firstFAMILY Podcast 025: Our Journey of Church Revitalization

 

We are seeing over 900 churches close down annually in the SBC. The numbers are daunting and cannot be ignored. Yet, the question remains "What should be done?" The truth is that some churches need to close. They forsook their gospel witness years ago and are nothing more than buildings in communities. However, there are many who are positioned for rebirth and with partnerships with healthier churches, a rebirth can occur, thereby keeping a gospel witness alive and well in communities where it is needed. In this podcast I share our journey of revitalization with Oak Harbor Baptist Church, a church that apart from partnership and help would be closing it's doors within the year. We're in the midst of revitalization and it is not easy, but needed. Perhaps this could help you lead well into such a story.

Our Partnership Agreement with Oak Harbor Church


The Danger of Living in an Echo Chamber

Last year's election cycle revealed what many of us already knew - echo chambers exist and it's easier to see that others live within them and difficult to acknowledge when we do.

What is an "echo chamber?"

The practical definition is an enclosed space where sound reverberates...or echoes.

In this aspect, however, we are not speaking of physical sites where sound reverberations can be heard, but social sites, mostly online, but not limited to that. 

The Washington Post ran an article last year titled "Confirmed: Echo chambers exist on social media. So what do we do about them?"

In Christine Emba's report, she shares results from social scientists on the reality of such chambers. 

The study focused on how Facebook users interacted with two narratives involving conspiracy theories and science. Users belonging to different communities tended not to interact and tended to be connected only with “like-minded” friends, creating closed, non-interacting communities centered around different narratives — what the researchers called “echo chambers.” Confirmation bias accounted for users’ decisions to share certain content, creating informational cascades within their communities.

Recently, one of my online friends who holds vastly different views politically, socially, and theologically, shared a story online that was opposite my view on many levels. We discussed the views cordially and I shared the reality that the views espoused were simply echoes of others. The concept of living in an echo chamber is a reality, and I am not immune either. 

The Echo Chamber of Politics

Social scientists and political scientists have studied the surprising (to some) results of last year's US Presidential election. As results came in where states were colored either blue (Democrat) or red (Republican) to indicate Electoral College votes, our news showed the county-by-county vote totals of our state, Florida. 

I would not be surprised to see other state breakdowns to show similar results. Here are Florida's results (screenshot from The Guardian)

Screenshot 2017-02-04 10.51.01
Screenshot from The Guardian

For the most part, the blue counties are where large universities are located (FSU, UF, UCF, USF, UM, FIU, FAU, etc.) They are also the locations, other than Alachua County, of urban areas in our state. 

This is no surprise in that many students in university settings are challenged intellectually regarding their belief systems and sense of fairness. It seems that over the decades, many of our universities have embraced a humanist worldview that leans left ideologically, politically, and theologically. This is not news. 

However, I am not saying that individuals abandon their convictions and beliefs just because they enroll in college. In fact, no university populace is homogenous (well, except for Saturdays in the fall during football season) in their beliefs or support of ideologies. Yet, it is true that many students find themselves exposed to a worldview that sees things vastly different than the one experienced growing up under parental authority once at college.

It is at this level, the echo chamber develops. 

And it is not just in the liberal, humanistic worldview world. 

Just in case it's misunderstood, I'm not saying that the red candidate's voters were not in echo chambers. They were, too.

I am just pointing out how so many who leaned left were surprised at the election results primarily because they were trapped in an echo chamber. The same has been proven true for other sides over the years.

No one is immune.

The Christian Echo Chamber

As Christians, we must guard against the echo chamber as well.

Dr. Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary shared this in The Briefing from August 4, 2016 in a story about Roger Ailes and Fox News:

But as we’re thinking about the entire question of this media ecology, there are two other issues that thinking Christians should keep in mind. This has to do with the echo chamber and what is known as confirmation bias. One of the great risks to all of us, whether of the left or the right, Christian or non-Christian, is that we will situate ourselves within a cocoon in which we hear no dissenting voices and no contrary arguments. This is probably, to be honest, more a problem for liberals than conservatives in terms of the print media because of the dominance of the liberals in major newspapers and editorial boards. But on television Fox News largely leveled the field, and now there is the risk that anyone of the left or the right or any other perspective can spend 24 hours a day listening to nothing but the echo of one’s own political positions and the bias of hearing confirmation of what one already believes.

This is where Christians need to understand the discipline of forcing ourselves to hear contrary arguments in order to understand evangelistically and apologetically the worldview of those who may not agree with us on so many issues. The political and moral—the worldview divide in America is now so deep that we can cocoon ourselves and hear almost no one who disagrees with us.

Some fear that even listening to dissenting political or ideological opinions flies too close to "the appearance of evil" but I hearken back to Paul's encounter at Mars Hill. To lovingly engage those far from God with the Gospel leads us out of the echo chamber (which for Christians can be filled with empty "Amens" on social issues apart from biblical foundation.) 

If you check my Twitter account, you'll see that I follow many people. Many of those I follow view the world through a lens (a worldview) vastly different than the biblical one I do. They hold to beliefs of Scripture that I do not. They argue in favor of things that I believe are evil and wrong or at best, short-sighted. Yet, I "follow" them. To be clear, just because I follow you online, does not mean I agree with you. 

Yet, to be clear, as a Christian I must spend the bulk of my time in God's Word when it comes to having a biblical worldview. Apart from the Gospel, I have no valid discourse with those who are pre-Christian.

Winning debates is not the goal.

Watching God win souls is.


Worldviews And the Divide Over LGBT Rights

Local news for the past few days in Jacksonville, Florida has featured stories centered upon the Jacksonville City Council and the Human Rights Ordinance proposal before the city. This is not the first time the ordinance has been presented and while past pushes for its passage have failed, as an observer, it seems more likely to pass now.

What is the Human Rights Ordinance?

Local news reporter Stephanie Brown of WOKV radio summarizes it this way:

A new bill that would expand anti-discrimination protections to the LGBT community for housing, employment, and public accommodations. (full story)

A full copy of the HRO (I believe it's the latest version) may be read here.

Ultimately the ordinance adds the wording "sexual orientation, gender identity or expression" throughout the proposal in addition to current wording designed to affirm and provide equality for all citizens within the city. This latest version offers exemptions for religious organizations and companies. This is why proponents believe it will pass now.

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Photo credit: D. A. Lewis via Visual Hunt / CC BY

I am not for the ordinance. I have theological and philosophical reasons to not affirm this. However, I do not live in Duval County (Jacksonville) but what happens in Jacksonville impacts all surrounding counties and suburbs as well. I live in a neighboring community, but one of the campuses of our church actually is in Duval County. While my stance opposing the ordinance is not popular, I hold to it and...I'm not mad. 

I'm Not Mad

Now, it's not a sin to be angry. Righteous anger was demonstrated by Christ. Remember when he turned over chairs and made a whip? That's a crazy story, right? Yet, in his anger he did not sin. The problem with many of us is that our "righteous anger" is far from righteous. I'm not saying people have no right to be angry. I am saying that often Christians claim righteous anger and they have no love. Apart from love, anger is not righteous. Otherwise, we become clanging cymbals that may spout truth, but will never be heard.

Based on what I have seen in local politics and online, there are many clanging cymbals out there.

Oh, one other thing about this - just because I am not mad does not mean I am happy or in agreement.

Hundreds Lined Up to Speak

The local news reported that hundreds flooded the City Council chambers. The citizens attending were told that everyone who desired to speak for or against the HRO would have their chance. That led to overflow rooms and people lining up and the meetings extending to the next day. The discussions were heated and divisive.

On the surface, the story seems to simply be about groups pushing against or affirming LGBT citizens and the lifestyle of those identifying as such.

It is, but it is also much deeper.

It Is About Worldview

This is about worldview.

I was prompted to write this post based on a short clip that was featured on First Coast News Facebook page. The local news station has a talk show that airs during the day called "The Chat." I have never watched a full episode, primarily because I am not home when it airs, and to put it simply, I am not their target demographic. The clips I have seen scrolling on my Facebook timeline have been interesting and humorous at times. I have friends who have appeared on the show as guests. So, let me be clear, I'm not bashing the show and I am not angry at what was said. It is a talk show, modeled after some nationally syndicated ones that are similar. The ladies at the table are paid to converse about current affairs and things that the viewing audience finds interesting. They do this well. Yet as this clip played (and yes, since it was short I watched it) it was clear the side of the aisle that the hosts were sitting regarding the HRO, but more importantly, I heard clear worldview statements.

The clip that played on my timeline is below:

 

The two ladies speaking in this clip, Catalina Alers-Alers (from Orange Park - whoo hoo) and Maria Chrissovergis shared their beliefs and...it's their show and they should.

While I disagree with the hosts' points, I believe their comments shed insight.

Ms. Alers-Alers states "Leave religion out" when discussing the HRO. I get this. I have heard it before and many people I talk with would agree with her. She is likely referring to, as she alluded, the many who spoke in opposition to the ordinance. I have watched a few clips of the feed and there are many who did quote Scripture (which they definitely have the right to do, and I would affirm and agree.) I can also see why Ms. Alers-Alers would say "leave religion out."

The fact of the matter is that people who are religious (in this story that refers to those claiming to be Christian) in our communities would state - it is really impossible to leave religion out. That's a worldview perspective. Some would say "Oh I can separate my faith from every day life." Perhaps, but as I have experienced, my faith is more than just something I've added into my life. When I became a Christian, Christ became my life, so in truth, I cannot separate it or "leave it out." Now, I don't have to be a jerk about it, but that's another point.

When religion is viewed similarly to club membership, it would not be hard. I agree that many see church membership and religion as a spiritual version of the Kiwanis, Lions Club, lodge or Rotary. Not bashing those groups, just saying - church shouldn't be considered similar. (Oh and if your church is just another club...consider joining another.)

Ms. Chrissovergis began with a comment about her gay friends who are good citizens. I won't argue with that. I'm sure they are. My friends and family members who are LGBT are good citizens, too. They are my friends and family members, and I love them (and believe it's reciprocal) but we disagree on some obvious things. Not just on political and cultural issues, but biblical ones as well. Why? Because we have different worldviews.

Ms. Chrissovergis continues to "preach" as she stated. She leaves with "I'm not here to judge and we're to love our neighbor." I would warn that it is easy to judge, even if you claim you're not. In this case, there may be some judgment of those in the City Council room who opposed the HRO. Just saying. It's a slippery slope. Yet, I believe Ms. Chrissovergis was seeking to emphasize the "love your neighbor" theme.

Well, AMEN to the "Love our neighbor" statement. I affirm that. Not because I choose to interpret Scripture that way, but because a biblical worldview centers on taking Scripture as inerrant and absolutely true and Jesus affirmed the Greatest Commandment when he declared in Mark 12...

And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’  The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” - Mark 12:30-31 ESV

The command begins with loving God. I'm not hearing the ladies on "The Chat" disagree with that. I'm just clarifying. Loving God fully is the starting point. Apart from that, there is no capacity to truly love neighbor. And, here's a truth often ignored -

You can love someone truly, but not affirm everything about them or their choices. 

Most parents get this.

The divide in our community and culture remains. It will likely grow wider.

While I am opposed to the HRO and believe God's design for man and woman does not affirm an LGBT lifestyle, it does not mean I am a hater, though some would disagree. Yet this is my worldview.

Christ's love is unconditional. True.

His acceptance is conditional, as is forgiveness. That's biblical as well.

Each Christian holds a worldview and as the culture shifts, to hold tightly to a conservative, inerrant, biblical one will be a challenge. 

 


The Problem with Unconditional Forgiveness

I have been teaching on Wednesday evenings this month on biblical forgiveness. You'd think this would be a basic study, but I'm discovering how many Christians and those, like me, who have been raised in churched families have missed some fundamental truths regarding forgiveness. The fact is that all of us come to this concept of forgiveness with preconceived ideas of what is right and fair. When someone questions that which we have held to be true for decades, there may be pushback.

