The Blessing of Qualified Deacons Who Serve

It is the time of year once more in our church where the members will prayerfully nominate biblically qualified, faithful men to serve in the office of deacon. We recognize two offices within the church - pastors (elders) and deacons. 

It is at this time of the year I sometimes feel like Bill Murray in the movie "Groundhog Day." We have been nominating deacons to serve in our church for decades. This is something that has occurred every single year that I have been here (the past 25 years) and for many years prior. Yet, every year the same questions come up regarding qualifications, expectations, and responsibilities of the men who serve.

Each year, the answers remain the same. At least the core answers do, for those are based on the only passage in Scripture where qualifications of deacons is given (1 Timothy 3.)

So, as we prepare for this time once more, we must go back to Scripture to ensure we understand what is required for men who answer this high calling for the lowly position.

Lightstock_63004_small_david_tarkington

Often when looking at the qualifications for deacons, we begin reading in verse 8 of chapter 3 while ignoring the qualifications for pastors (elders) listed in the first portion of the chapter. While these are two distinct offices, there is a connecting phrase in verse 8 that leads the reader to see that which is required of pastors is true for deacons as well. That phrase is "Deacons likewise must be..."

While the offices of pastor/elder and deacon have been affirmed in the modern church, the roles of the offices have often been misunderstood, if not fully modified. Based on the New Testament, the pastor/elders are the primary spiritual leaders of the local church. Pastors are to teach or preach the Word and shepherd the souls of those under their care (Eph. 4:11; 1 Tim. 3:2; 5:17; Titus 1:9; Heb. 13:17).

Deacons are to serve. The church needs deacons to offer practical, logistical support and service to the pastors and the church body so that the pastors may focus on the study of the Word of God and prayer. 

The Similarities of Offices

It is clear as one reads through the passage that character counts. Men who serve as pastors and men who serve as deacons are held to high standards of character. They are to be proven, Christian men who are dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy, holding to sound faith and doctrine, and blameless. They are expected to lead their families well and, if married, to have wives who are above reproach as well. Clearly, if a moral character qualification is listed for elders, it is expected of deacons as well. 

The Differences of Offices

The character qualifications are similar, but the roles and expectations of the offices do differ in some significant ways. The most distinguishing difference in the passage is found in 1 Timothy 3:2 where pastors are required to be "apt to teach." 

This has caused confusion for some in that some churches have required their deacons to be serving in a teaching capacity in the church. What deacons are called to do is "hold" to the faith (1 Tim. 3:9).  The office requirement is clear on holding strongly to the doctrines and mysteries of the faith. The passage clearly suggest that deacons do not have an official teaching role in the church.

Nevertheless, while a deacon may not actually be leading a small group or Bible study in the church, he must have the capacity to answer questions regarding biblical truth and doctrine. He must be able to share this truth with others. He should also be willing to serve where needed in the local church...and that may be in a teaching capacity (for various age groups.) 

Character & Doctrine Matters

The deacon is an office of necessity so that the members of the church are served well. The pastor ensures they are taught well. God has positioned these offices in his church for his glory and the good of the church. 

So, as the questions come, the answers remain consistent. There are interpretative variances on some of the qualifications. For example, while "husband of one wife" literally means "a one-woman man" some churches have read this to mean that a divorced man is not qualified for the office (this is our church's understanding.) Other churches have held this to mean a man should be married to only one woman at a time, which was an issue in the day it was written and will likely be again as marriage laws and redefinitions of acceptable relations continue to occur. Some hold that if a man became a believer after a remarriage, he qualifies. 

Our church also has chosen to refrain from the drinking of alcoholic beverages for all pastors and deacons. While we concur that drinking alcoholic beverages is not a sin, we acknowledge that in our culture the command to ensure we not be stumbling blocks to newer believers has led to the continuation of this guideline. 

While the "Groundhog Day" feeling continues, there are things that come up during this season of "deacon nomination" that causes me to reevaluate our guidelines, processes, and roles in our church.

Things We Need To Reconsider

  • GET RID OF THE TERM LIMIT - We have "inactive deacons" and I keep looking in Scripture to see where that is validated. Our practice, as with many legacy churches, is to call a man to serve for a "term" as a deacon. In our case, it's for three years.  It seems to me the concept of "inactive" is wrong. Now, there are cases where a man should step down from service. Obviously, the abandonment of solid doctrine, immorality, divisiveness, or opposition to pastors (who are leading biblically) would be reasons for a removal from office. However, a year off after three years on seems to be nothing more than a passive way to remove men from office without having to address personality conflicts or more importantly, issues such as those listed above.
  • STOP NOMINATING THE UNQUALIFIED - The process of nomination is challenging. Yet, there are men nominated by well-meaning church members each year who are not qualified for the office. 
  • STOP TRYING TO FILL A QUOTA - We have abandoned this, but many churches still are focused on having the right number of men as deacons a required by their by-laws. The church is better off having the right men, even if it's a smaller number, than a large group of men who do not qualify.
  • SELECT QUALIFIED DEACONS WHO ALREADY SERVE IN THE CHURCH - Calling a man who does nothing in the church with the hopes he will once he is called as a deacon is akin to giving a person who never attends small group a teaching position in hopes that he/she will start attending regularly. It's futile. It's wrong. It lowers the bar. 
  • CALL TO REPENTANCE THOSE THOSE WHO HAVE SERVED, BUT WON'T NOW - There are some who do not serve actively due to health or serious familial reasons. Then there are the men who refuse to serve for reasons that are less than godly. A deacon who has served in the past but won't currently due to differences with pastoral leadership, anger, laziness, or simply a desire to not serve within the church, must be called to repentance. Why? Because this is sin. If the man has disqualified himself from the office, that too must be addressed. However, it seems that at times, certain men are begged by other church members to serve again as they did prior to their refusal to be "active" once more, but to do so without calling them to repentance is to affirm the sin keeping them out of the office. 

The Bible charges pastors with the tasks of teaching and leading the church. The deacons role is more service-oriented. By handling such issues within the church, the pastors are freed up to focus on shepherding the spiritual needs of the church. Deacons are a blessing. They honor God through their service to him and his church.


When Everything Offends

We are now living in an era of offense. It seems that everyone is just one tweet or Facebook post from being totally offended at … well, everything. This age of offense seems to be leaving us with an inability to have discourse. It’s not that humanity had ever mastered this in the past, but the immediacy of posts with responses typed in anger and frustration now has seemingly become the norm.

Last week it was In-N-Out Burger that offended some, so a boycott was called (then quickly recounted when it became clear that not eating an “Animal Style” In-N-Out Burger when you have the opportunity (I live in Florida, so I only get these when I travel) was not worth boycotting. The boycott was called by the head of the California Democratic Party through a tweet because the restaurant chain had made donations to the state’s Republican party. However, it was soon disclosed that that the restaurant chain had also donated to the state’s Democratic party. Dakota Smith and Melissa Etehad wrote in their Los Angeles Times article [Read Here] about the politicization of hamburgers. They shared the quote from In-N-Out Executive Vice President Arnie Wensinger.

“For years, In-N-Out Burger has supported lawmakers who, regardless of political affiliation, promote policies that strengthen California and allow us to continue operating with the values of providing strong pay and great benefits for our associates.”

So much for just being able to enjoy a burger.

Calls for boycotts are not new. They’ve been going on for generations. These, in my opinion, were needed and valuable.

  • Back in 1769 Philadelphia merchants began boycotting Great Britain over a little thing known as “taxation without representation.” You may have heard of that.
  • In 1933 the American Jewish Congress boycotted Nazi Germany for what should be obvious reasons.
  • Throughout the 1950s and 1960s black Americans launched and participated in various boycotts due to the racial segregation issues in the United States. African-Americans were not the only ones participating, but definitely were prominent in turning a boycott of Montgomery busses into a movement.
  • In South Africa a boycott of South African universities was launched in the 1950s and lasted until the 1990s.

There are many others. Some were connected to sporting events such as the 1980 Olympic games when the US boycotted the Moscow games. Payback came in 1984 when the Soviet Union stayed away from the Los Angeles Games.

The list of historical and current boycotts is long. Just Google it or check out the Wikipedia page.

In Southern Baptist life, there have been boycotts. The most prominent one to come to mind was against the Walt Disney Company in 1997. The national news presented it as a mandated boycott, not understanding the autonomy of local churches and the role of resolutions. Eight years later the boycott was ended, but I’m not really certain of its effect. In fact, I don't believe it was effective at all. For SBC churches in Florida, we never really saw a decline in Disney annual passes or weekends at the park. Perhaps Universal Studios benefitted when Night of Joy (the Christian concert event at Disney) began losing attendees while Rock the Universe grew in popularity. Who knows?

Believe

Burning Nikes

Now we have another boycott happening. This one has to do with Nike and their recent decision to feature former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick as the face of their “Just Do It” campaign.

Boy, has this one blown up.

As I watch the vitriol flow online, I see a number of camps developing. These groups are dividing politically, racially, regionally, and in various other ways. Some are angry at  the NFL based on the league’s inability to address the anthem kneeling. Others are angry at Nike because they are paying Kaepernick. Some are stating the Nike promo is disrespectful (that’s the nicest way to put it) of those who have served our country in the military. Others are angry because of the disrespect from some to those who serve our communities in law enforcement. Still others are angry due to the accounts of police brutality that have occurred in our nation. Others are simply stating the reality of the dissolution of community and growing violence in our neighborhoods.

The lists of the angry are long, varied, and at some level are all valid.

Pastors are trying to find ways to address these issues. As varied as the responses above are the responses from pastors and spiritual leaders. Some are wrapping themselves in flags (figuratively.) Others are wearing their Nike shoes as a way to protest (or support.) Some are ignoring the issues. Others are ignoring the Scriptures (unfortunately, but not just due to the current newsfeeds.) Some sound more like political pundits for the party of choice than as proclaimers of the Word.

What are we to do?

The answer to that question is as varied as the personalities in our nation.

We can get angry and stay angry. That’s the easy thing to do.

We can ignore the problems in our society, hide in our church buildings, and talk (or post) about those “out there” who are the problems.

