I Just Wanted to Eat My Donut In Peace

I woke up pretty early this morning with a plan.

Every Wednesday, I lead a boys' mentoring group at one of our local junior high schools. That begins at 8am. It finishes around 9:15am or so and I head to my office at church. I then have a 10:30am Bible study for senior adults each week. These are two highlights of my mid-week. 

So, as is the case on Wednesdays often, I stopped at our local Dunkin' Donuts for a coffee and a French Cruller (an incredibly good donut that is low-calorie because there's so much air inside - well, that's my theory.) The employees see me coming and now, these two items are always waiting. I'm a creature of habit. One of these days, I'm going to mess with them and get a frosted donut. It'll blow their minds!

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Nevertheless, my plan was simple. Drink my coffee. Eat my donut. Sit in a booth, read my Bible app and study for the day's sessions.

Please Leave Me Alone So I Can Do Some Christian Stuff

Everything was going according to plan. I was not seeking to engage anyone in conversation. I simply wanted to be left alone to read. You know, like you feel on an airplane when you just want to read, watch a show on your iPad and not have to talk to the stranger seated next to you. This is why Dr. Dre invented Beats - so you can put on headphones on an airplane. These headphones declare "Leave me alone" to the rest of the passengers.

My Beats are blue, by the way.

Well, as you have probably figured out by now, a woman came into the donut shop. She sat in the booth directly in front of me, and was facing me.

Awkward!

I looked up and it felt like we were sitting at the same booth, especially since there was nothing but empty benches in between us.

I smiled and said "Hello" because that's what nice, Christian guys do.

She said "Hello" back.

Whew! That was close. I thought we'd have to actually talk. Remember... I wanted to be left alone.

Then, this woman asked if I lived near the donut shop and she began talking about the community and how nice, but different it was. She lives on the Westside of Jacksonville and was going to a doctor's appointment in a nearby office. She was just waiting at the donut shop because her taxi picked her up too early.

Oh, she's a single mother with two adult children and a teenager. She is having a tough time and is dealing with fear and worry about some life situations.

How do I know this?

You guessed it. She began to talk to me and I had to listen.

Are You A Christian?

She then said, "Are you a Christian?"

What? Why would she ask this? I'm definitely a Christian, but I wasn't reading my Bible (just the app) and am not wearing anything with Jesus fish or other churchy embroidery on it. I mean, I'm honored she asked and I said, "Yes" unapologetically, but was wondering why she asked.

I thought "I wonder what she thinks about Christians?" and yet, it wasn't going to change my answer.

I then asked, "How did you know I was a Christian?"

She said, "I don't know. I just did."

Hmmmm.

At this point, I figured I was all in on this potential divine encounter. In other words, I thought "Okay, God. I get it." 

I closed my iPad and asked her "Are you a Christian?"

She answered "Yes" and then moved into my booth.

That was unexpected and caused me a little discomfort.

Are You a Preacher?

She then asked, "Are you a preacher?"

Oh boy, now I'm caught. Do I look like a preacher? I don't slick my hair back (don't have enough to do that). I don't talk with a preacher voice. I didn't say "sister" or "amen" every other phrase. I am wearing a golf shirt and khakis. I looked like a Best Buy employee. I didn't even have the traditional preacher uniform on (I knew I should've worn my Chuck Taylors today).

I answered "Yes" and discovered that apparently caused her relief.

Nonetheless, we talked for about fifteen minutes. She shared her story a bit. I stated that I had to leave to go to the junior high. Then we prayed. We prayed for strength and for power. We prayed for the worry that had overtaken her that led to an unhealthy fear and stress would be relieved by God's Spirit. We prayed over her children. 

Then I said, "Good-bye."

I don't share this to say "Hey look at me. I did a good Christian thing."

I share this because I intently did NOT want to engage anyone in conversation. I wanted to just go through my routine. I wanted to read my Bible, not talk to someone about the Bible. I wanted to eat my French Cruller (well, I did to that) and drink my coffee in peace.

And then she showed up.

And then God nudged me as if to say "This is why you're here right now."

I wonder how many times I miss the moment? I wonder how many times my routine reigns in my life so I can just get through another day? I wonder how she knew I was a Christian, much less a pastor? I wonder where I can go to eat a donut in peace? Ha ha.

Nevertheless, I was reminded of this verse...

But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. 1 Peter 3:15 (ESV)

So friends. Be ready. Oh, and if someone says "You look like a Christian" that hopefully, is a good thing (unless their idea of a Christian is some warped caricature. In that case, just be real and change that perspective.)


firstFAMILY Podcast 004: Tech Savvy Parenting with Brian Housman

02-03-2016 - 004 firstFAMILY Podcast - Brian Housman

In today's podcast, I interview Brian Housman of 360 Family about his book and seminar titled Tech Savvy Parenting which will be hosted here in Orange Park, Florida by our church, firstFAMILY Church. Brian has spent more than twenty years speaking into the lives of students and parents. His experiences as a school administrator, camp director, and youth pastor have allowed him to see families in the culture from many different perspectives. As the founder of 360Family, Brian has spoken at more than 200 conferences, churches and schools including work with D6, K-Love, and FamilyLife Today. His work can be read monthly in Parenting Teens and Homeschooling Today magazines. 

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Did you know 9 out of 10 student aged 8-18 have viewed Internet porn? Did you know 31% of all adolescents lie about their age on the Internet? Did you know more than half of parents fear their child being contacted online by a stranger?

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The Tech Savvy Parenting workshop will be held at firstFAMILY Church on Sunday, March 6 (lunch provided) and Monday, March 7 at Montclair Elementary School. In this informative workshop we look at current research into gaming systems, internet activities, and online communities. Parents will leave this workshop not only with a working knowledge of the web culture but also with specific step you can take as a parent to safeguard your home and child's life. Parents will also be equipped to talk about touchy subjects such as internet pornography, cyber bullying, online integrity, and many more.

Brian has given parents a road map to dealing with their teen’s technology. Tech-Savvy Parenting isn’t just about big issues like texting and internet – it’s about walking parents through practical steps they can take immediately. – Scott Lotta, Parenting Teens Magazine

For more information on Brian, his resources and the conferences, go to techsavvyparenting.com and 360family.org.


When You Mix Politics And Religion, You Get ... Politics

This happens every four years. The presidential election builds steam. Those who announced their candidacy early find themselves struggling in the polls and begin to fall off as debates are scheduled, endorsements lack and reality sets in that they have no real chance of gaining their party's nomination.

The frontrunners are identified and even before the final two (or three if there's a legitimate independent in the race) are crowned and the stress levels increase as Americans worry about what will happen if the "wrong" person is elected President.

The Iowa caucus will occur soon and the the Democrats and Republicans will have their official frontrunners as polling numbers mean less and less.

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However, it should be noted that an Iowa win does not mean the nomination is secured. Here are a few of the past winners in Iowa:

  • 2008 - Mike Huckabee (R). Mitt Romney came in second.
  • 1992 - Tom Harkin (D). Bill Clinton came in fourth with 2.8%
  • 1988 - Richard Gephardt (D). Michael Dukakis came in third with 22.2%
  • 1988 - Robert Dole (R). George H.W. Bush came in third, behind Dole and Pat Robertson.
  • 1980 - George H.W. Bush (R). Ronald Reagan came in second.
  • 1976 - Uncommitted (D) won! Eventual nominee Jimmy Carter came in second.

There are times the eventual nominee won, such as in 2008 with Barack Obama, 2004 with John Kerry and 2000 with George W. Bush, but the reality is clear here. A win in Iowa is good, but doesn't guarantee a nomination.

Nevertheless, the field is fighting to gain this starting line win, as they should. It is at this time endorsements begin to come in from various sources such as business leaders, other politicians, celebrities and even religious leaders and pastors. 

It is always a slippery slope when a pastor endorses political candidates. To be clear, pastors have the right to do so. Now, the church they serve cannot, but the individual leader may. This has been clearly determined by the courts even though some throw the bogus "separation of church and state" argument at pastors who make such endorsements. There are always the threats of losing tax-exempt status as well. While the tax-exempt status of churches in America will likely be lost in the near future, it won't be for pastoral endorsements. But...that's a topic for another day.

Why all the talk about pastoral endorsements?

It's not a new phenomena. Pastors have been endorsing candidates either overtly or subtly for years. In most cases, these endorsements do not make the news because they are offered to smaller congregations and in many cases center around local elections. To be clear, pastoral endorsements come from all denominations and faith expressions and members of each party benefit (or are harmed) by these.

Recently, a well-known Christian leader has been taken to task on this by many who know him and disagree with his candidate of choice.

Jerry Falwell, Jr., President of Liberty University, made headlines with his glowing introduction of Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump at a recent chapel convocation. Trump attracts all forms of media regardless where he speaks. He thrives on this and according to polling data, his strategy is working. 

The issue is not that Trump spoke at Liberty. It may cause many to question, but in fairness, Liberty also hosted Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders as well. Liberty also hosted the launch of Senator Ted Cruz's bid for the presidency.

The issue is that Falwell has now publicly endorsed Donald Trump.

What does an endorsement really mean?

Well, not much. It is more symbolic than anything. However, it cannot be ignored that when a pastor or ministry leader (or business leader, politician or any other person in a leadership position) endorses a candidate, the presumption is that the organization, institution, church, or business has also endorsed said candidate. This is not true, but perception is reality and this perception causes problems.

Liberty alumni are now speaking out, mostly in winsome tones, against the official endorsement of Trump. Many would rather have their alma mater's president not endorse anyone. Nevertheless, here are some of the voices coming from the LU faithful:

"I love and respect Jerry Falwell, Jr. and consider Jerry and Becki friends, but I strongly disagree with his endorsement of Donald Trump." - Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America

"For a school that focuses on loving God and loving other people, it's odd to endorse someone who only seems to love himself and other people who love him." - Janet Kelly, former Virginia Secretary of the Commonwealth

"The goal of Liberty University is not to defeat Democrats. A populist nationalism has become the chief religion of the day at Liberty. This is a tangible example of what it looks like to gain the whole world and lose your soul." - Dean Inserra, Pastor of City Church, Tallahassee

"When Jerry Falwell, Jr. makes a personal endorsement of Donald Trump, there are tens of thousands of us in our workplaces and stations who have to explain the rationale for it. It's not just a decision that impacts one person or one family." - Rep. Jeff Coleman

I am not a graduate of Liberty. I have friends who are and others who are students or have sent their children there as students. Jerry Falwell, Jr. has the right to endorse or not endorse whomever he likes. The trustees of Liberty have the right to manage and lead their institution as they see fit. The question that is being pushed to the front burner here is the viability, wisdom, and need for pastors and religious leaders (Falwell is not a pastor, but a president of an overtly Christian, evangelical university) to endorse politicians. 

I have heard arguments for endorsing and engagement as well as for stepping aside and doing nothing. I'm not sure either response is wise. 

