a Sunday School class (or small group, or life group, or home group, or fellowship group, etc.) has likely, at one point, experienced "prayer request time." Now, I know I'm treading on thin ice here. If not read fully, some will say that I'm bashing prayer request time. I am not. I am, however, bashing gossip time disguised as prayer request time.

I touched on this recently in an interview with Janice Backer of Missions Mosaic magazine that focused on some prodigal issues within our family. Some of what is referenced below was covered in the article (link at bottom.)

Regarding Prayer

As our family was working through the shock and pain of revealed sin in our child's life, we found ourselves shaken deeply. Questions regarding personal and parental failures developed. Prayers and deep times with the Lord regarding continued service in the church and continued service in ministry as a pastor were common.

Someone asked if it felt like we had a child die. While I understand the question, and perhaps some similar emotions arose, to equate what we were experiencing with that of parents who had buried their progeny would be insensitive at best. My parents had a baby boy (my brother Michael) who died. My grandparents had a daughter who died at a young age. Many in our church family have suffered the grief of funeral planning for their children, so no, our grief was not the same.

Nevertheless, it was definitely grief we were experiencing.

For the most part our church family responded to our struggles as God's children should. My wife and I experienced the love and comfort from those who were hurting with us. The empathy and sympathy from those who had experienced similar stories was as a healing salve to a wound. Our child was never ostracized from the church. Our child was continually accepted (though the sin was not) and loved as part of the church family. Concerning our child's personal salvation, what seemed certain years ago now leaves us not we are now not certain, but the church never equivocated on the gospel nor on the call to love.

Nevertheless, some did believe it their calling to confront. They did so in love, at least the ones I am aware of. Yet, what is often meant in love may not be received as such. Since most of our confrontations are not loving, it is very difficult to actually do this biblically and in some cases, the "righteous love" that was intended was not perceived. I'm not blaming here, just point out the fact that any confrontation in Christian love, best be prayed about prior with heavy emphasis on "Christian love." That being said, Christian love may feel harsh to the confronted. In fact, it almost always does. Christian love is focused on redemption and righteousness. When those two elements are not present, it's not Christian love. 

The Prayer Requests

Well intentioned Christians can fall quickly into a mode of gossip under the banner of "prayer requests." This did happen in some cases. This was not helpful. In fact, it was wrong and remains wrong. 

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Photo by Listshack on Visualhunt / CC BY

I want to roll my eyes when the serial prayer requester starts talking about some unnamed neighbor's cousin's brother-in-law's circumstance in need of prayer...five states away. I wonder "Is this really a prayer request, or someone's need to be sure they have something on the list?" 

The Unspoken Prayer Request

The unspoken prayer request is good, but can be overused as well. Almost every group has the person who wants to express aloud...every meeting...that he has an unspoken. I often wondered as a kid "Wonder what that is? I bet it's really bad!" and sometimes it is. I am all for the wisdom of offering these types of requests and seeking intercession from the community of faith. Sometimes, the issue is just too embarrassing or not yet something for public discourse. Sometimes, unfortunately, it is an unspoken request because the person needing prayer just does not trust the others in the class to truly pray without spreading gossip.

The Un-prayed List

I often wonder how many in the group that gathers actually prays over the requests shared. I'm not seeking to throw anyone under the bus, but I've been guilty of being in a group, hearing requests and then just praying the "Lord, answer all these needs" prayer. Sometimes, I let someone else pray and I just agree by closing my eyes. I'm convicted of this.

At some point, the name on the list, if you do the list, needs to be covered. Find ways to ensure that these needs that have been deemed authentic are actually prayed for by believers. It could be by assigning a portion of the group to pray silently for a just a few requests, or even one. I don't have that answer, but I know that a name on a list with a generic "bless everyone" is not what is needed.

Prayer Availeth Much (James 5:16)

In our circumstance, we continually seek prayers from our church family...in all seasons. I know that many have been and continue to pray.

Thank you!!!!

We have found healing and strength beyond measure through God during these storms of life. The journey is long. One person's (or family member's) sin is no greater than another. Sin is never excused, but it can be forgiven. We are continually reminded that love and affirmation are not synonyms and this has been bedrock for us. 

We have been affirmed that our resting in Christ provides what we need when worry and stress seem overwhelming. (Sometimes, we need reminding about every 30 minutes.) 

Keep reading the Word. Keep trusting in God. Keep resting in Christ. Keep holding true to the Truth, without compromise. 

Keep praying...but consider your prayer requests, keep them holy.

__________

Story referred to from from the December, 2017, issue of Missions Mosaic. Used by permission. To receive this issue or to read more articles about how to exhibit grace in difficult life situations go tohttps://www.wmustore.com/missions-mosaic.


You Are Called to Pastor - Do You Really Need Seminary?

I have served in pastoral ministry for almost thirty years. When I surrendered to God's calling as a pastor, I began counting down the months until graduation at the university I was attending. I knew, immediately, that seminary was my next step. This is likely due to the fact I lived in Fort Worth, Texas which was home, at the time, of the largest evangelical seminary in the world (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.) My pastor was a student at SWBTS, as were the numerous student pastors who served part-time at the small church where I was a member. In fact, it never occurred to me that seminary was not an option. 

I am currently back at seminary, working toward a Doctor of Educational Ministry at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

So, I would understand if in your reading of this article, you deem me to be biased. I am. I believe seminary education is good and valuable for the one called to pastoral ministry. 

I also understand that it is not a biblical requirement of the office.

Nevertheless, as I have had opportunity to serve in the local church and see young people surrender their lives to what we term "full-time Christian service" there is a trend I have noticed of minimizing the need for theological education. This is not true for all, but there are those who just want to hurry up and get on the field and forego the study.

Do You Have To Go To Seminary to Pastor?

Well, no. You won't find a verse that commands the called out ones to enroll in an accredited school for the purpose of earning a degree. Yet, we must not dismiss this as a viable option for pastors, or in some cases a recommended one.

Dr. Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary states it this way:

Seminaries, when they are faithful as servants of the church and accountable to the church, training ministers without apology for the churches, and doing so effectively, can offer a pastor the most comprehensive background for ministry that can be put into about a three year period. Now, as I say, I hope every pastor would have at least that much, because I think to really be a skilled preacher of God’s word and a pastor, to continue to grow, most pastors will go beyond that and if not in formal study, at least that better be the investment in how they study on their own.

Yet, we have all heard from those in the local churches who have decried the seminary education for fear that all that training messes with good preachers and makes them ineffective. Well, if you haven't heard that type of talk, you haven't been around many of our smaller congregations who struggle with the sending off for educational purposes.

Southern-Seminary
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary - Louisville, KY

In some cases, these complaints are valid. In fact, in Baptist life just a few decades ago, the great fear was becoming a reality. Biblically-based, theologically conservative institutions were not just leaning, but running quickly to the left and disavowing the veracity of Scripture as inerrant. While many Baptist colleges and universities were lost to the cultural shift, the six Southern Baptist seminaries were reclaimed through what has become known as the conservative resurgence.

Therefore, over the past few decades, much like many years ago, the ministerial training offered at our seminaries has proved to be quality, biblically-sound, and effective. Of course, there will always be small exceptions, but by and large, this is the what God has provided, all to his glory, in our schools.

Pastoring Without Seminary

Yet, there are many godly men serving in pastoral ministry who do not have seminary degrees. These are not unlearned men. They are wise and biblically sound. 

Matt Chandler, Pastor at The Village Church, is one such man and has addressed this clearly. He states:

I have been asked recently about what my thoughts are concerning seminary and why I never finished. I have found this to be a very polarizing subject where people put me in the camp of those who think that seminary is unnecessary or put me into the other camp that thinks scholarship isn't important for the pastorate. The truth is I think most men need to go to seminary and scholarship is extremely important. 

There is a recent trend of really sharp, entrepreneurial, driven men skipping seminary all together and planting churches. I don't have a problem with this at all if those men have picked up the tools they need in other places and are continuing to grow theologically and philosophically. If a guy can handle the Greek and Hebrew, knows at least at the cursory level Christian history and can wrestle through and find answers for deep, difficult theological questions then he might not need a degree from a seminary. These men are usually driven, avid studiers and readers by nature. If they could, they would spend their whole day with the scriptures as well as with men like Calvin, Luther and Spurgeon. I said might because seminary then becomes an obedience issue between him and the Lord and may still be a very good idea.

On the other hand, if you don't have the tools, have a tendency to be lazy in study, can't handle the languages, know nothing of how to find answers to deep, difficult theological questions except to quote John Piper and know nothing of our rich history then you need to go get some tools. If you are lazy in study and continue to get in front of people and teach, you have much more courage than I do. I would strongly recommend seminary for its accountability and plan to educate you in doctrine, language and history.

Speed Doesn't Justify Poor Theology

Dr. M. David Sills has written an incredible book titled Reaching and Teaching: A Call to Great Commission Obedience. As a former field missionary overseas and now as a seminary professor, he brings great insight into the flawed model of ministry that offers little discipleship training and provides empty titles for those determined to be leaders.

With a desire to reach the unreached, we have unfortunately turned previously reached groups into unreached groups while ultimately seeking to speed the return of Christ (as if we actually can manipulate God to adjust a time he already has set.) Yes, reaching the unreached is a mandate. It is biblical. It is right. Nevertheless, as Dr. Sills states, "The great missiological error of our day is the mistaken notion that the Great Commission equals reaching the unreached."

Reaching and discipling are not synonyms. (TWEET THIS)

The great tragedy of the world is not that it is unreached; it is that it is undiscipled. Jesus commanded us to make disciples, not just to get decisions.

Sills continues in a recent article posted on the International Mission Board site...

Theological preparation is necessary to plant the pure seed of the gospel in the soil of the target culture rather than simply bringing a potted plant that is indigenous to the missionary’s home culture.

Yet, a degree from a theological seminary may not be necessary, and in fact, some seminaries might do more harm than good. But every missionary must have a masters degree from the School of Christ, no matter how or where he gets it.

Missionaries would be wise to go to the best seminary they can find, one that teaches sound theology and biblical missiology, and get all the education they can in preparation before deploying to the nations.

If God opens the door before they actually graduate, then by all means they should follow his guidance and go. The Lord knows what each missionary needs to do all he has planned for him or her to do, and he also knows what the world needs.

Make sure you hear the still, small voice that says, “This is the way, walk in it,” and then obey that call as if souls depended on it. You shouldn’t run before you’re ready any more than you should delay once you are. God’s timing is not ours. If he hasn’t yet said, “Go now!” then get all the education you can get while you’re home.

Planters, Pastors, and Missionaries in Hurry Up Mode

As we have mentored and coached young ministers and pastors over the years, a few challenges have arisen. In some cases, a person surrenders later in life (when it comes to schooling, this may mean over age 30) and while working a full-time job and seeking to raise a family, deem theological education as not being an option. While some, as in Chandler's case, may rightly continue serving without any training, others drastically need coaching.

When there is an urgency to hurry up and get to work in the ministry, things often do not go well. Don't get me wrong, God remains sovereign and can work through anyone willing to serve. I'm not negating his power or call. Yet, I have seen unteachable people rush to service only to do more harm than good for the kingdom.

Sills states "If God opens the door before they actually graduate, then by all means they should follow his guidance and go." I agree, but I also have seen some vibrant newly surrendered ministers and missionaries who actually forced the door open. In these cases, undone work remains undone. 

In these cases, it's really not about seminary or continued education. It is about having a teachable and learnable spirit. 

If he hasn’t yet said, “Go now!” then get all the education you can get while you’re home.

Patience is a pain, but it's a virtue too, right? In the waiting, God prepares and provides. Seminary and theological training are not tools to cool one's passion for the gospel. It is a gift of God. We should remember that and take it to heart.

And, just as a building with the name church on it does not make it a viable option for education and worship, neither does an institution with a name college, university, or seminary mean it's a good option. That being said, I'm glad to say that as a Southern Baptist pastor, I can wholeheartedly recommend our seminaries for those called into ministry, for the furtherance of their training. I can, and do. We live in an era where quality theological training does not mean uprooting one's family and moving across the country (though it could.) Distance learning is provided by all our schools, and depending on the region one lives, most likely an off-campus site is available in a short driving distance. If not, then by all means move. As God calls, he provides.

Our SBC seminaries:

 


When There's Really Nothing To Say

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where there just wasn't anything to talk about? For some, the answer is a resounding NO, because there always seems to be something to talk about, right? The weather, your fantasy team, politics, etc. Small talk is doable in just about any situation. It's not always helpful or desired, but at least it's an option. 

Navigating Silence

Years ago, one of my ministry interns shared with me that people cannot handle silence. He apparently read a report that stated seven seconds of silence was about the extent of non-noise that could be dealt with, especially in the western world. I'm sure there's scientific research to back that up, but as we would take ministry trips and work together, we would often (unbeknownst to the other) attempt to break the seven-second rule (this is different from the three-second rule that allows you to eat a Cheeto that fell on the floor, as long as it wasn't there over three seconds.) For the most part, it seems he was correct.

Michael Landers, the director of Culture Crossing, a global consulting organization, wrote about this phenomena...

There’s an experiment that I like to do in my workshops in which I pause after completing a thought, as if I’m contemplating my next statement. But instead of taking a one- to two-second pause, I remain silent for about five to seven seconds – and I observe what happens with my audience. In the US, the majority of the audience starts to cough, laugh, talk to themselves out loud, and get wiggly in their seats right around the three-second mark. The signs of discomfort just increase as the time passes. Afterward, I ask the audience how my silence made them feel. For many, it’s excruciatingly awkward. (Full story here.)

When Silence Is All You Have

Despite the seven-second rule and the illustration above, there are times when there really is nothing to say, and saying nothing may be best. See Proverbs 10:19.

I cannot help but think about our story (my wife, Tracy and me) when it comes to communication with family. As many know, we have been living through a season of what may best be called "prodigalism" in reference to the story from Luke 15.

It is a challenging and stressful time, but as I have heard from many dear friends, church members, and other pastors and ministers, our circumstance is not as much an exception as we'd wish. Trusting God that our story will parallel the one in Luke 15 one day, we wait (sometimes impatiently) believing and realizing that as God works for His glory in our loved one, he is doing the same in us. 

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Photo credit: E. Watson via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-ND

As I have counseled with Christians with family members and friends who, by their own admission, have no need for Christianity, the church, or biblical perspectives, some common desires that arise.

  • Most desire a quick fix that will draw their loved one back to God.
  • Most desire a strategy that will make their loved one behave according to their desires.
  • Most just want their loved one believe in and surrender to Christ.
  • Most just want to "go back" to the way it used to be...without realizing that going back is not possible and even if it were, apart from heart transformation, the end result would be the same.
  • Most want to know what to say when they're together at the holidays or other occasions. 

Yet, here's what we know to be true.

  • There is no quick fix, especially if human in nature.
  • Any strategy that seeks to simply change another's behavior tends to leave out God and create a false contentment.
  • This is a wonderful desire, but we must remember that God alone draws people to himself. He will likely use family and friends in the process, but it is God who does this.
  • There are no flux capacitors and DeLoreans available.
  • And...sometimes there is just not much to say.

It is clear for us that we have more in common and more to talk about with a version of our loved one from the past (which based on the flux capacitor truth listed above, does not exist) than currently. 

This is true for many. In our case, when we were told "I just don't believe the way you do" it floored us. This was a statement regarding theology and world view. How did this happen? When did the belief structure shift? Why did we not notice it earlier? These and other questions arose, but even discovering answers to these questions did not change the reality that our family had a world view schism.