And there has been.

This is not uncommon, but has opened up opportunities for discussion.

I threw out a teaser prior to beginning the study that caused some questions and ultimately led people to want to attend.

I made a statement related to the living church members of the Charleston, South Carolina church who stated that they forgave the murderer, Dylann Roof for killing their family and fellow church members. I stated that while the offer of forgiveness was right and honorable, to unconditionally forgive Roof is actually unbiblical.

That statement caused some to question.

Perhaps they thought I was calling into question the motives of those who offered forgiveness. I was not. In fact, change the story to any other incident where an unrepentant individual was offered blanket forgiveness by the offended or others. I would say the same - that form of forgiveness is not biblical.

As I have studied the Scripture and read works by authors such as Chris Brauns and sermons by men like Milton Vincent, I am convinced that while we are commanded as Christians to forgive others as Christ has forgiven us, to equate that forgiveness to be unconditional actually waters down the gospel and opens the door for universalism.

Forgiveness event

Does God forgive everyone?

Simple question, but according to Scripture the answer is NO. God does not forgive everyone. Some live their entire lives never surrendering to Christ and seeking forgiveness of sins. God is prepared to forgive. It is an offer, but it is an "if...then" offer.

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

If we confess, or repent of our sins, he forgives. The central character of any forgiveness story is not self, but God. He created forgiveness.

Love is offered unconditionally. Forgiveness is conditional.

Otherwise, everyone's sins are forgiven and ultimately...everyone gets to heaven. That's not Christianity. That's universalism. It feels good, but it eliminates the consequences of sin and the value of God's holiness and love.

Why is this such a hard concept for even Christians to grasp? It is due to a centeredness on self and a idea of "fairness" that does not find biblical anchors. Even I have told people in the past that their forgiveness of others was really more about self-healing than releasing others of guilt. Sounds good, but that statement leans more toward therapeutic help than biblical truth. For that I repent. 

I have posted the first two sessions on forgiveness on our website here and will post the third later this week. As stated earlier, no original material from me. Mostly gleaned from Brauns and Vincent. 

So, from Chris Brauns' book Unpacking Forgiveness (highly recommended) here is the "TRUE OR FALSE" test I offered to our group two weeks ago. See how you do.

FORGIVENESS QUIZ

  1. TRUE OR FALSE – Where deep wounds between people are concerned, forgiveness can be unpacked in a moment.
  2. TRUE OR FALSE – Personal happiness and joy can legitimately motivate people to live out what the Bible teaches about forgiveness.
  3. TRUE OR FALSE – Most Christian pastors and counselors agree about what forgiveness is and how it should take place.
  4. TRUE OR FALSE – Forgiveness occurs properly only when certain conditions are met.
  5. TRUE OR FALSE – Jesus said little about how people should resolve interpersonal conflict.
  6. TRUE OR FALSE – A willingness to forgive is a test of whether or not a person will go to heaven when he or she dies.
  7. TRUE OR FALSE – Good people get to the bottom of all their disagreements.
  8. TRUE OR FALSE – There are times when it is wrong to forgive.

ANSWERS:

  1. FALSE
  2. TRUE
  3. FALSE
  4. TRUE
  5. FALSE
  6. TRUE
  7. FALSE
  8. TRUE

Here's more from Brauns on each point...

DEALING WITH THESE BIBLICALLY

  1. Where deep wounds are concerned, forgiveness can be unpacked in a moment. FALSE

Unpacking forgiveness is like relocating a family. While you may move on a particular day, unpacking takes a lot longer.

  1. Personal happiness and joy can legitimately motivate people to live out what the Bible teaches about forgiveness. TRUE

There are some excited about learning more of biblical forgiveness, but others who dread this. There is fear that you will find out what you ought to do and it won’t match what you want to do.

  1. Most Christian pastors and counselors agree about what forgiveness is and how it should take place. FALSE

There are profound disagreements about forgiveness among pastors and counselors. Forgiveness is biblical. It is right. No question there. Remember that the choices you and I make regarding forgives shapes much of our lives. That’s why we must consciously work out what you believe about forgiveness and then intentionally put those beliefs into action. It is a process.

How can you know what is right when there are so many opinions being voiced? Examine the Scripture.

Now these Jews (Bereans) were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. - Acts 17:11 (ESV)

More noble because they examined the Scriptures for truth.

  1. Forgiveness occurs properly only when certain conditions are met. TRUE

Most people answer “false” to this.

Does God forgive all? No. That’s an unconditional statement. Unconditional love is offered, but not unconditional forgiveness.

We have mixed our definitions and created a false theology with this.

The Bible is full of true stories of people who were not forgiven by God.

Goliath – not forgiven.

And as soon as David returned from the striking down of the Philistine, Abner took him, and brought him before Saul with the head of the Philistine in his hand. 1 Samuel 17:57 (ESV)

Revelation speaks of what happens to the unforgiven.

God's forgiveness is conditional. Therefore, our forgiveness is conditional as well.

  1. Jesus said little about how people should resolve interpersonal conflict. FALSE

Matthew 18 – about discipline and conflict resolution.

  1. A willingness to forgive is the test of whether or not a person will go to heaven when he or she dies. TRUE

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. - Matthew 6:14-15 (ESV)

  1. Good people get to the bottom of all their disagreements. FALSE

There are times when good people just can’t resolve differences. What do you do?

  1. There are times when it is wrong to forgive. TRUE

Some say that is a wrong statement. We’ll see why it is not.

Dennis Prager, “The Sin of Forgiveness” – WSJ 1997

The bodies of the three teenage girls murdered by a fellow student at Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky., were not yet cold before the students of the Christian prayer group that was shot at announced, "We forgive you, Mike," referring to Michael Carneal, 14, the murderer.

This immediate and automatic forgiveness of a murderer is not surprising. Over the past generation, the idea that a central message of Christianity is to forgive everyone who commits evil against anyone, no matter how great and cruel and whether or not the evildoer repents, has been adopted by much of Christendom.

The number of examples is almost as large as the number of heinous crimes. But one other recent example stands out. In August, the pastor at a Martha's Vineyard church service attended by the vacationing President Clinton announced that it was the duty of all Christians to forgive Timothy McVeigh, the murderer of 168 Americans. "I invite you to look at a picture of Timothy McVeigh and then forgive him," the Rev. John Miller said in his sermon. "I have, and I ask you to do so."

The pastor acknowledged: "Considering what he did, that may be a formidable task. But it is the one that we as Christians are asked to do."

Though I am a Jew, I believe that a vibrant Christianity is essential if America's moral decline is to be reversed, and that despite theological differences, there is indeed a Judeo-Christian value system that has served as the bedrock of American civilization. For these reasons I am appalled and frightened by this feel-good doctrine of automatic forgiveness.

CHRISTIANS MUST ALWAYS HAVE A WILLINGNESS TO FORGIVE OR AN ATTITUDE OF FORGIVENESS, BUT THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT FORGIVENESS ALWAYS TAKES PLACE.


PASTORS: Watch Out for This Scam

Internet and Email scammers have been around for years now and unfortunately, many have lost money and some have been "catfished" through the process. It makes for interesting stories on news programs and talk shows.

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Photo credit: BioDivLibrary via Visual hunt / CC BY

Last week, I received an email (actually the second time I have received such an email) that on the surface looks somewhat legit, but ultimately is a scam designed to play on the egos of pastors (yeah - I said it) and the opportunity to preach the Gospel in an international venue.

This email seemingly originated from the United Kingdom. Take a look below:

Screenshot 2017-01-21 15.40.33

When I first read the email, I was suspicious. Primarily because I received a similar one a couple of years ago, but the names of the church and pastor were changed. However, I do have friends who serve as pastors and missionaries in the UK, so there was this slight chance that this was authentic. I even shared the info with one of my friends, but approximately five minutes after asking him if he knew the church, I discovered what I just knew to be true - THIS IS A SCAM!

Pastoral Catfish Scheme

Things that made me question the authenticity of the request:

  • I have never met Pastor Sherard Wood and know no one who knows this man.
  • Passion Conference is a strange name for a local church's event in that Louie Giglio founded and hosts the Passion Conferences annually. Sometimes these are international events and most local churches would see the problem in naming their event the same thing. 
  • The website included in the email for Victory Church is authentic and actually goes to the church in Wales. However, there is no one listed on the Leadership Team named Sherard Wood.
  • Most churches now have email domains that match the church website, so the Gmail account was strange. It's not unheard of for a church to use Gmail. It is not even a bad thing, but it did look suspicious.
  • Under "Events" on the church tab, there is no indication that a "Passion Conference" is scheduled this spring.
  • Since I have many friends in Wales, where this church is located, it does seem strange to call the church Victory Church UK in the email. Most of my Welsh friends actually indicate "Wales" as their home and location. Just as my friends in England tend to say "England."

I did a quick Google search of the story and found that many have been scammed. It seems that when pastors respond, another email is sent with PDF documents attached which must be completed to allow the church to pay honorariums. The documents are actually authentic, but the rest of the story reveals how the scammers work.

This is the same strategy that King from Nigeria uses to get you to send money as well as all the other "Send money" emails people get from other sources. It seems there is a fee due to process the forms and yes, that needs to be paid, so just wire the money to the church's bank account and all is good.

Right.

That's the deal.

There's no conference in the UK paying thousands of dollars to American pastors who are mostly not known outside their region. It's flattering and it's a lie. 

Be careful. Be smart.

Here are a couple of sites where others have broken down the scam just in case you may think your email is legit:


firstFAMILY Podcast 024: Youth Pastors, Church Planters & Pastoral Leadership

What happened to all the youth pastors?


I was asked that question a while back and one answer given was "They're all church planters now."


I'm being facetious, but in this podcast I address the historical growth of student/youth ministry and the current trend and movement of church planting in light of pastoral leadership and biblical authority. I reference a few things in this podcast you may want to check out.
First, the book Reinventing Youth Ministry (Again) by Wayne Rice

My post on "Maybe You're Not Called to Ministry

Ron Edmondson's article on Leadership - "7 Signs of Weak Leader"  

 

 


Campus or Church Plant?

What is the difference between a campus plant and a church plant?

What is best? To plant a campus or new church?

We've been talking about both for years and yet, it is clear that the differences are not fully understood by all.

Dr. Jimmy Scroggins of Family Church in West Palm Beach recently hosted a discussion about this very thing at the Florida Baptist State Convention last fall. His honesty was refreshing as it became clear that the movement of Kingdom expansion that Family Church has embarked upon is the exact same strategy God has led our church here in Orange Park.

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Church Planting

We are all in when it comes to church planting. While we would love to have planters in every focused area, God has clearly revealed our strategic partnerships over the years and we continue to serve as the sending church for Neil and Kaytee in Toronto and Mike and Carrie in Washington, DC. Additionally, we have been able to support others throughout the nation in cities such as Portland, Colorado Springs, Greensboro, and Tucson. Currently, we are seeking to partner with Cam Triggs in Orlando with a new plant launching this year.

We also have served as catalysts for local planters as we have served with Dr. Rick Wheeler and Dr. Josh Dryer and the Jacksonville Baptist Association in church planting assessment.

Church planting involves placing a pastor in an specified area, most often an urban area. The demographics reveal the unchurched reality of the community and the goal is to birth a new church where there is none. 

The planter and wife embed themselves in the community for the sake of Kingdom growth. The strategies for engaging a community are as varied as the communities. Planters set off understanding the marathon that planting is, most often renting facilities and seeking to till up hard spiritual ground. 

Our North American Mission Board has strategically focused on church planting over the past few years and we have seen many step into this story.