I have been accused of being too political because I urge members of my church to register, engage, and vote in each election and educated constituents. I have, in the past, put signs for local and national elections in my yard. (I likely will not be doing that in the future.) When I was in college, I would loudly endorse the candidate of my choice. Of course, I was twenty-years-old and had little or no influence on anyone else, so there were no press conferences declaring my endorsements. 

I still love the political process and enjoy watching the debates, dissecting them, researching candidates and all that comes with this season.

However, I have also been accused of not being political enough. One angry former church member (he was angry at everything, it seemed) left to join another church in our county and as a parting shot emailed me and made it clear that I was not political enough from the pulpit. He meant it as a jab. I took it as a compliment. 

Nevertheless, these are trying times. It seems that it may be "worse than ever" and some declare that they see no candidates worthy of electing into office. It should be noted that those comments have been stated by the voting public for decades, if not centuries. 

Tweet: When you mix politics and religion, you always get politics. @davidtark http://bit.ly/1QuIpdh
 When you mix politics and religion, you always get politics. 

I believe this to be true.

The wise pastor or religious leader must take this to heart. Recently in a blog post on The Gospel Coalition site, Mike Edmondson posted an articled titled "5 Reasons to Keep Politicians Out of Your Pulpit." While not specifically focused on endorsements, the emphasis is the same. To allow a politician to speak from the pulpit during a worship gathering is akin to a public endorsement. Here are Edmondson's points:

  1. The social activism agenda will be presented as equal to the gospel.
  2. The presumed image that the politician agrees with the doctrines of the church.
  3. The public service announcement becomes a pseudo-sermon.
  4. Quid Pro Quo - the "pimping" out of the pulpit.
  5. Pastor/Politician identity crisis results.

Edmondson breaks all this down well and in more detail in the post. Check it out here.

Falwell and other leaders have every right to endorse or not endorse whomever they choose. For me, I will steer clear of this dangerous step.


firstFAMILY Podcast 003: Where To Go To College?

01-27-2016 firstFAMILY podcast

Let's say you’re in the ministry and a high school student and his or her family comes up to you to get your opinion regarding higher education.

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Graduation will come soon and decisions are being made.

What would you recommend?

There are numerous options.

Today, I want to narrow it down to just a few. While I believe that trade school, going into the workforce immediately and even military service are all viable and honorable choices, for the sake of this discussion, I’m going to leave it to just a few options.

This discussion presumes that the student is active in the church, claims to be a Christian and is seeking to do the right thing regarding next steps of ministry.

So, the student has brought some options to you and they are these:

  1. Private, Bible college
  2. Private, Christian liberal arts college or university.
  3. Private, secular liberal arts college or university.
  4. Public, state college or university.

What would you say?


Is Divorce a Viable Option If You "Fall Out of Love"?

I have had numerous conversations with friends regarding reasonings for divorce. In most cases, these are believers seeking biblical grounds for stepping out their marriage vows. More often than not, those asking the questions have already read the references in Scripture but have come to me hoping for some other options or perhaps some "secret understanding" that is not evident in the clearly written words on the pages of their Bibles.

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Perhaps one of the most confusing and frustrating reasons offered to me sounds like this. . .

I believe God wants me to divorce my spouse because I just don't love him/her anymore.

The discussion goes on (normally a one-sided one at this point) with justifications categorized by phrases such as "I've fallen out of love." 

Though the reasoning reeks of self-centeredness and personal justification, I seek to answer in a winsome and truth-laced way. I shudder at the "fallen out of love" defense. Since love is more than an emotional reaction and is better defined as a choice, to "fall out of love" simply means that the spouse in question doesn't seem to elicit the sweaty palms, fluttering heartbeats, and other emotional responses that were present during the days of courtship.

In some cases, it is politically correct way to say "My spouse doesn't look as sexy as they used to." Those making these veiled claims often appear to have misplaced their mirrors as well, since time seems to change all our outward appearances. 

Nevertheless, there are more often than not, deeply spiritual wounds revealed in such discussions. Lauren Chandler (author and wife of Pastor Matt Chandler of The Village Church) recently was interviewed on this subject by The Gospel Coalition. Her brief video response is laced with wisdom and worth viewing.

 

Is Divorce Ever An Option?

Well, yes, divorce is an option. With the numbers of divorces happening in our nation regularly, it is clearly a viable option for all couples. There are even instances when divorce is an allowable biblical option. 

The issue here is more than finding reasons to divorce, but in addressing this particular reason.

Love is a choice and that choice is not always easy. However, it is always right.

Husbands, remember that you have been commanded to love your wives. There is no dancing around this.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Ephesians 5:25-27 (ESV)

Wives, the command for you is to respect your husbands. Yes, there are times they are not worthy of that respect. True. However, there are likely times that love is not deserved from your husbands, either. It appears that this is a choice as well.

However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. Ephesians 5:33 (ESV)

But...

Yeah, it seems cut-and-dried, but that doesn't mean it's easy. Lauren gives wise counsel in her video and while it is clear that God has high expectations for the man and woman who unite in holy matrimony, the Bible never says that living as husband and wife is easy.

Remember, God loves you and he loves your spouse as well. Marriage is his idea and this union between man and woman  is his image of his connection between Christ and the church. Jesus chooses to love his church. The church should submit to Jesus' lordship and respect him as such. Oh, there's so much more to discuss in this.

For now, let's just retire the "I've fallen out of love" defense. It's weak and wrong.


Should We Continue Doing Short-Term Mission Trips?

Churches, such as mine, have sent teams on short-term mission trips for years. These one-to-two week endeavors take adults and teenagers all over the world for the purpose of "doing missions" and serving contextually in different regions. 

Recently, some writers and pastors have decried the short-term mission trip as being little more than a "religious vacation." As the mission trip season comes upon us, churches are planning, registering, getting tickets, passports and preparing once again. While there are some legitimate arguments against going on short-term mission trips, I believe the value of a properly planned and executed trip far outweigh the negatives.

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Arguments Against Short-Term Mission Trips

Michelle Lynn Stayton recently blogged on The Almost Doctor's Channel about the futility of going on short-term mission trips. The title of her post is "7 Reasons Why Your Two Week Trip to Haiti Doesn't Matter: Calling Bull on 'Service Trips'"

Her points for not going on these types of trips are...

  1. They are entirely too focused on how the volunteers benefit.
  2. The lasting impact of short-term voluntourism trips is often negligible.
  3. "Voluntourism" is offensive and can even contribute to further problems.
  4. They're an egregious waste of money.
  5. They promote a cycle of dependence.
  6. There's a difference between skilled and unskilled help.
  7. They promote the western savior complex.

Stayton's article is well-written, but with a sense of frustration coming through. Based on what she has described and what I have experienced in the past, she is right to be frustrated. 

Yet, I would say that throwing out all short-term mission trips is not the answer. Rather, a reevaluation of the purpose of such trips and a proper and healthy process of preparation for team members is needed.

I remember a mission trip to Israel about fifteen years ago where I led a group of teenagers from our church who would be leading a mission camp for locals prior to touring Holy Land sites. This was a combination mission trip/camp and tourism event. One of our young men stated while at a layover in Europe as we walked through the airport, "Dave, look at all the foreigners!" It was at that moment that I realized I had not properly prepared this young man to serve on mission. I looked to him and said, "They're not foreigners. You're the foreigner!" It was as if a light came on at that moment.

I also remember decades ago when our previous senior pastor led a team to Australia on a short-term trip. (Who wouldn't want to suffer for Jesus in Australia?) The team returned and on a Sunday evening, they stood on the stage of our worship center and shared with the congregation about the trip. I don't remember much about the report. However, one portion of the report has stayed with me. One of our team members shared how she spent some time with one of the Australian Baptist pastors and his congregation. I guess this trip was to encourage and equip some of the churches down under, primarily. Anyway, as she shared of her experience, she stated that the church was preparing to observe the ordinance of the Lord's Supper and lo and behold, they pulled out a bottle of wine! Real wine! She then shared how she instructed this pastor about how wrong that was and how, here in the US, we use grape juice. 

I cringed at that report and while we do use grape juice, the fact of the matter is that using wine in observing the Lord's Supper is not a sin, regardless what prohibitionists and grandma said. To tell gospel-centric, Bible-believing, missionally-engaged Christians in other cultures that by doing exactly what the Bible says to do is a sin because it doesn't match a portion of evangelical American culture's practice is ludicrous.

So, in truth, the "great western savior complex" does rear its head at times.

Other points from Stayton are valid as well. I wonder how many pieces of "Jesus junk" purchased in bulk at Oriental Trading have moved quickly to the trash heap once the missionaries have boarded their planes back to the States? 

Perhaps the greatest challenge is ensuring that the people being served do not become little more than social media fodder and human souvenirs. In our case, with multiple trips to Haiti, the front-burner reality is that our children in the orphanage and in the local sponsored schools are not items to be collected in photos or video clips to be brought home as virtual souvenirs. These are real children. Some have parents living in the region who cannot afford to care for them. Others have no living parents. Our children are loved and yet they, as Stayton states, "do not need your pity, temporary attention or to be featured in your Facebook profile photo for a month." Now, she's a little harsh about Facebook here, yet the point is clear. The question must be asked "Why are we collecting photos?" (Full disclosure: We do take numerous photos of our trips and share these with our families.) I believe a photo shares a portion of a story and when I see these, I don't feel pity. I am spurred to prayer and reminded of the value of our service and love to God as we love our neighbors (whether next door or across the sea.)

Maybe we should post photos of those we are praying for locally as well? Perhaps this would eliminate the "tourism" feel of gathering pictures and push us to seeing all people with the eyes of Christ? 

Arguments For Short-Term Mission Trips

I have pushed back against poor mission trips for years. Even in doing so, I readily admit we have far to go.

Why, as a pastor, would I continue to encourage and have our Missions Director plan more short-term trips? Why, especially knowing the shortfalls of such endeavors?

I do so because I have seen and believe in the value of serving God in this way. I have experienced moments where God has used a change of scenery, a portrait of need, a removal of distractions and an openness to the Spirit's leading to guide young men and women (and not-so-young as well) into a transformational place of service. 

I do believe that often the most impacted people on short-term mission trips are the ones being sent, not the ones being served. Is this bad? I don't believe so. I believe that a lifetime of service and missional engagement may be birthed in the heart of a believer while on a short-term trip.

I too have seen students and adults on trips who come home totally unfazed. It's unfortunate, but it's a reality. The hardened heart is not always softened just because a week without air conditioning and overdoses of bug spray have been experienced. Yet, we trust God to do that which only he can do. Otherwise, we become behavioral manipulators.

The short-term trip can be a blessing and a ministry to those being served as well. Knowing the missionaries on the field and communicating well prior to a scheduled trip can lead to a week of refreshing and and strength to those being served. 