We can remain silent when wrongs occur, believing that it’s not our problem or our issue. However, here’s what happens when this is the response. When the church is silent, someone else will speak into the void. This is always the case and unfortunately, we (the church) have allowed this many times in the past.

Screenshot 2018-09-05 17.10.35

TWEET THIS

Maybe, these options would be better …  

We can pray for wisdom.

We can speak truth.

We can love our neighbors.

We can love our enemies.

We can engage the world for the sake of the Gospel.

We can be the church we must be.

Here’s the problem when we choose well – the world won’t like it. In fact, some in your church won’t like it. There will be pushback from all sides. Some will claim you’re being too political (even when you are seeking strongly to stand only on the truth of the gospel) while others will declare you’re not political enough. Some will call you a political conservative and align you with an agenda or person you did not choose. Others will state you are a political liberal and put you in a camp that you would not wish be in.

Outside of politics, you’ll be chastised for the shoes you wear or don’t wear, the games you watch or don’t watch, and perhaps even the fast-food restaurant you choose to eat at, or not.

Should Christians Boycott?

That’s a good question and rather than re-hash the subject, I recommend you click the link here and read Joe Carter’s post from a number of years ago on The Gospel Coalition’s website.

Does This Help?

Does this post fix everything? Does it fix anything? Well, probably not really.

Yet, it’s forcing me to have a conversation (at least a contemplation) about what we, as Christians must be doing, or at a minimum talking about. Consider this self-counsel.

At some point the concept of living missionally means we must actually be “in the world” while seeking to be not of it. Sadly, many seemingly have so strongly lamented being in the world that they have sought and accomplished the creating of  safe places that effectively leave them sequestered somewhere in a “Christian” version of everything while not being truly Christian in anything.

In the meantime, I would say that we as Christians, to change the Nike slogan just a bit, must truly believe in Someone (Jesus) who sacrificed everything so that we may have life. Then, we must live that life for the glory of God, knowing that will be for the good of His church and others.


If "PRAY" Is Simply a Trending Hashtag, We Are Doing This Wrong

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.

It is at times like this when community leaders, news agencies, and even those with no belief in God call for things to be done. The word “pray” becomes a hashtag that trends for a few days as many use social media to state we must #PrayForJacksonville. I believe that and am even sharing that statement, but the church of Jesus Christ must not fall into the trap of seeing prayer as a weak, viral response to tragedy. While city leaders and national politicians seek to piggyback on the tragedies of Friday’s shooting at the Raines-Lee high school football game and the terrible act of violence Sunday at The Jacksonville Landing, the call for the church is to do more than declare the world as dark and sin as bad.

Pray for jax

One Jacksonville city leader stated “We really need to talk about God. I’m asking the faith-based community to step up.” I cannot disagree with that, but the church must understand that to “step up” means we must first kneel before God together, seeking His face, His will, while confessing our sins of complacency and self-promotion.

This is not a political issue. These issues are not solely about safety and seemingly random acts of violence.  This is about sin. For some the sad reality is that sin affects not just the one committing it, but others (family, friends, and sometimes bystanders with no connection to the individual.)  

The Christian community should not be surprised when evil things occur. This is how it has always been. Yet, the church cannot remain sequestered in our buildings from the community we have been called to engage for the Gospel. Church, it is time to step up. It begins with prayer (real, repentant, convictional, worshipful prayer) and follows with stepping outside our buildings to engage, in love, the community we have been called and placed within to serve.

This is for the glory of God alone.

This is for the good of our city, our families, our friends. 

Pray for Jacksonville please. Pray. Step up. Kneel down. Step outside and be the light in the darkness.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." Matthew 5:14-16 (ESV)


Why I Quit Men's Ministry

About fifteen years ago I was reading one of the popular men’s books available and selling well in Christian bookstores at the time. I was challenged and encouraged and even traveled out west to attend a retreat hosted by the author. At that point in my life, I needed this message and God used it to affirm his calling upon my life.

Prior to that, like many Christian men, I read a few books about living as a godly man that had become popular.  This was during the growth of the men’s ministry movement that was grew due to ministries like Promise Keepers and other conference events. The focus on biblical manhood was needed then. It still is. Pastors like Robert Lewis and his Men’s Fraternity material proved very valuable. I began leading Men’s Fraternity groups at our church and launched a men’s ministry called “Battle Ready” through our church. This led to retreats, outings, conferences, and small group studies over the years.

Lightstock_70375_small_david_tarkington

One of the annual highlights for our men was Battle Ready Weekend. We would gather in Tennessee for three days of solid, no-holds-barred biblical teaching, personal reflection, along with some fun experiences like paintball, white water rafting, zip lines, and more.

The themes of the teachings were the same every year. In fact, most of the biblically-based books and resources for men’s ministry tend to be similar. There’s a focus on living out one’s identity in Christ, refusing to be passive, delving into spiritual wounds, being a godly husband, and leaving a legacy as a godly father.

I have fond memories of these days. The gospel was proclaimed. Biblical teaching on being the man God intends was offered. Wives started signing their husbands up stating the benefits to their marriages were clear. Children had conversations that previously had gone left unsaid.

We began inviting our sons to join us on these weekends. The shift was needed and those with sons were provided opportunity to speak into their lives in ways that they often desired, but were unable or unwilling to do so. In retrospect, the moments between fathers and sons proved to be powerful and impactful.

Then things began to shift.

Preparing for the weekend trips became an administrative headache. I was the keynote speaker, but also the schedule developer, the rooming reservationist, the event planner, and over every little detail of the weekend events. This was due to my own immaturity and weaknesses in leadership. I was “leading” but not leading well. I had created a retreat for me and ended up inviting other guys along. It was good. It was not best.

Then, I invited my son. This became the father-son weekend I desired. Those things I had challenged other fathers to do was now to be modeled by me – the pastor, the men’s ministry leader, the founder of Battle Ready.

My son was in elementary school. He would soon be in junior high and would attend with me annually until his senior year in high school.

We did have some good times. There were a couple of years when he and I would leave early and arrive at the campground a few days before the bus full of friends from church arrived. It was just the two of us. I tried to make it a memorable week. Maybe I was trying to create something that I felt was missing in our lives? Perhaps I was trying to connect with him before it was too late. Hindsight is 20/20, but it also leads me to over analyze in ways that are often not helpful. So there's that.

We came home and my wife asked “How was your time together?” I said “Okay. It was good.”

I meant it. Truly. But she was expecting something profound to happen. When I failed to reveal the “moment” that connected us well, she seemed disappointed. In truth, I was too.

There was a gap. It wasn’t my son’s fault at that time. I really don’t think it was mine either. I’m not sure what the problem was. Well, looking back, it was something I had created with my overly busy schedule likely (I’ve been told that numerous times) and was trying to make up for lost time.

Words from Robert Lewis would resonate with me. He would say “An involved dad is not a strategic dad.” Boom. That was me. I was definitely involved. I coached his team. Went to school events (I did miss that one story time in elementary school that leaves a scar in our story) sponsored him and traveled with him on school field trips, would adjust my schedule to his, and took him with me on occasion when I could. But…that wasn’t necessarily strategic.

Then something happened.

THE WORST MOMENT IN MY LIFE (SO FAR)

Up to this point, it would be categorized as the worst moment in my life. For my son, it wasn’t good either.

There was a divide between us. He was in high school.

He made choices that fell outside our (my wife and I) understanding of biblical fidelity. There were many things that we never saw coming. Our family was under spiritual attack. A trap was sprung. It was an incredibly effective one as well. We were in a battle and while it manifested as being between my son and I at times, the true battle was deeper, more sinister, and spiritual.

Many in our community and even some in our church didn’t (and do not) understand this. I’ve discovered there is a two-dimensional narrative that some believe to be true. Based on the portions of our story known by some, opinions were developed. Judgments were made. Depending on who you talk with, varying characters in this storyline were the wrong ones and the bad guys. That’s always the case. Since living through this journey I’ve been convicted of times when I have made the same false judgments on others based simply on one version of a story, or perhaps only what I have observed.

I have learned. I hope I now know better. Looking back, confirmation has been given by God regarding our rightness to stand firmly on his Word and truth. Sin does not live in grey areas and of that we have been affirmed. We also have this amazing ability to see how we could have responded better (not by affirming sin) at times. That remains a continual struggle, since as you may know our story continues (just as everyone reading this is living in a continual story.)

Our son eventually graduated from high school. He went to university and excelled. He continues in graduate studies and I have no doubt that he will continue to do well. He may actually be the most intelligent young man I have ever met. He is gifted and talented. He is also perhaps the best friend an individual could have.

Yet, the fellowship between father and son is absent. I don’t say those words lightly or with animosity. It’s just a reality. It’s not a finality, but today it remains.

MEN'S EVENTS

I continued to plan men’s weekends even after my son went away to school and was beyond wanting (or pretending to want) to attend. I remember the last one I planned. It was in eastern Tennessee at Doe River Gorge. This is a beautiful location with many amenities. The cabins are perfect. I stayed in an old train caboose that had been converted into a hotel-type room. I had other men teaching sessions so it was not all on me. We had a good group attend and it was not unlike previous gatherings.

But…something was wrong.

I was tired. I was no longer being renewed through these weekends. I was burning out. And I felt like a hypocrite.

I was teaching the Word and as our men know, was always pretty transparent in my sessions. I would share weaknesses and mistakes and where I saw my needs for grace. Yet, in this story as a father, I felt like a failure. I was seeking to model the “how to” of being a godly husband and father and lo and behold, there was this monkey wrench thrown into the machinery.

“Where’s your son?” was asked by a few of the men. It was asked by some whom I thought knew what had happening and the journey we were on. However, these are men. I’m guilty as well. Sometimes we just don’t catch the obvious or hear the details.

Battle Ready Weekend ended and I began my drive home. I didn’t ride the bus. I drove alone. I arrived early to Tennessee and spent three days alone in prayer and just trying to gather my thoughts or anything else that would help. I actually found myself ready to end my weekend and head home about a day before all the men arrived. NOTE – if you want to leave before everyone arrives, that’s not a good sign.

Overall the weekend went well.

But, I was done.

I just could not do it again.

That was 2015.