All the sudden, that which used to be discussed and enjoyed together disappeared. 

Simple things like sports, football, basketball, baseball, favorite athletes, past times, movies, television shows, entertainment choices, favorite actors and actresses, and especially politics were at polar opposites.

Simple family discussions over dinner began to feel like debates. 

I was accused (rightly so) of alway preaching. I confess, I'm a preacher. I preach. However, I should have not done so over dinner. I forgot the "2 ears and 1 mouth" principle that states we should listen twice as much as we talk.

As I reflect on the past few years, as the divide became evident and seemingly widened overnight, I realize now how much I did talk (preach) initially with a sense of urgency and a hope to fix things. Guilt over missed opportunities and lack of intentional family worship grew. Accusations of failure swam throughout my mind. I said some things that were amazingly wise and timely (obviously from God's lead, not my intellect,) but there were also things that were sinful and angry (these would be the things God didn't lead me to say.) I regret this greatly. 

Yet, here we are. God remains faithful. I trust God in ways I could not truly express prior, due to now having been in those valleys (and still there at times.)

Holidays come and go. That means family gatherings will happen. Communication with our loved one  is not shut down, but it is surface-level mostly. It has come to my realization that there just isn't much to talk about.

This is not passive aggressiveness. It is just the reality that common interests, common faith, and common world view allow for deeper, more meaningful conversations. When those elements are not congruent, the challenges for deeper conversations are more intense.

Honestly, it is easier to talk to someone with far different views in these key areas to whom you are not related. At least that has been my experience. It seems that the closer the relationship should be, the wider the divide when world views and faith are not shared.

But, there's hope...

I re-read the Luke 15 passage and am encouraged each time. The story culminates with the prodigal returning home. There's not much information on what the dad did during the separation, but what is expressed is his steadfastness and faithful expectation. May I be like that man. I pray if you are in a similar story (whether a parent, sibling, or friend) that you will be like him as well. 

So, when you have nothing to talk about, talk to the One who loves your loved one more than you. Pray. You may experience more awkward dinners and family gatherings. You may simply get a random text message and emoji. You may, sadly, not hear from your loved one for quite some time. Every story is similar in some ways, but unique in so many others. Through the uniqueness of your story, remember the common factor that never changes - God and His love. 

When there's nothing to say, listen to God. He speaks through His Word. Then, in prayer, you will find that you can talk to God about your loved one in ways that are helpful, hopeful, and healing. This is the good news. 


Marriage, Divorce, and Christianity

Last Sunday as we continued our sermon series through the Gospel of Matthew, we focused on Matthew 19:1-12. The issue of divorce is something  that is often tip-toed around in the church, for fear of offending someone or eliminating leadership within the church body. When the church becomes more therapeutic than gospel-focused, often the hard teachings of Christ are either ignored or avoided. 

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As I have ruminated on the message from Sunday, which is now available on podcast, our website and app, I believe this is a major issue for Christians today. So...some points from the message...

We can rightly say in our nation today the two elements, though legal for years, that ultimately have impacted families and communities most negatively are abortion-on-demand and no-fault divorce. (TWEET THIS)

No one avoids the impact of divorce in our culture. Everyone knows someone - family member, co-worker, fellow student, friend, or self who has either been divorced. The pain is real and yet, the church has a responsibility to address divorce, just as Christ did. There are ultimately two things the church must do when addressing divorce among Christians. David Platt reminds us of these two elements in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. The church must...

  1. Comfort in love
  2. Confront with truth

Unfortunately, the church sometimes misses one element and focuses on the other. To comfort without confrontation is to ignore the teachings of Christ and the holiness of God and his design for marriage. To confront without comfort is to slide into legalism which celebrates punishment while ignoring biblical discipline.

REALITY FOR DIVORCEES IN CHURCH

When it comes to church and divorce, many fellowships have been fractured. Old church photo directories reveal that those smiling couples in the posed Olan Mills images are no longer together. This creates tension in the church as newly divorced man or woman may struggle with where to go to Sunday School. For those who have been part of the couples class for years, they now wonder if they're welcome. While they likely will be, the very real feeling of "I don't belong" develops. Even churches with solid, vibrant single adult ministries often discover a challenge of actually reaching out and welcoming those who, by no choice of their own, are now single because of divorce. Others may have issues of remaining friends with both parties, or neither. This has been echoed by many since Sunday. If the couple was friends with another and then they go through divorce, the dynamic is gone and there's tension where there wasn't before.

Lost sheep are often created due to such.

The church may not respond as many expect, if at all.

Sometimes, the divorcee feels the need to either quit church or go elsewhere simply because he or she just doesn’t want to answer “Where’s your spouse?” question any longer from the many who apparently didn’t notice the ring was no longer on the finger. This, too, is not just an imagined occurrence. It happens. It has happened.

Often when a Christian is contemplating divorce he/she first contacts a divorce lawyer. No disrespect to my family lawyer friends and church members, but this represents a tragic reality. Biblical counsel should be sought. At times, one or both of the spouses may be unwilling. Yet, reconciliation remains the first goal.

CONFUSING DEFINITIONS OF MARRIAGE

Things that seemed certain for generations have been questioned. Some debated. Others changed. As we look to the only word that has remained unchanged, inerrant, and useful for teaching, we see Jesus confronting the very same thing in the first century that must be addressed in the 21st century.

Cultural norms do not determine truth. (TWEET THIS)

Regarding marriage, once you strip away politics, dumbed down definitions, and varying developments regarding redefinition, it is declared to be true in God’s Word that God is the one who defined marriage. It was not defined by cultural norms. It was not created as a way to fulfill treaties. Marriage was not just the legal affirmation of a union of two (or more) people.

When the Pharisees, who were legalists in many areas, sought to trap Jesus once more with Bible questions, asked about marriage and divorce, they were attempting to trap him or lead him into saying something that could be used against him as they planned his downfall.

Yet, his answer to the question “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” is met with wisdom and biblical affirmation.

In case you didn’t catch the key phrase here “for any cause” – that’s the first century version of no-fault divorce.

God created marriage. He defined it as being between one man and one woman. While there are numerous occasions, especially in the Old Testament where polygamy is seen, even among the faithful, do not mistake that God’s design and desire is for one man – one woman for life. Sinful men have messed that model up from the beginning.

Jay Adams, one of the preeminent biblical counselors today shared this in his book Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible

If marriage were of human origin, then human beings would have a right to set it aside. But since God instituted marriage, only he has the right to do so. Marriage as an institution is subject to the rules and regulations set down by God. Individuals may marry, be divorced, and be remarried only if, when and how, he says they may without sinning. The state has been given the task of keeping orderly records, but it has no right or competence to determine the rules for marriage and for divorce. That’s God’s prerogative.

The healthy Christian marriage is not only something defined by God, but described by God as a covenant relationship. This is much deeper than a contract and while breakable for a small category of reasons, even then it should be avoided if at all possible.

THE LIE OF "FALLING OUT OF LOVE"

The modern understanding of marriage is that of an agreement that will begin at a wedding and last until one of the spouses “falls out of love.”

Falling out of love is a ridiculous concept. It’s not a biblical reason. It’s not even a biblically viable truth. The only reason “falling out of love” is deemed real is because humanity has worked for centuries to excuse and justify sin and when marriage is viewed as a partnership that will remain only as long as I “feel” loved and appreciated, by my own definitions of those words, I’ll remain married. Otherwise, get out and start over.

“I just don’t love her anymore” has been said far too many times by Christian men whom should be smart enough not to even think that.

Love is a choice.

Love is a commitment.

Love for husband and wife, regardless of how one feels, should be the one thing that can be counted on.

Yet, it’s not.

WHAT IS MARRIAGE?

Marriage is the uniting of two sinners in a holy, covenant relationship for the glory of God. This union is attacked by Satan from the get go. There’s no “honeymoon” when it comes to spiritual attack.

Divorce is always the result of sin.

Divorce is almost always sinful. There's a qualifier here for the very few times that God allows it. Yet, even in the allowance, there should be hope for reconciliation. 

BUT, BUT, BUT...

There are so many questions that result from this passage. Questions like “Is it infidelity if…?” and “What about abuse?” and “What if my needs aren’t being met?” and so on.

There are allowances for divorce, but perhaps as the Pharisees asked the question, we see ourselves asking the same. And this is where we’re wrong to start. Maybe the question shouldn’t be “What are the allowances for divorce?” and should be “What are the ways of reconciliation?”

OUR PRAYER

Our prayer is for... 

  • the single, never married adult
  • the divorcee and still single
  • the one who was cheated on and left
  • the one who cheated and left
  • the couple who live in the same house, but separately because it’s cheaper
  • the couple who are faithful now, but have chapters in their past including divorce and exes
  • the couple living together (sinfully) acting like they’re married, but not
  • the senior adult couple living together acting married, but not because they don't want to lose their Social Security benefits
  • the couple who are married, faithful, and together

...Remember that God created marriage, designed it to be holy and glorifying to Him. Love is a choice. If you have made sinful choices, repent of those and seek forgiveness. For the married husband and wife - stay faithful to God and each other.

It is not easy to be holy, but it is doable through Christ.

May all our relationships honor God and bring him glory. 


Thoughts on Marriage and Weddings from a Pastor's Perspective

As a pastor, I have the privilege and honor of standing before couples and presiding over services that unite them as husband and wife in holy matrimony. Over the years, I have learned some things about weddings and marriage. Many of these are things I wish I had been taught prior to getting married (as does my wife, because I think I would have been a better husband early on.) 

So, here are some insights...

Premarital Counseling is Vital

There are numerous online and face-to-face courses available for pastors to lead couples through prior to marriage. We have used many in the past and currently utilize Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott's SYMBIS assessment. SYMBIS stands for "Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts." We have found it to be helpful, but as with any online assessment, it is only as helpful as the couples are honest and open to feedback. The key is the analysis of the data and the assessor's leadership and guidance.

Premarital Counseling Must Be Focused on Biblical Truth

The SYMBIS assessment offers great insight into personalities, conflict management, expectations, and more. These allow for questions to be asked and considered in the counseling session. SYMBIS' is not an in-depth Bible study, so I have found that looking through biblical teachings regarding marriage, the role of husband and wife, the challenges faced, etc. is invaluable. 

Some things that must be covered...

  • Biblical marriage can only be between a man and a woman - (Genesis 2:24)
  • Male and female are not genders to choose, but created by God intentionally - (Genesis 1:27)
  • Marriage is to be between Christians - (2 Corinthians 6:14)
  • Marriage is to last a lifetime - (Malachi 2:16)
  • Sex is reserved for the husband and wife - (1 Corinthians 7:2)
  • Premarital sex, even for engaged couples, does not honor God - (Hebrews 13:4)
  • Marriage is not a contract, it is a covenant - (Matthew 19:6)

Insight from others such as Paul David Tripp and Jay Adams have helped as we look to Scripture for direction. 

Jerry Maguire Was Wrong

I have referenced the popular movie at times with couples (not an endorsement of the film, by the way) and now, I have found that many young couples have never seen the movie and therefore, do not know what I'm talking about. Nevertheless, there is a famous scene the film where Tom Cruise's character finally comes to grip that he is in love with Renée Zellweger's character, who happens to be his wife. Well...watch it below.

Sure, it's a romantic moment. It works for the film. Men and women alike go "I get it" and for Hollywood, this is pretty good. And "You had me at hello" sounds like it could be the name of a country song, but I won't go there. 

Yet, there's a problem. 

If one's spouse "completes them" then we have a big problem. No human being can bring completion for another. As Christians we know, well at least we should know, that only Christ brings completion. Once our "soul-mate" or whatever culturally devised term of endearment is attached to our spouse that places upon him/her a role that is reserved only for Christ, we devolve into practical idolatry. Disappointment at a minimum results.

Finances are a Big Deal

When one spouse has accumulated debt, once married, the couple has debt. Debt from student loans, cars, and especially credit cards is rampant in our society and younger people often do not see the problem until it is too late. Sometimes, age has nothing to do with these blinders. BTW - just paying the minimum on your credit cards will never get you free. 

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Remember - debt makes you a slave (Proverbs 22:7)

There's no escaping this. Justifying your debt accrual does not make it okay. It especially does not make it go away. 

Now, having debt is no reason not to get married, but refusing to talk about it and work together to devise a plan to get out of debt is a huge issue.

When two become one, communication lines must be more open than when dating. 

While it may be acceptable to have separate bank accounts and credit cards in some cases, I believe those cases are rare. To be divided regarding income, debt, and other financial areas leads to division in the relationship and provides fuel for the enemy in his attacks. Simply put, it is not wise to keep financial details and accounts from each other. 

One spouse may say "How are we doing financially?" and the other respond "We're okay. I'll take care of it."

While that may sound comforting, it actually works to create discomfort, distrust, and ultimately division. 

Just remember, it's hard to be one, as God commands, when you continually live as two.

So, finances must be discussed openly. Plans must be make jointly. It is okay for one spouse or the other to take care of all banking and bill paying. That's not an issue. But secrecy and lack of communication is not God-honoring and not honoring of the marriage covenant.

So...I don't like prenuptial agreements either, because that foresees a divorce. There may be cases when it would be acceptable, but those are rare.

Whose Home?

When a couple marries, and we're speaking of a Christian couple who is not living together, often one spouse will move in to the other's home, even if for a short while prior to getting a new home.

Interior-of-modern-room

The husband and wife must both be aware of the challenges here. If the single man has a place, even if he's a neat freak and actually cleans up, that is a bachelor's residence. When the wife moves in and starts redecorating and moving things and giving the home a "woman's touch" it can create tension. 

The "my house" verses "our house" transition is real.

The same is true if the woman lives alone and the new husband moves in. 

There's no real fix here, but awareness of the stressors that could come must be made known. 

Parents, In-Laws, and Family Members

Here's my recommendation to parents - don't drop in on the kids unannounced. Don't do it. Ever.

This may seem strange, but I have stories of couples I have counseled. They married. Each have great parents and yet, there was this never-ending drop in that took place and the young couple was finding themselves in a position of trying to figure out how to tell mom and dad to stay away without offending.

So, since parents are older and hopefully wiser - stay away and give the couple time to figure out what it means to be married. 

If you have a key to their house (because they gave it to you) don't use it to go over when they're not home. Yes, I knew of one set of parents that did that. Mom would go over and listen to their voice mails, read their mail, put pictures on their refrigerator, take pictures off. Write things on their calendar, etc. She was off the chain and yes, it caused problems. That couple eventually divorced. It wasn't all mom's fault, but she certainly didn't help matters (especially when she encouraged her daughter to divorce the son-in-law.)

In a Christian marriage, we believe it is God who brings the couple together. Rarely, if ever, does God ask the parents or siblings of the new husband and wife for their approval. Family members need to remember this. New family members may not become best-friends, but they do become family. 

Here's a hard reality - sometimes it is best for the new couple to be transferred to a new city, away from current friends and family. It may not be, but in some cases, the forced reliance on God and each other allows for strengthening of the marriage. In other cases, that support system at home is needed.

Marriage is More Important Than the Wedding

The wedding is a commodity marketed well today. From venue rental, floral arrangements, online registrations, saying "yes" to the dress, and thousands and thousands of dollars spent on a one-day event, it is easy to lose sight of what God is doing. 