However, the "western savior complex" must be intentionally abandoned. Maybe some of the "Jesus junk" should be left at home as well.

No missionary or orphanage director will be blessed by a team that arrives and then with a spiritual arrogance begins to tell them how to do the work they have been called to do. A team should never arrive on field with a "We're here to fix everything in two weeks" mentality or the missionaries and those being served will celebrate your departure with greater joy than they ever did upon your arrival.

Caleb Crider, in the book Tradecraft, shares the following account:

In had been a church planter in Western Europe for about six years when I began to realize just how great the divide was between churches and God's mission. Throughout the year, groups from various churches in the States would come to assist us in our ministry. For them, this was a "mission trip," but for us, it was real life. We wanted to treat them as peers - a bit of fellowship, some mutual encouragement, and then go out and engage people in gospel conversations. But for the most part, the well-meaning participants on these trips were missiologically illiterate. They were incapable of participating in international mission in any meaningful way.

One Monday morning, we sent a group of American Christian college students to hang out at the local university to learn all they could about the spiritual climate on campus. We prayed together, divided the group into pairs, and sent them on their way. Of the six teams, two had trouble navigating the metro system and never found the campus. Two teams played frisbee on the soccer field, not speaking to a single student the entire time. One team quickly put together a "survey" and approached random students to ask them spiritual questions. Because what little response they received was quite negative, this team was discouraged. None of the teams came back with any meaningful spiritual insight about national college students.

These groups were good at doing what they were told. On previous trips, they had all painted fences, handed out blankets, and played games with children. For the duration of their ten-day stay, group members were perfectly happy to sleep on the floor, walk great distances, and feel generally out of place in this "foreign" environment. But when it came to the reasons for doing these things, the whys of mission, most of them had no idea beyond some vague concept of "reaching people" and a performance-based sense of duty.

So when we asked these volunteers to go out and incarnate the gospel, they were at a loss as to what, exactly, that might mean and how, practically, to do that. They had no understanding of urban living, social tribes or persons of peace. They had no experience gathering pertinent geographical, social, or spiritual information that might assist in church planting efforts. They were unfamiliar with the unchanging gospel, and fearful of culture. Worst of all, few had any sense of why they were participating in such a trip in the first place. Without basic missionary tradecraft, a Christian is incapable of moving beyond volunteerism into partnership in mission.

Whether a trip to an orphanage or to a coffee shop in Europe, mission teams must be properly prepared and educated on living missionally. Short-term trips are valuable, but only when done well. Tourism disguised as mission trips are not only a waste of time and money, but do more harm than good for the kingdom of God.

So, sign up and go on mission. Just do it well.

You may find that you begin living missionally daily upon your return. That's the point, right?

Love God and love people, just don't give yourself a point for living missionally simply because you changed your Facebook profile picture to a smiling orphan in an under-developed country. 

 


firstFAMILY Podcast 002: First Coast Women's Services & Abortion Counseling

01-20-2016 - firstFAMILY Podcast

FcwsIn today's episode, I interview Cheryl Gonzales. Cheryl is the Director of the Clay County Center (Northeast Florida) of First Coast Women's Services. First Coast Women's Services offers crisis pregnancy counseling and helps for women in our community. Counseling services are also available for men struggling with the loss caused by abortion.

For years, "Sanctity of Human Life Sunday" has been recognized by many churches and believers in our nation. With last year's Planned Parenthood videos going public, the issue of life and choice and all that falls under "abortion rights" has once again been pushed back to the forefront. Cheryl shares the value of offering counseling services such as provided by FCWS and practical ways the church can be involved.

Please excuse the quality of the audio - we are still working on getting our settings just right for recording and there are moments when the audio fades out and comes back in. 


firstFAMILY Podcast 001: GameDay Church

01-13-2016 - firstFAMILY Podcast


 Firstfamily podcast with dtOur first episode of the firstFAMILY Podcast features an interview with our Associate Pastor of Church Planting and Missional Strategist for the Jacksonville Baptist Association, Josh Dryer. Josh was instrumental in helping our church (firstFAMILY) launch a new city engagement event focused on reaching a sub-population of over 60,000. This population gathers on Sundays in the fall in downtown Jacksonville to watch our Jacksonville Jaguars play. Today we discuss the launch of GameDay Church and how God may use this in our community and others for His glory.

 

 


When the Church Grieves

I have just received another text message from one of our Leadership Team Pastors about a death in our extended church family. There are seasons (and this seems to be one) when it seems that far too many members of our church family are grieving the loss of loved ones. Over the past month there have been numerous parents, grandparents, spouses, siblings and close friends who have died. Each family member grieves differently. The loss of a loved one after a long bout with illness and difficulty, while seemingly non-surprising is no less traumatic for the family members.

Grief comes from many areas. Death is just one. There is the grief of a lost relationship, a breakup, or divorce. There is the grief experienced by parents when children wander from the faith and family. There are numerous others and in each case the sadness may seem overwhelming.

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Men and Women in the Bible Grieved

We all know that grief is not a new emotion or phenomena. Biblical men and women grieved great loss and we have the narrative to show that. Whether it be Old Testament characters such as Job, Naomi, Hannah, or David or New Testament ones such as Mary, John, the disciples, and even Christ, grief is very human and a part of our journey.

In his book, Experiencing Grief, H. Norman Wright shares the following:

One step in overcoming grief is having the right perspective on it. First, we recognize that grief is a natural response to pain and loss. There is nothing wrong with grieving. Second, we know that times of grief serve a purpose. Ecclesiastes 7:2 says, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.” This verse implies that grief can be good because it can refresh our perspective on life. Third, we remember that feelings of grief are temporary. “Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). There is an end to mourning. Grief has its purpose, but it also has its limit.

Through it all, God is faithful. There are many Scriptures that remind us of God’s faithfulness in times of mourning. He is with us even in the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4). When David sorrowed, he prayed this in Psalm 56:8: “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” (ESV). The touching image of God catching our tears is full of meaning. He sees our grief and does not disdain it. Like Jesus entered into the grief of the mourners in Bethany, God enters into our grief. At the same time, He reassures us that all is not lost. Psalm 46:10 reminds us to “be still” and rest in the knowledge that He is God. He is our refuge (Psalm 91:1-2). He works all things together for the good of those He has called (Romans 8:28).

An important part of overcoming grief is expressing it to God. The Psalms contain numerous examples of pouring out one’s heart to God. Interestingly, the psalmist never ends where he began. He may start a psalm with expressions of grief, but, almost invariably, he will end it with praise (Psalm 13; Psalm 23:4; Psalm 30:11-12;Psalm 56). God understands us (Psalm 139:2). When we commune with Him, we are able to open our minds to the truth that He loves us, that He is faithful, that He is in control, and that He knows how He is going to work it out for our good.

Another important step in overcoming grief is to share it with others. The body of Christ is designed to ease the burdens of its individual members (Galatians 6:2), and fellow believers have the ability to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). Often, the grieving tend to shun others, increasing feelings of isolation and misery. It is much healthier to seek counseling, and group settings can be invaluable. Groups offer listening ears and helpful encouragement, camaraderie, and guidance in working through the grief. When we share our stories with God and others, our grief is lessened.

Sadly, grief is part of the human experience. Loss is part of life, and grief is a natural response to loss. But we have the hope of Christ, and we know that He is strong enough to carry our burdens (Matthew 11:30). We can give our hurt to Him because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). We can find solace in the Holy Spirit, our Comforter and Paraclete (John 14:16). In grief, we cast our burdens on Him, rely on the community of the church, delve into the truth of the Word, and ultimately experience hope (Hebrews 6:19-20).

As our family grieves, we grieve with them. This is much more than feeling sorry for someone and showing sympathy. We empathize with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Some feel so inadequate in offering ministry during these times. In truth, we should all feel inadequate in our own strength. Sometimes, the best ministry help offered is the ministry of presence. It is not the words said, but the presence of being there. 

To Our Family Members Who Are Grieving...

From your pastor and church - "We grieve with you and pray that you will receive what God alone can offer you during these moments - the peace that passes understanding and a comfort that is indescribable." 


Linus' Blanket and the Story of Christmas

I received an email from one of our pastors, Patrick Hayle, this week. You may have read this before and as far as I can tell with my intense search of Snopes.com, this internet story is actually true.

A Charlie Brown Christmas Message

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Have you ever noticed that while Linus is sharing the real meaning of Christmas (in the television special "A Charlie Brown Christmas") he drops his blanket? Linus always carries his security blanket. Yet, he drops it just as he says, "Fear not."

 

As Charles Schultz realized and wanted to share in a very simple way...

  • The birth of Jesus separates us from our fears.
  • The birth of Jesus frees us from the habits we are unable (or unwilling) to break ourselves.
  • The birth of Jesus allows us to let go of the false security we have been grasping so tightly, and learn to trust and cling to Him instead.

Merry Christmas!

Oh, and for those who point out that Linus picks up his blanket after delivering his Christmas sermon, check out Jason Soroski's article on Crosswalk here.


Remember Our Church Planters/Missionaries at Christmas

It doesn't matter how much I say I'm going to plan better and be more strategic about Christmas ministry events and community connections this time of year, it always seems that when December comes, the calendar fills and things are left undone.

I'm writing this posting in a hotel room in Washington DC as I am attending a "Catch the Vision" Tour sponsored by the North American Mission Board in this city. I had dinner tonight with 30 other pastors and ministry leaders and reconnected with my friend and city missionary, Clint Clifton. Tomorrow, I will see Mike Godfrey, a church planter in the city who grew up in our church, was part of my youth group and is currently one of our sponsored and supported church planters.

Somewhere between the salad and the main course, it hit me that we (meaning our church) need to be sure to connect with our planters in the field. This is especially true this time of year. One of the greatest tools of the Enemy for those who have relocated and moved to serve the Lord on mission is the lie that "No one remembers you!" While we are striving to ensure that all our men and women serving in these capacities are remembered in prayer and through financial support, it behooves us to ensure they know they are remembered and supported.

This is a great time of year to give a tangible gift.

We have strategically partnered with a number of church planters/missionaries in our nation and throughout the world. Each has specific needs and most have spouses and children to support as well. While some have been sent from our church family or call our church family their home, all have great need and must be remembered regularly through systematic prayer and support.

It is also this time of year when people in our church are seeking ways to live generously (or as it's called in December...have the "Christmas Spirit") by helping those in need during the holidays.

Let me suggest that each day throughout the month (and it will likely continue throughout the year due to the fact a habit will be formed this month) we spend time praying for our church planters. For this posting, the information presented is clearly focused on the individuals and families supported by our church, the firstFAMILY. If you are part of another church family who has strategically partnered for Kingdom growth with other missionaries and planters, do so with those you already know.

Also, in addition to prayer, perhaps you will feel led to donate a gift to the planter/missionary and his family. If you'd like to do so through the church, you may with our e-giving option. Just click here.