Campus Planting (Multi-Site Planting)

There is a difference between planting an autonomous church and a campus of an already established (i.e. legacy) church. The most recognizable difference is that the campus is not an autonomous church. This allows for some unique opportunities.

Dr. Scroggins shared the following realities of campus plants and what they offer. I offer my commentaries on his statements within the points as well:

  1. ADDITIONAL SERVICES. Campus plants are viewed as additional services, just meeting at a different venue than the church's traditional campus.
  2. MULTI-SITE IS LONG-TERM CHURCH PLANTING. In some cases, the campuses may grow into autonomous churches, but this is not true for all, and not expected.
  3. TAKES ADVANTAGE OF SYNERGY AND ECONOMIES OF SCALE. In other words, a campus may be launched in a relatively short amount of time where a church plant may require a year or more of preparation.
  4. ACCELERATES RATE OF CHANGE. No church wants to wake up one day to realize that they are too far gone to revitalize. There are fifty Baptist churches in our city (Jacksonville, FL) that will either close or sell off property within the next two years unless change among the internal church culture occurs. This is based on visible and recognizable statistics and realities.
  5. CAMPUS PASTORS ARE EXTENSIONS OF THE LEAD PASTOR. Therefore, there is no separate vision, doctrine, or leadership style. This allows for unity and consistency regarding programming, strategy, and vision. In many cases, campus pastors are men who were sent out from the church to serve and already have the DNA of the local church. This allows for quicker growth and launching.
  6. VIDEO OR LIVE? Though I prefer live, there are enough offering video venues that are working to discount this reality.
  7. THIS IS DIFFICULT! It is much easier to stay at one campus. Yet, if God opens the door for multi-site, it reminds us that he has not called us to easy service. 
  8. THIS REQUIRES THE BEST! This means that campuses cannot be launched with those who are not already serving well. J.D. Greear has mentioned on many occasions about the uncomfortable stress that occurs when the "best" leave what has been deemed in the past as the "main campus" to serve at a multi-site venue. When faithfully and prayerfully done, God always "back-fills" the positions of service at the launching campus.
  9. THERE IS NO MAIN CAMPUS. This has been a challenging reality for me, but needed. We do not have a "main campus" in that regardless where a person attends church services, that campus, be it a school cafeteria or tent by a ball field, is their "main campus." To call the traditional site the "main campus" presents a Varsity and Junior Varsity idea.
  10. ONE CHURCH OFFERS MUCH. To remain one church with multiple sites offers one name (in our case firstFAMILY,) one budget, one leadership structure, one constitution and bylaws. These allow for quicker movement, safer structures, and long-term stability.

The Best Strategy

The question at the beginning was whether campus or church plants should be the strategy. The answer is BOTH. We believe that church planting is vital and that is why we continue to send and support many who have answered the call to do so. Yet, we also believe there are areas and situations where a campus plant (in our case, The Creek and IslandChurch) are the best options for community engagement. Therefore, we offer these as well. 

There's the third option which would come under the "revitalization" heading, I guess. That is what we are doing at Oak Harbor Church now, but as we have agreed with the leadership there, we are treating Oak Harbor as a campus site with a pastor on site.

The end game is simple - love God by loving people well and making disciples. We know it is not easy, but these strategies allow us to move forward rather than stand still (which feels like moving backward.) It's risky. We cannot afford it. Yet, God has clearly called us to this story and we press on, trusting Him.

 


Maybe You're Not Called to Ministry?

When it comes to the calling to ministry, the church seems to struggle, though not overtly with the concept.

Whether it be in service to God through the local church as a deacon, elder, minister or pastor or as a missionary on the field, the phrase "I've been called" has been stated and affirmed by hundreds of churches over the years.

But, how do you know?

Seriously?

Was it through a Macedonian vision like Paul received (Acts 15-18)? I'm not saying that it wasn't, but I will say unlikely simply due to the reality that even in Scripture that type of calling was rare. 

To be called to ministry is an honorable and good thing. Of this there is no question.

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 1 Timothy 3:1 ESV

However, while all Christians are called to serve the Lord and the cause of the Gospel not everyone is called to that specific pastoral role or position within the church.

In many cases, a person will come to the pastor and state "I've been called by God to be a <fill in the blank>." The pastor is likely excited at this point, as he should be. Yet, to be honest, most churches in my experience, do not have a plan for discerning the calling.

 

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

 

Therefore, licenses and ordination certificates have been handed out like spiritual participation trophies, to the detriment of the church and the individuals.

This happens in Baptist churches when it's time to select deacons as well. With each church being autonomous, the processes for deacon selection vary, but in many cases, the candidate needs to be a man who fulfills the qualities expressed in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. At least these are the qualifications that should be followed. Unfortunately, in many churches, the passage in Timothy is considered, but then the candidates being nominated end up being the only men we can think of who attend regularly and, as is the case in many churches, haven't been divorced. And...the concept of calling is ignored, not to mention a firmer biblical understanding of qualifications and calling. Benjamin Merkle writes a concise post regarding such qualifications here.

Therefore, there are a number of men I can think of who need to turn in their ordination certificates since they have disqualified themselves, if in fact they ever were truly qualified...but, that's a posting for another time.

But I Love God and Feel Called...

Our church has been blessed to have a number of men surrender to God's call into pastoral ministry. Yet, there are some who have voiced their feelings for calling and for one reason or another have shown evidence that they were not. This is not to discount their calling as a Christian and disciple. That calling is for all who have surrendered to Christ as Lord.

Yet, not every Christian is called to be a minister/pastor/missionary or deacon. 

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Ephesians 4:11-14 ESV)

Feelings Lie

Emotionally-based responses may be God-centered and Spirit-led, but they also may be responses to human manipulation (often not intended) and based on false expectations. I have met some well-intentioned men who are enamored with the concept of ministry, but were not called and ultimately suffered. I went to seminary with some.

I have also met some folks who seemingly regretted "missing God's call" earlier in life. I won't discredit that, but the calling of God is not like a pop fly to right field that can get lost in the lights. Yet, intentionally sinning by saying "NO" to God does happen. All too often.

Dennis Poulette, a friend, former missionary in Mexico, and fellow seminary classmate who works for Youth Ministry International, led a group of us through a discussion on this very topic. Insightful and challenging. Dr. Stuart Scott shared some information on this as well and the convicting reality is that we, the church, must do well to help those "called" to discern. The church plays a heavy role and in a culture where people change jobs like socks, the unfortunate reality is that the calling to ministry seems hot and fun right now and many may be licensed and ordained apart from God's calling. It is wrong for the calling to pastoral ministry to be viewed as just another temporary job.

Dr. Al Mohler refers to the affirmation as inward and outward calling. Mohler states...

Charles Spurgeon identified the first sign of God’s call to the ministry as “an intense, all-absorbing desire for the work.” Those called by God sense a growing compulsion to preach and teach the Word, and to minister to the people of God. (full article)

That is evidence of the inward calling.

Yet, the outward calling is essential as well.

Jim George of The Master's Seminary uses the acrostic C.A.L.L. to express the same thing. Since they teach acrostics in seminary, it's easy for me to remember.

You are called to ministry when you have...

C - Confirmation from your church's leadership. Pastoral leadership matters and his confirmation of your calling should be sought. Your confirmation of calling will be based on where you have been serving in the church already. There may be a season of serving required as discernment happens. No leader or minister can do so apart from willingness to serve.

A - Ability. Do you have serving gifts or speaking gifts? Just because you want to preach doesn't mean you can. It is true that being a talented speaker apart from the calling of God is possible. However, this is not speech class or debate club. And yes, I know "God wants your availability not your ability" but don't miss that God gives talents and abilities and equips the called.

L - Lifestyle of integrity. This is the 1 Timothy 3 emphasis. Think about how many "pastors" and ministers are featured on the local news due to immoral acts. It's appalling. I saw today where a pastor was arrested for participating in armed robberies of local convenience stores. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Seriously!

I was talking to a police officer  while on a mission trip to another state years ago who told me he was at the funeral of a local pastor's wife and the pastor, right after the graveside service, walked up to one of the ladies in the crowd and said, "My bed is going to be cold tonight. Why don't you come over?" WHAT??? Yeah, this happens.

To be honest, most of the integrity failings aren't so obvious, but if a man has a history of immorality, debauchery, thievery, lying, etc., apart from repentance and clear life-transformation, it's easy to say "You're not called."

L - Longing. This is the desire to serve, share, and proclaim the Gospel. It's not "church work." It is something that cannot be ignored and when the Lord calls and transforms, He creates a longing for the Gospel and a love for God and others.

The first three - Confirmation, Ability, and Lifestyle are objective, biblical principles (external.)

The last one - Longing is subjective (internal.)

To be called is a noble honor and not one that is sought, but one received. The church would do well to helping discern with and for those "called to ministry." 

Consider the Call

Mohler presents these questions in closing...

Consider your calling. Do you sense that God is calling you to ministry, whether as pastor or another servant of the Church? Do you burn with a compulsion to proclaim the Word, share the Gospel, and care for God’s flock? Has this call been confirmed and encouraged by those Christians who know you best?

Ministry is not easy. It is not always fun. Yet, when God calls and equips, the joy of serving in obedience and fulfillment that comes is wonderfully overwhelming.


firstFAMILY Podcast 023: Death of Childhood

It seems that everyone was posting that 2016 was the year to survive as we neared December 31. The seemingly high number of celebrity deaths played into this sentiment. Why is it so many Gen Xers and older adults were lamenting the loss of these pop culture icons? Grieving the loss of a person known is one thing. Grieving the loss of a celebrity of famous person is viable as well, but was the grief more for the loss of "characters" than the people? Perhaps it is the realization of the loss of one's childhood becoming clear that led to this?

 

 


When a Celebrity Dies

This year has been...different, it seems. While there truly is nothing new under the sun (Ecc 1:9) this year has been chock-full of strange, somewhat surprising, and shocking news stories.

The advent and immediacy of social media pushes news (real news and fake news) to the forefront quickly. No longer do world events take place without the world knowing in real time, it seems.

Famous Deaths

There have likely been no more deaths this past year of celebrities and famous people than in the past, but with the aging Gen X population plus the advent of social media, it seems that more have passed. Just this past week, George Michael and Carrie Fisher died. These shocking announcements affect many, but especially those who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s when these young entertainers burst onto the public stage.

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Photo credit: Gage Skidmore via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-SA

Many of those who died played characters in movies or television that became "friends" of young fans throughout the years. Musicians, artists, political figures, and sports figures died as well. The list is long. The impact of these individuals upon pop culture has been immense, and in some cases will remain.

In many funerals that I preach, I reference Solomon's wise words regarding funerals and death. At first, it may seem harsh, but for Christians, it brings comfort. For non-Christians, it brings clarity.

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. Ecc 7:2 (ESV)

Simply put, God reminds us through this word that there are times it is actually better to attend a funeral rather than a party. Why? Because death is our destiny. It is part of life. The wise will realize this and live with the end in mind. 

There is comfort in grief for Christians knowing that this life on earth is not the end. That's why funerals for Christians can actually be celebratory.

Funerals for non-Christians...well, those are more difficult due to the life-long rejection of Christ finding finality.

I Never Knew You

The strange reality is that many who mourn today do so for people they never knew. In some cases, the mourning seems to be less for the death of the individual, and more for the loss of a character or role played by that individual in the past. 

Yet, the grief is real, isn't it?

A couple of years ago, Kenneth Morefield wrote a poignant article for Christianity Today titled "Not Another Celebrity Death Post." The article was written following the death of actor Robin Williams. In his article, he describes mourning in the social media world and what we must remember.

He reminds us...

First—and most importantly—it’s not about you. Avoid the temptation to turn someone else’s death or grief into a teaching moment. However noble the lesson—and there have been some good, important, and true ones in the wake of Robin Williams’s passing—using someone’s recent death to highlight it risks coming across as opportunistic and exploitative. I’m tempted to say that the reason it risks coming across that way is because it is those things.