Flower-wedding-love

In fact, even in the most beautiful weddings happening nowadays, God can actually be ignored, and left off the guest list entirely. We must remember that God created and ordained the marriage. He uses it as an image of Christ's relationship with his church. Marriage is God's idea, not society's.

Church weddings are becoming passé. That's okay because I have performed ceremonies in churches that ended up being godless as well (despite my focus and best efforts.) If the church is the people, then the building is not the focus.

Nevertheless, brides and grooms are now inundated with what must happen and occur for a wedding to be good. Those images rarely, if ever come from the Bible. They come from bridal magazines, TLC shows, and pressure to have the "best and most unique ceremony ever" that often looks just like all the other unique ceremonies that have happened over the previous years. 

Don't get me wrong, a beautiful ceremony is wonderful. My concern is that so much money and time and effort is spent on the ceremony being perfect and right that many couples are forsaking that which must be focused upon - the marriage. 

You can have a great ceremony and a terrible marriage.

You can also have a less than perfect ceremony and an incredible marriage. 

I fear far too many marriages end before the parents of the bride have finished paying the debt incurred for the "perfect wedding ceremony." 

Final Random Thoughts

Over the years, there have been many things learned. Here are some that just don't fit in any of the more important categories:

  • Your two-year-old niece or nephew is not more mature than others their age and probably shouldn't stand on the stage for the entire service.
  • Having the Lord's Supper is not good for evangelicals. That's an ordinance for the church alone.
  • Writing your own vows is great, unless you're a terrible writer and just downloaded something from the internet. In most cases, traditional vows are best.
  • Music is wonderful, but only when it's wonderful. A song in the ceremony that is God-honoring is good. Lady Gaga's latest hit...not so much. Save that for the reception maybe.
  • When your wedding is supposed to start at 1pm and it's outdoors, and it's 108 degrees, don't sit in the dressing room, in the air conditioning for an extra fifteen minutes making your guests sit outside in the heat. Be on time.
  • If you drop the ring during the ceremony, let the pastor pick it up. Otherwise, you're a YouTube hit.
  • If your best man or maid of honor forgets the ring, fake it. Get married. Find the ring later.
  • If everyone is not invited to the reception, tell the pastor before he invites everyone to the reception.
  • To the groom - make sure your bride likes the ceremony. Defer to her. This is best. No one comes to a wedding to see the groom.
  • If you use candles, don't wrap flammable greenery around the candelabras. This happened at our church. It's funny now. I think. We still talk about it, though the bride wishes we didn't.
  • If you have a reception and people are there waiting to eat, don't take another hour for pictures without letting guests go through the buffet. They're hungry. They love you and want to see you enter, but hurry up already with those pictures.
  • As Pastor Tommy Nelson once said, "This is the last time she (the bride) will be ready on time and this is the best he (the groom) will ever look."
  • When the pastors says "We can't to that" that means don't do that, whatever that is, regardless if you saw it in a movie, at another wedding, or if your mom or wedding coordinator wants it done.
  • Don't try to force everyone to dance at the reception, especially tall white-guy pastors who just would rather not. Not that he doesn't have moves like Jagger, but some things are best left to the living room at home while playing Just Dance on the Wii. Not that that ever happens. Just saying.
  • Remember, the wedding is a worship service and neither bride nor groom are the ones to be worshipped. Make sure God smiles upon you as you enter this covenant relationship.

What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate. - Matthew 19:6b (ESV)


What About the Lost Sheep Who Wants to Be Lost?

I have been preaching through Matthew's gospel account and recently I shared of Jesus' instructions regarding the lost sheep and how the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine in the flock who are safe to go find the one that is lost. 

It's a challenging passage and raises many questions.

What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. - Matthew 18:12-14 (ESV) 

Who is the lost sheep?

The lost sheep in this parable is a new believer, a member of the flock that has strayed. That much is clear.

Is the one more important than the ninety-nine?

No, that's not the point of the passage. The ninety-nine are believers. They are together. They are in community. They are safe. 

Why leave the ninety-nine alone?

Even today, if Middle Eastern shepherds know they need to be away from their flock for an extended period of time, they will likely get a friend or relative to watch over the flock. Yet, the point of this passage and word from Christ is that God values each and every person. No one is worth less than another. The shocking story was shared by Jesus to his disciples to emphasize that they are not to devalue any person and should seek to keep unity among the believers, for the good of the church and the glory of God.

This story is to motivate and encourage the church. The message is clear - God loves his children. We should, too.

Handful-grass-fields-meadow-ants

I am reminded of a dog my wife and I used to own. He was a small black poodle (not Max, our current wonder-dog) and he loved to get out of our back yard. He would get out and start walking. He would "follow his nose" and loved to discover new scents. However, he wasn't the sharpest dog I've ever known. I'm no dog whisperer, but this guy would walk away for blocks and eventually look up. When he looked up, he would be far from home. I imagine in his little dog brain he was thinking "Uh...where am I?" We'd look for him, but when we couldn't find him, we'd wait until a neighbor, or like one time, the workers at Jiffy Lube in Orange Park, to call us. Our number was on his collar. We'd go pick him up. All was good. He was home.

We were happy. He was happy. He didn't desire to be lost. He jus strayed away.

The lost sheep (not poodle) in the church are like this. They stray. They lose focus. They begin listening to the lies of the enemy and start agreeing with the lies. Sometimes, those lies sound like "You don't matter. You're worthless. No one at this church loves you. No one loves you." When the lie is taken for truth, straying results.

These are lies. 

But, what about the sheep who wants to be lost?

Sometimes people walk away from church and the community of believers and do so intentionally. 

Sometimes people want to believe the lies. They refuse the grace of God. They refuse to acknowledge brothers and sisters in Christ to step out of their comfort zones to reach out and connect. They're not forgotten by others, but they believe they are. 

It is true that we need to not forget the lost sheep, but what about that sheep who has seeks to remain lost, for various reasons?

The passage in Matthew that follows the lost sheep story speaks of conflict and discipline. The focus is on the sin of Christians and how the church must respond.

It is sin for the church to ignore the lost sheep. Yet, it is also sin for the lost sheep to desire separation and lostness. It is sinful to continually ignore the draw of the Holy Spirit and to grieve him.

Running from God is different from straying away. Many who have run attempt to declare their just lost sheep. That's not true, they're rebellious sheep. In those cases, discipline from God's church is needed. Sometimes, even excommunication is the required response.

That seems extreme, but it's right. It's holy. 

Pray and Remember Your Role.

It is God who draws. It is Christ who has come to seek and save the lost. He invites us into this great story, but ultimately, he does the rescue. We, the church, must not ignore our calling. We must be obedient. Yet, we must also be wise to discern the difference between a lost sheep who has strayed and one who is running from God.

In the case of the latter, I think of the story of the prodigal son. In that case, the son never lost his title as child, but the father remained home. He apparently prayed and waited. Eventually, the lost son came home. He "woke up" from his rebellion and shifted into "lost sheep" status. He realized he was being drawn home. 

Prayer is not a weak, passive response to those who stray. It is the active role we must take, especially when we find the lost sheep and he/she has no desire to be found...yet.

Remember, God knows the details. He is in control.


She Walked Away from Church Wounded, Ready to End Her Life. But, Then...

I received this email from a member of our church yesterday. I asked permission to share the information in this blog post, believing it may be helpful to others who have felt alone, empty, and forgotten, not to mention those who have lived with scars and wounds brought on by sexual abuse and harassment. She said I could share and that hopefully, someone will be helped. 

WARNING: Some of the information below is graphic.

The story is from a woman who has been an active member of our church for years. She is a self-described introvert of sorts. She has served in various areas of ministry for seasons in the past, but last year (2016) she stopped attending church regularly. She has carried deep wounds from her past and has struggled with understanding her value to God and his church, and to others. The enemy's lies and accusations have weighed heavily upon her for years. Last year, she almost ended her life, believing the lies of the enemy that that would be best.

Woman-desperate-sad-tears-cry-depression-mourning-2

Thankfully, God has rescued her from that moment and continues to do so. Her email was shared with me after she shared it with her counselor. I have edited it for brevity and eliminated names as needed.

On Sunday, October 15, 2017, Pastor David preached a sermon from Matthew 18:10-14. This word from Christ references the lost sheep and how the shepherd rejoices when it is found.
 
Pastor David talked about our church. He talked of the ones who have been active, but would be described as introverted in personality.  He talked of the ones who are part of the church, but never really talk or share much in small groups. These are the ones who attend and are active, but just keep to themselves. The he shared what happens often. One Sunday, they are not there. They miss a small group meeting once. Then another. And before you know it, they aren't attending regularly, if at all.  Those who know them began to wonder about them and yet, that's all. They wonder, but no one thinks enough about them to see where they are or what is happening in their lives. 

Pastor David shared of a student he once had in youth ministry. This young lady was very active in the youth group and the church. She was there whenever the doors were open, so to speak. She attended camps and even went on mission trips. when he was a youth pastor. Then, one day, she was not there. That one day led to many. Pastor David later ran into her in a local store where she was working. He said, "It’s been a while since I’ve seen you. We’ve missed you at church."
 
She responded, "I've been gone. I'm like that lost sheep. Why was no one looking for me?"

This sermon had me thinking about what was going on during my recent nine months of not attending church at First Baptist Orange Park. This was kind of how I felt.  I felt lost and believed no one cared enough at FBC to come looking for me. In truth they did come looking for me. I know people are busy and they have their own lives and I was the furthest thing from their minds. It was completely okay, I made the choice to leave. (Please know that these are the lies I was believing at the time.)
 
Reflecting back on 2016: It was a hard year. Suicide has been something that I had thought about in the past, but never really acted upon. Yet, during this season, I actually did more than think about it. I took a step further because I planned out my suicide with detailed plans of how I would do it. If not for not having the one tool I was going to use to finish it, I may have. Things would be much different now for my family. 
 
My selfish thoughts were:
  • No one cares.
  • My family will be better off if I wasn’t around any more.
  • My husband can find a better wife who will take care of him and the children.
  • Others who know me will forget all about me within moments of me being gone - as if I never existed anyway.

These were just some of the thoughts I was having that led up to that day in May 2016. On that day, I shared with a friend and due to this friend's care, I was actually Baker Acted. My friend apparently cared too much for me to see me die.

Following my time in the hospital, I felt as if I was branded by society with labels - weak, gives up easily, worthless, no good, doesn’t belong here. It was one shaming title after another.

Going through the motions of life became more and more challenging because the darkness kept taunting my thoughts. The shaming pressure that I kept putting upon myself. I was listening to the lies, and ignoring the voice of God that speaks clearly through his Word.

I was keeping tragic memories alive. I was living in the wounds of the past. It was painful, but I was recollecting all that was done to me as a little girl. That girl (me) seemed like someone else, but I knew it was me and I could not find healing.

I was that little girl, living in shame from being sexually abused for nine years.

As I began to think about all that had happened to me and began to blame that little girl (myself) for the abuse. I forgot what she had to endure to survive. How she was told to respect her elders, no matter what.

"Do as your told with no arguing or discussing."

"Speak only when your spoken too and preferably, not at all."

This little girl was not a rule breaker, for the most part. She did as she was told, at times she would show her true colors and act out. However, for the most part though she just did what the adult told her to do.

The adult, the authority, would lay down  next to me.

"Take off your shirt. Let me have your hand. Touch me here and move your hand this way. This is our little secret. This is our precious time. You are so beautiful. You need to hurry up. Go faster. Stop wasting time. Your doing it wrong. Let me show you how to massage. Spread your legs."

As he began to "massage" her in ways that no man other then her future husband should be touching her. She just followed directions. She did not want to get in trouble.

These words and so many others are like are like broken record in my thoughts. I have visions or flashbacks of different experiences from my childhood like this. They haunt me and have kept me in bondage.  

In the past, I would just find ways to punish myself by cutting or not eating.

It was the only way I could find control when it seemed like everything was out of control.

These choices are no longer an option.

I have chosen to work through my past and the pain that was inflicted upon me. In the past, I had chosen to stay stuck at times because it was too much to take on.  I had chosen to turn away from God because I believed the lies of the enemy that I was no good and just a waste of his time.

Hearing these lies on a continuous basis, somehow they felt like truth. Over time, going to church and hearing and singing about how great is our God and how awesome he is felt like torment within my spirit.

The battle between what I was raised to believe and what I was experiencing became too overwhelming and the only thing I knew to do was walk away from the church. I knew I was to far gone and was not able to be healed.

At least that is what I thought I knew.

Thank God he had a different plan and the same friend who made the phone call to have me Baker Acted also took me under her wing. She mentored me and took me to her church. They prayed with me and guided me through so I could stand once again.

I'm learning to ask for forgiveness when I fall short, instead of remaining paralyzed with self-affliction or condemnation. I'm believing God and his Word and trusting him.

I’m no longer an abused victim. No one is causing pain or purposely hurting me. The only one that has kept the past alive is me and it is time to put that time to rest. It is time to say good-bye to a man that caused so much confusion and pain in my young life. I'm learning what biblical forgiveness is. I now see that I have lived a life of blame - blaming others and blaming myself, and in so doing, finding no healing. 

Today (October 22, 2017) our church, First Baptist Church of Orange Park will be singing at the Orange Park Fall Festival at the Town Hall grounds. We will be singing "Trust In You."

Shelvin, Lamb, our Worship Pastor, has a way of picking songs that go to the core of your soul. Sometimes these songs are so hard to sing because of the bondage that I have chosen to live within. This makes it hard to speak truth when you allow lies to feel like truth.

I’m learning to trust in Him. It is a daily challenge, but as each day that goes by He continues to show me how much He loves, cares, and cherishes me even when I do not. He draws near to the broken-hearted. He brings rest to the weary. His promises are truth and He will never break them.

So today, I am praising God for being my shepherd. For bring the right people in my life at the right time to minister and pray with me as I went through the struggles of 2016.

This year has been a learning experience and with that, painful at times. As always, God knows what we need and He continues to meet our needs. This sheep strayed for a while, but because of who He is, she has found her way back home. I love my First Family and missed being part of the choir so much. Thankful that they welcomed me back.

What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.  - Matthew 18:12-14 (ESV)


It's Not the Victims' Fault! - Why Christians Must Not Ignore the Weinstein Story

For the past week, it seems that every news report, trending topic, and entertainment update has been about the fall of Harvey Weinstein.

Weinstein, along with his brother Bob, founded Miramax and the Weinstein Company.  The multi-millionaire entertainment mogul has numerous Oscars and hit films to his credit. He's been politically active through donations and appearances over the years. Nevertheless, he is trending now not because of his political leanings or entertainment business prowess, but because he has been accused of numerous sexual indiscretions and harassment. 

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Harvey Weinstein - Photo credit: Thomas Hawk via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC

Actress and director Rose McGowan started this story trending when she went public via Twitter with how Weinstein harassed her. Once she opened this story to the public, many others have shared their stories. 

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Rose McGowan - Photo credit: gdcgraphics via Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA

However, as with any news story featuring prominent people, numerous click-bait stories are developed and responses that either totally miss the point or skew the story by making it about something else. In this case... 

It's Not the Victim's Fault

Some have seen these stories on the news and online and the added public testimonies from other actresses (and some actors such as James Van Der Beek and Terry Crews) and have wrongly tried to minimize what Weinstein is accused of doing. When you hear someone say "Well, where were these women years ago?" or "Why didn't they say something earlier?" the not-so-subtle message is that the women are to blame or at a minimum, they're just joining the crowd and may not truly have a story.