Or, if you have gifts or cards or maybe toys for the children to donate, just bring them by the church office this week and we will forward them. (Remember, gift cards purchased in the US do not work outside the US.)

OUR CHURCH PLANTERS AND MISSIONARIES

 

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Michael & Beth Adams - Grassroots Church East - Colorado Springs, Colorado
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Trey & Rachael Brunson - Story City Church - Burbank, California
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Mike & Carrie Godfrey - Redeemer Baptist Church - Washington, DC
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Gunnar Ingi & Svava Maria Gunnarsson - Loftstofan Baptistakirkja - Reykjavik, Iceland
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Mike & Tanya Hauser - Starting Point Church - Burlington, Ontario
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Paul & Kristen Hoffman - Kaleo Community - Portland, Oregon
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Neil & Kaytee Jimenez - Toronto Church Planting - Toronto, Ontario
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Andrew & Anna Hopper - Mercy Hill Church - Greensboro, North Carolina
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John Robinson - Celtic Languages Team - Wales

 

 


#GivingTuesday, Tithing and Church Budgets

The designated shopping days are now branded.

There's BLACK FRIDAY, SMALL BUSINESS SATURDAY, CYBER MONDAY and now GIVING TUESDAY. (All of these are now often designated with a "#" for social media purposes.)

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One day after Thanksgiving, you know, the holiday where we are to focus on the many blessings God has given us, a designated nasty shopping day exists. Some are pushing back on the overt marketing strategy.

“Black Friday has gotten out of hand,” said Jerry Stritzke, president and CEO of outdoor retailer REI, referring to the day after Thanksgiving when retailers heavily discount thousands of products. He told his 12,000 employees to “get outside” on a paid holiday instead of “spending it in the aisles.” “We’re closing our doors,” Stritzke declared, because “success goes beyond money.” Should it define our holiday, too? - The Benefits and Warnings in Black Friday by Michael Hendrix, ERLC

Saturday and Monday are also designated "spend" days and seek to either offer benefits to the businesses being overtaken by the big box stores on Black Friday or the consumers who'd rather purchase with "one click" on Amazon.com.

So, #GivingTuesday was inevitable, I guess.

I applaud the efforts of those making this special day of generosity happen. We partner with a number of ministries and non-profits who strategically use this designation to elicit more donations. 

What About Sunday?

Sundays are the first days of the week and have been designated the "Lord's Day" for centuries. Traditionally, it is when most church-goers gather together for worship. While we know the trends are shifting and changes are occurring, and churches gather on different days throughout the week at times, Sundays remain the primary "church day" for many.

To be clear, I believe in the principle of the tithe and of generous and sacrificial giving. I know there are many who love to debate the veracity of such teachings and while I will not call a non-tither evil, I do believe it is a sign of faith and a form of worship (as viable as singing, Bible reading and fellowship.) 

When a pastor begins to speak on tithing and giving, he is often categorized and therefore, either encouraged or as is more often the case, disavowed as one of those preachers who "always talks about money."

That reminds me of a joke...but I'll spare you.

Here's how I tithe. Knowing that the word actually means "a tenth" my wife and I have sought to honor God by giving the first tenth of everything we earn back to God through his local church. My daughter thought it was strange as a child when she asked why we gave to the church and then the church would pay me. In her little logical mind she thought we should cut out the middle man and just keep it all. Nevertheless, that developed into a teachable moment on generosity and tithing. We also were able to talk to her about the difference in tithing and offerings. 

By the way, I know the tithe was instituted in the Old Testament and was delineated for a different era, but believing that Jesus affirmed the practice as a form of generosity and God-focused worship in the New Testament, I find no issues with practicing and encouraging the tithe.

So we tithe.

Yet, apparently there are many who do not.

For some, the practice of not tithing is based on their biblical beliefs and while I differ in their interpretation, I can at least admire that there has been much thought put into their actions. In many cases of friends who hold differing views on tithing, their actions and generous giving is evidenced. In many cases, they actually are tithers, though they'd push back at that designation.

There is another group that refuses to tithe and their refusal is not based on biblical understanding nor on deeper thought. In truth, it's based on greed. These are the same folks who won't leave a tip for the waitress and use the excuse "They get paid well enough," while ignoring the reality that minimum wage for those who receive tips is lower than for other workers.

Then, there's another group. They give at times, but the concept of consistent, regular, sacrificial giving is a foreign concept to them. As a friend once told me, "They don't know what they don't know." A profound, yet true statement.

In our church, we are discovering this to be the case. 

I don't know any names of individuals or families, but those who manage our finances and input donations for record-keeping purposes have affirmed that many give regularly, but when a special offering is available (i.e. Turkeys for Christmas, Haiti Christmas Gifts, Global Missions Offerings, Building Fund, Church Planter Gifts, etc.) the regular gifts are divvied up among the offerings.

In other words, the offerings to the church's General Fund suffers as people don't increase their total giving, but just divide up that which they normally give.

While I appreciate this reality, it is clear that details on how many evangelical churches function financially is not wholly understood. In our case (and with many other churches) the general fund gifts go to pay the mortgage, electricity, water bills, salaries, maintenance, custodial, and other regular expenses. The "special offerings" for designated items such as those listed above are legally mandated to go for what they have been designated (as they should be.) 

What does this mean for us and for others? 

Well, I don't know about other churches, but for ours, it means that we find ourselves annually limping into the end of the year hoping for a great December to bring us out of the red and into the black regarding expenses. At this writing, we're about $50,000 in the red. Now, we have funds in savings, but trends are trends and the reality is that if we can end strongly this year, more resources will be available for new work in the next. And, to be clear, the "new work" is not just experimental outreach and ministry ideas, but opportunities to impact the community and world for the Kingdom.

Worried?

Nope. Not at at all. In fact, I'm fully confident that God provides (as he always has) the resources needed to do all that we are called to do. I just wonder if any in the local church are stumbling into the new year when we could be moving forward strongly together. 

It's like I said last Sunday, "Sometimes, we're moving forward, but with the brake on. It's like driving a car down the street without realizing the emergency brake has been left engaged. You move forward, but not at the speed you could or should."

So, donate annually to the non-profit of choice on #GivingTuesday, but let's not forget that every Sunday is #SacrificialSunday where we can give as a part of the fullness of our worship.

Generous Life - Give Radically from Generous Giving on Vimeo.

We have sought, as a church, to live generously and to model for the individual members of our church family what this looks like and what it means. 

Here are some past postings referencing the gift of generosity:

We have numerous resources available, as well as personal budget coaches at our church, to help with managing one's money as God would desire. Click here for more details.


Tebow's Sex Life Exposed

In the era of sound bites and Tweets, news comes and goes at light speed. Our cultural norm is to elevate athletes and celebrities to high status. If an individual has a large following on social media and in entertainment news, he/she is seemingly "always" in the news.

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From the Official Tim Tebow Facebook page

Tim Tebow is one such individual.

He burst onto the scene as a high school senior quarterback at Nease High School. At least, for those of us who live in the northeast Florida area, that was when we began to hear his name on the local sports reports regularly. I remember the drama that came when he declared where he would be playing college football. His choice to attend the University of Florida was celebrated by many in this area. I distinctly remember him giving a faux apology to his then pastor, Dr. Jerry Vines, for not attending the University of Alabama (I believe I remember that correctly.)

From his first "jump pass" for a touchdown as a Gator, Tebow cemented himself into the American entertainment and sports culture. He has found much success in his journey - Heisman Trophy winner, NFL first-round pick, leading his team to playoff wins and most recently as one of the talking heads at the SEC Channel's version of "GameDay Live." 

Tim's celebrity status has transcended football.

He is a celebrity and he knows the world is watching.

I have found that as Jenny Rapson recently wrote in her open to letter to Tebow on her blog: I know that people love to love you or they love to hate you.

Amazingly, for many the love/hate issues have to do with Tebow's statements about faith and Christianity. He has spoken consistently since a microphone was first thrust into his face, he has been winsome and not condescending. Some take issue with his touchdown prayer stance (which either affectionately or derisively became known as "Tebowing") but by and large, Tebow's walk as a Christian has been personal, clear and consistent. He even seems to have fun in life, which apparently frustrates some who struggle with seeing a good-looking, popular, athletic Christian enjoying life. 

Some of the love/hate has more to do with the logo on his football helmet while in college than his faith.

But, I digress.

Yesterday, I was told he was in the news again, but this time it wasn't about a potential tryout for an NFL team or regarding some antics at the SEC Network. This time it was about his love life and his breakup with his girlfriend Olivia Culpo.

Tebow has been open and clear about his conviction to remain chaste and a virgin until he enters into a biblical marriage relationship. That statement from a teenager or college freshman is powerful. However, it seems that many who heard him make these claims years ago just politely shook their head and quietly thought "Yeah. . .we'll see how long that lasts."

Tweet: Apparently a man with personal convictions is a rare thing. @davidtark Apparently a man with personal convictions is a rare thing.

From all reports, Tim has kept his vow of celibacy and is waiting.

And, according to news reports that are flooding the internet, this decision has cost him his latest relationship with Olivia Culpo.

As with most entertainment news reports (which used to be touted as "celebrity gossip") stories come out quickly even if all the facts are not known.

I think it is unfair to Tim and whomever he is dating at the time that all relationship details are presented to the world. I know, the argument is that if a person desires to be in the public eye, he/she is willingly sacrificing privacy. I have heard that for years, but it seems a pretty shallow excuse for spreading personal details. As is the case often, the persons whose details are shared end up being hurt, or at a minimum judged unfairly.

So, Tebow is in the news again because he is a good looking guy who has decided to remain sexually pure.

This is newsworthy?

Some people seem to be collectively shaking their heads as if to say "What's wrong with this guy?"

At the same time, the cultural shift that now proudly wears open sexuality like a new pair of shoes and proclaims victory of the "free love" generation is celebrated as progressive and evolved.

Tweet: The church struggles to be heard as we seek to minister to the refugees of the sexual revolution. @davidtark
 The church struggles to be heard as we seek to minister to the refugees of the sexual revolution.

As for Tim and Olivia - we probably will never know the full details regarding their breakup. And, we shouldn't.

In fact, one buried article on Us Magazine's webpage, regarding the breakup, states this:

Indeed, the Culpo source reiterates to Us that Tebow liked Culpo a lot, but her heart just wasn't ready for a new romance. "He was very into her," the source tells Us. "But she just got out of a long-term relationship, and was not interested."

However, that statement is not the one being tweeted. It is not the headline making rounds. The big story is that they broke up because Tim wouldn't have sex before marriage. True or not, the story reeks of an invasion of privacy, trivializes the sexual relationship between a man and woman, and while attempting to show Tebow as an old-fashioned prude, actually paints a horrible picture of Miss Culpo.

But, that's entertaining, right?