I am still way too busy it seems. While things aren’t exactly as I desire them to be, God has done a work upon and within me. I went back to school and am almost finished. I’m older and hopefully a bit wiser. The crisis of life pushed me even deeper into God’s Word. I still have some men’s ministry books. Actually I have a shelf full of them, but have found greater insight into living for Christ directly from the Bible rather than from books about the Bible. Go figure. As a pastor, you’d think this would be obvious.

I still read these books and others. I have read biographies of great men of the faith. I have discovered once more what I have already known. The doubts and fears I have faced, the inadequacies that seem to be more and more obvious, the spiritual attacks, and more are not unique to my story. The perfect pastor’s family does not exist. It’s a façade. There is only one who is perfect, and His perfection is my strength. His grace is my sufficiency.

BACK AT IT

I’m not hosting another men’s weekend. We may never do those again like we did in the past. In fact, most of the men who were key to making it happen have left the church or moved elsewhere. Some have clearly followed God’s lead elsewhere to serve. Others have just been taken out of the story through moral failure or the abandonment of biblical truth. For those I grieve.

While I’m not hosting, I have agreed to speak at a men’s weekend. A portion of our annual attendees lived in North Carolina and under the leadership of my friend Travis Bowman, Battle Ready NC was created. I am so excited for what he has been able to do through this ministry. This year I will be speaking at the opening session for the men attending. It takes time to get from Florida to North Carolina. I will once again take a long drive alone for prayer and reflection. Yet, this time I believe God is calling me to do this for His glory and for the good of the men in attendance. Maybe it’s for the good of my family as well. I hope so.

I quit men’s ministry. Maybe I don’t need “men’s ministry” but I know what I do need, and I know the men in our church and community need this too. I need to walk humbly with God as a man with a strong faith, a biblical worldview, with gospel-soundness and a graceful love of others.

It’s kind of funny, in a sick way. I was telling men to be “Battle Ready” and was blindsided by the enemy who proved I was not. Yet in my weakness He is strong and where I have no capacity to be battle ready, I know he is.

The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent. Exodus 14:14 (ESV) [1]

_______________

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ex 14:14). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.


The Private-Public Divide May Be Killing Your Church

In America, the debate has raged for decades over the separation of church and state. I know that phrase is not in the US Constitution and it has become a tool for divisiveness and used out of sorts in many ways. However, this post is not about the separation (or presumed separation) of the church and state. This is about the private-public divide within the church or better yet within individual Christians.

Public Life

Speaking of local church members specifically, each of us has a public life, a persona that is known by others in the community, at work, or school. This may be due to volunteering at the elementary school, coaching youth soccer, serving on the homeowner association, being in the Rotary, or numerous other options.

These roles are not bad. In fact, they're wonderful. Christians should be seen and known in these venues throughout the community. 

Private Life

This is where it gets really personal. This is the life within our family, hopefully our church, alongside our friends and loved ones, etc. This is where our faith resides, since it is a personal walk with Christ. This is where viewpoints, convictions, struggles, and even sins live. They're private.

25673852_d90651dfe5_b
Photo credit: pea. on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Encouragement vs. Enablement

Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, educated at Cambridge and commissioned for missionary service by the Church of Scotland in 1936 to India for the following four decades had written much about what is now termed missional living and church/community engagement. When he returned from India to England in 1974 he wrote numerous articles and books over the subsequent two decades. The focus of his writing dealt with the question of how an authentic encounter between the gospel and western culture could take place.

He surmised that one of the fundamental issues plaguing modern western culture was the separation of public and private domains of life. Corresponding with this was the separation of values.1 He argues that this concept is a holdover from the age of the Enlightenment and is rooted in classical Greek thought. I have read some of what he has asserted and it makes much sense. Yet, I won't get into that here.

This very western concept of segmented lives is cultural and common. In fact, it is considered normal. The problem is that this normal life often leads to Christians having a "church life" and a, well, "real life" for lack of a better term.

The problem in the church is that while church leaders and pastors continue to encourage church members to "be light in dark places" and engage their world with the message of the gospel (rightly so, by the way), our systems of ministry often enable the continued separation from the world, thus creating a private-public dichotomy.

While we encourage missional living, we often enable sequestered huddling.

There is no easy remedy to this. We are pushing not only against human nature, but also centuries of cultural norms. 

The private-public divide often leads to a Kingdom-church divide. While we desire to see God's Kingdom grow and we know the "fields are white unto harvest" sometimes the church practices ministry that reveals a desire to see God's Kingdom within the church walls, while ignoring the commission to go, or better yet to live missionally as we go. The relationship between the kingdom and church must be sorted. Otherwise, churches will continue practicing a church-centered Christianity that ultimately remains detrimental to the kingdom of God.2

Even Within the Church Privacy Is Expected

While the evangelistic, missional living aspect of the Christian life is often negatively affected by the prominence of the private-public dichotomy, an equally dangerous aspect is the fear that fuels superficiality among church family members.

Scripture references unity in the body of Christ numerous times. It is not just a western, cultural aspect that celebrates guarded living. Fear of trust and often a desire to not let others in keeps many relationships, even among brothers and sisters at places that not only ignores unity, but may fuel division.

Paul David Tripp stated this reality so well in his devotional book New Morning Mercies...

Your walk with God is designed by God to be a community project. Anonymous, consumerist, isolated, independent, self-sufficient, "Jesus and me" Christianity is a distant an distorted facsimile of the faith of the New Testament. You and I simply were not created (Gen 2:18) or re-created in Jesus Christ (1 Cor 2:14) to live all by ourselves. The biblical word pictures of temple (stones joined together to be a place where God dwells) and body (each member dependent on the function of the other) decimate any idea that healthy Christianity can live outside essential community.

Yet many, many believers live their lives with a huge separation between their public church personas and the details of their private existence. We are skilled at brief, nonpersonal conversations about the weather, sports, and politics. We are learned at giving nonanswers or spiritually platitudinous answers to people's questions. We live in long-term networks of terminally casual relationships. No one really knows us beneath the well-crafted public display, and because they don't know us, they cannot minister to us, because no one can minister to that which he does not know.3

While more programs, emphases, and challenges are developed to "get people out of the church building and into the field" we see that perhaps the first hurdle is a barrier we have erected, and continue to add bricks upon, that separates our private lives from our public ones (even within the church.) 

Once we remove these sinful barriers through repentance and dangerous openness, the church may grow healthy and recognize that its members who already are engaged in life outside the church structure can also remove the private-public barriers there as well. This may just result in the largest engaged mission force the church has ever experienced. Christians will realize they are validated by God to live holy and wholly for Him privately and publicly. 

In other words, as Christians continue coaching youth soccer (not creating a church version of it), serving on homeowners associations, volunteering at schools, spending time at Rotary meetings, etc., their Christianity is not practically shoved to the back burner. They are freed to live missionally, engaging their communities for the sake of the Gospel. 

Dangerous, perhaps, but worth it.

____________

1Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 14.

2Reggie McNeal, Kingdom Come: Why We Must Give Up Our Obsession with Fixing the Church – and What We Should Do Instead (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2015), 62.

3Paul David Tripp, New Morning Mercies (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), July 12 devotion.


Should You Tell Your Pastor When You're Leaving the Church?

The question in the title of this article came up in a lecture today by one of my professors at seminary. However, he just mentioned it in passing as he was speaking about churches and covenant membership. His point really had nothing to do with the need or responsibility of church members to communicate with their pastor regarding God's calling to move elsewhere, yet, it was mentioned. It caused me to think about this more deeply.

Any pastor who has stayed at one local church for any length of time (let's just say, five years or more) knows of the inevitable church member exodus that occurs at times (hopefully not all at once.) Members choose to leave the church for various reasons. Sometimes, these reasons are biblical, godly, and right. Sometimes...well, they fall in another category.

Does God Call Church Members to Leave?

The answer to the above question is "absolutely." God often calls his children to places of service in other churches. We have seen this in our church as individuals or families have moved to help launch new church plants, help revitalize dying churches, join a community church where they live and work, and even to join a church near their home following a work transfer or relocation.

Beautiful-campus-figure-woman-model-red-hair-sad-6

However, God sometimes gets blamed for church transitions that have little to do with his calling. This may be due to building frustration within the church body, personal embarrassment, disunity, disappointment regarding certain ministries, not feeling one's needs are met, not being fed spiritually, or just a desire for change for the sake of change.

When It's Right to Leave

Yes, there are times when leadership in the local church goes off course doctrinally and biblical fidelity has been forsaken. Sometimes leaders have been revealed as unrepentantly immoral. When there is no shifting or righting of these wrongs, I believe God does release his sheep at times to a new under shepherd (pastor) and flock (church.)

The reasons people leave the local church are as unique as the individuals who make up the local church. Sometimes, unrepentant, found sin becomes the catalyst for the pending good-bye. Paul's address to the Corinthian church addresses this, so it's not just a modern issue.

Things to Think Through Before Good-Bye

As I think through the process of seeing church members leave, much comes to mind. At this point, here are some things I've gleaned regarding this inevitable reality:

  • God calls His children to serve where He wants them, without seeking their vote for approval (this goes for pastors and church members.)
  • There is no perfect church. If you find it, don't join it. You'll ruin it's perfect record.
  • There is no perfect pastor. Believe me, they're as flawed as anyone and need much grace and mercy.
  • Your pastors are not omniscient. They do not know what you're feeling unless you tell them. Yet, the way you tell them may not be heard if done without grace.
  • Church is supposed to be family. It grieves me when new members never fully engage or become part of the family story. It also grieves me when family members seemingly disappear, or walk away angry.
  • Disunity is easy. In church. In family. In life.
  • Changing churches in search of the perfect youth ministry, children's ministry, men's ministry, women's ministry, missions ministry, coffee, music, etc. will leave you always on the move.
  • Abandonment of the gospel and ignoring biblical truth, doctrine, and orthodoxy by pastors and church leaders disqualifies them from leadership. If they refuse to repent, God will likely release you from that fellowship (unless he wishes to use you for a revival of biblical fidelity in that house.)
  • Seeking a church that matches your current political ideology will likely leave you with theological gaps in your life.
  • You may not be remembered for how you came into the church, but you will be remembered how you leave it, if done so with vitriol and anger. (from Carey Nieuwhof.)
  • "I'm not being fed" may be the most overused reason excuse given. Take my advice, don't say it. If it's true, it's perhaps the most non-constructive thing you can say. On the other hand, it may just reveal that you desire being spoon-fed biblical milk rather than served spiritual meat, complete with your own knife and fork. 