Victims of sexual harassment often do not feel strong enough to go public with their story. There is shame attributed to them by the harasser. There is fear that grows - in this case, fear that careers will end and opportunities lost among other things.

To blame the victim with such statements as "Well, they were asking for it" or "It's Hollywood. That's how things are done" do nothing more than elevate sin as acceptable.

Time Doesn't Heal

Many of the stories coming out now are based on incidents that took place years prior. An abused, harassed young person can and will likely carry the memory of the event throughout life. Time may heal in the sense that it's easier to move forward, but the over-simplification of believing just existing more days will eliminate the pain is unfounded. Some of you reading this know the truth of that. You were abused, attacked, harassed at some point years ago, but even now, at times, that memory comes back. And it's not helpful. 

When I was a young boy of about eight, an older teenage boy attempted to sexually attack me. I won't get into the details, but rest assured that memory of the two of us walking in a field is in high-definition in my mind. Thankfully, my vocal chords were working well and the older friend acquiesced and the stopped. It was dealt with at the time, and nothing was actually done to me, but I was scared and ashamed. Even as a child, I knew something was very wrong. 

Unfortunately, there are others who did not have their incidents end as mine with no physical damage. 

It's Not About Politics

Due to Weinstein's far-leaning liberal political bent and friendships with certain politicians, some have used this story to make it all about politicians and liberal politics. While I am far from a liberal politically, to stoop to using this tragic story as fodder simply for political positioning and proclamation.

Conservatives and liberals alike must understand that voting record does not determine whether sexual sin is present or not. Both ends of the spectrum have far too many abusers in their ranks.

The Church Is Not Immune

Amazingly, some have pushed back when our local church implemented stronger security measures for leaders and volunteers. Yet, there are enough (far too many, actually - and one is too many) examples and stories of pastors, evangelists, teachers, and leaders who have taken advantage sexually of others in the church to warrant such steps. We have all read stories and heard testimonies of those who were abused by conservative, evangelical pastors or Catholic priests, or liberal church leaders. The sins of those claiming their roles as divinely given resonate and must be addressed as well.

It's About Power

What do Weinstein and others like him have in common? There are numerous things, but ultimately it's about power. Whether an older teenager abusing a child, an adult doing so, a stronger man abusing a women, or a pastor, politician, boss, or media mogul, perceived or actual power over the victim leads to the abuse. In the case of Weinstein, the threat of losing roles or having one's script shelved, left some actresses vulnerable to his attacks. While many of the stories coming out now are from superstars who by their own words, escaped the hotel room of the creepy, bath-robe wearing executive without actually having been abused physically, some have shared they were not so fortunate. I fear there are many others who have yet to go public that may have been abused in ways I cannot imagine. And, what about the non-celebrities who did lose their chance by walking out?

Power can corrupt, and often does. When Tom Hanks was asked about Weinstein, he referenced a quote that rings true - "When you become rich and powerful, you become more of what you already are."

It's Ultimately About Sin

Hanks quote is true at so many levels. The Hollywood Reporter ran an interview with Bob Weinstein (here). The title states it clearly "Bob Weinstein Gets Emotional on 'Depraved' Harvey."

Harvey is depraved...and so are all of us. And that is why we need a Savior.

We all like comparative analysis to make ourselves feel better. That's human nature. I mean, "I'm bad, but at least I'm not Weinstein bad," right? Well, hopefully you're not, but that doesn't mean you're not depraved.

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? Jeremiah 17:9 (ESV)

There Is Hope

That's the message of the gospel, right? Apart from Christ, the sinful heart cannot change. It cannot be rehabilitated. It cannot evolve. Apart from Christ and transformation through him, sin is excused, blame is shifted, justification of evil reigns. God's great light reveals our darkness and the fact that we cannot fix our problems ourselves. There's not enough therapy in the world to impact this epidemic.

But there is hope, and his name is Jesus Christ.

God promised his children in the Old Testament that he desires and can change the hearts of men.

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. Ezekiel 36:26 (ESV)

Thankfully, we have a chance at redemption through Christ.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9 (ESV)

Forgiveness is available and transformation can happen. Yet, while there is no condemnation for those in Christ, consequences remain. For sins such as those being revealed, blanket forgiveness for unrepentant people is not biblical. Yet, willingness to do so is. As for consequences, if found guilty Weinstein (and others as well) must not have their indiscretions ignored or justified. 

For the entertainment industry, the casting couch stories must end today.

Don't Miss the Point of These Stories

So, while you're watching the news or reading the latest trending stories on Twitter, be careful not to miss the real stories here. The world is shrinking thanks to social media. Publicists no longer have complete power of creation when attempting to paint their clients in a good light, when evidence otherwise mounts.

You may not agree with Rose McGowan's politics or worldview or even be a fan of her films, but she should be lauded for her willingness and bravery in bringing this story to light. Others have shared their voices, but many would have likely remained silent had Ms. McGowan not opened up.

She may not desire it, but I'll be praying for her and the others. These are not two-dimensional characters from films. These are real women (and men) who have suffered as victims and their voices must be heard. Prayerfully, action from those with the power to make changes will come. More than a "like" on a tweet is needed.


When You Should Leave Your Church

A few days ago, I posted an article intended for other pastors and church leaders. The article was titled "People Will Leave Your Church - And It Hurts Every Time." It drew a few more clicks than other articles I have written.

I have had a few responses from friends through personal conversations and emails. No one who has contacted me expressed anger, but a few comments focused on "Which one am I in the list?" and "I've learned some things in this journey" from friends who have changed churches.

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While I address the reality that sometimes people leave the local church for good and godly reasons, the previous article focused more on the wrong reasons people leave. So, as a Part 2, here's a list of reasons why it is good to leave a local church. Oh, it still may be painful, but then who said life was to be pain-free?

When You Should Leave Your Church...

  • WORK TRANSFERS - I addressed this in the previous article and whether it is the military or the corporation moving an individual or family, in most cases, it is good to keep one's job and move. We have viewed this as a great mission agency move to new areas of ministry. God blesses in these shifts and also brings new people into communities who will join the local church and serve well. 
  • WHEN HERESY IS TAUGHT FROM THE PULPIT - There are so many "gospels" being preached from pulpits nowadays that often those in the congregation find themselves confused on what is truth and what is opinion. Paul addressed this to the Galatian church (Gal 1:7-9).
  • A DISREGARD TO SCRIPTURE - When church leaders systematically pick and choose passages and doctrines to uphold while ignoring others consistently, a gap in teaching is occurring. In many cases, this will result in the lack of church discipline and compromises on leadership qualifications.
  • WHEN LEADERS SOW DISCORD AND DISUNITY - Unity in the church is difficult, and all churches will struggle with this, but when leaders are sowing the seeds of discord and creating factions, it is time to address how Kingdom work can be accomplished when Christ's commands are ignored. (Romans 16:17)
  • GROSS HYPOCRISY - When lip service is given to the mission and calling of biblical Christianity, but actions do not match such, the church has refused the gospel and the power of God. These churches should shut down for they are a stumbling block to true Christianity.
  • RACISM - Sadly, there remain churches that based on practice and organization do not accept "them" as members or would rather "they" have their own services or churches because it's better that way. Racism disguised as "missional preference" is still racism and must be addressed. If no change occurs (i.e. repentance) then leaving said church is right, for God likely left years prior.
  • UNADDRESSED SIN & UNHOLY LIVING IS TOLERATED - When open sin among church members is ignored, or worse yet excused, the church fails to uphold the truth of Scripture. If the pastors are the offenders, then other pastors, deacons, elders, and church leaders must confront them for the goal of restitution and repentance (1 Tim 5:19-20). If it is a church member, the same is true (Matt 18:15-17). Most people don't like this because it sounds so confrontational (and it is.) Yet, if your church isn't willing to kick you out due to unrepentant sin, it's not worth being a member there.
  • THE MISSION DEMANDS IT - Sometimes, God calls his children to leave the safe place of the home church to serve elsewhere. In some cases, this may be to the uttermost parts of the earth. This is the calling of all Christians actually - to go wherever He calls. Sometimes that calling leaves you in your current community and local church. Sometimes it moves you elsewhere. 

There are right times to leave. None of these center on consumeristic themes or even the "I'm not being fed" mantra so often heard. However, of the ones listed above (and it's not a complete list, I'm sure) there are two where God's calling and glory is celebrated. In those, the mission rises and God is honored. These two times where God calls his people out and they are sent reminds me of the church at Antioch. 

The other reasons actually center on the holiness of God as well. When His church refuses to be holy, biblically grounded, and God honoring, hypocrisy and discord reign. However, even in these cases, leaving the church should not be the first response. Pray through this. Seek God's face. He may just be calling you to the mission that forces you to remain and be a change-agent for his glory within the local body.

 


People Will Leave Your Church - And It Hurts Every Time

Pastor, regardless the size of your church, eventually people will leave.

There are many reasons people leave the local church and you need to be ready.

After over twenty years serving in the same local church, I likely know more former members than current ones. 

For the first decade I served as a pastoral staff member. I was the student pastor, then collegiate pastor, single adult pastor, young married adult pastor, pastor of the thermostat, pastor of mowing the yard, pastor of setting up chairs (that develops one's servant heart), and pastor of miscellaneous.

In 2005, I was called to be the Lead Pastor at the church (the same church) and continue to serve in this role.

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Photo credit: hernanpba via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA

People have been leaving local churches since God birthed local churches. Some left by choice. Others have been escorted out for various reasons (see Acts 5:1-10). Over these last couple of decades (plus all the years prior to my role as pastor) in the local church, these are some of the reasons given as to why people leave. 

  • TRANSFERS - We live in a military city. In addition to the US Navy continually transferring families here and elsewhere. Corporations do the same. Therefore, new members join when they move the area. They end up leaving when their boss moves them. 
  • A NEW PASTOR - When a church calls a new leader, people will leave. New people will join as well. New leadership brings new organization. Things that were emphasized under previous leadership will not be emphasized under the new. 
  • A NEW MINISTRY - Church ministries change over time. In some cases, a new ministry or program is developed that focuses on a certain task or people group. Regardless how biblical the new ministry is, some won't like it. 
  • THE ENDING OF A MINISTRY - Some feel slighted when "their" ministry is no longer supported or promoted by the church. Unfortunately, many people gain their sense of identity and purpose in the ministry role they serve and cannot see that their identity is in Christ, not in the ministry. 
  • NEW STAFF MEMBERS - Personalities don't always mesh and a new staff member (especially if replacing another) may or may not connect well with current members serving in their area of ministry. People follow people, even when they declare they follow God.
  • HURT FEELINGS AND INJURY - This happens in every church. People get their feelings hurt. Inevitably a pastor, leader, or other church member will say or do (or not say or do) something that hurts others.
  • MEAN LEADERS - This goes hand-in-hand with the hurt feelings. There's enough blame to go around. Unfortunately, there often appears to be a shortage of grace.
  • FOR THE KIDS - Whether young children or teenagers, families often shift churches because of how their children are faring in the ministry focused on their age-group. This may be a shift to a para-church youth ministry, or another church. I've been on both sides of this argument. At one point, I was the youth pastor leading the ministry others would move churches to have their students attend. (This was wrong, by the way.) And, I've seen my fair share of families leave for the very same reason. While parents are attempting to do what is best for their children, they unwittingly allow their children to become the spiritual heads of the home by driving where the family worships.
  • NEW IS "BETTER" - Just as many people flock to the Apple Store when a new iPhone is released, there are some who change churches in the same manner. The new church or plant that is younger, more exciting, and features way cooler social media posts is very attractive. Sometimes people leave, but because membership is not valued, you may only discover they left when they start posting about their pastor and new church (and you discover the guy they're talking about is not you.)
  • CHANGING DIVERSITY OF MEMBERSHIP - Unfortunately, this remains true. A wise pastor will lead his church to engage the actual people living in the community and over time, this may shift the racial and economic demographic of church members and attenders. So, yes, racism still exists and while some may never verbalize that as reasoning for leaving, it clearly plays a role. 
  • POLITICS - The local and national political spectrum impacts church membership. This is especially true if church members are politicians. Politics divides. It divides families, communities, workplaces, and churches. 

There are numerous other reasons why people leave. Regardless why, even if legitimate, it hurts. It hurts to see friends move away to other cities. It hurts more to see friends leave hurt, angry, or disillusioned. 

Thom Rainer shares this regarding the ultimate reason people leave...

But all the research studies of which I am aware, including my own, return to one major theme to explain the exodus of church members: a sense of some need not being filled. In other words, these members have ideas of what a local congregation should provide for them, and they leave because those provisions have not been met. (Full Article)

Everybody has ideas of how things ought to be in the church. Most find no issue with letting the pastor know. Yet, when church membership feels like country club membership, pastoral leadership is viewed less as a biblical role by members and more as a temporary director.

Pastors are at times complicit in the erroneous exodus of members. This too must be noted. 

Sometimes God does move members to new places of service in different churches. While God is blamed most often for the move - I've heard many say "I prayed about it and God called us to this other church. In most cases, the reasoning was far from spiritual. Yet in those cases where God truly led, each church was blessed and God was glorified. 

Imperfect people make mistakes and your church is full of those types of people. In fact, pastor, your church is led by one. However, the perfect God we serve continues to use us in his Kingdom work in ways that not only are amazing, but eternally beneficial. 

A backdoor revival may need to occur in your church, but those are rare. Rather, to avoid an unholy exodus, consider these as elements of your leadership not to be left undone:

  • Raise the bar for membership 
  • Communicate clearly your vision for the church
  • Confront dissension quickly and graciously
  • Inform members of the "what" and the "why" regarding change
  • Mentor men
  • Equip families strategically
  • Pray together
  • Celebrate publicly what God is doing in the life of church members
  • Listen well
  • Retire the knee-jerk reactions
  • Pray for your church members

Easy Church Membership Leads to Unengaged Audiences

I have to make a confession.

Years ago, I pushed against what I perceived as difficulty for people to join the local church. It wasn't that I was opposed to membership classes or clarifying belief, it was just that I felt (yeah - pretty weak justification) that membership should be easy. I mean, Jesus didn't offer a required class to people who wanted to follow him, right? He just said "Follow me." That was it. Yet, that wasn't it. To follow Jesus was to abandon all other lords. It was a statement of agreement, submission, and intentional discipleship.

To follow Jesus was much more than just saying "I'm a Christian."

Over time, church membership (especially in the western evangelical world) has become more akin to joining a local club or civic organization. Actually, most churches hold to weaker membership requirements than such groups, so that may not be the best comparison.

I now believe deeply in the necessity of a solid, biblical, systematic membership strategy. At this juncture, it includes a class, but ultimately means much more.

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Why Church Membership Anyway?

This has been a serious question that has come up over the years. Years ago, the response to this question was that in our Baptist church, you cannot vote on anything unless you're a member. To be honest, that's not a compelling reason to join. If that's all membership has going for it, your church likely has deeper issues.

In Mark Dever's book Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, he mentions that most church growth strategists minimize the need for membership. He responds this way...

But I think that this topic is a must for our churches, and for us as Christians today. Church membership is a crucial topic for understanding what Christ is calling us to as his disciples. Joining a church will not save us any more than our good works, education, culture, friendships, financial contributions, or baptism will save us. Non-Christians should not seek to join a church, but to learn more about what it means to be a Christian. (p. 159)

Confessing Christians are not meant to live life alone. The journey of faith and the role of the believer in the family of God is vital. Individualistic Christianity is an oxymoron. Salvation in Christ is individual, certainly. In other words, no one can become a Christian for another, but the calling of God's church is unmistakable.