When all the dust settles and another celebrity story pushes Tim and Olivia off the trending page of Twitter, they will still be living their lives, seeking next steps and prayerfully, following God's lead.

Nevertheless, in the midst of this public fallout, there is value. Regardless what the dirty little details of this story truly are, this much is declared as true - Tim Tebow, a sports and entertainment celebrity who is immensely popular and has sought to speak consistently and in a winsome way about life and his relationship with Jesus Christ has taken a counter-culture stance on human sexuality and relationship. That position has given parents with young, impressionable children a jumping off point to talk about faith, sex and relationships in a healthy way.

From Jenny Rapson's open letter to Tim on For Every Mom, she says as much. . .

And now, thanks to the New York Daily News and the world wide interwebz, I also know that you’re not getting any (sex.) BY CHOICE. It seems you got dumped by this hot little number (no big deal, just Miss USA and Miss Universe) because you wouldn’t put out.

And it is BIG FREAKING NEWS! It seems everyone cares that you’re a virgin. THAT’S gotta feel kinda weird.

But Tim, trust me when I say, it’s her loss. And believe me when I say, words cannot express how grateful I am to you for not being ashamed to take a stand on premarital sex. Because although I don’t give two craps about football (sorry) I DO give two craps about teaching my kids that sex before marriage is not what God wants for us. That it is—dare I say?—wrong.

And Tim, I’ve got two sons, one on the cusp of puberty. And he DOES give two craps about football (and Jesus. Score!). And he thinks you’re pretty great because you love football and you love Jesus and I am 100% sure that at school today among his peers, he also learned that you love following God’s commands more than you love following your sexual desires. Because I am quite sure everyone in the 6th grade was talking about you and Miss Universe today.

And thank God they were. Thank God my son has someone super-famous and successful in the limelight saying the same things about sex that his dad and I are. Thank God and thank you, Tim Tebow.

My daughter is a little young for this conversation, but thanks to you, there are a lot of young girls reading this story today and realizing that there ARE men out there who will wait. There ARE men who will put God above themselves, who will do what’s right when it comes to sex. Because of you they now know that what the world tells them, that “no one waits”, is wrong. So THANK YOU again.

Tim, I don’t know how your heart is feeling today. Getting dumped is surely never fun. But may I encourage you and say that standing up for what you believe in is something you’ll never regret? I truly believe that, as much as I believe that you will find the RIGHT girl who is willing to wait for you, and willing to be 2nd in your heart to Christ.

I think she about sums it up.

I'm sorry Tim and Olivia's relationship is even newsworthy. I'm sorry I even know about it. However, there is redeeming value here as Rapson states. As for Tim and Olivia, perhaps those who declare to worship Christ as Tim does, should spend a few moments praying for these two who have now had very personal details of their lives (thought likely not fully accurate) spread across the internet. 

Tim - you're not my idol. You're not my hero. You are my brother in Christ. As a brother with a common Father, I pray for you. 

Olivia - I don't know much about you, but reports are you are a follower of Christ as well. That being said, I choose to not base an understanding of who you are based on flimsy reporting. It is clear that you deserve my prayers as well.

(Oh, I fully realize that odds of Tim and Olivia actually reading this blog posting are slim to none, but for those of us who claim the name of Christ, would you join me in praying for these two?)

 

 


Talk Is Cheap - Part 10 - Tongue Tied

11-29-15 - Talk Is Cheap - Part 10 - Tongue-Tied

Some points from James 3 to ponder:

  • Not everyone should be a teacher.
  • Those who do teach are held to higher scrutiny.
  • What we say reveals what is in our heart.
  • You cannot have negative speech and a positive heart.
  • A Christian has not just surrendered his/her heart to God, but his/her entire life (mind, soul, spirit, mouth, etc.)
  • James is really not talking about using profanity here (though that's not encouraged either) but about Christians who can praise God with their mouths in one moment and then curse their brothers and sisters in Christ in the next. "This ought not be so."

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Talk Is Cheap - Part 9 - Faith Works!

11-22-15 - Talk Is Cheap - Part 9 - Faith Works

I fully understand that this is now considered and old movie – a classic, you know, but when the third Indiana Jones movie came out, it did incredibly well at the box office. There was Harrison Ford and Sean Connery and the battle against the Nazis and the search for the elusive holy grail.

I loved that movie.

Then, the fourth one came out with the alien skulls and the nuked refrigerator. . .but I try not to remember that one.

Still, in that third one, “The Last Crusade” there was this scene where Indy was stepping out over an abyss and. . .well, watch this to remember the scene.

Indiana Jones from Anchorsaway Ministries on Vimeo.

 

There’s much about faith throughout the scriptures. It is a hallmark of who we are as Christians, but to just say “You need to have faith” seems to miss the mark as life moves forward.

June-17-mainIn fact, there are even seemingly contradictory teachings on faith in the Bible. Yet, because we know that God does not contradict Himself and his Word, therefore does not, we need to look into this to discern what God is saying.

God is gracious enough to give us a definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Hebrews 11:1 (ESV)

These two words “assurance” and “conviction” seem clear at first, but in truth, there’s much more here than the initial reading gives us. These two words are unusual and difficult to translate into English.

Some of you may remember the old English version of this passage that states “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

That doesn’t help much either.

So, before we get into this, ask yourself “Do you have faith?”

How do you know?

How can prove you have faith?

The evidence of faith is that there is a God in control. He reveals is existence in numerous ways and through his revelation and His Spirit, come assurance for those who believe.

James writes of faith clearly to the church and we are wise to listen. . .

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe--and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness" --and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. James 2:14-26 (ESV)

James cuts to the quick here and comes hard at the “faith question.”

At first, it seems to contradict Paul’s writings in Ephesians 2

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:8-10 (ESV)

Since we want to live by faith, obedient to God, with the mind of Christ and in the Word and every other Christian phrase and title we can think of, we must reconcile this.

Paul, one of the greatest leaders of the early church, an Apostle, teacher and preacher, wrote these words to a church steeped in Jewish legalism and Old Testament laws like circumcision. Many in the church were adding to the Gospel things that weren’t required for salvation and redemption. Paul was fight legalism and reminded the church then and us today that to add anything to the grace of God in the form of works neuters the grace and pulls the focus on us, not God.

James was battling the flip-side of this coin in the church. One group, Paul’s target, were legalists and working to get saved. The other group, James’ target, were living under the belief that “I prayed a prayer and received Jesus and therefore do not have to do anything now.”

Paul is talking about how to become a Christian.

James is talking about how to live as a Christian.

Our faith leads to action. It’s not bragging. It’s just the natural step of men and women of faith.

Now, what works follow faith?

That’s the journey that is exciting, isn’t it? To give you one answer would be doing harm to the body, because each of us are gifted and wired differently. Yet, even in our uniqueness, our foundation is on the Gospel and therefore, our works are those that esteem, elevate and bring honor to God.

This much we know, faith does not lead to sitting. Faith does not lead to just thinking. Faith does not lead to doing nothing.

Maybe our first action step is saying “Yes” to God and let Him lead. Then, as His church, we live equipped and together impact this world for Him.


There Are No "Participation Trophies" in Life

James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers made headlines earlier this year when he took his children's "participation" trophies away and returned them. Some decried this as mean-spirited. Others celebrated the move as something that many parents should be doing.

Here's Harrison's Instagram explaining why the trophies would be returned (and were according to later reports.)

 

More recently, he posted this update about his boys and their trophies (earned this time.)

 Perhaps that is the genesis for this trending commercial for Kia. 

 

 

 

Since we now have a generation that has been rewarded with trophies that are unearned (and likely collecting dust in their rooms on top of shelves) we must address how this impacts faith development and the understanding of eternity. For Boomers or Gen Xers to blame Millennials for their apparent desire to be gifted a trophy for just showing up is short-sighted. I mean, who started giving out the trophies any way?

Haydn Shaw, in his book Sticking Points: How to Get 4 Generations Working Together in the 12 Places They Come Apart, he shares this account:

A participant in a seminar I led told me about his experience with another parent whose child was on the same youth soccer team: "After our team was beaten soundly in a game, the other child's mother said we should make a 'parent bridge' for the players to run through as they come off the field to get their treats. Mostly joking, I said that as badly as the boys had played, we should just turn our backs and let them get their own treats. The mother was appalled. I asked her, when her son is thirty years old, still living at home, and unable to find a job, if she and her husband will make a bridge, cheer, and give him a juice box for trying his best? I don' think she thought I was funny."

When it comes to eternity, it is unfortunate that many (of all generations) will find themselves standing before Christ, expecting to be ushered into heaven, only to be told "I don't know you?"

That's not just some mythical fairy-tale story. For those of us who believe the Word of God to be true and take this Story seriously, there is a reality regarding the "end of life" trophies. Jesus speaks clearly about this here in Matthew's Gospel account:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’" Matthew 7:21-23 (ESV)

While eternity is a given for all, a home in heaven is only assured for children of God. Children of God are those who have been adopted into His forever family. That adoption comes through receiving Jesus Christ as Lord and surrendering to Him. Only children of the Father get a "trophy." And, it's not a participation trophy. It's a "crown of righteousness" for those who have overcome the world. The great thing about this trophy is that it has already been paid for and secured. You receive it as victors and you can only be a victor if you're "on the team."

 


GameDay Church and the Inevitable "Beer Question"

Since we announced the launch of GameDay Church at the site of Old St. Andrews Church prior to the Jaguars - Colts game on December 13, we have had many questions from various sources.

The Beer Question

Drink-beerWhether it has been from church members planning to help make it happen, other church leaders in the city, community friends or news agencies, it seems that a few questions regarding the church service rise to the forefront. They are. . .

  • Why are you doing this?
  • What will it look like?
  • What about beer?

Honestly, the beer question tends to be the first one we are asked. The other two tend to be logistical.

It seems that our response to the beer question has the potential of creating more controversy than a red cup at Starbucks.

Nevertheless, here's our answer to the "beer question."

"We are not providing it."

There. That's it. Simple, right? Well, I thought so, but apparently is not sufficient for some. 

Clarification

Let me be clear, just in case there is some misunderstanding. I do not partake of alcoholic beverages. I do not believe it is a good thing to do so. I do not recommend it at all. Likely, this is due to my upbringing and my years of working with teenagers from challenging homes where alcohol played a role, not to mention the under-age, binge drinking that I have observed and worked young people through. Therefore, the partaking of such is not encouraged by me.

Yet, it is clear that while getting drunk (Ephesians 5:18) is sinful and declared such in Scripture, the partaking of alcoholic beverages is not. I'm well versed in the "do not be a stumbling block" passage and affirm that, but I'm not going to break all that down in this posting, due to the fact it will result in the potential online, comment-driven, debates that do nothing to reach people for Christ and ultimately do the Kingdom no good, but if you'd like to read more regarding this question, from a biblical worldview, check out this link at GotQuestions. (GotQuestions is a solid, biblically-conservative Q & A resource.)