Second, remind yourself that the first few tastes of grief can be overpowering. We should try to be charitable in our judgments towards those whose method of dealing with it involves being more expressive than we might be. Yes, I suspect that in a year or two or five people who aren’t actually narcissists or attention whores may look back on things they wrote about Robin Williams (or Philip Seymour Hoffman) and be chagrined at how much they treated him, even in death, as a means to an end. But if they don’t, if they truly are opportunists, then our calling them out only brings them the attention they crave and encourages them to act out again the next time somebody passes.
 
Wise words.
 
So, should you grieve the loss of those you have never met? Certainly. The loss of any life is cause for grieving. Yet, I believe we should look back to Solomon's words of wisdom regarding death. Remember, death is the destiny of all and the living should take it to heart. As followers of Christ, this reminder is to not waste our days and to live with the end in mind. With that, we are challenged to tell others of this great reality which is the gospel. There is good news. Death does not have to be the end.

Recycling the Gospel

Like most churches, we order curriculum items to help us as we teach the Bible in small groups across the generations. We order material every quarter and, like many churches we often have left over or "gently-used" material at the end of each quarter.

There is this tendency to order more pieces than is needed and if your church is like ours, there are stacks of magazines and Bible studies sitting on shelves or in the corners of rooms. Even as we have strategically worked to cut-down on over-ordering, we still end up with some left overs.

Rather than just dump all the books in a recycling bin or the trash, we have partnered with missionaries in the Philippines to provide material. You see, it doesn't really matter if the dates on the front of the magazines have already passed, these missionaries and church leaders find the treasure within the pages helpful in teaching biblical truths to the people in their communities. 

I recently received an email from a friend and church member (Paul Williams) who has taken it upon himself to collect these items from our church and others in our network, pack them up, and ship them to the Philippines.

To be honest, sometimes...if we even remember these items have been shipped away...we may wonder "Does this really make a difference?"

Well, look at this photos...

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Bob Courson, our friend in the Philippines gave us permission to share these photos. We are thankful for his work and service in making Christ known in this nation. Praying for him and for those men, women, boys, and girls who seem thrilled to receive these items. May much be made of Jesus in the Philippines and among these dear people. 


Cops, Coffee, and Community Relations

Much has been reported over the past few years regarding police officers, race, violence, justice, and injustice. To discount the issues facing our nation and especially those in the black community would be not only a disservice to a significant demographic group, but to all people. Yet, as we all know, negative news spreads quickly while good news stories sit on the back burner on some back page of Facebook and social media and often goes ignored.

Our town of Orange Park covers just over three square miles. While the community is much larger than the town limits, Orange Park is fairly small. Within the borders of our county, the Clay County Sheriff's Office serves well. In our municipality we have the Orange Park Police Department. 

Though only a three-square-mile area, there are many people who live in the town limits and thousands who travel through daily. To put it plainly, this bedroom community of Jacksonville, Florida is busy. 

Cops and the Community

Over the past year or so, our Police Chief, Gary Goble, has led the department to host "Coffee with a Cop" encounters at local coffee shops and restaurants. I was talking to him earlier in the year (I serve as the volunteer chaplain for the OPPD and OPFD) about these events. These are organized gatherings where members of our community have the opportunity, in a relaxed atmosphere, to get to know the men and women behind the badge. The event is promoted with this description - "No agenda or speeches, just a chance to ask questions, voice concerns, and get to know the officers in your neighborhood!"

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Today, we hosted a "Coffee with a Cop" gathering in the community near Grove Park Elementary School. The pastor and membership of New Hope Pentecostal Church were gracious enough to be our hosts as we set up a table with free coffee and doughnuts (okay - here's the cop and doughnut joke, but seriously...who doesn't love doughnuts?)

We had the tables set up outdoors underneath the church's overhang.

As would be the case, after weeks of no rain in our area, today we experienced a rain storm. It was torrential for a few hours. Yes, during the scheduled coffee time, but we pressed on regardless.

Despite the rain, people from the community arrived. The community where we hosted this has a predominantly African-American population. As we drank coffee, told jokes, and shared stories of Orange Park, we soon moved into the church's worship center where members of the community were given opportunity to ask questions of the officers.

The honesty was refreshing.

When People Fear the Police

Men and women in the community shared that many fear the police and that much of that fear is based on what has been seen on the news and viewed on social media. Whether fear is founded or not does not remove the reality that it exists.

One man asked "If our children are pulled over by an officer, what should they do? They're scared and with the stories flying around out there, we want to give them wise instructions. But, there are so many stories. What do we say?"

That was a great question.

Moms and dads and younger people in the room nodded their heads in agreement and sought insight from the officers.

The officers present gave practical, step-by-step instructions that would be protocol for anyone pulled over. The fact of the matter is when the blue lights flash in our rear window, stress levels increase and fear is often common. Since I am a 48-year-old white man, I will not even pretend to understand what a young black man would be experiencing in today's culture. It would be insulting to do so. Yet, the officers answered honestly and well.

I will offer this from today's meeting - that one question led to others and the conversation was rich and valuable.

Relationships Are the Key

As the conversation continued, the overall feelings expressed were those of appreciation from the community to the officers for offering the opportunity to talk and be honest. That appreciation went both ways as the officers were deeply grateful for the attendance of those (even in the rain) to come and talk.

This won't be the last "Coffee with a Cop" and I echo what one man stated today as we closed. He said, "Trust is built on relationships. We know you as people, not just as police officers. You know us as people. That's the key. The law is the law and we know that and appreciate that. We just have to keep building relationships."

What a powerful and correct statement!

Is this a perfect community? Of course not. There are citizens seeking to live well and do right. Then, as one lady mentioned today, "There are criminals around here, too" and that is true. It's true in every community. That speaks of the depraved hearts of humanity.

I'm thankful for a police department that is committed to the law they have vowed to uphold, but who also love this community enough to "serve and protect."

Many communities have such gatherings following a tragedy. As I talked to one of our neighbors at the event today, we discussed how we pray that no tragedy hits our community, but that we will have these gatherings now and continually. We'll be better off, safer, and stronger. 

And...who doesn't want a free cup of coffee and a doughnut?


Oak Harbor - Our New Mayport Campus

A number of weeks ago a good friend and pastor, Dres Lavanderos contacted me regarding the possibility of bringing a sister church under our wing for a season for the purpose of revitalization.

Church Planting

We believe in church planting and launching new campuses and churches in areas where a Gospel witness is needed. We have and are partnering with numerous church planters across the nation and internationally. We will continue to do so, believing that God blesses these new works and many are and will come to Christ through them.

The Other Side of the Coin - Revitalization

Yet, as many already know, while we celebrate the launch of new churches, there are many who are shutting their doors for good each year. Many of these churches are about forty to fifty-years-old. They were launched in a different era in communities that have changed dramatically. Many have done what came naturally and followed a prescribed schedule and programming model that was effective for years, only to discover that as times have changed, so has the community.

This is not a "good-bad" discussion regarding programming. In some cases, closure is due to poor leadership and even moral failure. However, in many cases, churches have found themselves in ruts regarding worship, planning, and missional engagement. In fact, some are "doing church" like it's 1985 and wonder why they're not growing?

This becomes an Isaachar discussion. Churches must remain faithful to the gospel and be as the men of Issachar in the Old Testament. These were men defined as those who "understood the times." Of course, the context for this tribe was much different, but the premise of being contextual and aware remains true.

While dozens of churches close for good each year, not all must. 

The biggest challenge facing these churches is first the recognition that if something doesn't change, the inevitable will occur and their doors will lock, the property will be sold and a business will take it's place. I'm all for new businesses, but not at the cost of local churches in communities. 

Pastor Dres is currently serving as the interim pastor at Oak Harbor Baptist Church in Atlantic Beach, Florida, near Mayport Naval Station. This church is part of our network (Jacksonville Baptist Association) and has been working through issues over the past few years that has led them to reach out for more than just prayer and pulpit supply. This has been a challenging and difficult journey for the Oak Harbor Church.

Yet, as of Sunday, December 4, the membership of Oak Harbor has agreed to partner with our church and become our Mayport campus. While retaining their autonomy, the agreement is extensive. Our church (firstFAMILY) will offer resources, leadership, strategic focus and help to shift Oak Harbor's focus and practices in ways that will hopefully see them become a vibrant, Gospel witness to the Mayport area once more. 

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Pastor Dres will remain at Oak Harbor as our Campus Pastor and along with other preaching team members of firstFAMILY, will work with me in planning and leading. 

This is a new reality for our church and while the challenges are immense, we believe God has prepared us for this opportunity. Change is difficult and the fears are authentic. How honorable for the church at Oak Harbor to set aside their fears for this opportunity. One church member at Oak Harbor told me that it is time for him to risk change and discomfort for the sake of the Kingdom. That's a great statement. To be at the place where personal preference is pushed aside so the Gospel can be proclaimed clearly is huge. 

Please pray for our church and the new Oak Harbor campus as we seek to honor God and experience revival and revitalizaton.

FYI - our agreement with Oak Harbor is available below.

Download OAK HARBOR BAPTIST CHURCH PARTNERSHIP AGREEMENT

 


The Marketing of Generosity

Last week, as we celebrated Thanksgiving with family and those in our community, I was once again reminded of the strangeness this week now holds.

  • On Thursday (Thanksgiving) people gather with friends and family and pause to reflect on how blessed we are and offer thanks to God.
  • On "Black Friday" people fight and scrape to get into shopping centers to buy things they otherwise wouldn't just because the deals are so good. In other words, just 24 hours prior we're content and thankful and then...BOOM! WE HAVE TO HAVE MORE!
  • On Saturday, people go shopping at smaller stores for "Small Business Saturday" to encourage them to stay in business even though they struggle competing with the big box stores.  Then, everyone goes back home to watch college football rivalry games that create division among family members and friends.
  • On Sunday, people (well some people) go to church.
  • On "Cyber Monday" people get more great deals online. This is basically Amazon's version of Black Friday.
  • Then, when all disposable income (a term that has never resonated in my home) is gone, it's time for "Giving Tuesday" where charities and non-profits seek to gain donations to help end-of-year expenses.

And some people wonder why Thanksgiving is the forgotten holiday?

As Christians, there are many commentaries on all these marketed, hashtag days. First of all, thanksgiving should never be relegated only to one day a year. Greed should never be celebrated. Worship should never be just during one hour on a weekend day and generosity should be natural for all followers of Christ.

Giving tuesday

Yet, today is #GivingTuesday and every non-profit and ministry out there seems to be taking advantage of the moment. To be honest, I don't blame them and in fact, there are many groups we sponsor as a family and ministries we support as a church family that could use a boost in donations. Yes, this day is a marketing strategy. Yet, when compared to "Black Friday" and the like, this one focuses not on self, but on others (unless you give so you can brag about giving, which then makes it selfish.) While not an extensive list, here are some options (in addition to your local church, which BTW is a non-profit as well) that you may wish to prayerfully consider giving generously to on this day.

There are many others. Before dropping that coin or sending a donation to a non-profit, do some checking. Ensure that the organization is legitimate and if a religious or Christian organization, it would be wise to discern the theology or teaching your donations support.

Happy Giving Tuesday. Oh and if you don't get to donate today, you don't have to wait another year. Generosity isn't bounded by calendared events.


Why We Don't Vote Whether to Advocate for the Orphan

A number of years ago I led our church to move the ministry of "orphan care" to a primary focus. Basically, I read the book of James and knew God desired this of his church.

You have likely read the verse in question...