There are numerous reasons for joining a local church. Dever's book is a good start for details and others exist as well. Dever gives wise insight with his five good reasons for joining a church that proclaims and preaches the gospel and models biblical, Christian living.

  1. To assure ourselves of salvation. Don't misread this. Church membership does not save an individual, but the company of believers is useful for assurance of one's salvation.
  2. To evangelize the world. You can and should talk to friends about Christ. You should live as an evangelist, but the truth is that together much more can be done for global evangelism.
  3. To expose false gospels. There are far too many empty-headed teachers of prosperity gospels and the like in our culture today. Most of these live somewhere in your television or online. The messages of feel-good, self-focused, name-it-and-claim-it, therapeutic pseudo-biblical teaching are everywhere. These charlatans are one of the reasons why many have abandoned organized religion, to the detriment of solid gospel-centric fellowships.
  4. To edify the church. This is a huge reason and one often ignored. The onus is not on what the church member gets, but what is given. Edification, or the building up of other believers is the responsibility of all Christians. This often gets lost in the sales pitches offered by local churches. The results are self-centered audiences seeking entertainment. We are all complicit in this.
  5. To glorify God. Ultimately, you should join a church for the glory of God. Peter's words regarding living holy lives before the pagans is key here (1 Peter 2:12). Jesus referenced his church as a glory to the Father. If he said and did so, then so should we. The church exists for God's glory and our good.

Why A Process of Membership?

I removed barriers to church membership in our church years ago. These barriers were ultimately steeped in traditions that I felt were unhealthy and unneeded. I still push against the need to have new members come forward after a service and stand before everyone to be voted upon by the congregation. It seemed to be an embarrassing moment that offered a vote that was more of a formality than anything else. There were no questions about belief, salvation, doctrinal understanding, etc. It was just "Hey everyone, Bob and Sue want to join our church. All in favor, raise your hand." And that was it.

We did implement a new members' class and that was good. We still have the class, but the scheduling has been so haphazard, the class has lost it's value. That, and the fact that no one-on-one time with pastors or leaders occurs leaves new church members with little more than a filled out notebook and good ideas regarding doctrine and theology, but no action steps.

I now see the error of starting, stopping, rebuilding, and re-emphasizing old models and hoping for different results.

More Members Than Attenders

As a pastor who has been a Baptist for as long as I can remember, I know the adage that church attendance in most churches is about half the number of church membership. I grew up just thinking that was normal. I thought that was how things had to be.

You have 300 in attendance? That means you have somewhere between 600 and 800 members, right?

In most cases.

Some of the largest churches in America boast of their membership numbers, but in most cases, the attendance is far below those numbers. Engaged on-mission members are likely even less.

Why be a member of a church you never attend?

That's a legitimate question. I fear that some remain members in order to have access to a free facility for weddings and funerals. Some see their membership as a right, not a privilege. Some may retain their membership for the opportunity to vote in business meetings. Some are simply physically unable to attend regularly due to health reasons.

Should You Have Fewer Members Than Attenders?

This is the question that pushes against the norms. If membership matters, then shouldn't members be engaged? Shouldn't members have roles and responsibilities? What if the church has deadbeat members who do little more than consume resources?

At some point, membership needs to matter. That means a healthy church may actually have far fewer members than attenders weekly. Whether you have fewer members than attenders is debatable, but a stronger, more healthy view of membership, may result in a smaller number of the committed. 

It's easier to draw a crowd than to develop a congregation. 

What Must Be Required of Members?

Believer's baptism is the first step of obedience for a Christian. The New Testament presumes that all Christians have been baptized. That this is up for debate today forces an ignoring of Scriptural teaching. O.C.S. Wallace wrote of believers who refuse to do the simplest step of obedience as Christians back in 1934 and his words ring true today:

The church has not been given authority to make commandments; it is the duty of the church to obey the commandments already made. It is not the prerogative nor the privilege of any church to modify, minimize or in any way obscure ... any commandment, of Jesus Christ.

To reject the ordinances defined in Scripture for the Christian - baptism or the Lord's Supper should disqualify any individual from church membership. 

Beyond adherence to these commands, expectations among believers in a local body should be clearly expressed and delineated so that new members and current members fully understand. These may vary from church to church, but in most cases, an expectation of attendance, participation in the Lord's Supper, prayer, giving, corporate worship, service, agreement with doctrinal statements, and serving faithfully under pastoral leaders.

Now What?

In addition to an implementation of a Membership Covenant, we will be working to set aside time (likely a full weekend) that requires not only a commitment from leadership, but from those seeking membership for fellowship, introduction to doctrine, beliefs, and structure, fellowship with pastors, and opportunities for immediate buy-in and participation in service. 

Our Challenges

One of the great fallacies of churches is the lack of biblical church discipline. Yet, apart from a biblical foundation for church membership, discipline cannot exist. These go hand-in-hand. 

For our local church the challenge will be perceived implementation of a strategy that won't last. This is due to the fact we have started and stopped so many things in the past. We are paying dearly for lack of consistency.

I believe other churches have experienced similar things.

This shift will impact scheduling, staffing, and the process of bringing in new church members.

Yet, it matters and will be worth it.

When membership is attained by simply filling out a card or even walking down an aisle, the propagation of consumer Christianity continues. Membership requires more. The church should expect more.


Revered and Reviled - the Life, Death, and Impact of Hugh Hefner

Hugh Hefner is trending because Hugh Hefner has died.

News reported this morning that the founder of Playboy Enterprises died last night at the age of 91. 

Hefner has been an iconic individual in western culture since the 1950s when launched the first issue of Playboy magazine. The first issue featured Marilyn Monroe (whom Hefner never met) on the cover in a photo from her 1949 nude calendar shoot. That issue sold 50,000 copies and a new industry of acceptable and easily-accessible pornography was born.

Photo credit: Alan Light via Visual hunt /  CC BY
Photo credit: Alan Light via Visual hunt / CC BY

Hefner's biography has been told in snippets, documentaries, and streaming mini-series, but most remember the image he portrayed as a playboy (go figure) who wore silk pajamas all day, surrounded himself with beautiful women, had numerous girlfriends, lived in a mansion, created the Playboy bunny imagery, and developed an entertainment empire that amazingly is now considered mainstream by many in the culture.

The son of traditionally conservative midwestern parents became a voice for sexual freedom as a revolution took hold. Yet, as tweets and statements of thanks fill social media today with people attempting to be humorous by thanking Hef for all the "articles" in his magazine, it is with deep sadness that as a Christian I heard of his passing.

Dr. Russell Moore says it well (full article here)

The death of any person is a tragedy. Hugh Hefner is no exception to that. We can’t, though, with his obituaries, call his life “success” or “a dream.”

There is no doubt that the pornification (a word borrowed from Pamela Paul's book Pornified) of America and western society has harmed individuals and families and continues to do so. When Hefner and others pushed against the boundaries of decency, cultural outrage was high...and now, what was once deemed as harmful is considered "no big deal" by many. 

Pornography is a $50 billion industry (and that's a conservative estimation) and with the pushing of boundaries, it became newsworthy with Playboy announced just a few years ago that they would no longer feature nude imagery not for moral reasons, but as was stated in an article featured in The Week at the time:

The decision was made by top editors and founder Hugh Hefner, who agreed that Playboy and its nude women don't pack the same punch they did when the magazine launched 62 years ago. 

Nevertheless, Playboy has gone back to nudes. It seems that the shock of clothed women in magazines wasn't as profitable as originally expected.

Every Man Has a Story

The stories about Hefner and Playboy keep trending today. From references to his many girlfriends, the launch of his Playboy Clubs, his arrest for breaking decency laws, to appearances in The Simpsons, references in Iron Man movies, and the mainstreaming of the grandfather-figure who lived carefree and without boundaries. 

Yet, at some point, from the biblical worldview, we must concede that the image presented publicly was likely not the full story. It never is.

A number of years ago Karen Covell and her husband Jim found their calling in Hollywood. Jim is a composer for film and television. Karen is a producer. As followers of Christ in the entertainment Mecca, they seek to live as lights in the darkness.

It was a number of years ago when Karen was hired as an associate producer for Headliners and Legends with Matt Lauer. The show aired on MSNBC and featured interviews with some of the individuals who had proven instrumental in shaping culture. Karen mentioned that her desire was to start by featuring an interview with Dr. Billy Graham. She was overruled and her first feature would focus on Hugh Hefner. I shared of this encounter at a men's retreat a number of years ago. Here's the story of Karen's encounter with Hefner:

Karen’s first reaction, “It really disturbed me.  I came home to Jim and I said, 'I don’t think I can do this.’  Jim sat and looked at me and said, ‘You know, you need to start praying right now for Hugh Hefner and for the opportunity God is going to give you.'"

Karen felt like she’d been hit by a ton of bricks.  After all, Paul went to Athens and Corinth, the seat of pagan influence and sexuality in his day, why should she run from the Playboy Mansion?  And so, the next day while talking to Rick, her producer, Karen took the risk of sharing the conversation she and her husband had had the night before, knowing he might not understand or support her perspective, her jaw dropped when he responded, "You know, I’ve struggled with this - doing this interview."  Together, as producer and associate producer, Rick and Karen decided to develop a different slant on the story.  They would focus, not simply on Hefner’s successes and renown, but on why he became who he did.  After all, everybody has a story. 

When the day of the interview arrived, they sat down with Hugh Hefner and the producer asked questions based on their research.  What were Hefner’s parents like?  What was his upbringing?  What characterized the early days of his life?  Imagine the shocked crew, listening as Hefner began to pour out how he had been raised in a puritan home of religious tradition.  His parents believed in God, but not a God of grace, love or compassion.  Theirs had been a rigid religion.  They never told Hefner, nor his brother, ever, that they loved him.  His mother never kissed him because she  wanted to avoid germs.   And so, Hefner set out to find love wherever he could.  With dry eyes, Hefner recalled how his parents had given him a blanket, when he was a child.  His security blanket.  He painted a very vivid picture going to bed at night, hugging his blanket, the only thing he had to hug, the only thing that returned any warmth.  The blanket was bordered with bunnies.  It became his bunny blanket.  Hefner recounted how, as a boy, he always wanted a puppy.  But his parents, especially his mother, said that dogs spread germs, so there couldn’t be one in their house.  It was only after they discovered a tumor in Hefner’s ear, that they thought they would finally buy Hefner a dog.  No one could have predicted, however, that the dog would unexpectedly die after just five days.  Hefner recalled how he wrapped his dying dog in his bunny blanket as a means to comfort the puppy.  But when they puppy died, his mother buried the dog and burned the blanket.  Both, sources of his deepest comfort, were suddenly gone.

And then he said very matter of fact, “I guess I’m still just that little boy, trying to find love.”  

Karen said, "The room was hushed in silence as we all sat and listened to this famous man pour out his story.  We realized the gaping void that had existed deep in this man’s soul.  He went on to tell us that every Friday night, he gets together with close friends and watches old romantic movies because he’s still searching for the love that he never had. I realized that this man had confused sex with love and had turned a desperate need, into a way of making money." 

It was after that interview that she had the privilege of writing Mr. Hefner a letter.  “I thanked him for the opportunity to tell his story.  I thanked him for time he allowed us to get to know him better.  I told him that in spite of all he had accomplished, I still believed there was one thing still missing in his life.  He hadn’t met a loving God and did not know him personally.  And so, I challenged him to seek him out. 

I was amazed when, two weeks later, he wrote me back. He thanked me for the interview that he said he enjoyed very much and he would consider my words.  That following Christmas, after running into him again, I gave him a beautiful Bible with his name on the front.” 

Now does that necessarily mean that’s going to change Hefner’s life?  No.  But what it does mean, is that the Covells understand what it means to be salt and light in the workplace. (story from Bob Reccord and Randy Singer's book Made to Count)

Many stories and responses today regarding Hefner's death will continue to enter the public discourse. There are those who revere him. There are those who revile him. Yet, as I read Karen's account, I'm reminded that every person has a story. Each person's story reveals a gap, an emptiness. Clearly only Christ can fill that need.

Even for Hugh Hefner. He was a man who lived with a deep father wound. A wounded man who sought healing and peace in places that led to deeper wounds. 

Hefner was no different than anyone else. And, as far as we know, he did not respond to the free gift (not just the Bible, but the message within.) 

And for that we can grieve.

Click here for the MSNBC feature referenced.


Why We Need the Nashville Statement & Why I Signed It

There's really nothing new in the Nashville Statement, but there is need for it.

On Tuesday morning, August 29, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) released a statement, signed initially by over 150 evangelical Christian leaders. Once the statement went public, it was expectedly met with both praise for its clarity and denouncements for ... well, it's clarity.

Nashville statement

I received a text last night from my friend Christopher Yuan who served as part of the team of leaders who put the statement together. Others such as Albert Mohler, John Piper, Russell Moore, Denny Burk, James Merritt, J.D. Greear, Mac Brunson, Jackie Hill Perry, H.B. Charles, Jr., Ligon Duncan, R.C. Sproul, Sam Allberry, Rosaria Butterfield, Robert Gagnon, and many others also served on the team. For many, these names may not be familiar, but for Christian leaders and pastors, most names listed here and on the website's "Signers" page, are known as men and women who risk much for the sake the Gospel, especially when confronted with changing cultural norms. 

Christopher asked if I had seen the statement and if I would sign it. I responded that I read it soon after release and while I was attempting to sign it, the website was having issues at the time. Fortunately, I was able to complete the signature last night as many others have. I'm sure the site will be updated with more names as the days go by. It seems the servers may have been a bit bogged down with the heavy viewership and attempted registrations.

The Need for Clarity

Why is there a need for this statement? Is there anything in the articles that differs from historical, biblical Christianity? The simple answer is NO, there's nothing new in the statement regarding biblical truth. Yet, as the Preamble to the statement makes clear...

Evangelical Christians at the dawn of the twenty-first century find themselves living in a period of historic transition. As Western culture has become increasingly post-Christian, it has embarked upon a massive revision of what it means to be a human being.

Cultural shifts in what is good, bad, fair, unfair, right, and wrong have led to a need for clarity among Christian leaders. This is not new for Christ's church. In all cultural settings throughout history, the church has been mandated by God to declare His truth clearly, concisely, lovingly, graciously, and without apology.

The CBMW was founded three decades ago and rightly affirmed the biblical narrative that God created man and woman in His image. The CBMW stated clearly that God designed men and women, as image-bearers of himself, to equal in personhood and human dignity, yet different from and complementary to one another. Christian husbands, as delineated in Scripture, are called to lead their homes through self-denial and sacrificial love. In addition to the home, within the church, men are called by God to be pastors in leading the church. In 1987, the CBMW released the Danvers Statement declaring belief in complementarianism.

As Ligon Duncan put so clearly...

The Nashville Statement is a complement to Danvers, but it speaks into issues of human sexuality. Danvers addresses the respective roles of men and women in the home and church. Nashville articulates the Bible’s teaching on important and disputed aspects of human sexuality. 

Clarity from the church is needed now more than ever. There are many voices in our culture (even within the church) speaking contrary "truths" or "truthisms." In such a world (as has always been the case) the church must speak Truth in love, as God's Word declares.

Albert Mohler states...