Everyone Eventually Leaves 

This is truth. There is no one who remains for eternity as a member of their local church. You will either leave your church because you have been relocated due to work, school, or circumstance, because you are called by God to serve Him elsewhere, because you just desire a new church for whatever reason, or because you have died. 

Thabiti Anyabwile wrote an article a number of years ago titled "5 Things to Do Before Leaving Your Church." The five things are:

  1. Share Your Thinking/Reasoning with the Leaders
  2. Resolve Any Outstanding Conflicts
  3. Express Your Appreciation for the Church's Ministry in Your Life
  4. Say "Goodbye" to Friends and Family
  5. Be Honest with Yourself about Your Own Efforts, Motives, and Failings

These are just the points. I recommend you read the entire article available at The Gospel Coalition here. Remember, the church is family ... and family life is not easy.

"Parting is such sweet sorrow." - William Shakespeare


Freedom and Dependence

Independence Day in America is a time for the red, white, and blue apparel to arrive, complete with vintage Old Navy t-shirts and clothing that looks like it was made from a flag (BTW - according to extensive research ... a five-second search on Google ... it is not illegal to wear clothing that has stars and stripes on it, but it is not appropriate to wear clothing made from an actual flag. There you go.) However if you do wear your 4th of July inspired, patriotic shirt, don't be like this grandma featured on Twitter who thought she was honoring America by wearing this shirt for the past twenty-five years on the 4th, but apparently was actually wearing a shirt that looked like the Panamanian flag.

 

 

This day is often a time to celebrate our freedoms as Americans with family get-togethers, cookouts, ball games, parades, and of course fireworks.

The United States is far from perfect, but even with our imperfections and challenges, we find ourselves blessed in ways others throughout history and in other parts of the world today long for. Our freedoms, however are often taken for granted. Friends who grew up in other parts of the world, under heavy oppression and great difficulty, remind me regularly how much we presume regarding personal freedoms. 

Lightstock_61434_medium_david_tarkington

Yet, as stated earlier, we still have far to go. Many in our own nation face oppression and injustices in ways that others cannot imagine. These are due to a variety of circumstances.

This past weekend many Christians were debating aloud and online about the veracity of holding patriotic services in their churches on Sunday. This debate comes every year at this time. What had been viewed as normative for evangelical churches in past decades (the shelving of hymns and sacred songs for patriotic anthems, coupled with overtly America-themed testimonies and messages) now causes many to wonder. From my perspective, anything that is allowed to supersede Christ and the gospel in a service of worship runs the risk at best of passively confusing attenders regarding the focus of worship. Therefore, while we may at times add a song or two speaking of God's blessings upon us, we will not intentionally shift our focus from Christ by allowing anything (or anyone) stand in his place. 

Ultimately, if your worship service looks just like the community Independence Day rally, you may be doing it wrong.

Believe me ... I know how to do things wrong. I have much practice at it.

Nevertheless, to ignore that which God has blessed us with would be insulting, in my opinion. So for the freedoms this experiment of a republic has allowed for us, continues to allow us, and hopefully will offer in the future, we thank God. 

Freedom

I'm reminded of a deeper freedom, however, than those listed in the Bill of Rights. This freedom is expressed throughout the New Testament, but most clearly in Galatians 5. 

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1 (ESV)

It sounds obvious. Almost, too simple. It is for freedom we have been set free. Of course. Yet, the freedom we have in Christ is often ignored as the old nature continues to rise up within us, leaving us living as slaves to sin. Sin that has already been defeated. Sin that has already been covered.

Dependence

As Americans we often speak with pride of our independence. That's what the holiday we're celebrating this week focuses upon. I love this holiday. Yet, as Christians sometimes the prideful statements of individual independence overwhelm the fact that as free children of God we are not independent, but fully dependent. Our dependence on Christ is what gives us freedom. 

While we may tout our rights in this nation, we must remember that we have sacrificed our individual rights on the altar in order to live as fully-devoted disciples of Jesus Christ. It is in this dependence upon God we are free indeed.

That is why we declare our dependence. In Christ alone. Today and every day.

Here's a good reminder of this by the Mississippi Mass Choir...

 

 


J.D. Greear Doesn't Need Me To Speak For Him...But, This Is Slanderous

Just last week the Southern Baptist Convention elected J.D. Greear as president. I was in attendance in Dallas for our annual meeting. The workings of the SBC can be confusing for some, especially those who are not Southern Baptists. While this one-page synopsis of our denominational structure and leadership is correct, it still may prove confusing. Nevertheless, for those who wonder, I recommend you click this link for A Closer Look.

President Greear

J.D. Greear was elected as the SBC president this year with approximately 70% of the vote. Some have portrayed this as a major shift in the Southern Baptist Convention, stating that it as a shift from wing tips to Air Jordans. Greear is the second youngest SBC president to be elected in our history.

Greear

Some declare this election positively as our denomination seeks to engage the world we live in with the Gospel, reaching all peoples, all generations, and varying cultures with the unchanging message of hope from Jesus Christ.

Others lament Greear's election, fearing that the elements of biblical fidelity and denominational integrity will be lost now that a "youth movement" has occurred.

While I wish I could say this amazes me, unfortunately, it does not.

To declare Greear as some "young buck" intent on watering down the Scriptures in order to be relevant to a changing culture is to discount who he is, what he has preached, where he has led his church, and the affirmations from senior leaders throughout the SBC who have voiced their support of his election prior to the vote in Dallas. 

While serving as the SBC president, J.D. Greear continues to pastor his flock at Summit Church in North Carolina. The responsibilities he has now been given do not erase those from his local church, but are added to them. In other words, this is a heavy task given him, not just by the messengers (voting representatives of SBC churches in Dallas) but primarily from God. J.D. Greear, his family, and his church need our prayers.

I have talked to J.D. in the past and through mutual friends, partnerships, and associations in Baptist life and church planting, we have been privileged to come alongside some from Summit Church and the Summit Network who have planted new churches in North Carolina and Florida.

I am confident in Greear's leadership skills, but mostly in his heart for the Lord, his doctrinal integrity, his hold to biblical inerrancy, and affirmations of our confessions of faith as Baptists. Therefore, in no way do I fear that Greear has or will lead his church or our denomination down a path of liberalism or cultural acquiescence. That is why I was shocked and appalled to read the recent article published by the American Family Association (AFA) by Bryan Fischer.

The American Family Association

For many years, conservative evangelicals have aligned with the AFA on social issues. This non-profit was founded by Reverend Donald Wildmon in Mississippi back in 1977 as an "organization promoting the biblical ethic of decency in American society with primary emphasis on television or other media." Later the shift was toward a broader emphasis on moral issues as related to families. Many conservatives appreciated the work of the AFA, as did I. Some even supported the group financially. The AFA has been known for years as promoting and leading boycotts of corporations and companies they determined were promoting immoral and anti-family material. Whether boycotts were effective remains debatable, but nevertheless, issues of cultural shift were brought to the front-burner through them.

You may or may not like the AFA or the work they have done. The point of this post is not to debate the existence and work of the AFA, but the trending article published on their site by Bryan Fischer. 

Fischer's article makes for good click-bait, especially for those who love reading about divisive things and who declare the end of evangelicalism and especially the SBC being imminent. 

Slanderous?

Some would say that slander is too harsh a word. Yet, as I read Fischer's words, that was what came to mind. In his article he quotes Greear, then dissects his words in such a way to lead the reader down a path far from the intent of J.D.'s statements. Fischer quotes a sermon Greear preached when he spoke of loving our neighbors as Christ commanded, even those who are homosexual. Greear clearly states that our love for people as God's image-bearers is mandated. As you read the sermon transcript, it is clear that in no way does Greear state that homosexuality is not sin. In fact, he states the opposite as Scripture affirms. That taken with other postings, interviews, and especially the sermon Greear preached on Monday evening in Dallas at this year's SBC Pastor's Conference clearly affirms that Greear stands firmly on Scripture in calling sin what it is, but also calling Christians to fulfill the Great Commandment.

Yet, Fischer apparently reads this differently. He quotes:

But Greear is saying, it appears to me, that if it comes down to a choice between loving my neighbor or loving my position on homosexuality, I’m going to have to ditch my position on homosexuality. If my position on sexuality comes between me and my neighbor, then I’ve got to jettison the thing that’s in the way, my position on sexuality.

I would say the key phrase here is "it appears to me." To which I say to Mr. Fischer, you're wrong. What you deem as appearing to you is not what Greear has said, not only here in this message, but in the myriad of other statements and sermons.

If you have the time, go ahead and watch this message that Greear preached at the 2014 ERLC Conference on "The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage." It seems to clear up what has been presented as contradictory by Mr. Fischer. I would post the sermon J.D. preached at this year's Pastors' Conference, but it is not available online at this time.

In case you wish to read Fischer's full article, it is available here. I sincerely hope the AFA will remove it. Nevertheless, I link it so you can read it for yourself. I don't want to be accused of pulling one paragraph out of context. 

I may be accused of simply standing up for someone I know. I am okay with that. I hope other brothers and sisters in our convention stand up as well. There will likely be many (there already have been some) who will write, preach, and speak against the leadership of J.D. Greear. J.D. is not perfect. He has, and will, make mistakes. However, I believe God has called him to this task for now. He is our convention president and many will be listening more closely to what he says and doesn't say over the next twelve months. 

To my friends who continue to listen to AFA Radio, support the work of this organization, and line up with all that is produced from them, please encourage them to remove the slanderous article that contradicts what Greear has declared historically. I'm not calling for a boycott of an organization that leads in boycotts, but maybe removing support should be considered. Would that be a boycott? Maybe.

J.D. Greear doesn't need me to make these statements on his behalf. Yet, as a brother in Christ, a fellow pastor and servant to our Lord, these statements need to be made. I hope others will agree, stand alongside J.D., praying for him and refuse to be caught in this tangle of misinformation, deceit, and untruths. 