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)

The reality set in during a pastoral staff meeting as I looked around the room and realized that each pastor on our staff, except me, had adopted children into their homes. I then began thinking about the membership of our church and numerous families came to mind who had gone through the journey of fostering or adoption as well. At this point, it really wasn't rocket science. It was clear - God has been working and was leading our church to engage strategically and intentionally in this area.

Over the years, we have joined CAFO, partnered with the Florida Baptist Children's Homes, provided child sponsorships at our orphanage in Haiti, networked with Lifeline, set up short-term loans for families through Abba Fund, resourced families by offering state-required classes for fostering or adopting and developing a family wrap-around strategy for those on the journey. There is much more to be done and while orphan care is not the only ministry of our church family, it is a vital one. 

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Photo credit: 藍川芥 aikawake via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Simply put, we understand that not everyone is called to adopt a child, but we do believe that every Christian is called to advocate for the orphan. In some cases, this does lead to fostering and/or adoption. For the church, this ministry is not new. For centuries, it has been God's church that has led in this area of orphan care. Only recently, in the modern and post-modern world, has the church seemingly stepped back to allow government agencies and non-Christian groups take the lead in these areas.

Five Facts About Orphans

Yesterday (November 19, 2016) was National Adoption Day. In conjunction with this day, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC sent out the following factsheet on orphans. Take note:

Here are five facts you should know about orphans in America and around the world:

  1. A common assumption is that an orphan is a child who has two deceased parents. But the more inclusive definitions used by adoption and relief agencies tend to focus on a child who is deprived of parental care. An orphan can be further classified by using definitions such as UNICEF's  “single orphans,” which is a child with only one parent that has died, or “double orphans,” which is a child who has two parents that are deceased. Under U.S. immigration law, an orphan can also be a foreign-born child with a sole or surviving parent who is unable to provide for the child's basic needs, consistent with the local standards of the foreign sending country, and has, in writing, irrevocably released the child for emigration and adoption. The majority of the world's orphans have families who are merely unable or unwilling to care for the child.
  2. According to UNICEF estimates, there are 140,000,000 children who have lost one or both parents due to any cause as of 2013. Out of those, 17.7 million were orphaned because one or both parents died of AIDS.
  3. According to the U.S. State Department, U.S. families adopted 5,647 children from another country in 2015 (compared to the peak of 22,991 in 2004). Based on the 2012 report (the last on which such data was collected), Americans adopted the highest number of children from China, Ethiopia, Russia, South Korea, and Ukraine. The top adopting states were Texas, California, New York, Florida, and Illinois.
  4. In the United States in 2014 there were 415,129 children in foster care and 107,918 waiting to be adopted. The average age of a child in foster care waiting to be adopted was 7.7 years old. The average age of children in foster care being adopted was 6.2 years old.
  5. A study by the Rand Corporation found that as of 2002, a total of 396,526 embryonic humans have been frozen and placed in storage in the United States. Since then many thousands more have been added, and the vast majority will live and die in an IVF clinic. That is over 400,000 orphans whose names we will never know and whose faces we will never see.

Are we doing enough? No. However, by engaging in the conversation and with the small steps we have taken, God has blessed and continues to do so.

Orphan Care Should Be a Given for the Church

Stepping strategically into the orphan care story is not about adding another ministry to an already busy church calendar. It is about doing that which God has declared to be pure, undefiled, and good. It would be ludicrous for a church to vote on the whether to engage in orphan care. That would be like voting whether to be evangelistic, whether to make disciples, or whether to obey God. Unfortunately, many churches and Christians are still debating obedience. 

No guilt. Just truth. Advocating for the orphan is not up for debate.


firstFAMILY Podcast 020: Cubs Win!

Recorded November 3, 2016

The Cubs won the World Series last night in amazing fashion. Why is it so many of us love the underdog (BTW - it's hard to call a 100+ win team an underdog, but the Cubs have held that title for decades). Maybe it's how we're wired? Maybe it's because we relate? Maybe it has something to do with the nature of man?


"If My People..." 2 Chronicles 7:14 - That Verse May Not Mean What You Think It Means

It's the most popular Bible verse for American Christians during election year. The verse is found in the Old Testament and centered on God's people and the building of his temple by Solomon. While the context is clearly for the people of Israel and related to Solomon's faithfulness, the holiness of worship in the temple, and the fidelity required of those who claim to follow God, the underlying truth revealed in the passage is timeless.

God is faithful.

God responds to humble, repentant prayers of his people.

God forgives.

God heals.

If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 2 Chronicles 7:14 (ESV)

Believing fully in the inerrancy of God's Word, this verse is not unlike others. It is powerful, true, and valuable (2 Timothy 3:16)

As stated earlier, this verse seems to be dusted off and pulled out of storage when Christians (American ones especially) find themselves at a point of despair. This most often occurs when the political machine is in full swing during election year. While it is clear that some Christians do struggle with idol worship when it comes to nationalism, the vast majority, in my opinion, truly are seeking insight and healing from the Lord.

The church must be clear when using this verse as a sermon theme, prayer gathering banner or in an attempt to garner oneness regarding the nature of our nation.

Some things to consider, based on the wording of the English translation of this verse...

"If my people who are called by my name"

While directed at God's chosen people (Israel) in the Old Testament, all believers are now included in this "my people" phrase due to the message of the gospel and the inclusion of grafted branches. Therefore, this is a message for the church, not Washington DC, Tallahasee, or the center of government where you reside. Of course there are believers who live and serve in these offices of government, and to them (as members of the "my people" group) the message is declarative. Yet, the unregenerate will not get this, nor should Christians continue to expect non-beleivers to act like the redeemed. Tweet: Christians must stop expecting non-beleivers to act like the redeemed. @davidtark http://bit.ly/2fAS0Sn

This matters because it is so easy to see the sin in others, but so difficult to see it in ourselves. Maybe this is a bit of the "speck and log" story Christ shared?

"Humble themselves"

This may be the most forgotten section of the verse. Humility is rare and in an election cycle where major candidates garner news coverage, trending stories, and news coverage by being crass, self-centric, and loud, the simple idea of humility seems like a lost art.

While it should be expected to see arrogance as the theme of the day in the world, when it enters into the church and becomes a celebrated characteristic, it is time to wake up and repent.

The humble heart is sought by God.

Here's what we know, self-centric celebrity Christians and arrogant pastors and spiritual leaders, while honored by many, embarrass and break the heart of God.

This passage reminds us that God is seeking for his people to be humble. 

A lost art? Certainly.

A lost cause? Absolutely not.

Oh, and being humble is not something you can brag about. Once you do that...well, you're not humble.

"And pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways"

God's love is unconditional.

God's forgiveness is conditional.

There is an action step required from his pcople (the church). This action step is not sought from the government leaders who are not believers. This is not sought from the community organizers, petitioners, talk show hosts, pundits, or spin masters. This action step is sought by God from his children - his people - his church.

I think of the parent of the small child who is chastising the child for disobeying. The child says "But my friends are doing this. They don't get in trouble." To this the parent responds "I don't care about the other children. You're my child. You know better. This is not acceptable."

That's our loving Father chastising and disciplining us, his children and then providing steps for reconciliation.

"The I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land."

For the Israelites, it meant that the rains would come, the crops would grow, peace would reign and worship would be as it should be. For us today, it means that God will hear our prayer (just as he says) and will forgive us (conditionally, not unconditionally) and heal our land. How big is this "land" he will heal? Maybe just yours and my small spheres of influence? Maybe collectively the land we call home?

Maybe we're too concerned with God healing our land and then telling God where our surveyed boundaries lay? 

Maybe the healing begins where it must to make the biggest impact. Guess what? That may not be the swampland that was drained so that Washington DC could be built, but is the land of our hearts. In this Old Testament passage, the land of God centered where his temple was built. Since our bodies are now the temple of the Holy Spirit, perhaps this is the land that must be healed?

2 Chronicles 7:14 [widescreen]

 


Why Our Prayer Gathering Must Not Be Focused on America

I'm seeing postings on the web and am actually getting postcards and mailings from churches promoting church and community-wide prayer gatherings. Most of these are tagged with "Pray for the USA" or "Pray for Our Nation" and are focused on gathering the church to pray together prior to Election Day on November 8.

Those gatherings are good, so I'm not throwing shade upon the churches or organizers. However, to gather solely for politically-flavored prayer may reveal more than is sought.

We, too have scheduled a time of corporate prayer for this coming Sunday night. Yet, I must share some convictions about our gathering and some things we are NOT doing.

Solemn Assembly

Solemn assembly fb event

We are seeking to have a solemn assembly Sunday evening as a church family. Sadly, I have felt led to schedule this prior, but have not, so now it appears to be just another "Pray for the Election" gathering. 

Consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord.

Joel 1:14 (ESV)

Why Gather?

It's a biblical principle to gather as the people of God for prayer.

Claude V. King shares this about solemn, or sacred assemblies:

Sacred assemblies were occasions for God's people collectively to worship Him, to repent of personal and corporate sin, to remember His special blessings on them, and to anticipate future blessings. 

In a true sense, God may utilize the gathering of his church to ignite revival among his people.

For clarification -  revival is an awakening and therefore, not the typical evangelistic meetings that have been termed "revivals" in American churches for decades. There's no special "pack a pew" night, or youth night with pizza, or a special guest bringing a word needed. While there may be a place for those types of gatherings, to call them revival is a misnomer.

Wake Up

You don't revive the dead.

You resurrect the dead.

You revive the sleeping.

That's what the church in our culture needs. That's what every true New Testament church needs - an awakening.

More Than Politics

If you're praying only because you're candidate of choice (if you even have one) may not win in November, you likely need to revisit your focus in prayer.

God has convicted me as a pastor that if we pray only as a "last resort" and slap 2 Chronicles 7:14 on everything we can  just because the candidate of choice may not be elected, we are playing games.

However, we will gather and we will pray for our elected officials and potential leaders. To be clear, we should have been doing that all along. Yet, we will be praying for so much more.

We will pray that God will guide our people and that His will be done. This is how we should be praying continually. 

We will pray for forgiveness, recognizing that forgiveness is not automatic. 

There is a prerequisite for forgiveness.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

1 John 1:9 (ESV)

So, this Sunday evening at 7pm, we will gather, confess our sins to the Lord as his church, repent of overt and covert sins, and seek his forgiveness and guidance. To God be the glory.

We will rest in the assurance that regardless what happens on November 8 and beyond, God remains on his throne and sovereign over all. 

Then, we will gather again as we must. May we never be the church that only prays every four years prior to an election.

 

 


Why Forgiving Oneself is Unbiblical

I have written about this before (here) but the propagation of therapeutic forgiveness among Christians continues to muddy the waters when it comes to to understanding biblical forgiveness.

Never in Scripture is there indication that "forgiving oneself" is expected, much less possible.

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Forgiveness requires two people (or God and a person.) In a culture that continues to focus on self, the inevitable centering on self-esteem, self-worth, self-health and ultimately self-worship arises.

Now, if you were to Google "Bible Forgive Self" you would find a variety of sites, blogs, and postings about the subject. While the focus on "Bible" seeks to eliminate the unbiblical aspects of the search, the truth is that many Christians still propagate a self-forgiveness strategy as healthy and right.