In a time of confusion, one of the greatest gifts that can be given to and by Christ’s church is clarity, and clarity requires at times that matters of truth, matters of truth in particular times of trial, should to be put into words in order to bear the testimony of that clarity. 

The Nashville Statement includes fourteen statements of belief, or articles. As with other manifesto statements such as this, there are delineated affirmations and denials. 

The statements declare God's order of creation, his intention, his unmistakable design, and order as he desires. Affirmations and denials are based on Scriptural foundations, albeit from the perspective of inerrantists (of which I am included.)

As churches seek to show the love of God clearly in grace and love to others, the clear statements of who we are in Christ and the foundational truths of Scripture provide guidelines and guardrails as others seek to bend truth or change it completely to fit better in a culture opposed to Christ.

The Push Back

Those opposed to the Nashville Statement are not declaring lack of clarity on the part of the writers. In fact, they're decrying the clarity expressed. The push back was expected. Social media, as if often the case nowadays, has become the venue for statements of disgust, disagreement, and in some cases, attacks and hateful and grotesque speech focused upon signers and the CBMW. In some cases, the comments end up devolving into statements about politics, politicians, and pastors. That's a conversation for another day, as the Nashville Statement actually does not steer into that realm.

Yet, there are esteemed individuals in our nation and in churches who are opposed to the statement. Many op-eds are appearing across news feeds this week revealing this. 

The mayor of Nashville, Megan Barry is opposed to the statement and takes umbrage at the document and the use of the name of her city. She tweeted that the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee had created a Nashville Unites resolution in response (and opposition) to the Nashville Statement.

Denny Burk, President of the CBMW was asked why Nashville was in the name. His response here...

There is a long Christian tradition of naming doctrinal statements after the places where they were drawn up: The Nicene Creed (325), the Constantinopolitan Creed (381), the Chalcedonian Creed (451), etc. Even more recently, there was the Barmen Declaration (1934), The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978), The Danvers Statement (1987), and the Manhattan Declaration (2009). There are countless other examples. In each case, the name simply indicates where the statements were drawn up. Whether The Nashville Statement will prove to be as enduring as those others remains to be seen. But that is the reason for the name. We were simply following a precedent set by many before us.

Reverend James Martin, SJ, has written a perspective piece in The Washington Post in opposition to the Nashville Statement

Stories on Fox News, CNN, The Huffington Post, NBC News, and other news agencies have revealed opposition to the Nashville Statement and even declared "Woe to you" to the signers.

Mark Silk, writing for Religion News Service, disagrees with the Statements biblical assertions and declares...

But as a devotee of the Free Exercise Clause I say: Go for it, guys. If that old-time heteronormativity is the hill you want evangelical Christianity to die on, be my guest.

Clearly the culture and the church-at-large is divided on the issue of human sexuality - more now than ever. I share these statements as a point of clarity. While I disagree with those who disagree with the statement, it behooves us to at least read their reasoning. My convictions and affirmation of the Nashville Statement remains.

Why I Signed

I signed the Nashville Statement for the same reasons others have. I do believe the church has the responsibility of clarity regarding biblical teaching in all areas and that includes human identity and gender/sexuality issues. 

Of all the articles, it is number 10 that seems to be getting the most opposition through social media postings.

Article 10

WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.

WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.

At first, the statements seem as reactionary to the shifts in cultural and legal acceptance of same-sex marriage. As days go by and the continued shifts in the moral revolution are revealed, it becomes clear (again that clarity) that same-sex marriage is not the ultimate issue. There's a deeper discussion regarding identity at stake. 

As a Christian, pastor, husband, and father, the reality of all that led to the declarations of the Nashville Statement is more than just some story about people "out there." This is about family. This is about the church family. This is about our community. This is ultimately about the Gospel.

Some who agree with the verbiage of the statement may actually not sign, believing that as Christians they should not take a stand on these issues. I fear the reality that many grew up with in our culture that allowed personal conviction to remain hidden will soon be stripped away. No pastor, no Christian leader, in fact, no Christian will be able to stay silent (one way or the other) regarding personal stance on the issues of marriage, sexuality, gender identity, and humanity as image-bearers. 

These questions are present within each church's congregation. If your church has any number of people (I'd say over five) in the congregation, you have someone either related, friends with, co-worker of, or in the sanctuary struggling with these issues. The church cannot be silent.

Culture may declare that "Love is love" but biblically, we must remember that God is love and that has never changed. He defines and reveals the agape love that redeems through Christ. 


firstFAMILY Podcast 028: Toronto Church Planting - Annette Teague

Annette Teague served with the North American Mission Board for the past two summers as part of GenSend Toronto. While serving in this summer program, it became clear that God had called her to engage more long-term in the Greater Toronto Area with our church planters there. She is being sent from her home church, San Jose Baptist Church in Jacksonville, FL to serve with the Hamilton Fellowships and Jason McGibbon. We take time in this podcast to discuss her journey as a GenSend missionary through NAMB and her subsequent decision to serve in Toronto on mission.

As a church planting intern, she requires funding, and cannot work in Canada due to visa laws. If you would like to know more about Annette and possible support her financially, go to missionaries.namb.net/full/annette-teague. For info on GenSend, feel free to email her at annette.teague1@gmail.com.

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Holy Hand Grenades and the Unfortunate Result of Empty Christian Debates

I addressed this reality a bit during last Sunday's sermon. We all know people who just love to debate.  If you're a Christian who attends church regularly and are part of a small group or Sunday school class, you probably have someone in mind right now. Just about every group has "that guy." You know, it is the one who responds to every statement with a confused look and a question, perhaps complete with a raised eyebrow. It starts with "Really?!? Is that right?" (You may be picturing Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson right now with his eyebrow up, staring you down.)

Questions are not to be feared and rightly dividing the Word of God is needed. Christians should be able to as questions honestly. They should also dig deeply into God's Word in prayer for biblically sound answers. This fact is not to be debated.

Outside the evangelical sub-culture that many western Christians now live, there are vast debates being raged. The battle of world views is in full swing. Just turn on television and spend about five minutes on one of the cable news channels, or better yet, give ESPN a look. Entertainment disguised as reporting often ends with a group of frenemies yelling (or at least speaking loudly) at each other attempting to sway opinions. Then, the show ends, the masquerade ceases, and the hosts go get dinner together.

At least that's how I imagine it happens.

In the Christian sub-culture, debates rage as well. My comments from Sunday...

When world views collide, debate often occurs. This may be in the Sunday school class, at the dinner table, on Facebook, through text message, or in varied other ways. There are good and valuable debates and discussions that we as Christians must be prepared to enter into. These cannot be ignored. To do so is to sin in our calling as light and salt.

Yet, there are debates as well that exist solely to fill time, celebrate pontification, and ignore issues that truly matter.

Just by logging into my computer at work this morning, I see it happening. Social media blows up with another shared story questioning how certain churches can justify doing certain things. The questions are not even wrong, but the format or venue for the questions lead to some unforeseen damage. Questions about the holiness of "so-called Christians" end up in comment sections. Holy hand grenades have the pins pulled and then are launched over the berm into the flatlands of social media. BOOM, the show is on. And the world pulls up a chair just to watch. Truth is declared, but slides into the background as the self-appointed "Debate Team" begins to emphasize items that do more to push people away from Christ than declare his glory. Reminds me of Sunday's message focus on the Pharisees who were so caught up in the washing of hands that they totally missed the cleansing of heart that is needed by all. (Sermon Audio and Notes Here.)

33871757814_a3d302ea54_b
Photo credit: Diari La Veu - http://diarilaveu.com via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

But, at least you win the debate, right?

Christians must always be prepared to contend for the faith with boldness.

Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. Jude 3 (ESV)

To be clear, I am not shying away from declaring biblical truth in all venues, physical and virtual, and at all times, whether in person or on social media, but sometimes, I fear, we (well-meaning Christians) begin throwing these grenades in order to position ourselves to declare our own versions of righteousness. When self-righteousness and "holier than thou attitudes" are all that's left when the fog settles, the Gospel is not only ignored, but no where to be found. We, as Christians, must push against the idolatry of self that leads to an "appearance of godliness" but avoiding the glory of God and his power.

Truth spoken (or posted) in love for God and His image-bearers is not akin to truth spoken in arrogance.  (TWEET THIS)

And, if you're bold in your faith at the keyboard, you'd best be bold in person as well. Yet again, boldness is not a synonym for arrogance and self-righteousness. Be careful. I have to continually remind myself of this.

Speak the truth in love. 

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. Ephesians 4:15-16 (ESV)

Don't get caught in the trap of majoring on the minors and falsely believe you are victorious just because you "win" a debate on matters that do not have eternal focus. Don't celebrate yelling in the synagogue and miss your opportunity to engage on Mars Hill.

 


A Most Glorifying Funeral

As a pastor, I have the great privilege of bringing words of comfort and hope to many at times of grief. I have preached funeral and memorial services for dozens and dozens of dear friends and family members of friends over the years. Some services are more challenging to put together than others. There are varied reasons for this. For instance, a funeral service for a young person killed tragically in an accident often draws a different crowd than one of a dear senior adult who died in his sleep. Both are times of intense grief, but the differences are obvious, and the crowd gathered is normally of a different generational demographic as well.

The most challenging funerals and memorial services are for those loved ones who never surrendered to Jesus Christ as Lord. At those times, the message is one of clarity and hope for the family, without offering false hope that their loved one resides in heaven with the Lord. Too often improper theology of the world that "good people go to heaven" is offered. As a pastor and child of God, I cannot offer false hope when the opportunity for surrender has passed.

Yet, there are times when the funeral service is truly a celebration (and not just the oft-used buzzword used at such services.) The deceased is known to be a child of God and therefore alive in Christ. The godly impact of the individual resonates throughout a church, community, and beyond. The gathering of friends and family, though grievous, centers upon God's goodness and hope.

Pam Maynard's Funeral

Maynard
Dr. Tim Maynard and Pam with their grandchild.


As a church family (First Baptist Church of Orange Park) we have been praying for our sister church across the St. Johns River here in Jacksonville at Fruit Cove Baptist Church. Earlier this year, Pam Maynard, wife of Pastor Dr. Tim Maynard, was diagnosed with cancer. On Saturday morning, August 5, I received a text message from Dr. Rick Wheeler, our Lead Missional Strategist for the Jacksonville Baptist Association, that Pam had died. 

Pam's funeral service was scheduled for yesterday, Tuesday, August 8 at 7pm at Fruit Cove. (Pam's obituary here.) My wife, Tracy, and I attended. The sanctuary of the church was packed with standing room only. Hundreds of friends, family members, church members, and representatives from sister churches, the Florida Baptist Convention, Mayo Hospital, and numerous other places were there.

The service was streamed on the church's website as many from Pam's home state of Kentucky as well as other places around the world tuned in to be a part of the service.

As I said earlier, I have been to many funeral services. I have preached at most of them. On this occasion, I was there because of my friend and fellow pastor and his family and church as they honored the life of this dear woman and saint. 

Numerous men spoke from the pulpit this evening. The surgeon Pam served under and with while working as an orthopedic surgery nurse at Mayo spoke. Dr. Neal Cordle, Executive Pastor at FCBC, Dr. Glen Owens, formerly of the Florida Baptist Convention and now an active member at FCBC, Pastor Patrick Martin, son-in-law of Tim and Pam, and Dr. Maynard himself.

When Tim spoke, he did so as a husband of 40 years to Pam. At first declaring that he may not have the strength to finish his portion of speaking, it was soon clear that God enabled Tim to proclaim clearly and strongly of his love for Pam and of God's strength and power. The message was more than just heart-felt, it was anointed. Tim may never fully realize this side of heaven the impact that short, fifteen-minutes of speaking has had upon those in attendance and watching via livestream. It was stated last night and I agree - Tim and Pam's journey these past few months culminating with this pointed celebration of life and God's goodness was the very best sermon he ever has had the privilege of preaching. To God be the glory.

A worship service took place on a rainy Tuesday night in St Johns County this week. A packed building with hundreds in attendance including perhaps fifty pastors erupted in an honorable, blessed, focused service of worship to the one and only God.

Brian Woofter and the FCBC Celebration Choir and Orchestra led us to the throne of God in singing and worship. The organ remained unplayed as Pam had served in that role for years. Flowers sitting upon the instrument reminded everyone of this act of service (just one of many) that Pam offered her Lord and church. 

Jason Lovins, a gifted singer and virtually adopted son (Pam called herself Jason's "Florida mom") spoke briefly and sang praises to the God of hope and healing.

Two hours after the welcome, the service ended and Pam's casket was wheeled out of the building. Two hours in a service on a rainy Tuesday...and it could've continued even longer.

A Most Excellent Funeral

A most excellent funeral for a most excellent wife (Proverbs 31).

God was glorified. He alone was worshipped this evening.

Pam was honored.

Tim and family were and are being comforted by the only One who can truly do so.

There were tears shed.

There were poignant moments.

There was laughter.

The Gospel was shared clearly.

Life was celebrated.

Yesterday was remembered and tomorrow declared, as Pam's body may no longer live, but she does because of Christ.

We were all reminded that it is good to go to funerals every now and then (Ecclesiastes 7:2).

I worshipped with my brothers and sisters. It was sweet. It was bittersweet, to be honest. Yet, it was right.

Our Father smiled.

And that was a most glorifying funeral.

To God be the glory.

 

Celebration of Life Service: Pam Maynard from Fruit Cove Baptist Church on Vimeo.

 


firstFAMILY Podcast 027: Comic Books and Theology

Comic books and modern mythology are big business. After an era where the magazines were losing money, the creation of the DC and Marvel Cinematic Universes has propelled super-heroes to the forefront of the entertainment industry. Many of these stories have religious undertones, so why aren't Christians strategically engaging those who love these stories with the ultimate story of the Gospel? Listen as Pastor David Tarkington shares how he is seeking to engage in intelligent conversations with friends of other and no specified religious faith over the subject of comic books and theology.

 

 


The Church, Travel Ball, and Quality Sports Ministry

There is no doubt that our culture is sports-hungry. The money spent and made in the professional and college sports world is astounding. It was only a couple of generations that long ago that professional sports leagues were relegated to the northeast in the US and team travel was by bus. Of course, now our professional leagues are international and the number of teams and players continue to grow.

New leagues develop. Creative logos and team names are popping up, all while the attempt to remove and relegate to history the now understood offensive team names and logos. My prediction is that no teams in the future will be named after a group of human beings for fear of being politically incorrect and insensitive. As PETA and other "animal rights" groups influence the culture, we may see a decline of animal logos and mascots as well. You know what this means? It means that all future team names will be named after concepts and things that make little sense. You know, like Magic, Heat, Dynamo, Fire, and Ice. However, given time, someone will find offense in these names as well.

In the meantime, we will celebrate the creativity of Jumbo Shrimp and Baby Cakes as team names.

But I digress...

The growth of team sports on a professional and collegiate level is clear, but the added impact for those in high school and younger is immense.

Travel Ball

In a recent pastoral leadership gathering, the question of ministering to and with those families whose lives shift each year based on their children's AAU and travel ball schedule is no longer something relegated to just a few families in the community.

Since there are now weekend tournaments and travel games for sports that in the past weren't even considered sports, such as competitive dance, cheerleading, and even jump rope (thanks Kendrick brothers,) more and more families are traveling to exotic locales such as Lake City, Ormond Beach, and Gainesville over the weekends for the competitions. 