It appears that the only thing that could rival the questions of a Baptist church hosting a tailgating/worship service at an NFL game would be if we hosted a "Line Dancing" event. While the "Baptists don't dance" mantra still exists, I declare that it is more that most "Baptists can't dance." It's apparently a rhythm issue, at least in our church. This is made clear as many in our congregation attempt to clap in-time along with some of the worship songs. But. . .I digress.

No Beer Garden, but No "Beer Guards," Either

So, a simple answer of "We're not providing beer" leads to the follow-up question from some that sounds like this, "But, what if someone shows up with a beer in their hand?"

And, this is where my answer causes some raised eyebrows. Remember, we're meeting under an open-air tent. We will have a grill set up with some BBQ available and some bottled water as well. Yes, it is a family-friendly event, but then, so is the football game, right?

People will be walking by the tent on the way to the game. Most attendees will stop by for a few minutes, step under the tent, eat some BBQ, play some corn-hole and then move on to the stadium for the beginning of the game. Most, except for those serving and leading, are not thinking about going to a church service. They're thinking about going to an NFL football game.

And, some of those who stop by (not all, because not all who will partake of an officially NFL-licensed Bud Light that day, will be doing so at 11am) will have a beer in hand. And, we are NOT going to set "beer guards" by the entrance telling people to get rid of their beer before they can come in and worship and hear the Gospel. Why? Because we know at that point people will just walk away and think "That's not for me." 

A Simple Focus

1e85eb_ed431ec6c6b24d268fa5ece97ea14d84Simply put, our focus at GameDay Church (as it is at any of our campuses or events) is Jesus Christ. We focus on Him alone, and trust the Holy Spirit to do what He does best.

GameDay Church is an event. We acknowledge that. It is a front-door event for many. It is the church seeking to go where the crowd is, as opposed to simply creating another crowd.

Believing that God has led us to offer this worship and teaching experience at the cross-roads of cultural engagement, leads us to trust Him to draw those to Himself that day. Focus means we must not be side-tracked on issues that are not vital. This is not a watering-down of the Gospel. In fact, by being so solidly focused upon it, it leads us to be missionally engaged in ways that we often just read about and "amen" but never do.

Tweet: If Christianity is simply behavior-modification, then we have lost focus. @davidtark @gamedaychurch http://ctt.ec/B9h25+If Christianity is simply behavior-modification, then we have lost focus.

So, if you're a football fan and have friends who would never attend a traditional church service with you, why not get a few tickets here (use our GAMEDAY code) and come to GameDay Church on your way to the game? Let's trust God to do what His Word declares. He does more than modify behavior, he transforms hearts.

The question has been answered. Now, let's pray that God will draw many to Himself through His church.


Talk Is Cheap - Part 7 - Orphan Sunday

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As we continue our series through James' letter to the first century church, we land on the verse that gives practical examples of how to not only hear the Word, but to do what it says.

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:27 (ESV)

How appropriate that this past Sunday was "Orphan Sunday." 

I have shared in previous posts this week of the story our church has entered regarding the plight of the orphan. That journey continues to gather steam and last Sunday, we focused on why we advocate and then shared some practical steps for believers to enter the story as individuals.

One of the most amazing moments from last Sunday was the time of prayer over families who are either fostering children or are/have adopted children. To see the dozens of families stand before their church declaring that they have not only heard the Word in this area, but are doing the Word was amazing.

The fact that not every family is called to foster or adopt is clear, but so too is the reality that no Christ-follower can opt out of praying for or advocating for the orphan. This is a family story. . .a firstFAMILY story.

Prayer Cards for Clay County Children

We provided hundreds of prayer cards to members of our family last week. There were two varieties. The first had a name, gender and age of a child in our county. There were over 100 of these. These children are in our foster care system now and our prayer is for them, their families and the potential of a forever family stepping forward for them. Ages ranged from 4 months to 17 years.

The second group of cards featured six individuals. These are teenagers in our county who are just waiting. They are ready for adoption. Our prayer is that six Christian families inner county will say "yes" to adopt and provide these children homes.

Since we have been given permission to share these images and names, please take the time to pray specifically for these children. Their details are listed below.

 

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Brittany - Age 15

 

 

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Cordova - Age 13

 

 

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Dakota - Age 17

 

 

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Emilie - Age 16

 

 

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Joshua - Age 15

 

 

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Westley - Age 15

 


A Simple Gesture Makes a Major Impact

AN ORPHAN SUNDAY STORY. . .

Sometimes the seemingly "little things" mean more than we know.

Yesterday, we celebrated Orphan Sunday at our church and honored and prayed over the families who either are just entering the foster-care/adoption journey or have been a part of this story for years.

The stories were similar in that they all pertained to orphan care, but so unique due to each circumstance. Stories ranged from the joy and fear shared by young couples who have completed their required classes and home study and now are waiting for a placement, to those who adopted decades prior and honestly shared how the journey has been difficult and, at times, heart-wrenching. . .but ended with "I'd do it all over again." One couple revealed that they had fostered 120 children in their lifetime and had adopted seven. Another shared their adoption of a young man diagnosed with a mental disability. One couple shared how they had adopted two boys years ago and then the father stated "I was adopted as well." Wow! 

Some of the families who shared have been part of our church family for years. Others, for days. 

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I received this email from one of the moms who stood before the church to share and to receive the church's prayers. She and her husband are new to our church. They have brought a little boy into their family who faces some difficulties. Her note to me was another reminder of how great our God is and how being adopted into His family is vital. I asked permission to share this and it was granted:

Hi Pastor :)  
 
 
I just wanted to write and let you know that we really enjoyed and were encouraged by your sermon today.  Also, I wanted to share with you about something that happened while we were leaving.  I walked out of the gym (FYI - our 9:15am worship service is held in our Family Ministry Center/Gymnasium) and paused to let a lady pass. She came to me and said, "I just want to hug you" and she did.  I was caught off guard and was trying to figure out if I knew the woman... "Why was she wanting to hug me?"  It was not until I saw her walk away and fighting off tears that I realized she was touched by the sermon we heard this morning.  I have no idea who this lady is or if I will recognize her the next time I see her (I'm horrible with remembering faces) but as I was sitting in my car thinking about what had just occurred, I realized that she was expressing God's love and I was instantly overwhelmed in that moment.
 
I know we will be going through some tough times this week and I believe fully that I will look back at this simple hug from a woman that I do not know and I will feel comfort. Another thought is that this woman probably has no idea just how much that hug and seeing her love through tears means to me.  This is exactly what you have been talking about, she has, without even knowing it, supported my family by simply sharing raw emotion and an embrace of love.    
 
I know you do not know our story, but like many others', it is a tough one.  We love our little guy and have faith that God will continue to heal him.  We definitely have some challenging times ahead of us and I am thankful that we have found a church family to help us not only get through these tough times, but that will be fighting with us and encouraging us along the way.
 

Bevin, Buddie & Bathrooms - Election Day in the US

I was talking with a university student yesterday who made the statement that he felt that it was unlikely a Republican or conservative would ever be elected to the office of President again. I am not sure if that was a statement of lament or desire, but I responded that each party's adherents have said the same thing for generations and over time (normally every 8 to 12 years) they often find that the swinging doors to the White House welcome in a President of the opposing party.

Nevertheless, the underlying theme had less to do with the party affiliation of the current crop of presidential candidates and more to do with what has been described as a culturally seismic shift in morality and worldview. There has been much written about these shifts and I do not negate their reality. However, this week our nation experienced some revelations that show that perhaps the total cultural shift is not quite as clearly defined as some seem to propose.

This past Tuesday was election day in our nation. This being an "off year" there were many areas where no elections took place, but in the areas where they did, the nation was watching. 

There were three elections that drew the attention of the national media, and therefore the eyes and ears of many who follow politics and worldview shifts of culture.

Kentucky Governor's Race

First, the gubernatorial election in Kentucky drew quite a bit of focus. This was due, in no small part, to the fact that the Republican running for the office, Matt Bevin, was considered more than a long-shot to win. His stance against same-sex marriage and evangelical roots made him an easy target in the culture wars. Of course, Kentucky is the home of Kim Davis, who made national and international news as a county clerk when she refused to have her name affixed to marriage licenses for same-sex couples. Bevin's friendship with President Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and his history of donating funds to the seminary further painted him as an outsider, with no real chance to win.

Even the Republican Governors' Association pulled money for advertising when the polls were placing his opponent as the easy victor.

Apparently, no one told the voting public of Kentucky that Bevin stood no chance at winning. In fact, when the votes were tallied, he basically won in a statistical landslide and will be sworn into office as the Governor next year.

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Governor-elect Bevin, his wife & their nine children

Ohio Not "O-High-O"

Second, the state of Ohio was voting on the legalization of recreational marijuana use. Millions of dollars were spent to push the voting public to affirm this as a good option. College students were confronted with "Buddie," an anthropomorphic marijuana bud with a super hero's body as part of the advertising campaign to legalize pot. 

Ultimately, the movement went up in flames (no pun intended. . .okay, a little pun was intended) and even those who really wanted legal marijuana joined forces with those opposed to its legalization for moral reasons simply because of the literal monopoly that would develop as big business would own the legal growing and distribution rights of marijuana in the Buckeye state.

So, this culturally left-leaning movement died in the polls as the voters of Ohio (not O-High-O, as the promoters were advertising) voted NO.

 

Buddie
"Buddie" - PHOTO: Facebook/Responsible Ohio

No HERO in Houston

Third, and likely the most media-hyped and focused upon vote took place, not on the federal or state level, but at the city level. The city of Houston, Texas, the fourth-largest municipality in the nation, was voting to either ratify or revoke a bill touted as an anti-discrimination bill, that was pushed through the City Council by the urging of mayor Annise Parker. This bill was known as the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, or HERO, for short.

You may remember the threat to religious liberty that occurred in the city, and through Mayor Parker's office, back in 2014. I wrote about that here.

The battle-lines were drawn for the ratification of HERO and big business, the mainstream media, pastors, right-wing and left-wing pundits and even professional sports stars and leagues were weighing in on the matter. What was touted as an anti-discrimination ordinance was soundly defeated.

Why was something that seemed to create equal footing for all citizens defeated? Well, depending upon whose report you read (and I fully admit that all writers are biased to some degree, me included) it was either because "Hate" and "Fear" won out over logic, love and right-thinking, or because the only actual addition this ordinance gave to current anti-discrimination laws on the books within the state of Texas and nationally, was the allowance of any person to enter and use any public restroom regardless of the designated gender defined on the entrance. 

In Albert Mohler's Briefing posted on November 6, 2015, he references a number of stories featured in The New York Times and other media outlets.

The Houston Chronicle had numerous stories as well, as they should, being that the issue was a city ordinance. By and large, most writers were seemingly surprised by the overwhelming defeat of HERO.