Can We Get a Do Over? Thoughts on SBC 2018 in Dallas

Once more, we as Southern Baptists have had our convention. Yes, the actual Southern Baptist Convention only exists for two days each year. For the rest of the time, the SBC exists, but denominational details are covered by our Executive Committee. But, most people don't care about that.

We have just completed our two-day convention in Dallas, Texas. You may have noticed it trending on social media or things said about it on television or radio. Even in years when we think there will be no controversial aspect...there always tends to be one that pops up.

Hurricane Dallas

For those of us who live in Florida and other coastal states, we understand how a forming hurricane in the Atlantic affects us. We get notified on the local news or Weather Channel days before any storm makes landfall. We watch the swirling graphics online for days as anxiety builds up, wondering if the storm will hit near home and if so, how much damage it will bring. In the literal sense, we have experienced these storms in our state (Florida) and in neighboring areas all too often.

In a way, this year's SBC meeting felt like a hurricane. We knew there would be divisive issues. We knew going in with the situation at our Executive Committee with Dr. Frank Page having to resign and the most recent issues leading to Dr. Paige Patterson's dismissal at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary that once the microphones were turned on, varying views would be expressed and those on stage would be put on the spot to answer well. 

Other things were brewing as well, especially issues regarding racial unity and abuse. 

So, like a hurricane, we have been waiting and watching for weeks, until this week. We prayed that the storm that seemed inevitable would dissipate and our meeting would be healthy, peaceful, and lead us forward.

God answered that prayer. There were great moments at our gathering. There were significant moves forward regarding race relations, gender issues, abuse issues, etc. Of course, there was not enough done for everyone to be satisfied, but steps forward in these areas did take place.

Steps Backward

Yet, the storm did hit. This Texas two-step allowed us to take a step forward, but in some ways, a couple backward as well.

The change in agenda that provided a venue for Vice-President Mike Pence seems to have done more to harm our convention than many realize. I believe we're resilient and will be okay in the days to come, but the fact remains, in my opinion, this was a bad idea. Damage was done and it prayerfully, will not be lasting.

In years past other sitting elected officials have spoken at SBC meetings. Those were divisive as well I am sure, but that was then. This is now. Just a short journey down a Twitter feed with #SBCAM18 and you will discover quickly that Southern Baptists were far from unified in viewing the appearance of the VP in a positive way. All the sudden a gathering for worship and denominational business turned into something most did not desire. Vice-President Pence is a brother in Christ. His message began with a word regarding his conversion and powerful words of personal surrender to Christ. For that, great applause for the greatness of our God. (I am not against Mr. Pence. So don't read what I'm not typing.)

IMG_8372

Yet, despite a handful of comments that were worthy of applause and uniting as Christians, the sad reality is that his speech turned quickly into little more than a "look what we have done for you in Washington" focus. While totally appropriate as a stump-speech for any political party, this was not appropriate or healthy for the stage upon which he stood.

Personally, I do not believe a sitting elected official should speak at the Southern Baptist Convention (and probably not in your local church either.) The pulpit (whether you use one or a table or just walk around) is reserved for the preaching of the Word of God. To stray from that causes confusion and waters down the gospel. As has been said many times, "When you mix politics and religion, you get politics." I'm not anti-politics. I believe Christians should be civic-minded and active. I wish we'd be more active sharing Christ than sharing our info on donkeys and elephants. Some Christians are greatly evangelistic about their political views, yet seem strangely silent about the gospel.

I guess for some getting the "right" person in Washington is more important than getting the "lost" person in heaven. <Tweet This>

I was warned by one of my deacons earlier in the month to be very careful what I say, tweet, post regarding our denomination, ministry foci, and politics. His wisdom is clear. I must be careful. I'm trying to be careful. I understand why he said this. He is older and wiser than me and knows that a person with good intentions can be left standing without a chair when the music stops in this sinful world. 

He's right.

As I reflect on this week, as I stated earlier, there are many things worth celebrating. There are also some things that must be called what they are - sin. I'm on no high horse. I have not arrived. I know this. Yet, as a pastor of an SBC church and as a messenger representing our church, I know we must make some changes. I don't know all the changes that must be made, but prayerfully, as God leads, our leaders will have ears to hear and follow His lead.

Some Great News

We heard stories of new church plants, like Kesavan Balasingham in Toronto. He's a friend of ours and part of the Send Toronto initiative. It's an incredible story. You should watch this video below:

 

We saw numerous new missionaries commissioned for service through our International Mission Board. Some had to keep their identities hidden due to safety precautions in the field.

We heard how God has raised up a church from the ashes of tragedy as Pastor Frank Pomeroy and his wife Sherri shared what God is doing in Sutherland Springs, Texas. Let's just say, the reality of what this brother and sister have gone through, the loss of their friends, the devastation of their church, and the murder of their daughter in the shooting last year reminds all of us that much of what we get frustrated about in church doesn't matter at all. Pastor Pomeroy brings perspective. 

College campus church plants are growing and we heard how planters are doing this work on the universities and colleges in our nation as true church plants for the nations, built to send, especially since the congregation is only there for four or five years (or more for that one guy working on the bachelors degree on the ten-year plan.)

We heard detailed information, that wasn't desired but needed, regarding our denominational statistics. This bores some people, but cannot be ignored. CP giving is down, baptisms are down, disciple-making is down. The good news is that more than a resolution or a vote, there seems to be a real, concerted effort for churches to first, get real numbers, and second, do the work of an evangelist and be disciple-makers who make disciple-makers. No program will fix this, but to ignore the reality is to continue to pretend that everything is okay when it is not.

A nine-year old boy made a motion during the business portion. It was likely written up with help from his parents, but when this boy asked that the SBC put on the official emphasis calendar a focus on Children's Ministry, the place erupted. Why? Well, because the redhead boy did a great job reading that motion and we were all cheering him on. Also, we need to remember that kids aren't just the group that we put in the back room and show a Veggie Tales video. To be churches that equip families and lead parents to be their children's lead disciple-makers, this emphasis is needed. And...a child making the motion means he was an official messenger from his church. He was in the room (then at throughout the sessions) and was engaged. Yay mom and dad! What a message.

We elected J.D. Greear as our president and A.B. Vines and Felix Cabrera as vice-presidents. These are one-year terms. I believe these men were not just elected by SBC messengers, but called by God for such a time as this. They need our prayers. They need our support.

Sbc leaders

There's more, but then you can read those updates elsewhere.

So, Why Do I Want a Do Over?

I don't want a re-do on the good things, but the other things seem to be all that is reported and remembered. Negativity sells and negativity trends. The title of this blog may be negative as well. I hope not.

I perceive a sense of "Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time" pervaded in some of the planning. Yet, when 40% of an almost 9,000 member crowd of Christian brothers and sisters say "NO," I would say it is worth revisiting the original plan. That's my congregationalism showing.

There were some hateful things said to others in the room. Some were said at microphones on the floor. Some were said in the room, but just loud enough for those around to hear. Word is a SWBTS trustee was verbally chastised by a messenger (which they have the right to do) in front of his son and it left the boy in tears. 

Sometimes Christians just don't act Christ-like. And, all of us have been guilty of that.

What would I do differently? Oh, it's easy to say "don't do that" and "do this" but that's like Monday morning quarterbacking. I know we can't get a do-over, but we can move forward. We don't need to forget the missteps of this year's meeting. We need to remember and learn. 

We also don't need to forget the good and great things either. Sometimes, I fear we don't celebrate well. These things need to be taken home to our local churches and shared. In spite of the very real negative, there are very real positives as well. The news and the tweets often don't share those, but we as pastors must. 

Truly, many in our churches have no idea, and do not care really, about what happens at our annual meetings. Yet, we must remember that as a cooperating group of Baptists (even with our crazy uncles and cousins) God has placed us together for His glory and our good and the good of our communities.  


A Motion Regarding the Southern Baptist Convention Sermon Needs to be Made

Well...we're still in the news. The Southern Baptist Convention remains a somewhat trending topic among Baptists, evangelicals, and even those outside the church.

We are now experiencing an internal tragedy of our own making. Left to our own devices, pride, self-preservation, ego-driven decisions, and more things less than positive, we find ourselves in dire straits.

What's Next?

In the sermon I preached Sunday from Matthew 24 (which has nothing to do particularly with our current SBC issues) a truth was revealed as Christ addressed the religious leaders and crowds. He reminded them that tough days were coming and it would get worse before it would get better. I understand that the passage is not contextual to our current denominational situation, so will not err by trying to force that, but the thoughts that things likely will get worse before they get better continues to resonate with me.

I don't like that.

But, that makes it no less true.

Sbc motion

Even now, positioning is happening among some SBC leaders and potential messengers. There is likely an orchestrated plan in the works regarding Dr. Paige Patterson's potential convention sermon. As of this writing, from what I know, Dr. Patterson has yet to recuse himself from the sermon. Yet, I hope that he does. 

Furthermore, I hope that no other pastor is given the position of bringing the convention sermon.

I agree with Pastor Sam Rainer, who stated this in a recent tweet...

 

A silent assembly - a true silent assembly calling for prayer and repentance would not simply be an amazing statement to those watching, but if truly repentant and heart-felt, would, in my opinion be a step in the right direction for our convention. Ultimately, it could be the only step for the One watching and calling us to repentance.

What The Potential Silent Assembly Must Not Be

  • This must not be designed to give the SBC a public relations win (It wouldn't work anyway.)
  • This must not be designed to create a moment that will trend for half a day on Twitter or other social media platforms.
  • This must not be akin to the "moments of silence" at ballgames and other public events used in lieu of prayer.
  • This must not be political (SBC or otherwise).
  • This must not be believed to be enough to heal the very real wounds of women and others who have been abused by misplaced counsel.
  • This must not be a "top-down" mandate with a prepared graphic, video intro, or specially designed hashtag like #SBCSilentAssembly, otherwise it will not only seem, but be less authentic, regardless how heartfelt and intentional.

What The Potential Silent Assembly Must Be

  • This must be authentic.
  • This must be prayer.
  • This must be repentance.
  • This must be humbling.