The dilemma for the church and families has been clear for years. As a pastor and parent who years ago made the AAU basketball travel circuit, I not only understand, but lived through the challenges. I'm not sure I always responded correctly, but nevertheless, I do not speak as one in the ivory tower proclaiming that every family should put away the athletic gear. 

Forsaking the gathering together as God's church is not up for debate either. God settled that need already.

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. - Hebrews 10:24-25 ESV

While the argument that "We will just do a devotion in the hotel on Sunday morning as a family" may suffice for some, it it truly not the same as the gathering as the local body of believers. Sure, we're not giving out "Perfect Attendance" pins any longer, but there is value in prioritizing the gathering as a church family. There will be exceptions, certainly, but it seems that for many, and not just travel ball families, the exceptions become the norm.

This conflict between church and family time as it relates to youth sports has been addressed by others over the years. Here are a few articles. I don't necessarily agree with every point presented, but this is a good indicator of the tension and desire for resolution among churches and Christian families.

The discussions regarding the redemption of travel ball and summer leagues with the church continue. I personally am not opposed to the leagues, but do see the church as needing a strategic plan for engaging those who participate. 

Quality Sports Ministry

Numerous churches and parachurch organizations have sought to engage the sub-culture of athletes with the Gospel with varying degrees of success. A group meeting at a high school for athletes may work well, but it is dependent on the leader, the openness of the school, and the commitment level of local churches and students. 

There are some really good sports ministries around. That being said, there are some pretty bad ones as well.

A former church member who now lives in another state, Coach Brian Ferguson and his wife Mary Beth have formed a good and focused sports ministry - Building Powerful Athletes. It is focused on reaching and engaging young athletes with the Gospel. Coach Ferguson has coached football at various levels from prep to professional and has seen first-hand how Christianity and sports need not be mutually exclusive. 

In one conversation with him as we were planning opportunities for future camps and clinics, he expressed how many of the clinics made available are less than effective. I have heard this from many others as well. 

It seems when churches seek to enter the arena of sports, a weak version of sports training is often paired with a watered-down version of the Gospel leaving attendees with little more than a T-shirt, "coaching" tips from dads and older teenagers in the church, with the "celebrity" athlete arriving just to give a 15 minute pep talk garnished with just enough Jesus to make it a "Christian" event (yeah, the quotes are intentional.)

This is basically Sports Light with a dose of Diet Gospel.

David Prince, pastor, professor, theologian, author, and sports fan, has written an excellent book titled In the Arena: The Promise of Sports for Christian Discipleship. I highly recommend it for parents, pastors, coaches, and all believers who love sports, or just want insight into how God uses such for his glory.

Connecting To Athletes

If the young athlete is immersed in the game, he/she becomes part of a sub-culture. There is a language that develops and customs too. To seek to engage an unreached people group, missionaries pray and train and study to best determine how to enter the world of those being sought. Far too many Christians who love sports have ignored how God utilizes such things for his glory.

Last weekend, our church's sports ministry hosted former University of Tennessee Lady Vol and WNBA player, Sidney Spencer Marlborough for a one-day basketball clinic. The purpose was to engage those young ladies in our community who play basketball at their junior high or high school. We learned that hosting a clinic the week after AAU ends is not the best timing, but we did have a group of twelve attend. These girls came from various schools in our county and Sidney's history and expertise in basketball allowed her to speak the language with authority that these young ladies understood. Her husband Bryan, owner of Complete Strength Gym near Kansas City, shared details on exercise and strength training as well. These two were our resident experts who spoke with clarity and authority.

TEAM PHOTO

Yet, it was during lunch when the girls could ask questions and Sidney and Bryan had the opportunity to share more about their lives where the message of the Gospel became very clear. Sidney clarified that sports does not define us. Both she and Bryan affirmed that Christianity and athletics are not mutually exclusive. 

Following lunch, another three hours of basketball ensued.

It was a full day, but at the end, there was solid, quality basketball instruction. There was clear Gospel presentation. And, there were relationships birthed and young ladies in our community discovered a church that loves God enough to love them, even without knowing them first. May this be a catalyst for more quality sports ministry engagement opportunities.

 

First Family Sports - Sidney Spencer from First Family on Vimeo.

 

First Family Sports - Bryan Marlborough from First Family on Vimeo.

 


"I Take That Back" - Eugene Peterson's Retraction

Once again social media reacts (maybe with some responses) regarding statements made by a Christian leader. Yesterday, the buzz centered on Eugene Peterson's interview with Jonathan Merritt of Religion News Services and his stated affirmation regarding same-sex marriage.

Today, Peterson retracts his statements (Full article here.) He stated:

Peterson

Recently a reporter asked me whether my personal opinions about homosexuality and same-sex marriage have changed over the years. I presume I was asked this question because of my former career as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA), which recently affirmed homosexuality and began allowing its clergy to perform same-sex weddings. Having retired from the pastorate more than 25 years ago, I acknowledged to the reporter that I “haven’t had a lot of experience with it.”

To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.

It is difficult to retract statements made on controversial subjects, but we have all said things that after further thought were regretted and retracted. 

I am glad Peterson has made this statement. These are good words, yet notably there remain some questions. 

Many shared discouragement, yet continued love, of Peterson based on his statements yesterday. Today, many of those who were saddened find some solace (though still questions) regarding his retraction. 

Of course, this means that those who celebrated his pro-same-sex marriage statements yesterday have now jumped over to lambasting him for his seeming flip-flop on the issue.

Some have questioned whether LifeWay's threat to remove his printed materials from their bookstores impacted this retraction. While it could be true, I stand by my statement in yesterday's posting that I doubted that would impact him personally regarding his stance.

Retractions are interesting, especially those like Peterson's. They seem like the corrections offered in newspapers found hidden on page 12 that reference the previous day's front page headline.

Cynicism is not a spiritual gift, though I often display it. In this case, I seek not to be the cynic and will take Peterson at his quoted word.

To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.

If nothing else, these stories have reminded us of the continued challenges in our culture as worldviews collide.


Eugene Peterson's Disappointing Message of Affirmation

In the Christian corner of the Twitterverse and blogosphere, there's a bit of a disruption today. Author and pastor Eugene Peterson, in an interview with Jonathan Merritt for Religion News Service shared his current views affirming homosexuality and same-sex marriage in particular. Here's his answer when asked by Merritt on his position:

I wouldn’t have said this 20 years ago, but now I know a lot of people who are gay and lesbian and they seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do. I think that kind of debate about lesbians and gays might be over. People who disapprove of it, they’ll probably just go to another church. So we’re in a transition and I think it’s a transition for the best, for the good. I don’t think it’s something that you can parade, but it’s not a right or wrong thing as far as I’m concerned.

Peterson, most widely known for his paraphrase of the Bible titled The Message, as well as numerous other books such as A Long Obedience in the Same Direction and As Kingfishers Catch Fire has publicly made known his views on perhaps the most divisive and controversial of topics in America and especially the church today.

TheMessage

This should not be totally shocking for those who have read or follow Peterson. He served as pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in the past, most notably Christ Our King Presbyterian in Bel Air, MD which, like others in the PCUSA have affirmed homosexuality and same-sex marriage. The PCUSA endorsed same-sex marriage in 2015. Not all pastors and members of PCUSA churches agree with the endorsement. Many have since left the denomination and I know of one pastor in our region who was forced to leave for not affirming homosexuality. Nevertheless, based on Peterson's statement, it appears he is lining up with the denomination's leaders and others who have stepped away from a biblical worldview on manhood, womanhood, and sexuality.

Peterson drew concern from many who have enjoyed his writings (and to be clear, he is an incredibly gifted writer) when he endorsed Rob Bell's controversial book Love Wins in 2011. Bell's revelations in his book moved him from orthodox Christianity when he disavowed the centrality of the Gospel and Christ as the only way to salvation, not to mention the existence of hell. Peterson stated at the time that while he didn't agree with Bell, he endorsed his work because he valued the conversation. While I agree that conversing about differing beliefs is valid and should occur, to endorse a book that, in my opinion, is heretical was too far. When Peterson was asked "Do evangelicals need to reexamine our doctrines of hell and damnation?" He replied:

Yes, I guess I do think they ought to reexamine.  They ought to be a good bit more biblical, not taking things out of context. But the people who are against Rob Bell are not going to reexamine anything.  They have a litmus test for who is a Christian and who is not.  But that’s not what it means to live in community.

The answer he gave then (2011) was broad and sought to be non-offensive. I agree that our answers ought to be a good bit more biblical and correct in context. Yet the eyebrows were raised and today, once more, a shift from biblical truth has been revealed.

It's easy for Christians to just "throw under the bus" those with whom we disagree. There are way too many blogs out there focused on dividing the church and built on sensational negativism. My desire is not to fan the flames of divisiveness, but to reveal once more how the cultural revolution and anti-biblical worldviews subtly, at times, seep into the church and Christianity.

You will find articles, tweets, and postings from conservative evangelicals over the years affirming some of Peterson's writings. As stated before, he truly has a gift of creativity through writing. It was today when many of these same individuals stated their disappointment in Peterson's newly revealed stance.

Peterson had stated he was stepping away from the public eye and would no longer be authoring books. Then, in the second portion of Merritt's interview, he reveals his stance on human sexuality.

Will this affect his book sales? Yes, likely. However, I don't think he really cares. His publisher may, but he likely does not. That's not a shot - just an opinion. I do think some at NavPress may be working on damage control, but it likely won't help.

LifeWay has announced that once he affirms the statements given in the interview, they will be removing his resources from their stores. This is exactly what they did with Jen Hatmaker's resources for the very same reason. The consistency is laudable and I agree with the decision.

In the interview, Merritt speaks of a day when Peterson will no longer exist. I think a poor choice of words was utilized by Merritt. This has been addressed by others, most notably Denny Burk here.

I am disappointed in Peterson's assertion regarding homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

Does this mean I won't be buying any Peterson books?

Well, yes, but I wasn't really buying his books anyway.

Does this mean I will not use The Message in my study or preaching?

I will not. However, I never did. The Message is not a translation. It's a paraphrase and while some of the modern-day wording is interesting and offers an unique spin on the inerrant, it is not a translation and should not be used as such. Just as The Living Bible should not be, in my opinion, the Bible for study or preaching.

Why blog about this?

I have sought to be cordial and not mean-spirited in this posting. I hope I have accomplished that. Nevertheless, some will categorize me a "hater" once again. Peterson is a pastor. He is speaking on a deeply important theological, and cultural issue. To be clear, all cultural issues are theological.

The sinfulness of humanity is common to all. The arguments regarding the affirmation of homosexuality as a lifestyle are getting louder. Some in the church are abandoning biblical truth for cultural acceptance and the current state of "fairness." Nevertheless, the truth remains. God has not changed regarding the sinful nature of humanity and the need for redemption. That's the radical message of the Gospel. 

Some Christians seek to avoid this issue, mostly because friends and family members identify as LGBT. Yet, that is a weak excuse. I speak as one with a dear family member who identifies as such. To ignore the issue is to silently affirm the sin.

Denny Burk said it so well in his response today:

To say that Peterson's justification for same-sex relationships is really thin would be an understatement. His is not an argument based on Scripture. Rather, it's an argument based on sentiment. He says that he's known some nice gay people, therefore he now discards the moral consensus of the entire 2,000-year history of the Christian church. This is not pastoral wisdom. It's folly of the first order.

I agree with Burk. Pastoral responsibility leads me to clearly state that Peterson's affirmation of homosexuality and same-sex marriage (just as with Hatmaker's and others who have made such statements) is wrong, unbiblical, and sinful. Words matter and Peterson is a wonderful wordsmith. I just wish his words weren't so very damaging.


Dear Young Pastor and Church Planter...Listen!

There comes a point in pastoral ministry when people stop referring to you as the new, young pastor. Youthfulness is fleeting and along with the greying of hair, stiffening of joints, and a few more "smile lines" comes, hopefully, some wisdom.

I am encouraged at this stage of ministry when others seem to be lamenting the perceived fall of the church in our culture. As I visited a church last week, and joined the senior adult men's Bible study class, one gentleman stated his dismay at how the world is and how bleak the future appears.

I imagine every generation since Adam (or at least Noah) has said similar things. 

Nevertheless, be encouraged. Of course, our study last week was on Barnabas. How appropriate. 

There are many young men who have answered God's call into pastoral ministry. Many young men and women are committed to living as disciples of Jesus Christ, on mission for Him. Though the rise of the "nones" continues to make headlines (or at least becomes sermon fodder or religious discussion points) the fact remains that God has not changed and, in case you have forgotten, is still on His sovereign throne.

That being said, once you step over the line into "older adulthood" or at least "median adulthood" (those designations change depending on who is looking back in the mirror) perspectives shift. Wisdom of the ages is garnered, at least we hope so.

Every Timothy needs a Paul. The wise pastor realizes that at some point he, too, becomes a Paul for another Timothy. This is a daunting and wonderful role not to be ignored.

Watch-face-tee-t-shirts

So, as I stand here at this point in pastoral ministry, I have many years behind me. I have no idea how many ahead (though I'm planning for many.) I have learned some things. I have much more to learn. Oh, and some of the things I have learned, I am still attempting to put into practice. In other words - I have not arrived and I know it.

H.B. Charles, Jr., pastor of Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church in Jacksonville and Orange Park has written an excellent book for pastors that features a chapter titled "Lessons I've Learned Along the Way." As I read these, I find myself agreeing and even laughing because I know each statement has a deeper story behind it. H.B. is a friend and has been and is being greatly used by God as His pastor to those at Shiloh and beyond. As I read these tips from H.B., I thought of the young men in our church and network and those I have come to know, at least in passing, and I offer his tips, others I've found and mine as well. H.B.'s are marked. Get the book here for his full list.

For the young pastors and ministers out there...