To help clarify, I share some thoughts from others who hold to the veracity of Scripture:

Never does the Bible talk about the idea of “forgiving yourself.” We are told to forgive others when they trespass against us and seek forgiveness. When we ask for God’s forgiveness based upon Christ having already paid for our sins and our having trusted in Him as Savior and Lord, He forgives us. - gotQuestions.org

I have never preached that anybody should forgive themselves. At least, I don’t remember ever saying it. And I have never used it as a way of dealing with my own self-hatred or condemnation or whatever that it is supposed to deal with. I don’t think it is in the Bible, and the reason I don’t think it is in the Bible is that I think it would be intrinsically confusing about the nature of forgiveness if it were. Maybe the reason the Bible doesn’t think in these categories of self-forgiveness is that, to have forgiveness, you need a person who has been wronged and a person who did the wrong. - John Piper

While is a good thing to want to move beyond your mistakes and the consequences they have reaped, there are fundamental problems with even raising this question. As I stress  throughout Unpacking Forgiveness, forgiveness is something that must occur between two parties. In light of that truth, it makes no more sense to talk about forgiving yourself than it does to talk about shaking your own hand. - Chris Brauns

Forgiveness isn’t something you can give yourself. It is something [God] has purchased for you. - Nancy Leigh DeMoss

Forgiveness requires both a victim and an offender, and so to forgive myself means that I am playing both roles. And so a part of me is allowed—even required—to play the victim for something that I did. But I shouldn’t get to play the victim, for I am the offender in this case. If I forgive myself, then I am asserting that I am a victim of my sin. - Justin Taylor

The person who says, “I just can’t forgive myself,” may simply be expressing an inability or unwillingness to grasp and receive God’s forgiveness. This seems to be the most common explanation behind “self-forgiveness” talk. We say that we can’t forgive ourselves because we really doubt that God has forgiven us. Or we don’t see our need for forgiveness from God, so we take over the job ourselves. Unsure of a solution to our real or perceived failure, we posit a need for self-forgiveness to satisfy our lingering guilt or to supplement God’s insufficient forgiveness. - Robert D. Jones

To seek forgiveness from yourself would be to ask yourself to forgive you for what you've done against yourself.  But this doesn't make any sense.  We are not the ones who make moral laws that we can break.  Rather, God does that, so forgiving yourself just doesn’t make sense. - Matt Slick

And yet, there are many who would say "But that's just semantics, right?" No. It's not. It's more of a shift to understanding what is biblical and what is not and pushing against the cultural centering of self. BTW - this is nothing new. It's been going on since the Garden of Eden.

Forgiveness requires two people - the sinner and the sinned against. 

Forgiveness is conditional.

"Forgive others as God has forgiven you" is what believers know to be true. It is vital to understand how he has forgiven you (or us.)


You Might Need To Upgrade Your Church's Digital Presence If...

Yesterday I had the opportunity to emcee a panel discussion for the Jacksonville Baptist Association focused on best utilizing technology in the church. To begin the session I shared a list compiled by some of the panel members and attendees in the same vein as Jeff Foxworthy's "You Might Be a Redneck If..." jokes.

So, here are just some indicators for pastors and church leaders who may need to upgrade their digital footprint.

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Photo credit: Nico Kaiser via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-SA

You Might Need A Technology Upgrade In Your Church If...

  • Your church MySpace page is up-to-date.
  • You still have a Friendster account.
  • When you check for email a woman's voice on your computer says "You've Got Mail!"
  • Your email address is @hotmail.com
  • You are waiting for someone to invite you to use Gmail.
  • You just discovered Vine...and now it's gone.
  • You still browse the internet through Netscape.
  • You have AOL CDs in your office with "10 Free Hours"
  • You still pay by the hour for internet.
  • You still think in baud rate when it comes to internet connectivity.
  • You're knocked off the internet when someone in the house picks up the telephone.
  • You still illegally download stock footage from Google Image Search.
  • All the images on your church website are stock photos of models with watermarks on them from the company that actually owns the images.
  • Your church website uses textures like leather, flowers, or stone as a background.
  • You hear someone talking about Snapchat and you think they're referencing a scene from West Side Story.
  • You still call a hashtag a pound or number sign.
  • You still type www in your internet browser before the website name.
  • Your church site automatically plays music when opened.
  • Your church site has a splash page before opening up.
  • Your church site is basically a brochure online (i.e. no video or links).
  • Your church site isn't formatted for mobile devices.
  • Your church app does nothing unique from your website.
  • Your site uses Comic Sans font.
  • You still have a box of 3.5 inch (or even 5.25 inch) floppy disks in your office.
  • You write blogs that are way too long, thinking people actually read them (Ooh, wait...never mind.)
  • Your church's guest WIFI has a password that has so many characters, even Robert Langdon couldn't decipher it.
  • The last time you updated your church website, it was still hosted on a GeoCities page.
  • You upgrade the look of your church website, but choose COPPERPLATE as the font because you think it looks trendy and new.

Oh, there are more, I'm sure. Feel free to leave some additional ones in the comments below.


Could False Humility Simply Be Pride?

Most of us know that humility is a virtue to be sought. Scripture has numerous verses that speak of the humble heart and humility. 

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. - Luke 14:11

But what about false humility? 

What about low self-esteem?

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We all know people who cannot take a compliment, right? You tell them "Hey you look really nice today" and their immediate response is "Oh, no I don't." Kind of leaves you wanting to never offer a compliment to them again.

I've been reading Chris Brauns excellent book Unpacking Forgiveness. The focus of the book is forgiveness (duh?) but one section speaks of the dangers of pride and how often we all succumb to this sin, even when we don't realize it. The following is taken from page 81.

Be humble. Pretty simple, right? True, it is an easy point to understand conceptually. But it is a different one to live out. People laughed in the 1970s when Mac Davis sang, "Oh Lord, it's hard to be humble when you're perfect in every way. I can't wait to look in the mirror 'cause I get better looking each day." The song was so blatantly arrogant that it was funny. But the reality is, true humility can be very elusive. Granted, most do not sing with Mac Davis that they get better looking each day. More commonly, people complain about their looks. And while it may sound more humble than bragging about their looks, complaining about them is every bit as self-centered.

Therein lies an important point. Pride is  not limited to arrogance or cockiness; it is not just an inflated opinion of oneself. Pride is any way of putting self into the central focus. This distinction is critical because if we understand it, we can identify more subtle, more insidious kinds of pride. In addition to arrogance or conceit, pride might express itself in any of the following ways:

  • ARE YOU OVERLY CRITICAL? Discernment is a good thing (Philippians 1:9-11; Romans 12:1-2). But discerning people sometimes go a step too far in feeling the need to critique everything. Pride is the root problem.
  • ARE YOU INSECURE? Insecurity often betrays a person too narrowly focused on self?
  • ARE YOU SHY? For instance, are you unwilling to pray in front of others? Why is that? Is it because your central concern is how you will appear in front of others?
  • ARE YOU OVERLY SENSITIVE? People who are too sensitive sometimes imagine criticisms when they have not even been given because they center too much on themselves.
  • DO YOU TEND TO PRESUME UPON OTHERS? Are you slow to meet with others or to follow through? Do you do poorly at returning phone calls? Any of those may reflect a tendency to elevate self.
  • ARE YOU IMPATIENT WITH THE SHORTCOMINGS OF OTHERS? Do you ever get frustrated and use the phrase, "I don't have time for this"? Who does not have time?
  • DO YOU FIND YOURSELF EASILY EMBARRASSED BY FRIENDS OR FAMILY?  This may indicate that you are too concerned with how others make you appear. (Of course, it could be your family and friends are embarrassing people and seek to do this to you - DT)
  • ARE YOU GIVEN TO WORRY? Worry may betray self-reliance (or at least relying on someone other than God.).

Some will read this section and immediately go on the defensive, but read carefully and think about what is here. The convictional thoughts that came to my mind centered around the revelation of pride in my own life as it was disguised as something less sinister. 

Perhaps if you're overly negative and continually frustrated about how everyone else behaves, or even how you look when you walk by the mirror, consider the reality that the sin of pride may be disguising itself as humility, self-deprecation, or even personal rights.


When Your Child's Sin Leads To Your Bitterness

Parenting isn't for cowards. That sentence was used in a book title years ago and there's much truth in it. Yet, as challenging as parenting may be, the blessings of God through being allowed to parent His image-bearers are innumerable.

 

 

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Photo credit: Steve Snodgrass via Visualhunt / CC BY

As a pastor I hear many stories from friends and church members related to heartbreak and pain connected to the sins of their children. My wife and I are not immune to these feelings either, so I must say I was pleasantly and uncomfortably jarred this morning while reading a book on biblical parenting. 

The book is The Faithful Parent: A Biblical Guide to Raising a Family by Martha Peace and Stuart Scott. For a good review of the book by The Gospel Coalition, click here.

Uncomfortably Jarred

Knowing the truth and doing what God desires are not always the same thing. After years of struggling with personal angst regarding some family issues with a child, Peace and Scott's writing revealed something I have been holding within. Through the words of Ephesians 4:31-32, God revealed that I had allowed bitterness to solidify within my heart. 

The section I was reading is titled "When Things Don't Go As Planned" and is focused on Christian parents who raise rebellious, unsaved, unrepentant children and wonder "How did this happen?" I share Peace and Scott's words on this here (from pages 180-181):

Instead of being angry and bitter, we are to trust and be kind, compassionate, and forgiving. We are to go the extra mile (Matt. 5:41), return good for evil (Rom. 12:21), and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44). If we do not obey these commands we may find ourselves doing ridiculous things such as sharing the gospel in anger or using anger to try to change the heart.

For the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires. (James 1:20)

Bitterness can be hard to see in ourselves because we're so busy rehearsing why we didn't deserve what has happened to us. Ask yourself these questions to help evaluate whether you're bitter.

  • Am I withdrawing my love and commitment to my child or God?
  • Am I shocked and appalled that my child would sin against me?
  • Do I wonder how God could do/allow this to happen to me?
  • Am I not willing (or finding it very difficult) to do good to my child or for God?
  • Do I feel I deserve to be treated better by God?
  • Do I find myself avoiding my child?
  • Do I secretly delight in his misfortune?
  • Do I see his sin as the "log" and mine as the "speck" before God?

Repent of any bitterness that you have! Make glorifying God your focus instead of dwelling on how you're being treated.

Boom!

Guilty.

Bitterness is a deadly thing. It's like a cancer that seeps in unknown, but infects all areas - especially attitude. Is this just about me? No. I know many parents who have faced the very same feelings. Somewhere in the midst of "log" and "speck" analysis, anger, hurt, frustration, and pain become all that is known. 

And the Enemy wins a small battle.

Nowhere in this section is sin minimized - the sin of the child (speck or log) or the sin of the parent (speck or log), but the strategy of the Enemy is clear. Bitterness leads to sin and ineffective Christian living. Sin hurts. It always does.

Our Perfect Father knows how this feels. Read Isaiah 1:2-4 for details. 

Peace and Scott remind us...

He knows what it is like to be rejected by those whom he has loved and cared for. He knows what it is like to see a loved one headed for disaster. He knows what it is to long for his children to return to their senses (Matt. 23:37). He knows what it is to have anguish over his own, although they may cause it. Rest assured, God the Father is able to sympathize with you and knows how to work with the wayward.

Trust him. Remember, grace is enough. 


The Global Mission of the NFL and the Church

GameDay Church began in 2015 as an effort of our church’s network of campuses to engage and connect with fans of the Jacksonville Jaguars prior to home games. Live music, free BBQ and bottled water, and a brief, encouraging Gospel-centered message are the elements of a GameDay Church gathering. In Jacksonville, we meet under a tent in the parking area west of EverBank Field, near the Baseball Grounds and Old St Andrews Church (a city-owned building that houses the Jacksonville Historical Society.) GameDay Church is part of firstFAMILY and our main campus is First Baptist Church of Orange Park.

THE NFL'S GLOBAL MISSION

One of the unique things about the Jacksonville Jaguars is the annual “home game” at Wembley Stadium in London, England. The NFL has a strong, intentional global mission effort underway. The NFL desires to sell American football to the world. Following efforts of the World League and NFL Europe, it appears the NFL has succeeded in creating a fan-base.