I have church members and friends who are asking what is going on. I have some who question our continued participation in this machine known as the SBC. Some have declared their disdain for the entire denomination at this point. There truly is a problem. It goes beyond (or deeper) than simply what has occurred at Southwestern the past month. This must be acknowledged.

Maybe Sam will make the motion. He should.

I'll vote in affirmation.

It is clear that there's more going on in the world than our annual meeting in Dallas this year. Nevertheless, in this little corner of what is happening, we, the messengers of the SBC and members of cooperating churches have been put on notice - we cannot ignore what God is doing. In case you misread that and thought I was referring to a great awakening moment, I am not. I am referring to that which precedes great awakenings - repentance (authentic, humble, maybe humiliating, repentance), prayer, and restoration.

I have no idea how our SBC Annual Meeting will end this year. I do believe it must begin well. And, that starts now. <TWEET THIS>

 

BTW -  If this motion is made and this silent assembly happens, I also think (and this is radical, I know) we should shut down the convention booths, the CP stage, and all the other things that happen as well for that time. Otherwise, those who wish to not join in prayer will just go over to one of many booths, pick up free books, pens, candy, T-shirts, and other specialty marketing stuff.

 

 


Why Our Jacksonville Statement on Gospel Unity & Racial Reconciliation Is Needed

Approximately three months ago, I was asked to co-chair a team of pastors in our city (Jacksonville, Florida) by our Lead Missional Strategist of the Jacksonville Baptist Association. Along with Pastor Elijah Simmons of Mt. Horeb Baptist Church in Jacksonville, we agreed to serve with these brothers in order to put together a document we hoped would never be needed, but clearly is. 

The team of pastors who agreed to serve on this Gospel Unity Team, in addition to Pastor Simmons and me, include:

Why The Need?

Clearly racial tension in America is high. You would think that we would be beyond this by now, right? While division among many based on race continues within the world, the grievous reality is that the church falls prey to the enemy's divisive tactics as well. The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 was necessary and an answer to prayer for many. Yet, we are reminded that while needed, right political action does not change the heart. Only God does that. 

Sadly, many (not all) churches and church leaders remained silent during the 1950s and 1960s and beyond as racial equality was debated in the public forum (and sadly, many of those "debates" were one-sided and sinfully devised, especially when "separate but equal" was considered normal and fire hoses and dogs were on the debate teams.)

"But this is 2018, things are better now." I'm sure that's true comparatively. I would never wish to insult those who lived through the most terrible times most only now read about his history books or at memorials. While things may be better, for some, we are far from a place where we can sit back and say "done." There's much work yet to accomplish and as Christians, the church must never again find itself muzzled when the fullness of the gospel must be proclaimed.

Much has been said, more eloquently and from stronger perspectives than I can offer, but when churches and pastors serving side-by-side in a city like ours begin to question even being in the same network due to what others (pastors and Christians) have posted on social media, shared, or commented upon that does nothing for the work of God's Kingdom and actually elevates division, it is no longer an option to remain silent.

That's why this statement on gospel unity is needed.

The SBC Statements

As Southern Baptists, we own a rich, but also troubling legacy. Much has been written about our founding. Repentant statements and resolutions have been made over the years. All needed, but as we all know, resolutions without action leave us empty. At this coming Southern Baptist Convention in June, another resolution will be presented. The statement to be presented is available here in its entirety.  If brought to the floor for a vote, I plan to affirm this statement. 

Yet, for many local church members, national statements may remain unheard.

What about our city?

What about our churches?

What do we believe regarding the racial tensions that exist?

More than that, what does the Bible reveal that we must hold to as truth?

Our statement gives clear, brief, and biblical answers to these questions. Our prayer is that this helps the local church stay on mission and that biblical unity in Christ not only occurs but remains. 

Rawpixel-651374-unsplash
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

The Jacksonville Statement

Our statement was comprised following two months of meetings that included much prayer, conversation, "word-smithing," and considerations of how others would receive the message. The statement is now available at the Jacksonville Baptist Association website. We hope to soon offer a way for pastors and church members to sign their names to the statement as well. Our desire is to remove anything that promotes unclarity and to have this statement, rooted in God's inerrant Word, as our clear beliefs regarding needed gospel unity and racial reconciliation.

 

JACKSONVILLE STATEMENT ON GOSPEL UNITY 

RACIAL RECONCILIATION & THE JACKSONVILLE BAPTIST ASSOCIATION

“Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to live worthy of the calling you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope at your calling—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

- Ephesians 4:1-6 (CSB) -

Preamble

As evangelical Christians we acknowledge the reality that division and disunity are tools of the Enemy against the proliferation and spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Whether in families, local church bodies, neighboring churches, or even denominational entities, division has unfortunately been far too normative throughout church history.

Race, as commonly defined, refers to the various ethnicities, skin colors, and cultural heritages of human beings.  As evangelical Christians, we acknowledge the sinful divides among those of differing races that, at times, have been ignored or worse, excused within the church.

Reconciliation refers to the acknowledgement of human brokenness and the need for restoration to God through Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:20-23). In that he has reconciled humanity to himself, Christians are to be reconciled one to another, as children of God (2 Corinthians 5:18).

Great strides toward reconciliation occurred in the United States throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Yet, many continue to experience great division and painful separation due to ethnicity, cultural heritage, and/or race. While acknowledging much has been done to reconcile over recent decades, it is clear we have far to go.

Racial reconciliation for Christians is not solely, or even primarily, a political issue. Racial reconciliation for Christians is not merely a social justice issue. Racial reconciliation for Christians is not a public relations issue. Racial division is a sin issue. Therefore, racial reconciliation for Christians is a gospel unity issue.

To ignore sin is to affirm sin. Therefore, the pastors and leaders serving together in local churches and denominational entities have deemed it right, timely, and proper to present a clear, concise, biblically-founded, gospel-centered statement on gospel unity and racial reconciliation.

We believe that God has created all humanity in His image, male and female, with diverse skin tones and ethnic histories. As image-bearers we exist for the glory of God knowing that brings us the greatest good. We believe that salvation is found in Jesus Christ alone and that he died so that all may be saved (John 3:16). This offer is for all people and therefore, believing clarity on the issues of unity and racial reconciliation among believers, we offer the following affirmations and denials.

Article 1

WE AFFIRM that racial reconciliation is a gospel issue.

WE DENY that racial reconciliation is solely a social issue.

Matthew 15:21-28; Romans 1:16-17; Galatians 2:11-14; Ephesians 1:9-10, 13; 2:1-10, 13, 14-22; 3:3-5

Article 2

WE AFFIRM that the gospel alone offers hope and celebrates what the world fears.[1]

WE DENY that anything other than God and the full message of the gospel provide the hope and answers needed for humanity.

Psalm 28:7; 46:2-3; Lamentations 3:18; Matthew 12:21; Romans 8:24-25; 12:12; 1 Corinthians 13:13; Galatians 5:5; Hebrews 11:1, 7; Titus 2:11-14; 1 Peter 1:3, 1 John 3:3

Article 3

WE AFFIRM the biblical teaching of race references the differences between Jewish and non-Jewish peoples.

WE DENY the definition of race that creates a racial hierarchy based on inferred biological inferiority.

Leviticus 19:34; Acts 8:26-40; Romans 10:12; Ephesians 2:11-3:8; 1 Corinthians 12:13

Article 4

WE AFFIRM that Scripture teaches that Canaan was cursed by Noah due to his son Ham’s actions and that Cain was marked by God following the murder of his brother Abel.

WE DENY the curse of Canaan, often called the “Curse of Ham” and the mark of Cain, wrongly defined as a change of his skin color, refers to racial superiority or inferiority or has anything to do with differing skin tones of people.

Genesis 4:15; 9:20-25; 10:6

Article 5

WE AFFIRM that gospel-centered racial reconciliation is a pursuit of love for others flowing from Holy Spirit-empowered obedience of those who repent, believe in the cross and resurrection of Jesus by faith, and are justified by faith in Christ.[2]

WE DENY that ethnic diversity is synonymous with gospel-centered racial reconciliation.

Deuteronomy 10:17-19; Matthew 25; John 13:34; Acts 10:34-35; Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 4:32; James 2:8

Article 6

WE AFFIRM that God has designed marriage to be a covenantal, lifelong union between one man and one woman, regardless of race or ethnicity, for His glory, signifying the covenant love between Christ and His church.

WE DENY that marriage between a man and woman from differing racial or ethnic backgrounds to be sinful.

Genesis 2:23-24; Matthew 19:6; 2 Corinthians 6:14; Ephesians 5:22-23; 28-29; 31

Article 7

WE AFFIRM that pastors are uniquely called and positioned to shepherd their people toward gospel-centered racial reconciliation understanding that diversity is actually at the heart of the gospel.[3]

WE DENY that racial reconciliation can be forced upon others through human means.

John 21:15-17; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; 1 Peter 5:1-2

Article 8

WE AFFIRM the resolutions approved at Southern Baptist Convention annual meetings repenting of the sins of racism, most notably slave-holding, of past generations, and the need for continued work toward gospel-centered racial and ethnic unity.

WE DENY that the sins of past generations can be ignored and need not be acknowledged.

Nehemiah 9:1-2; Jeremiah 6:16; Daniel 9:16

Article 9

WE AFFIRM that all human beings are image bearers of God.

WE DENY the validity, truthfulness, and right standing of any and all organizations, groups, or individuals claiming racial superiority of any kind.

Genesis 1:26-27; Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 2:15; James 3:9; 1 Peter 2:17; Revelation 7:9

Article 10

WE AFFIRM that unity in our churches must be founded in Christ alone.

WE DENY that unity in our churches can be founded in political ideologies or national identity.

Psalm 20:7; 133:1; Daniel 2:21; Matthew 6:33; Romans 8:28; 13:1-8; 1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 4:2; Philippians 2:3; 1 Peter 2:13-15; Jude 3; Revelation 7:9-12

_____

            [1] R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “The Root Cause of the Stain of Racism in the Southern Baptist Convention” in Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention, eds. Kevin M. Jones and Jarvis J. Williams (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2017), 5.