  • Don't plant a church with only people your age and younger. You may be cool, but that "wisdom of the ages" thing is missing and that's dangerous. (David K. Tarkington)
  • You may have to serve as a bi-vocational pastor for a season. That season may be decades long. (DKT)
  • Arrogance is not a spiritual gift. (DKT)
  • Sometimes when God closes a door, he doesn't open a window. He wants you inside when the building collapses. The Q: Will Christ be enough? (Jared C. Wilson)
  • Be a friend to other pastors, even if they're not friends to you. (H.B. Charles, Jr.)
  • Don't assume anything. (HBC)
  • Contextualization is great, but dress like an adult. (Dean Inserra)
  • You hopefully won't be the last pastor at your church. Live and lead so you leave a godly legacy, even if most of the members of "your" church have no idea who you are thirty years after you're gone. (DKT)
  • If they don't trust you, you can't lead them. (HBC)
  • Before you ask someone why they didn't share their struggles with you, ask yourself first if you've shown yourself to be a safe person. (JCW)
  • If we’re more concerned with our standard of life than God’s intentions for our family, God has a harsh word for us. (J.D. Greear)
  • Ecclesiologically speaking, a lot of stuff that counts can't be counted. (JCW)
  • What good is it to be a "good Christian neighbor" if you don't care enough to share Christ with those neighbors? (DKT)
  • Do not read anonymous mail or unsigned letters. (HBC)
  • Sometimes, you need to not read signed letters. (DKT)
  • Never vent online or on social media. (DKT)
  • The pastor who is always available will be of no use when he is available. (HBC)
  • If you can keep from preaching, do it. Christian ministry is a calling you receive, not a vocation you choose. (HBC)
  • There is nothing new under the sun, but that's no excuse for plagiarism. (DKT)
  • You have to say the hard things. Yet, you must do so in love. (DKT)
  • If pastoral ministry was easy, everyone would do it. (DKT)
  • Discipleship is a process. (Jimmy Scroggins)
  • Love and affirmation are not the same thing. (DKT)
  • If you guard your character, your reputation will take care of itself. (HBC)
  • Pray. Journal. These are verbs. (DKT)
  • Wherever you go, you represent Jesus and the church. (Grant Ethridge)
  • When given the opportunity to preach the Gospel, do it. Be ready at all times. Keep sermons with you. (DKT)
  • If you have a church building with a built-in baptistry (some churches are plants and borrow facilities) keep water in it for every service. Don't miss those "Ethiopian Eunuch" moments. (DKT)
  • Network with other pastors and churches in your area. This helps eliminate the competitive nature that we all have. (DKT)
  • People do not give to needs. They give to vision. (HBC)
  • Every young pastor needs an old mentor. (Sam Rainer)
  • Studying for your sermon is not the same as spending time alone with God in prayer and devotion. (DKT)
  • No politician is either your messiah or the enemy. Don't put your hope, or your ultimate fear, in the political domain. (Micah Fries)
  • Avoid hero worship. Everyone God uses is a jerk and a sinner. (HBC)
  • If you come to a new church after serving in another, remember - no one cares how you did it at the previous church. The longer you live in the past, the less you will be able to lead to the future. (DKT)
  • If you give someone responsibility, give them the authority to carry it out as well. (HBC)
  • You cannot farm out all the pastoral care to the associate pastors and deacons. However, you cannot do all the pastoral care either. This reality will anger just about everyone in your church at some point. (DKT)
  • Don't burn bridges. (DKT)
  • Don't plant a church out of anger. That's not a plant. That's leading a church split. (DKT)
  • Don't blame God for your bad decisions. He may not have "called you" to do what you did. (DKT)
  • Dig your own wells so you don't have to steal other people's water (HBC)
  • You need to be a "Timothy" before you're a "Paul." (DKT)
  • A cynical pastor is an oxymoron. (HBC)
  • Don't outsource discipleship of your children to others in the church. Lead them. Love them. They may become prodigals, but if so, wait patiently as you pray for them, remembering God loves them more than you. (DKT)
  • All transgressions begin with sinful thinking. (Billy Graham)
  • Make sure there are windows on the doors to your office. (DKT)
  • Avoid the appearance of evil. (Paul)
  • You can't know a man until you know his story. So, go eat lunch with "that" guy in your church and let him tell you his story. (DKT)
  • When it's all said and done, you want God to say "Well done, good and faithful servant." You also want your wife to say "Well done, good and faithful husband." No, they're not equal statements, but God's calling is not just at the building down the street with the crosses on it. In most cases (not all) pastors were married before they became pastors. Your faithful wife loves God, too, but while your calling is to serve the church, hers is to you. Too much to unpack here. (DKT)
  • You're not cool. Come to grips with that. Even if your Instagram filter is amazing and your logo is lit (is that the right word?) I know I said you may be cool in the first point, but you're not. Jesus wasn't either, so you're in good company. (DKT)

There are hundreds more insights from hundreds more pastors. Men like Johnny Hunt and Mac Brunson have much to offer younger pastors. So too do the pastors like Mike Wyatt (my pastor when I surrendered to ministry back in the 1990s) and Allen Harrod (my pastor at FBC Orange Park who offered leadership and friendship when I first graduated seminary.) Some of these pastors and mentors do not have books for sale at Amazon. Some may not be known outside their congregation or small town, but listen up, there's much to learn. Young pastor, remember...leaders are learners. Never be that guy who can't take advice or encouragement. Maybe one day when you're greyer and even less cool than you are now, you will have words to share with that young pastor (who is likely in fourth grade right now) that God calls for His glory and good. 


Superheroes on Mars Hill - Engaging the Comic-Con Culture With the Gospel

So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you." Acts 17:22-23 (ESV)

The story of Paul's engagement at the Areopagus, or Mars Hill, reminds us that the message of the Gospel is not just to be held privately, but strategically taken to those in need of redemption through Jesus Christ.

While there have been many advancements regarding technology and industry in the centuries since Paul spoke to these ancient people near Athens, not much has truly changed. Humanity remains depraved and in need of rescue and redemption. The Gospel remains true. God's church continues to move forward under the mandate of the Great Commission as we go through life to engage others with the message of truth.

Comic Books and Superheroes

When I was a boy, I loved reading and collecting comic books. When I had saved up enough change (from that quarter a week allowance) I would ask my parents to stop by the 7-Eleven on the way home from church in Montgomery, Alabama so I could peruse the comic book stand for the latest issues featuring my favorite heroes. This was no comic book shop. There were no plastic bags with acid-free boards for storing the magazines. The rack was metal, spun, and sat near the door.  Most of the comic books were bent as children like me would bend them down to see which issues were hidden behind. I remember when they were 25 cents, then 30 cents and 35 cents and then "Still Only 35 cents." I normally would go home with two or three issues. These would be read numerous times and added to the stack I was accumulating.

Of course, like most people my age, I would get the first issues of new comics hoping that one day they would be worth thousands of dollars like the first "Action Comics" and "Batman" issues of old. Nevertheless, most of the magazines my generation bought were stored safely and because our parents didn't throw them out like those from previous generations, we now have a plethora of books that are "Fabulous First Issues" which aren't worth much because supply (in those plastic sleeves in cardboard boxes) is so high.

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Photo credit: Sam Howzit via VisualHunt.com / CC BY

Resurgence of Superheroes in Comic Books

In case you haven't noticed, after a time when comic book sales tanked and superhero films and television shows seemed to be fading, a renewal of interest in these heroes with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal man has occurred. 

The Golden Age (1936 - early 1950s)

Since the Golden Age of comics (1936 - early 1950s,) heroes with brightly-colored spandex have attracted the interest of children and teenagers. During the 1940s, superhero comic interest waned. Magazine publishers began to produce books with different themes such as westerns, romance, science fiction, crime, and horror. In fact, many superhero titles were cancelled at this time. Of the dozens produced in the early 1940s, the only ones featuring superheroes to continue production by DC (the industry leader at the time) through the decade were Action Comics, Adventure Comics, Detective Comics, Batman, Superboy, Superman, Wonder Woman, and World's Finest Comics.

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Photo credit: Terry McCombs via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC

The Silver Age (1956 - 1970)

Many changes took place in the world of comic books following the Golden Age. Controversy developed over the alleged connection between comic book themes and juvenile delinquency. In 1954, the comic publishers implemented a self-regulated Comics Code Authority and a shift from crime and horror themes led to a reintroduction of superheroes. The introduction of a new Flash from DC Comics launched this era and soon upstart Marvel Comics launched the Fantastic Four and a new wave of fans was born.

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Photo credit: Michael Vance1 via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

The Bronze Age (1970 - 1985)

This next age of comic book production moved Marvel Comics to the forefront. It was during this time I was collecting those books sold at the 7-Eleven. While many of the mainstay heroes remained, newer ones were introduced and a return to darker plot lines emerged (e.g. racism, alcoholism, drug abuse, urban poverty, pollution, etc.). Many of the heroes introduced in this era became the models for newer television shows like "The Incredible Hulk," "Wonder Woman," and "Spider-Man" and movies like the Christopher Reeve helmed "Superman: The Movie" and Michael Keaton's "Batman."

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Photo credit: Brian Wilkins via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC

The Modern Age (1985 - present)

As generations shift, so too do the heroes they admire. While comic sales dropped, new business models were implemented. Character licensing was sold and plans for new films have been made. It is during this era when many comic book characters were redesigned, creators gained ownership of characters through independent comics, and publishing houses became more commercialized.

Some call this the Dark Age of Comics due to the influence of writers and artists like Frank Miller and Alan Moore. Anti-heroes (like Deadpool, the Punisher, and even Batman) became more popular.

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Photo credit: Asbestos Bill via Visualhunt / CC BY

The Cinematic Universes

When Christopher Reeve first put on the blue tights and red "S" a new era of marketing comic book heroes developed. The "Superman" movie from the late 1970s stated that fans "would believe a man could fly" and based on ticket sales, they did. When Tim Burton introduced a darker "Batman" to the big screen in the 1980s, many fans thought it would fail, primarily because Michael Keaton was cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman and the campiness of Adam West's Caped Crusader was the prominent screen image known. When Burton's film became a hit, it seemed like superhero movies would soon take over the multiplex. Nevertheless, sequels didn't fare as well and other films like Dolph Lundgren's "The Punisher" and David Hasselhoff's "Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D." proved that Hollywood hadn't quite figured out how to move the comic heroes en masse to the big screen.

Then Tobey Maguire became Spider-Man and soon thereafter Christian Bale moved under the cowl of the Dark Knight and, as they say...the rest is history.

Marvel and DC have created effective (at least financially) cinematic universes that have proven to connect with audiences.

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Photo credit: junaidrao via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND
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Photo credit: junaidrao via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

More Than a Weak Sermon Series Theme

Apparently there are many fans of superheroes in our communities. These run the gamut from stereotypical fanboy or fangirl who knows intricate details of multiverses to the casual fan who just saw Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and watches Sheldon and Leonard on "The Big Bang Theory."

In recent years, with attempts to capitalize on pop culture with catchy themes, some have preached sermons or themed kids events at churches with pseudo-superhero concepts. I'm guilty of having done this in the past, but the truth is as Dr. Timothy Paul Jones stated in a blog post from earlier this year:

For many Christians, the temptation seems to be to engage in what I would identify as a “thin reading” of these cultural artifacts (comic books and superhero films,) hunting for surface-level connections between the Bible and our favorite superhero tales. Pastors who become caught up in such thin readings may construct entire sermon series out of the latest films or feel compelled to drop references to movies into their messages—all to achieve a perceived sense of relevance by linking Scripture to culture. This is not authentic cultural engagement, however. In most instances, it’s closer to uncritical cultural appropriation. Full-fledged Christian engagement with the culture digs deeper than surface-level links and wrestles with the conflicting worldviews that undergird these artistic artifacts.

Jones' article goes deeper and is well worth your read. Read it here.

Engaging on Mars Hill

What is it about these heroes that not only connects generations and draws fans, but gathers groups together at Comic-Con and movie premieres? The religious undertones are not always subtle and the fact that most early superheroes such as Superman were rooted in Judaism (ever wondered why his name is Kal-El?) reveals many Old Testament themes woven into the histories, especially from the Golden Age. 

Yet, even anti-religious sentiment and humanistic worldviews aside, there is a sense, for the most part of good, evil, truth, justice, and other such things that at the core are religious concepts.

Many of the fictional heroes and heroines either find their root in Greek and Roman mythology or at a minimum are influenced by some of these types of stories. It is my contention that the culturally popular fictional heroes are not much different than the false gods and goddesses worshipped and adored by the ancient people of Paul's day.

Paul engaged those who were far from God strategically. He went to Mars Hill for this purpose. He did not remain silent, but talked intelligently and not condescendingly to those in the crowd. 

What If?

After reading numerous articles and studying God's Word on living sent as his church to a lost and dying world, I thought of Dr. Jones' postings about worldviews as revealed in comic books and the cinematic universes of Marvel and DC.

What if the church engaged this affinity group through story-telling in ways that centers on the Scripture and the Gospel? What if rather than just continuing to add programs and events to reach the already reached, we went to this "Mars Hill" in our culture today? I have talked to a few teenagers specifically about this. Some attend church, but always seem to be on the fringes. Others have no place for church in their lives and basically have denied or ignored the message of the Gospel. I asked if they would consider joining me for a study called "The Meta-narrative of the Gospel as Revealed in the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes?" Yeah - that's what I named it, based on Dr. Jones' articles. However, I may shorten it to "Superhero Sunday Nights."

Their interest was piqued.

I asked, "Do you have any friends who may be interested in something like this?" 

The answer was yes and they began to rattle off names of students I do not know. Most have no connection with a church and no relationship (or desire for a relationship) with Christ.

I am not sure what this will even look like - The Big Bang Theory meets the Bible? I hope more than that. It's just that we (the church) have done much over the decades to connect with students through affinities like athletics, drama and theater, dance, and music, but I have yet to hear of an intentionally evangelistic effort (more than a gimmick event) that seeks to connect with those whom many categorize as nerds and geeks, but most likely think deeply and love and understand the intricacies of story. Ultimately, the Story is what they need.

Some will mock. Some will ignore. Yet, I believe some will be drawn by God to Himself. It's been done before.

Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. Acts 17:32-34 (ESV)

 


How Can I Rest When So Many Are Lost?

A few years ago, in one of our network's church planter assessment meetings, my wife and I served as coaches and assessors as we have done for years. At times, we meet men who are wrestling with the call into pastoral ministry. Each story is unique and as these men with their wives go through an intense two days of assessment, stories unfold and we are amazed each time how God calls us to Himself, from diverse backgrounds for His good and glory.

In some cases, our pastors/planters are men who have served on church staff, but are answering the call to leave full-time (i.e. paid) ministry to plant a new work in our city or elsewhere. At other times, these are men who have served in other venues or denominations and are joining our pastoral internship and pipeline of assessment, encouragement, and peer learning. There are also some who are basically just "kicking the tires" to see if perhaps God is calling them to such a ministry role.

As I stated, each story is unique and we have the privilege of hearing testimonials from these men and their wives about how they ended up where they are.

As the weekend comes to a close, we have the task of affirming or redirecting the men as church planters, all while praying and seeking discernment and leadership from God in these areas.

One year, a pastor and his wife joined us for an assessment weekend. This pastor is a friend and is not originally from the United States. I won't use his name or exact story, but in general, this man pastored a church in a foreign land for years. He now lives in the US and through his connections in numerous cities, basically pastors up to 70 house churches, all centered around the native culture and language.

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Photo credit: OliYoung via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

He and his wife have no children and they serve faithfully despite his physical ailments due to things that happened to him in his home country from those opposed to the Gospel.

He does speak English, as does his wife, but English is not their heart language. Therefore, the comfort level of communicating in English is not there. Nevertheless, as we assessed him I felt a bit foolish. Here is a man who has more experience than I do as a pastor. He has been through persecution - and I mean real persecution, not the typical American version of being made fun of. He has a "thorn in the flesh" that slows him down considerably, yet he doesn't complain (at least not in English.) He and his wife open their home up to visitor at all times of day and night as need may be. To open the home for a guest, in their cultural setting, means to provide a meal...every time. This happens almost daily.

He serves in our city at a ministry focused on connecting and reaching internationals. He travels as need be to help churches for his people group in other cities in the nation. He mentors others.

He is not perfect. He will tell you so. Nevertheless, I am always honored to spend time with him.

At this setting, I was listening to his stories and what God is doing in his life. Along with other pastors and friends, we were inspired, but had a warning for him as well.

We told him that he must rest.

He must take a Sabbath.

He is burning the candle at both ends and in the middle.

He acknowledged this, as did his wife.

Then, he said something. He slowly and softly asked this rhetorical question - "How can I rest when so many are lost?"

And I was overcome with the reality that this brother is burdened for the lostness of our world at a level I seek to find. He did not discount the need for Sabbath, but his rest is found not in a day of the week, but in Christ.

This pastor is the epitome of living sent. He is on mission. He is missional. He is faithful.

May we be burdened for the lostness of our world as well.