This year, the Jaguars’ home game was set for 2:30pm (London time) on Sunday, October 2. However, the NFL was very present in London the entire weekend. On Saturday, October 1, the NFL took over Regent Street in London. This annual NFL-themed fan festival featured live music, appearances by players and coaches, and even the commissioner. Though it was misty and cool, the street was filled with fans wearing hats, shirts, and jerseys from just about every NFL team. We (Dr. Josh Dryer of the Jacksonville Baptist Association and I) attended the festival and had the opportunity to speak with our local media about GameDay Church.

PARTNERS IN ENGLAND

At first, the concept of taking GameDay Church to London seemed impossible, but the more we discussed it, the option became a realistic goal. Through pastoral and mission connections in the UK developed over the years, we reached out to a network of Baptist pastors in the nation, wondering if any would be interested in partnering for GameDay.

Andrew Jackson, Pastor of Harrow Baptist Church in London responded and dialog began. Pastor Jackson readily admitted that he knew very little about American football, but was intrigued with the idea of GameDay Church and would be interested in working together.

Wembley Stadium is just a fifteen-minute tube ride from Harrow. The setup at Wembley is much different that at EverBank. The most glaring difference is the lack of parking for automobiles. Most fans take the tube. Without being able to secure a spot near the stadium for an outdoor service, we opted to join the congregation of Harrow Baptist this year for worship. The partnership is new, so the membership of Harrow needed to not only meet us, but to understand the vision and goal of our gatherings.

I shared with the congregation the vision of GameDay and attempted to explain American football. While the football references did not always translate well, the sports illustrations did. A brief message from Galatians 1 focusing on the grace of God was shared. Pastor Jackson then brought the day’s sermon.

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A group from our church also attended services at Harrow that morning. They had traveled with our partner Exploring Europe with David McGuffin and toured the city and surrounding areas. David is a member of our church and leads groups to Europe throughout the year.

Following services, we traveled to Wembley and joined 83,000 others for the football game. By the end of the game, Pastor Jackson stated that he had been won over as a fan, but also added “Your Jaguars create stress.” Amen to that.

 

GameDay Church London - Post-Game from First Family on Vimeo.

 

FUTURE ENGAGEMENT

The NFL has a global mission. The church has a deeper mission. The intent of GameDay Church is to engage an unreached people group with the life-changing message of the Gospel. That people group gathers weekly in stadiums around our nation (and at times in other nations) to cheer on football teams. While we will never abandon gathering at our main campus for services, GameDay is our intentional outlet to take the Gospel to the crowd.

Winning over people to American football is not the goal of GameDay Church, but winning fans of football over to Christ is. Our vision is to have a GameDay Church gathering at every NFL stadium weekly. Our international goal is to increase our partnerships with churches in London for the sake of engaging fans. Ultimately, we would love to see fans become followers. That’s the power of the Gospel.

For more details, check out our website – gamedaychurch.org.


Pastors, Politics, and Pot - What Should a Pastor Say Regarding Current Issues?

We once again find ourselves just weeks before election day. As with every other election day in our communities, lines of division are drawn regarding candidates, political parties, platforms, and potential laws.

With the first presidential debate now in our rear-view mirror, the collective sense is not one of relief but just the opposite. According to trending social media statements and spin, many are hoping that Doc Brown is near with his flux capacitor so we can all go back and re-boot the primaries. Nevertheless, the option is not viable, so we're left with what we have. I wrote of this previously here.

Pastors and Politics

The presidential debate reached a record crowd, but the debate that matters more to me is one I find myself in by nature of my role as pastor. I have peers in ministry with varying beliefs regarding the role of pastors and churches in politics. Some are strictly laissez-faire in their philosophy and often state that "the pulpit is not the forum for political discussions." 

Others respond with the belief that as citizens we are "obligated to share with our congregations from the pulpit" regarding political stances and policies.

For fear of appearing to be a fence-sitter, both responses are valid. 

Ultimately, the calling of a pastor is to shepherd God's flock with wisdom and love, modeling that shepherd viewed most clearly in Psalm 23. Understanding that to be true, when preaching the Word of God to the congregation, it is vital to remember the holiness and responsibility of such a calling. Therefore, those who view the pulpit as not being the forum for politics are right in the sense that the gospel is the message. To dilute the gospel of Christ by "Americanizing" or attempting to create patriotic church attenders (BTW - there's nothing wrong with being patriotic) rather than fully-devoted disciples of Christ misses the mark.

However...

Since we do not live in a bubble and to have a hands-off approach to the civic responsibility of participating in our democratic republic also seems to miss the mark. There is, in my opinion, a biblical calling for disciples to love God first and serve him well. We are also to love our neighbors as ourselves and while some would struggle to see how the Great Commandment equates to being politically active, I do not. 

I view it loving to give those God has entrusted under my leadership (as His under-shepherd) the very best, biblical insight on current affairs, trends, and cultural shifts. This insight includes insight into political issues. 

I have had the opportunity to meet many candidates during election years. In many cases these men and women are "visiting" our church. While some of my brothers serving in other churches will point out the visiting candidates from the pulpit or even bring them to the stage for a time of prayer or blessing, I do not. I just have not come to grips with using time allotted for the preaching of God's Word and worship for such pauses. 

Speaking on Policies

I will not endorse an individual candidate, but I have and will continue to speak and write on policies (especially platform statements) that either affirm or disavow biblical truths. Cultural shifts such as the those regarding abortion on demand, same-sex marriage, transgender restroom laws, and the legalization of marijuana are just examples of issues that should be addressed.

I believe that each of these issues (and these are just the trending ones now) speak to the value of God's design for life, sexuality, marriage, identity, and wholeness. 

Of the issues listed above, many evangelical conservatives stand together. However, there is that one outlier that causes greater debate. 

The Pot Issue

The legalization of "medical" marijuana has taken the American culture by storm. In my state (Florida) another amendment option is being placed before the citizens this November in an attempt to legalize marijuana. The amendment failed the last time it was presented, but this being Florida and with just a tweak or two of some wording, the amendment is back. If it fails this time, it will be back again, especially as the big money behind the move continues to work for this.

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Photo credit: fsecart via Visualhunt.com / CC BY

The Executive Director-Treasurer of the Florida Baptist Convention, Dr. Tommy Green, recently posted an open letter to all Florida Baptists encouraging us to vote NO on the proposed amendment. This encouragement was endorsed by the State Board of Missions (full disclosure - I serve on this team.)

We all know that a few states, with Colorado being the most recent and prominent, have shifted their marijuana laws. While it may still be too soon to view the long-term results of legalized marijuana, that which we are seeing as results do not bode well for this. I would encourage listening to Dr. Albert Mohler's recent podcasts where he touches on some of the results. The ones tagged "legalization of marijuana" can be found here.

The debate over whether the use of medical marijuana continues, with the danger for those opposed being labeled as uncaring. The issue at hand is not whether you believe it should be legal or not (though I have strong opinions on this issue personally,) but whether you believe your pastor (or you, if you are a pastor) should speak on these issues from the pulpit. By the way, when I say "pulpit" I realize that many churches do not have traditional pieces of furniture with crosses on them for the pastor to stand behind. In fact, I have a table. So, I'm speaking of the time the pastor stands before the congregation to preach.

My post here will likely not sway most of you, but from my perspective, the pulpit should be used for the preaching of the gospel. Since we do not live in a vacuum, and are working out our salvation regularly we are continually praying to the Father for wisdom regarding how to engage well a culture far from God. We are also seeking wisdom and guidance into how to live holy lives and allow God's Word to give us direction. The living Word is not just history, but through the Spirit's guidance gives us answers and insight. Therefore, when it comes to speaking on issues such as those mentioned above, even the marijuana issue, the Bible speaks. 

The Bible was not written in a vacuum and Christians are not called to live in one either. Therefore, wisdom on such issues from a biblical perspective, should be shared with congregants from the one called by God to speak truth and guide. It is what a good shepherd does. 

Oh, and just in case it wasn't clear - I'm voting NO this fall.


Do You Remember When Religious Freedom Was a Right?

Oh, I know it's still in the US Constitution, but as I watch the cultural shift continue, it is clear that this thing we, as Americans, know as religious freedom will be viewed differently in the near future. As a reminder, or as a revelation for those who do not know, the first amendment to our Constitution is listed below:

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

I don't see the amendment being repealed, though that has happened with other ones in our past, but I do see a reinterpretation of the right coming. There are things that have historically been covered under this amendment as religious freedom, but may likely be eliminated. 

Just to be clear, this post is not about tax-exempt status for churches and religious entities (which, in my opinion, I see likely going away as well.) 

I am not seeking to be a "doom and gloom" guy. I'm not on the rooftops screaming at everyone as they drive by. I'm not wearing a sandwich board that states "The End Is Near." Those stereotypes tend to rise to the surface in times like these. I tend to think of myself as a realist and one who can discern the times.

Earlier this month an article by Michael Gryboski was featured on the Christian Press site. The story is titled "LGBT 'Shame List' of Christian Colleges Includes Azusa Pacific, Biola, Liberty, Wheaton." This is a story that others have referenced in recent weeks. Baptist Press ran a similar article, highlighting the great number of colleges, universities and seminaries related to the Southern Baptist Convention (full disclosure - I pastor an SBC church, have graduated from an SBC seminary, and currently attend a different SBC seminary for further study.) 

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Photo credit: UMaineStudentLife via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

The Shame List

The Shame List is produced by Campus Pride and is advertised as a resource for young people and parents seeking schools that do not discriminate based on gender or sexual orientation. The site's description of the list is below.

The Shame List identifies the “absolute worst campuses for LGBTQ youth” in the United States. The colleges & universities listed have chosen to openly discriminate against LGBTQ youth and have requested Title IX exemptions to perpetuate the harms of religion-based bigotry.  The criterion to be the “absolute worst” campus includes either of the following: 1) Received and/or applied for a Title IX exemption to discriminate against LGBTQ youth and/or 2) Demonstrated past history and track record of anti-LGBTQ actions, programs and practices.

The Title IX exemption is the key element in the creation of the list. For most Americans, Title IX has been celebrated as the rule that created equal athletic opportunities for women in university settings. Parents of young girls have traditionally viewed this rule as a positive as it has pushed colleges and universities to create more women's sports and to push more money toward these "non-revenue" sports. Without Title IX, it is likely that the NCAA would not have the Women's Basketball Tournament, names like Pat Summitt, Diana Turasi, Mia Hamm, and Mary Wise would not be as well known and women athletes likely would have less opportunities.

However, Title IX is also the umbrella that leaves colleges and universities open to having to affirm lifestyles and actions that are polar opposites to their religious groundings, statements of faith, and belief systems.

With the culture blurring greatly the line between male and female, it is only a matter of time before funding for financial aid (FAFSA) to predominantly religious institutions of higher learning becomes the element used to force (or seek to force) the abandonment of religious convictions in the area of gender.

Campus Pride is clear in their desires. I actually appreciate the forthrightness in the organization's leaders. There is no doubt as to their purpose in existing and their modus operandi. However, I disagree greatly with their focus and stated beliefs. That, too is my right.

So, I'm not seeking to shut down their site or discredit their organization. I am disagreeing and seeing the reality that is now and to come. 

The LGBT revolution, which is actually an extension of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, has effectively pushed toward governmental policy and law changes. As the nation collectively watches North Carolina suffer from the loss of funds due to their statewide bathroom policies, it is clear that step-by-step, that which was considered unmovable and an inalienable right to believe a certain way will soon shift in the public forum

The LGBT rights people have effectively equated their suffering to that of people of color who led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Yet, I have many African-American and minority race friends who find that comparison offensive. 

Nevertheless, the "Shame List" is out and most all schools listed are religious in nature and affiliated with Christian denominations. Nearly one-third of the 100 plus schools are affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

No Shame In Being On The Shame List

President Jason Allen of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City had this response to having his school placed on the list:

"Regardless of what shaming -- online or otherwise -- may come, our convictions remain unchanged and our calling undeterred: we will winsomely, yet boldly, speak the full complement of Christian truth on this issue and every other issue to which the Bible speaks. And we will humbly point all, including Campus Pride, to Jesus as the only one who saves.