Thee are numerous articles and debates as to whether the HERO actually contained "bathroom language" in its final format. It is a matter of fact that at one point, it did. 

Opponents declare that haters jumped on the "bathroom" issue as fuel to continue to repress those in the LGBT community. Proponents of the repeal declared that ultimately, the final language that left the bathroom door open was enough to garner the votes needed to repeal the ordinance, handily.

 

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PHOTO: David Bro/ZUMA Press/Newscom 

 

While the ordinance was defeated, the expansiveness of cultural shift under the banner of "anti-discrimination" and "inclusivity" will appear on ballots again, throughout the nation and likely will be addressed by the courts on a future date.

Personally, I am pleased with the results of all three of the election results mentioned in this post, but I do not see these as indicative of a moral and worldview shift back to the Bible. The world, as we know, will never celebrate the Christian worldview.

For Christians, this is a reminder that worldview matters and that, as the old hymn states, our "hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness." That means that we best be in the Word, saturated in the Gospel and focused on Christ. We should understand civics and be righteous, godly citizens, but remember this - our hope is not found in Washington, the state capital or even the ballot box. It is found in Christ alone. In Him we trust.

 

 


Help for the Parent of a Prodigal Child

 

I have just completed our mid-week morning Bible study with our senior adults. This is a great time of study and really is energizing for the remainder of the week. These life-long learners are inspiring to me and so encouraging.

I have discovered some pretty common threads among those in attendance. It seems that these senior saints have varied stories of challenge and difficulty. Now, they're not complaining, but life offers challenges and these from the Traditionalist and early Boomer generations have experienced much.

Many have shared with me, as a way of encouragement, their journeys as parents of prodigals.

The story of the prodigal son in the Bible gives us hope, but in the midst of the journey, there is great pain. The grief of a loving parent seems overwhelming at times. Far too many of you can relate.

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In Ann Mobley's book If I Tell You I'm Gay, Will You Still Love Me? (available at our church's online bookstore) she shares the painful and true story of truth and grace through the difficult days with her son. 

While the prodigal story may involve same-sex attraction and an abandonment to orthodox Christianity, that is just one small area that leads the child down toward the identity of "prodigal." Stories are different. Wounds are unique. Yet, regardless of your story's details, these points from Mobley are helpful for the Christian parent struggling with what to do while the prodigal is still on the run.

What to Do While Waiting in Hope

Spend time in God's Word.

Choose to believe and live by the truths of God's Word. Regular reading and meditating on God's Word will keep you focused on God's truths and enable you to discern the lies of Satan. Discouragement is a major tool of the Enemy against God's people, but God's Word is your source of encouragement.

Pray for your child.

Do not underestimate the power of prayer. Pray for your son or daughter that God will, by the power of His Spirit, do a strong and eep work in his or her life, drawing him or her to himself and destroying the strongholds of the Enemy in his or her mind and heart.

Pray for yourself.

As you pray for change in your loved one's life, be aware that God may desire to make changes in your life. Honest self-examination is needed. An important reminder is this - Guard your heart agains bitterness (Hebrews 12:15).

Keep the lines of communication open.

Having open lines of communication is often the fruit of responding in love to your child. God's Word reminds us that love is not just expressed in words but also in our actions. We need to ask God to teach us how to show his kind of love to our loved ones. Remember, we are only responsible for our own responses, attitudes, and actions. We cannot dictate or control the responses, attitudes, or actions of our loved ones. The relationship and paths of communication may be damaged or broken by their own choosing, and they may not respond in kind to our overtures of love. That is painful for the parent, family, or friend reaching out to them. But, we should not allow their negative or unloving response toward us dictate our behavior.

Continue to love your child and "keep the porch light on."

Peter Lord, in his book, Keeping the Doors Open, urges parents to adopt an open-door policy; figuratively speaking, "Keep the porch light on." Let your loved ones know that he or she can always come home or visit as often as he or she wants. You may disapprove of his or her lifestyle and the choices he or she is making, but still love them and do not reject them. Don't let the separation be on your part. It' heartbreaking for the family when a son or daughter chooses to close the door of communication and walk away, cutting off all contact, perhaps even disowning the family and leaving no way for the family to maintain contact. But parents still can pray and must pray. God knows where your child is.

Don't travel alone on this journey.

Reach out to others who can pray with you and sometimes just listen to you. Look for friends or family members who view life from a biblical perspective, who will stand with you in a loving and committed biblical position and provide spiritual and emotional encouragement. 

Never give up. Keep on praying.

Jesus told his disciples a parable to encourage them to keep on praying, even if they didn't seem to be getting any results from their prayers. He said they should not "lose heart" or "give up." Just because we do not see things happening in the visible, physical lives of our loved ones does not mean our Father is not listening or responding to our prayers.

Holding on to the God of Hope!

Today, whatever your circumstances, you can have hope. Our hope is in the character of a faithful God, in the promises of his Word, in the power of prayers offered in faith in Jesus' name, and in the Holy Spirit who can work powerfully in the hearts and minds of our loved ones - and our hope is in the never-ending love of the heavenly Father for his prodigal sons and daughters.

These are great reminders and needed in these days. It hearkens back to the story of the Prodigal Son in Scripture. These characteristics of the father in the story are key for us as parents:

  • He relinquished control of his son, let him go, and allowed him to reap the consequences of his wrong decisions.
  • He never quit loving his son and remained watchful in the hope that his son would return. 
  • He welcomed his son back - not with a scolding, not with words of condemnation for his sinfulness, not with a consignment to the servants' quarters, but with compassion, love, a strong embrace, and even a kiss! (BTW - imagine what he looked and smelled like upon the return, especially after sleeping with the pigs.)
  • He was not ashamed of his wayward son, but threw a big celebration party, inviting everyone to rejoice with him. His son was safely home!

May all parents of prodigals take hope in these words. God knows what you're facing. He loves your child even more than you. Trust him to do what he does best and rest in the truths of God's Word.

 


What's In a Name? The Birth of the firstFAMILY

Since the chartering of First Baptist Church of Orange Park (the church I pastor) in 1951, the focus of our mission has been and always will be to honor and love God and to reach people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Over the years the location of our church has changed as has leadership and models of ministry. However, our focus has never shifted from the Gospel and it never will.

(CLARIFICATION: First Baptist Church was actually begun as a Bible study class on Mrs. Carrie Clarke's front porch in 1919. In 1921, the church held its first business meeting. The sponsor of the new church in Orange Park was Murray Hill Baptist Church in Jacksonville, where Mrs. Clarke was a member. The 1951 date is when the church was officially chartered with a constitution and by-laws. The church was incorporated in 1976. So, regardless which date you choose, FBCOP has been around for quite some time.)

To state the obvious, the community where God planted our church campus has changed dramatically since 1951. I still run into some Orange Parkians (not sure that's really a word) who will tell me they remember when the four-lane, divided avenue our church is located was nothing but a dirt road with orange trees planted in the medians. Now, most all orange trees in Orange Park are just images on our street signs.

As our community has dramatically changed, we have sought to seek ways to continue reaching people for Christ in our neighborhood and beyond. Our county and nearby Jacksonville, Florida are areas that identify greatly by geographic names and community identifiers. When one speaks of living in Jacksonville to a native, the next question is "Where in Jacksonville?" and that question is a pointed one with an expected answer of a region such as "the Westside, Southside, Riverside, Avondale, San Marco, Northside, the Beaches, Mandarin, etc." Each area has a distinct identity and then within each area, there are more distinctions. In Clay County, where Orange Park is located, those distinctions often are defined by the names of housing developments or neighborhoods such as Pace Island, Eagle Harbor, Oak Leaf, the Ravines, Ridgecrest, Bear Run, Orange Park South, etc.

Yet, over time as as we have grown to be less internally-focused and have sought God's lead into areas of ministry, doors have opened for our church to begin new expressions of church in various locations throughout our county, Jacksonville and beyond.

"First Baptist Church of Orange Park" has been the name of our church since its founding. Apparently, there were no points given for creativity back in the 1950s. As is the case with many legacy churches, names prominently stated the denominational affiliation and the geographic location. In our case, it also designates that we arrived on the scene before any other Baptist churches. For those who have grown up in the Baptist world, this is normal. Yet, over the years I have been asked many times (and more recently) if all First Baptist Churches are the same. I used to joke that we were franchises like McDonald's, but have stopped due to the fact that most of the people asking believe me. 

In some areas of our nation, the denominational tagline is a hindrance. That is not so much a problem in the area of Florida where we are located, but thanks to the protesting, pseudo-church in Kansas that uses the Baptist name, I have had to explain to a number of young men and women that we are in no way connected to that group.

Proverbs 22:1 reminds us the value of a good name and thankfully, our church has been able to develop a name in the community over the years that brings with it good connotations. This is due to our church family members and their willingness to love people and serve those in our local schools and community. 

Forty New Expressions of Church

God is sending us outside Orange Park.

As we have been praying through and I have been preaching through the reality that God sends his church into a world that needs light and salt, it is clear now that we will not be limited only to the area of Orange Park. We have already experienced the sending of missionaries and church planters throughout the world, as those from our family have said "Yes" to the call and have been sent. 

There will be more.

There will also be more churches birthed through the ministry of First Baptist. Our desire is to see forty new expressions of church birthed through First Baptist. These will be satellite locations, new church plants, special-event gatherings and culturally-defined churches. 

The birth of the firstFAMILY

In truth, the ministry of First Baptist will be a mini-network of churches and missions founded on the Gospel and focused on implementing the "Big 3" of 1) Loving God, 2) Loving people, and 3) Making disciples.

GameDay Church at the Jacksonville Jaguars home games is one of our first new endeavors. As we began to put the pieces together for this expression of church, it became clear that we would be seeking to connect with people throughout the Jacksonville area. While the name "Baptist" may be attractive to some and a turn-off to others (and much has been written about that over the years, so I won't delve into that) we discovered that the regional name was going to be a larger barrier. Missionally-speaking, it is unwise to create barriers to reaching people with the Gospel, especially since we are called to engage the culture for the sake of God's Kingdom (not our little ones.) 

First family logo all blue

So, firstFAMILY was birthed and has become the banner under which all our ministries, venues, and mission endeavors function. The name is all-encompassing and travels well.