            [2] Jarvis J. Williams, “Biblical Steps Toward Removing the Stains of Racism in the Southern Baptist Convention” in Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention, eds. Kevin M. Jones and Jarvis J. Williams (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2017), 30.

            [3] Jamaal Williams, “Intentionally Cultivating Multicultural Churches,” Light Magazine, Winter 2016, 27.


The One Thing That Will Fix the Southern Baptist Convention

As a child and teenager attending my conservative Southern Baptist church, I knew nothing of the theological and organizational controversies taking place at the upper levels of the Southern Baptist Convention. The only inkling I had that something was not right in SBC-land was when I was living in Ohio as a junior higher and our pastor resigned from our church to attend seminary. At that point, I had to be educated on what seminary was. We lived in Dayton, Ohio and I heard someone in the church ask the pastor if he was going to attend The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in Louisville, Kentucky. That would make sense logistically since Louisville is only about three hours away. Our pastor said there was no way he could attend SBTS and that he would be enrolling in Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) in Fort Worth, Texas. He explained something related to theology and not agreeing with what was happening at SBTS. I really didn't know what he was talking about. (Thankfully, SBTS is now a highly recommended conservative, biblically-grounded SBC seminary. I am currently studying for my doctorate there.)

My family soon moved to Fort Worth as well when my dad was transferred there. Following high school and four years in college, I surrendered to God's pastoral call into full-time vocational ministry and enrolled at SWBTS. 

I had been an active Southern Baptist my entire life, but the denominational politics, the conservative resurgence, and other elements of SBC life were basically unknown to me. I just knew that I loved Jesus. I wanted to serve him. I felt called. I wanted to learn. I wanted to be used by God. And, I knew pastors and leaders who recommended SWBTS as my next step. 

Those years at SWBTS were wonderful for me. My love for SWBTS makes recent events more grievous for me.

My naïveté regarding SBC politics soon melted as a student at SWBTS. I began to understand the need for a conservative resurgence and discovered that much of that process had already happened as this was the early 1990s and the shift was now seemingly inevitable. For that, I remain grateful. 

The conservative resurgence was needed and I am thankful for those who did what must be done in order for it to happen. Yet we know that there was a great cost for this turn. I affirm what Dr. Albert Mohler, President of SBTS has stated...

The American denominational landscape has experienced significant shifts in recent times, but one major story stands out among them all—the massive redirection of the Southern Baptist Convention. America's largest evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention was reshaped, reformed, and restructured over the last three decades, and at an incredibly high cost.

For years, the SBC made the news. This was due to the conflict within our ranks. Unity was a concept sought, but not experienced. 

Then, after conservatives took leadership, things settled down a bit. Those who would not remain in the SBC left, forming other organizations and networks. The annual meetings were not as divisive and dramatic. The only big surprise at annual meetings for years seemed to center on what Pastor Wiley Drake may say when he found opportunity to speak in the open forum at one of the microphones. 

Sbcpeople

Then, things began to be shaken up.

Political viewpoints partnered with racial statements by some, either in hallways or on the microphones, left many wondering where their place was in the SBC. Presidential elections for the most part were not dramatic. In many cases, we just had two conservatives running against each other. There for years a sense that those who were instrumental in the conservative resurgence would "get their turn" and be nominated with expectation to be elected as SBC president. For the most part, this happened (well, except when Dr. Frank Page was elected in 2005 and 2006.) 

Questions

For the first time in years, I now have church members asking what we are going to do as Southern Baptists.

I have church members and friends asking me who I will vote for as president this year. In the past, if anyone asked anything of me regarding the convention it was "Are you going to the SBC this year?"

I have a number of people asking my take on what just happened this week at my alma mater regarding Dr. Paige Patterson. I'm asked what I would do if a woman came to me after being physically assaulted by her husband (easy answer - call the cops.)

Questions now come regarding racial issues and social justice.

Questions about the news stories regarding the aforementioned Dr. Page have come. 

There are many questions, and as we have already seen earlier this week, Baptist pastors are not immune to letting anger and fear lead to wrong statements and offensive social media posts. 

A Reckoning in the SBC

It is clear there is something wrong in my SBC. It is sad. It is humiliating. It is embarrassing. It is not to be ignored.

Dr. Albert Mohler wrote a poignant article about this earlier this week. Full article is here. Of all that Dr. Mohler said, this stuck out to me:

Judgment has now come to the house of the Southern Baptist Convention. The terrible swift sword of public humiliation has come with a vengeance. There can be no doubt that this story is not over.

Sadly, I agree.

So, Now What?

Here's what I know will NOT fix the SBC...

  • A resolution won't fix our problems.
  • A high-level political strategy won't fix our problems.
  • Meetings with high-ranking politicians won't fix our problems.
  • Finely-crafted press releases won't fix our problems.
  • Ignoring and excusing the sins of others, even those we love, appreciate, and respect, won't fix our problems.
  • Venerating SBC warriors and heroes won't fix our problems.
  • Shifting away from biblical complementarianism won't fix our problems.
  • Bowing to cultural mandates won't fix our problems.
  • Standing proudly as self-righteous American evangelicals won't fix our problems.

This list could go on and on, but this blog post is already too long, so I'll slow down. 

Our problems are not public relations problems.

We know what we need and it's not a tepidly defined revival (though true revival is needed.) We need to submit to God during these days.

We need the right man, his man, as our SBC president and we need SBC messengers to vote for that man, not against another. Each man running for president, as I have stated before, is not only qualified, but godly. One has preached at our church. The other has partnered with our church in helping send a church planter to a nearby city. Qualifications of these men are not questioned. Yet, for such a time as this, I believe we will be well served having J.D. Greear as our SBC president. I was sent this link earlier today by a friend and appreciate Greear's timely and wise words. 

Yet, even J.D. Greear (or Ken Hemphill) won't fix our problems.

We, the SBC, have been humiliated and this has been done by God, I believe. Humbled may be a better word, but it feels humiliating.

God does not need the SBC and we must acknowledge this. <Tweet This>

What embarrassing event will happen next? What will be revealed? I don't know. In all honesty, I don't believe we have dealt well with our most recent embarrassment, so we definitely are not positioned for another.

The One Thing

Yet, God has given us an option. We don't need to ask what God's will is for the SBC. We need to read His Word once more (not that we haven't been) just  to remind ourselves what his will is (it hasn't changed,) then move back "into it."

How does that happen? One repentant heart at a time. Repentance that leads to transformation, to change, to humble service to our Lord, to the mission of Kingdom work.

Friends, brothers, sisters - we have sinned. Since we are the SBC, we are complicit. The wages of sin remain the same as they always have. We must turn from the ways of pride, selfishness, idolatry, and more, and return humbled to the Lord. I don't believe he is through with the SBC, but we must remember that he does not need us. We need him.

That One Thing? Repentance.

 

 


Can Anything Good Come From Dallas This Summer? - The Southern Baptist Convention 2018

Every summer, messengers from Southern Baptist churches throughout the world gather in predetermined cities for our annual meeting. This year it will be in Dallas, Texas in June. For those outside the SBC tribe, this is basically a two-day business meeting where elections for denominational officers take place, reports from denominational entities occur, along with other meetings and some powerful times of worship, preaching, and fellowship. 

The SBC annual meetings often make the news for things done or left undone. Then, the news cycle shifts and for the most part, outside the member churches and denominational entities, others in the culture pay little attention to SBC happenings. I have been to numerous meetings where the consensus going in from many attendees has been "Well, there's nothing controversial on the docket this year, so this should be a pretty low-key gathering." Those sentiments are often shed once business starts. Inevitably, there are some questions asked from the floor or things said from the podium that trend on Twitter and other social media outlets and in today's instant-media world, these get picked up by others to make the SBC newsworthy once more to a culture that varies from not caring to being totally opposed to evangelical Christianity and a biblical worldview.

I am concerned, not worried, at what I am seeing take place in our denomination and member churches and entities leading up to our annual meeting. There are some key decisions to be made this year and some will take place prior to our annual gathering, others at the annual meeting, and still others following.

For decades, a semblance of "controversy" has defined the SBC. Depending on one's perspective, the latest large-scale conflict began in 1979 with what has been termed the Conservative Resurgence. In full disclosure, I am glad this resurgence took place. It was needed. 

There have been other issues over the years, and as we move toward our 2018 meeting in Dallas, there is much stirring in the SBC world.

I remember the good old days (about three months ago) when the only thing being discussed and debated was the SBC presidential election between J.D. Greear and Ken Hemphill. Now, there are other things talked about and discussed (online, in the mainstream press, and among Baptist leaders and church members) that cause many to see 2018 as a potentially conflicted and controversial meeting.

Questions regarding leadership of denominational entities are on the front-burner. Continued (needed) discussion on racial reconciliation and unity moves to the front as well. Questions centered on sexism and abuse have produced petitions and will become discussion topics as well. Trustee meetings for different entities are happening. One friend lamented to me "These are dark days for the SBC." Perhaps, but let us not lose hope. For such a time as this, SBC messengers will gather for the glory of God and the good of the church.

There will be difficult decisions ahead. Some will be made by individuals, others by trustees, still others by the full body of messengers in attendance. 

We often say "The world is watching" as a reminder to ensure we say and do the right things. Yet, I am reminded that we have a more important audience than the world. God is not only watching, but guiding and if these are "dark days" then we need to be sure we walk in the Light. <Tweet This>

Screenshot 2018-05-10 13.19.14
SBC Annual Meeting 2018 - Dallas, Texas

I fully believe that all the issues being discussed must be discussed. Therefore, I call for all SBC church members and messengers to pray now and continually (and strategically) as we move toward our gathering in Dallas this June 12-13 (with the Pastor's Conference on June 11-12).

Presidential Election

Here's a truth that many may struggle to believe. IT IS POSSIBLE to actually like both candidates for SBC president. J.D. Greear and Ken Hemphill are both godly men who will be officially nominated for the one-year term of SBC president by other godly men. I like both of these candidates. I appreciate both men's service to the Lord and his Kingdom and to our denomination. Each will lead well if elected. While some love creating division and seek to utilize ungodly tools to tear down others, I will not.