As we train our students, we seek to equip them to minister in a broken world, marred by human sinfulness and its consequences, including those harmed by the false promises of the sexual revolution. The good news is that Jesus Christ came so that whoever believes in Him -- gay or straight -- might be saved, and have their sins forgiven and their life transformed. That is the message Midwestern Seminary preaches and the message to which our students are giving their lives to declare."

The purpose of the shame list is ultimately lead Americans to not only not enroll, but to label and place these schools in a position where the title "haters" is most prominent. As I look over the list, there are schools listed that I would be proud to attend and have my children attend. At the same time, Christian or not, there are some that I would never attend or recommend. Yet, even in the cases of those I would not attend, there seems to be something lost when the right to hold to religious convictions is deemed hateful and evil. 

There are hundreds of colleges and universities that would be on the other end of the spectrum for Campus Pride. In fact, they also publish a list known as the "Best of the Best" for LGBTQ students. The list includes state universities and predominantly liberal-leaning schools, which is not surprising. 

It is a sticky situation. Most Christian students attend state universities. If Christian teenagers are effectively discipled and prepared to contend for the gospel (see Galatians 1) then attending such a university is not only a financially sound decision, but missionally focused one as well. Unfortunately, many students in our churches are not contenders and have and will fall prey to unbiblical teaching and liberal philosophy at the university level. These concerns include but go deeper than LGBT identification.

There are many students who discover their perfect fit for higher education not at the public university, but at a smaller, biblically-focused school. There are varied reasons for this. Sometimes it is academically based. Sometimes it is a chance to play sports at the college level (that was me). Sometimes it is simply the door that God is opening for His glory.

The Shame List will lead many to just shake their heads wondering how we have come so far. For me, it's no surprise. In fact, how did we not see this coming? The days are not only coming, but are here. Religious liberty will be redefined and dumbed down. Some of these schools on the list may not be in existence in ten years. Others will refuse any federal financial aid and their costs will lead to needs for private donations and scholarships and ultimately a decreased student population. Still, others will capitulate and disavow their long-held religious convictions. This will be deemed as progress, but regress is more like it.

As my friend Christopher Yuan said based on this story "This is the beginning of the end of religious freedom."

 


Is God a White Racist?

I heard on the radio as I drove to work this morning that the racial unrest in our nation, most recently in Charlotte and Tulsa, hearkens back to 1968. Many of my contemporaries do not remember that year, but those who lived through the era affirm that great fear and division was the news of the night as Walter Cronkite would remind us "that's the way it is."

Much is being said, written, preached, and tweeted about the state of race relations now. This goes much deeper than protesting the national anthem, though that has become a daily news story as Americans are seemingly creating "Patriotic Scorecards" to keep track of those who stand at attention, those who kneel, and those who hold their fists aloft. 

Yet, with much being said...the truth is more must be said, but more truth cemented in the Gospel. Beyond saying the right things, the gap toward belief and and action must be covered. 

For a lily-white American pastor (that would be me) attempting to write or speak from the perspective of an African-American man comes across as disingenuous. It is not that I cannot speak on the truth of Scripture or the history (both good and bad) of the church. Affirming the veracity and inerrancy of God's Word allows me to speak confidently on the issues, but sometimes having the capacity to speak truth does not equate to being heard.

 

Cam triggs
Cameron Triggs

Therefore, I thought I would share the following from my friend, fellow pastor, and church planter Cameron Triggs. Cameron previously served with Pastor H.B. Charles at Shiloh Church in Jacksonville, Florida. He is currently serving in The Summit Network in North Carolina as he prepares to plant a new church in Orlando next year. Cameron is a gifted communicator and strong apologist for the Gospel. He recently published a short book titled Is God a White Racist: An Apologetic Dialogue. This short dialogue featuring two men, Walter and Charles, who are childhood friends and fraternity brothers. After college, they parted ways with Walter becoming the African-American Studies Director at a community college in Chicago and Charles becoming a pastor in Marietta, Georgia. 

The story is fictional, but the conversation is authentic and echoes what has been and is continuing to be a point of division and discussion within the African-American community.

I highly recommend my readers to take the time to read this little e-book. You will likely finish it in about fifteen minutes. 

Here are some things I gained from the read:

  • Contending for the Gospel is vital.
  • We must always be prepared with an answer. Saying "Let me call my pastor" will carry no water, and likely end a conversation with a non-believing friend. 
  • White American Christians need to think deeply about these issues.
  • All Christians need to think deeply about these issues.
  • Gospel thinking leads to Gospel-centric action.
  • No white person can fully grasp the African-American experience and to say "I understand" will likely end productive discussions immediately.
  • The Gospel has not changed, will not change, and is still God's gracious gift to humanity.
  • God is not a white racist, or a black racist, brown racist, tan racist. etc.
  • Behind all division and disunity among believers is the Enemy. 
  • Cliches and bumper sticker theology does not suffice.
  • Real life conversations on such deep issues are rarely resolved over one cup of coffee. 

Here's a portion of Cameron's story. Remember, Walter is a self-proclaimed agnostic and Charles is a pastor...

Walter: This all started about six years ago, Chuck. This is not an overnight metamorphosis. I really reasoned about this. I tried to reconcile how could a loving and powerful God be so unfair to people of color, and how could I, being a black man, follow a religion that enslaved us? A colleague of mine in the Philosophy Department really challenged my thinking. When he found out I was a “Christian”, he blatantly asked how. How could I follow a religion that supported slavery with exegesis from the “good book” itself? How could Jonathan Edwards, the so-called “Greatest American Theologian”, take on difficult philosophical issues, such as total depravity and irresistible grace, but never condemn slavery? Cotton Mather even argued that white people should teach their slaves that God has called them to be servants, and that they serve Jesus Christ while serving their masters. So, cotton-picking slaves served Christ while being beaten, hanged, raped, and whipped by white masters, right? These so-called “Christians” owned slaves as well. George Whitefield enslaved brothers too! Doesn’t that bother you, Chuck? Be real with me, man! It is that attitude of the church that projected books like, “The Negro as a Beast” by Charles Carrol! So, here we have a religion that is in direct opposition to our heritage and dignity.

Charles: Sigh…yea, Walt. I agree. Christians sin, sometimes grievously, against their own law. But what you just proposed is an ad hominem argument that is rather weak. Sure, the character of some Christians is corrupt, but Christianity as a whole can’t be thrown out with the bath water.

Click here or the image below to read the entire book.

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Special thanks to Cameron Triggs for producing such a timely and well-written dialogue.

Cameron Triggs web site - camtriggs.com

Jude3 Project - jude3project.com


firstFAMILY Podcast 019: Are We Asking Too Much?

 

As a pastor of a church in a growing and changing suburban culture, there are numerous things we seek to do to engage the community. As we discussed these things, in addition to all the traditional ministry events and minutia of day-t0-day church life, I was growing frustrated. I found that we were asking the members of our church for much. My question was "Are we asking for too much?"

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This episode of the podcasts addresses this issue and while specific to our church I believe many other churches, of all sizes, find the squeeze of paying bills, offering benevolence, and serving the Lord by serving and loving others that we do.


A Moment That Changed Everything - My Message at @GameDayChurch on 9/11

We launched our second year of GameDay Church on September 11. This church service/event in the parking lot of EverBank Field prior to the Jaguars - Packers game drew a crowd and allowed us to engage in gospel-centric conversations with those walking by and hanging out at our tailgate event. Being that it was September 11, I felt that addressing the fifteenth anniversary of the tragic day of terror that hit our nation was appropriate. 

Here is a transcript of my message on 9/11 with reference to Matthew 9. Thanks to Jon Wood, our campus minister at IslandChurch for the story regarding the Eagles - Redskins football game.

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A few years ago there was an NFL game scheduled on a Sunday, but rather than a 1pm start, this one started at 2pm. That’s strange, but not the strangest thing about this game.

The game was being played between the Redskins and the Eagles. Philadelphia was out of the playoff hunt, but they were looking to play the role of spoiler. The Redskins were sitting at .500 and were in a position to squeak into the playoffs, but needed the win.

The game began with the Eagles taking an early lead.

The Redskins took advantage of a Philly turnover and scored in the second quarter, to tie it up at 7 apiece. Not really an offensive game so far.

 The game continued on and the fans who remained in the stands to watch what became a very sloppy game did so because, they’re well…fans.

The Eagles ended up turning the ball over more and the Redskins won. The game ended as most everyone thought.

And once the game was over, no one cared.

That game was over about 5pm and because of the way news spread at the time, the things happening globally that day became known by the fans and players by the end of the game. The announcer at the game, it’s is said, began asking some of the fans in the stands to report to certain areas immediately.

You see, on that day, December 7, 1941, everything changed. 

America was divided at the time. Can you imagine a divided America? It was severe. Many thought the war was dumb and we shouldn’t bother or get involved. Others thought we must. Then, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor happened and there was no longer a valid option of sitting on the sidelines. America was thrust into World War II.

Those men who were called out of the stadium were active-duty military personnel. They were now at war. More would join. The entire nation would engage, even on the home front.

Fifteen years ago, another day began, just like every other day. People got up, had their coffee, went to work and then planes hit towers, a plane hit the Pentagon and one even crashed in Pennsylvania. The news reports were horrendous and clear.

Things had changed.

We now live in a post 9/11 world now and are reminded of that even as we enter EverBank today for the game. The metal detectors and bag searches are now normal.

Going to the airport and flying is different than it used to be.

We have a "new normal" because of these horrendous acts.

Sometimes, a regular day, or at least our plans for a regular day, can end up life-changing.

In these cases, the changes were brought on by attacks and terrorism. But, there are moments in life that are also unexpected, that lead to more positive and encouraging life-change.

In the Bible, there was a man named Matthew. He was a Jewish man, but not liked by his people. He was considered a sell-out. He was working for the occupying nation in his homeland by collecting taxes from his peers.

And, in those days, tax collectors were known to, and even expected to, fleece the people to pad their own pockets. The Roman government (the occupying one) didn’t care how much the native collectors gathered in taxes, as long as they had the amount Rome wanted. So, any extra they could get was for themselves.

So, Matthew goes to work on that day – just another day – nothing special expected, but something special did happen. Something he never saw coming.

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”Matthew 9:9-13 (ESV)  [1]

Look at what happened. Jesus, the Son of God, intentionally went to a guy that the religious people, the neighbors, and others in the community did not like and would avoid if possible. Jesus went to him. He met him at his place of business, in his own comfort zone and offered him a chance at new life.

He said, “Follow me” which seems like the shortest invitation ever, and it was, but coming from Jesus, it was clearly strategic.

Matthew didn’t expect this, but was overwhelmed with the invite. “Me? Follow you? Seriously?” and he did.

Matthew became one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, one of his closest friends. He, like the others in Jesus group of close friends, would later be described as one of the men who was turning the world upside down, for good.

Just another day, right?

Nope.

Everything changed and on this day, it changed for the better.

We can all relate to the 9/11 change, especially if you’re old enough to remember it. Some of us may remember Pearl Harbor, but at a minimum, we’ve read about it or watched the videos about it. We understand how those moments can change everything. And some of us here have a Matthew story – we understand how Jesus surprises us and changes everything. When we least expected it.

And maybe some here today will experience this. It’s just another Sunday. It’s another football game. It’s the start of the season. There was a day much like this last season and the season before, etc. But, today, you’re here and maybe, just maybe, Jesus is still doing what he did 2000 years ago. He’s meeting you when you least expected it and saying “Follow me.” Now, you get to decide to follow him or not.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Mt 9:9–13). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.