Don't Hear What I'm Not Saying (or Don't Read What I'm Not Writing)

Here are some answers to the FAQ:

  • We are NOT changing the name of the church. First Baptist Church of Orange Park remains our legal name and also remains the hub of all ministries hosted as the firstFAMILY. Our offices are at FBCOP. Our primary worship services and ministries are housed at this location. In a sense, FBCOP is the headquarters for all that is firstFAMILY.
  • As mission support is shifting for Southern Baptists, we will continue to give through the Cooperative Program, but also will be supporting missionaries on the field who are not funded by the International Mission Board or North American Mission Board, but who are doctrinally-aligned with us. In many cases, these are missionaries who were previously serving with the IMB, but have been released recently due to financial realignment. This mission support will be under firstFAMILY Missions and will help us continue to engage the world for the sake of the Gospel, especially in areas where we have connections and a vested interest.
  • Satellite campuses will be tagged with the name firstFAMILY. We have opportunities now and are praying through others regarding the placement of campuses in the Northside, Oakleaf and Swimming Pen Creek areas. Since geographic titles are not bad, these will likely be named something like firstFAMILY-Northside, firstFAMILY-Oakleaf, etc. The names flow better than "First Baptist Church of Orange Park at the Northside." Not only does that have two regional names, causing confusion, it is too long. A firstFAMILY-Toronto venue is not out of the realm of possibilities either.
  • New expressions of church will continue to be birthed in the firstFAMILY network. GameDay Church is our first non-traditional church expression. 
  • We are developing a Church Planting Center at our church, that will work in conjunction with the Jacksonville Baptist Association to assess, prepare and resource those called to plant churches.
  • Our orphan care ministry is already growing and will continue to expand services to those seeking to foster or adopt children as well as support children located in orphanages locally and internationally.

We continue to seek clarity regarding where God is at work in our area and throughout the world and will join Him there. Rather than create crowds, we will go where they already gather, taking the message of the Gospel with us and trusting God's Spirit to do what He always has. Our role is to be obedient.

There is value and power in the name "family." In fact, it is a "good name." When people join God's family, they cease to be "those people." This is a significant step. The term "family" brings with it a sense of identity and unity. 

These are exciting days and I'm convinced the best is yet to come.


ONE Service - 2015

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We gathered together as a church family yesterday for ONE Service. This was a challenging undertaking as we met together for worship, family business, and the declaration of God's Word together in one service. Based on what people have been buzzing about the past day, there was great joy and excitement in gathering together. 

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I'm excited for ONE Service 2016. We're already planning it.

ONE Service 2015 from First Family on Vimeo.

 


The Strength of the Church That Risks

If you do a search online for churches that risk you find page after page focusing on insurance for religious organizations. These are gathered under the title "Risk Management." In other words, this is the exact opposite of what I was actually searching. 

I was not seeking to find ways to manage risk, though I'm not saying that's necessarily bad, especially in the area of protecting families and property. It just seemed funny that the sites that popped up on my screen focused solely on the ability to keep churches safe and I was seeking to find examples of churches who refuse to stay safe (and I'm not talking about insurance or lawsuit related issues.)

Over my twenty-plus years in pastoral ministry I have served on church staff that sought to maintain status quo at times. I've also experienced moments that could be described simply as "risky endeavors."

I have not taken a survey. I have not studied the data on this. I'm speaking simply from my personal perspective and what I discern to be true about the church where I pastor. 

Tweet: When we take risks, we are at our best. @davidtark http://ctt.ec/_W3aN+ When we take risks, we are at our best.

The church that refuses to take risks soon becomes irrelevant to the community in which it lives.

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It seems to me that most every church plant and new start, and I'm not just talking about new churches planted recently, but when legacy churches began decades and maybe centuries ago, there was great risk involved.

Maybe risk isn't the word the comes to mind, but it is accurate. At some point in the early part of the 20th century, in the community where the church I pastor is located, a woman began hosting a Bible study for children on her front porch. This Bible study was the genesis of what became First Baptist Church of Orange Park. Now, Mrs. Clarke likely didn't see that Bible study as risky, but looking back at the circumstances, it was. There was a need revealed to a woman who loved her community and area children. Like many planters in today's culture, when you throw out a crazy idea like a group gathering to study the Bible, there is no way to know who will show up or even if the effort will take root. 

In this case, it did. There were other factors at play in the birthing of the local Baptist church, and hindsight is always 20/20, but at the time, there was no way to know if a church would be birthed and if so, would it mature.

Here we are a number of decades later and as I look back at our storied history, it is truly miraculous that we still exist. Like many churches, there have been some great chapters, but just as many terrible ones. When I was called to pastoral staff here back in the mid-1990s, this church was still healing from scandals and pastoral failings from a decade earlier. 

We took risks for the sake of the Gospel

In a different era, under the leadership of Dr. Allen Harrod, our Senior Pastor at the time, this church took some significant risks. Dr. Harrod's leadership in this time was essential. He led a church reeling from scandal and poor theology into an era of growth and solid Gospel footing. Facilities were built. Others were upgraded. Ministries were developed and not unlike the birthing of this church decades prior, no one really knew how these new efforts would pan out.

Eleven years ago I was called to serve as Lead Pastor here. Since ministry options and new ideas had become the norm in our church culture, risk was not viewed as our enemy. It was not something viewed as frightening. This is likely due to the many new steps taken under the tenure of Dr. Harrod.

I think back to events and ministry options we began under the title "This is an experiment. Let's see if it will work." In truth, we were seeking to discover ways to continually look outward in a church culture that defaults to looking inward. The biggest challenge was revealed quickly. 

Most people avoid risk at all costs

This is true for people in the church as well. 

If your church has an influx of "transfer members," which many legacy churches do, there is a tendency for transferred fear (or risk-averse culture) to infect a growing, outwardly-focused family.

Yet, as one wise senior adult told me years ago, "It's not that we're so afraid of new things. We just need you to lead us into understanding what it will mean and why it's worth the risk."

That's the role of the pastor/leader. 

So, as I look back over the years, I remember some pretty risky efforts in ministry (at least for us) that slowly moved our church to begin to live more missionally while presenting an attractional God to those who never even knew He existed.

There are numerous things that precipitate a risky choice in church life. In most cases, it's the revelation that to do nothing new leaves a local church just going through the motions and eventually wondering why they aren't growing or living effectively on mission.

As I read the Bible, I see numerous risky steps taken by men and women of God. In each case, whether it was Moses speaking boldly to Pharaoh, David stepping in front of a giant with little more than a sling, Esther approaching the king, or even Jesus declaring his role to the religious and political leaders in Jerusalem, these were only risky from the human perspective.

Adversity is very big when it’s all you can see. But it’s very small when it’s surrounded by opportunity. - Glen Llopis

Tweet: The church that refuses to risk is the same church that refuses to step out in faith. We call those dead churches. @davidtark The church that refuses to risk is the same church that refuses to step out in faith. We call those dead churches.

Taking risks for the sake of the Gospel is not to be done apart from prayer.

Tweet: To step out in faith without listening, hearing and discerning God's voice isn't risky. It's dumb. @davidtark http://ctt.ec/ao2R5+ To step out in faith without hearing, discerning and listening to God's voice isn't risky. It's dumb.

So, take some risks. Dare to step out. It's when you're at your best as a church.

Our latest risky endeavor is GameDay Church. Check it out here - gamedaychurch.org.


It's Now Newsworthy That Women Are Clothed

When I was a teenager, there was a section in Sports Illustrated magazine titled "Signs of the Apocalypse." These were short blurbs in sports news that were strange and funny and with tongue firmly planted in cheek, the magazine stated they were signs the end of the age was upon us.

Recently, in this age of strange news, a story hit the airwaves and the web that if published on April 1 would have been chalked up as another "April Fool's Day" joke. It seems that Playboy magazine has decided that it is now time to stop publishing nude photographs of women. 

In an article in The Week, the decision was described this way:

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. As CEO Scott Flanders so delicately told The New York Times: "You're now just one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so it's just passé at this juncture." The revamped magazine will keep its investigative pieces and interviews, and introduce a "sex-positive" female columnist and "PG-13" version of the Playmate of the Month.

The comment that stands out here is this one "You're now just one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so it's just passé at this juncture."

image from http://s3.amazonaws.com/hires.aviary.com/k/mr6i2hifk4wxt1dp/15101416/4eb29520-195b-4518-9b5a-a38953da4099.png
Photo credit: x-ray delta one / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

That speaks immensely and to be honest, it reveals much about our cultural shift. Gone are the days when Hugh Hefner was viewed as radical and became the "hero" of men seeking some dangerous (and sinful) voyeuristic pleasure. Playboy magazine loses money, but is viewed as a promotional tool for the Playboy brand. According to the article referenced above, the Playboy website removed nudity in 2014 to make it safe for work. This statement reveals much about the American workplace now. Apparently, surfing Playboy's website is not a problem in the workplace.

The magazine founded by Hugh Hefner has famously celebrated a lifestyle of debauchery and overt sexuality. While many women, celebrities, sports figures and models have graced the covers and centerfolds, the corporation has long been viewed as demeaning to women.

This perspective has changed some in our culture over the past few years as more women serve in leadership roles at Playboy and many others have voiced that posing for the magazine is more about empowerment and liberation than objectification. 

That is amazing statement.

It's About the Articles, Right?

For years, the joke has been that people purchase Playboy magazine to read the articles. I guess we will see.

The magazine has run articles since its inception and broke some ground when it secured an interview with then Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. That article was controversial in that an avowed Christian, and at the time, a Southern Baptist, sat down for an interview with a magazine known for it's photographs of nude women rather than it's political essays. Carter's interview drew many comments. When Carter stated "I've committed adultery in my heart many times," political pundits declared his candidacy to be over.

Nowadays, for a presidential candidate to sit for an interview with Playboy or another magazine or media entity known for overt sexual imagery and liberal-leaning articles, most people would not bat an eye.

Apparently, there are numerous serious articles written over the years in Playboy. The political leanings and cultural foci have been consistent over the years. The test is now to see if Playboy can survive in its new format as a combination of a Victoria's Secret catalog and Time magazine.

Why Should We Care?

The simple reason this story matters is that it is illustrative of the changing landscape of our culture. That which used to be outside the norm and offensive is now so common that the shock factor is gone. Some would say that magazines as an entity will soon cease to exist. This is likely for most as the growth of social media and magazine apps increases. 

The boundaries have been moved. 

The cultural rules have changed.

Hugh Hefner may still be lounging around in his silk pajamas with numerous "girlfriends" young enough to be his grandchildren, but even Hugh isn't shocking anymore.

The Church in a Safe Playboy World

Well, just because Playboy is choosing not to publish nude photographs, calling it "safe" is still quite an understatement. Overt celebration of promiscuous and "free-love" sexuality is not safe.

Tweet: Just putting clothes on a model does not change a world-view. #playboy http://ctt.ec/cWH5Z+ Just putting clothes on a model does not change a world-view. 

The church must remember that the battle is not against flesh (no pun intended) and blood, but against a spiritual enemy who seeks destruction. All that God created as beautiful, our enemy attempts to hijack. This is the battle of world-views.

A Christian world-view gives perspective from a biblical foundation.

It is imperative that the church focuses on what has been written, not in a news article, a blog and definitely not in Playboy, but in the inerrant Word of God. We must live what it says and be doers of the Word.