I have only one vote, I will vote as I believe God has led me to do. I plan to place my vote for J.D. Greear to be SBC president. My vote is NOT a "no vote" for Dr. Hemphill. I believe Dr. Greear is God's man for these days for our denomination. 

Greear-Hemphill
Dr. J.D. Greear (L) and Dr. Ken Hemphill (R)

Denominational Leadership

The trustees of the Executive Committee have been meeting and have a heavy task ahead of them following the departure of Dr. Frank Page. Whether a recommendation for president of the EC is presented in June or not, these men and women need our prayers.  I affirm these recommendations for the next president as written on the Baptist 21 blog - "8 Suggestions for the Next President of the SBC Executive Committee"

The International Mission Board trustees are prayerfully considering new leadership upon the departure of Dr. David Platt back to local church ministry. While this, from my perspective, does not seem controversial, it is a vital decision for one of our major denominational boards. 

As you are likely aware, the trustees of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary will be gathering at the end of May for a specially-called meeting. It is no small undertaking to call such a meeting and the cost of hosting such is high. Therefore, it is clear that this meeting will result in some decisions surrounding Dr. Paige Patterson and the presidency of SWBTS. I have no insight into the inner-workings of these trustee meetings, but I know that those who serve have a heaviness of responsibility upon them. 

Regardless where you stand on any of the decisions being made or potentially to be made, it is clear that "the times they are a changin'" and we (SBCers) better do well and right.

Racial Reconciliation

It amazes me that in 2018 the issues of racial division seems to be growing, not lessening in our nation. Yet, I shouldn't have been surprised. Sin remains. Latent sin is awakened when others stoke the fires of division. On the heels of the MLK50 Conference (which I gladly attended) and with last year's SBC in Phoenix where we (messengers) stumbled badly on a resolution focused on racial reconciliation, we have another resolution being offered up for vote. My friend Cam Triggs, Pastor of Grace Alive Church in Orlando, is one of the signatories of the resolution. I affirm the wording of this resolution and pray that we will overwhelmingly approve it as SBC messengers. You can read it here.

Flesh crayon

Can Anything Good Come From This?

The question reeks with foreboding. Yet, I believe that great good can result from our gathering this summer in Dallas. For two days, we will be gathering for worship, preaching, teaching, and fellowship at the SBC Pastors Conference led by my friend, Dr. H.B. Charles, Jr. I know he and his planning team have prayed over and prepared for this weekend gathering. The Word will be preached boldly. God will be glorified. The church will be benefited. More than that, I believe we, the attendees will be affirmed in areas, convicted in areas, and renewed for that which is to come (the next days' annual meeting and the weekly gatherings in local churches throughout the SBC.)

Screenshot 2018-05-10 13.24.48
SBC Pastors Conference 2018

I believe that we will unify on that which matters most - the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not that we have ignored this, but in times of trial and controversy, we are thrust back to the basics. Political positioning, polity negotiations, clear talking points, or any other human talent or skill will not unite us for that which we must do. It is in Christ alone we find our unity and solid ground. Will everyone leaving the meetings be in full agreement regarding decisions made? Well, no...we are Baptists, and more than that, we are human. Yet, in the essentials, we must be unified. May we "fulfill our ministry" to "testify" to the world the unchanging, life-saving, message of the gospel. 

We are being watched. Let's just be sure we're focusing on the right audience.


I'm That Kind of White Person

IMG_7525

When Matt Chandler, Pastor of The Village Church, spoke at the MLK50 Conference in Memphis, Tennessee, he asked this question...

"What kind of white people come to a conference like this? That wasn't a joke. I don't know why you all are giggling. Because if you look at Twitter, it looks like there ain't no white people in the fight."

 

Video via The Gospel Coalition

The question was part of Chandler's longer message. It wasn't the key point. It was, however a question that elicited some laughter from some, raised eyebrows from others, and an immediate challenge to one white pastor from the suburbs who traveled to Memphis with friends to attend the conference.

Fifty years ago, on a balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed by an assassin. At age thirty-nine, Dr. King was standing in the crosshairs (tragically, literally) of a divide in our nation between races. He was celebrated by some and vilified by others. Though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 effectively ended segregation, the racial divide in the nation continued. 

Sadly, even Christians were taking sides and fighting over allowing people of color to join or attend churches designated as "white churches" for generations. For a man born the year Dr. King was assassinated, it is impossible for me to understand fully, other than through reading historical accounts, listening to testimony, and watching documentaries of the era, what was happening in our nation.

Yet, here we are, fifty years later. That's five decades of living in an America that proclaims that racial division is a historical story, not a current one. At least that's the narrative. We now understand that while Dr. King's "dream" is celebrated, the division between races, most notably between some blacks and some whites, exists. Not only does it exist, but it seems to be widening as everything is politicized, messages are shortened to be tweetable, and biblically speaking, our enemy still seeks to steal, kill, and destroy.

As is the case with everyone, I tend to view life from a particular set of lenses. These lenses can be defined a number of ways, such as white, male, middle-class, suburban, evangelical, conservative, Christian, Baptist, pastoral, tall, formerly athletic, etc. 

That's not an apology. That's just a reality. In fact, I am not sorry that I am any of those things. Well...I am sorry that I'm formerly athletic. I really need to do something about that (typing as I drink my morning coffee and eat a donut.)

Nevertheless, recognizing that viewpoints are different, based on numerous factors, the truth becomes clear - I do not...no I cannot fully know what it is like to live as a black man today. Even if I attempted to pull off a John Howard Griffin Black Like Me charade, it would not be authentic. It may be insightful, but it would be temporary and fake. 

One of my friends in ministry, an African-American pastor, was speaking in a group around a table and was describing some things unique to his journey. He looked to me and said "You know how it is, right?" I had to answer, "I don't. Why? Because I'm a white man and while we are brothers in Christ, the fact remains that we have different experiences and some of those are based on the color of our skin. So, you're going to have to help me understand."

Unity Not Uniformity

Dr. Eric Mason's message on gospel unity was clear, powerful, and convictional. Unity is needed in the body of Christ. Yet, unity is not uniformity. For some, this is a hard concept to grasp it seems. Uniformity states that everyone must look alike, share the same heart language, culture, and heritage.

It is not the outward accoutrements that unify the Body. It is Christ alone that brings unity. And it is this that the Enemy attacks continually. Doctrine unifies the church. The gospel unifies the church. Skin tone, heart language, cultural heritage, clothing style, economic level, etc. are not the unifying items that allow Christians to call each other brother and sister. It is the cross of Christ that brings unity among those who come from varied backgrounds. This must be declared and lived, and not ignored.

 

Video via The Gospel Coalition

Segregated Sunday Mornings

Its has been said for years that Sunday mornings in our churches in America, remains the most segregated hour still. There are exceptions, but there are many instances in the evangelical world where this still remains true. Dr. Charlie Dates preached on Tuesday evening of the conference. His assigned topic was the continually segregated church. Addressing the crowd, Dr. Dates challenged churches to tear down the remaining walls of segregation, acknowledging that many are not intentionally divided. The address by Dr. Mason the following day chastised rightly, the predominantly white churches seeking to be multi-ethnic by simply hiring a person of color for their staff team, who otherwise was unqualified. Therefore, the call is to gospel living, not just gospel preaching. 

 

Video via The Gospel Coalition 

Not All Christians Celebrate

Using Dr. King's assassination as the backdrop for the conference allowed speakers and attendees to have open and clear dialogue that often does not happens. It has become clear based on blog articles, tweets, and social media postings, that not everyone celebrated the idea of a gospel-centric event connected with Dr. King's legacy. Some even have equated what was said in the MLK50 Conference to other events in the city of Memphis commemorating the 50th anniversary. While all MLK50 events and gatherings held in Memphis (and there were numerous unrelated events) centered on the assassination, not all were focused on ensuring the gospel was proclaimed and biblical fidelity upheld. And, based on some things I have read from Christian writers and pastors, some of those would even declare what was preached and stated at the MLK Conference I attended was not biblical. 

Whenever Christians speak about race, a dividing line develops. The vitriol that is spouted from believers and followers of Christ is done often under the guise of contending for the gospel, but actually comes across as anything but.

Would I agree with every word spoken by every speaker and attendee at the MLK50 Conference? No. Yet, I do agree that the gospel is unchanging, is true, and is vital for the church in all areas of worship, service, and ministry.

There are documented questions about Dr. King's theology. Debates rage about what he truly believed and what he didn't when it comes to orthodoxy. These were not ignored at the conference. There was no sugar-coating of some of the difficult topics. Dr. John Piper addressed his feelings on this well in his sermon.

 

Video via The Gospel Coalition 

For Those Tired of Apologizing

It has been said many times, by many people - even those within the church - that they are tired of apologizing for the sins of the past, especially the sins of our ancestors. I have heard this from white Christians (and being that I'm a white Christian, I'll just speak from this perspective.) As a Southern Baptist pastor, I remember when the SBC adopted a resolution of repentance for the support of and ignoring of slavery as an issue in America. While the resolution passed, it was soon discussed by many that confessing the sins of long dead Southern Baptists seemed for some to be a waste, and for others unbiblical.

Yet, there is biblical precedent for the repentance of corporate sin of those in the past that had led to division and sinful behavior. The sin of ignorance once revealed, must be addressed. I cannot attest to the feelings of my black brothers and sisters who feel personally slighted when reading of the history and founding of the Southern Baptist Convention, but I acknowledge the real pain (even though the pain was felt at first by their ancestors) and hurt experienced. 

I was recently studying the book of Ezra and noticed in chapter 9 that he was compelled and convicted by God to lead the people into a time of repentance and confession of sins that originated with their fore-bearers. In this case, it was the sin of intermarrying non believers of God. It wasn't a racial intermarriage, that was condemned. It was a faith intermarriage that was condemned by God. Yet, the ancestors of these people had done so and it had gone unconfessed for generations. I wrote of that here.

From this, it becomes clear that we are the pastors, leaders, Christians today who must stand for truth, affirm the gospel unapologetically, and humbly repent of sins that continue to divide and work against the unity in the faith that God commands.

Yet, once confessed, the realization that the road ahead remains. Therefore, as we glance and address that which is in the rear view mirror, may we be united in the gospel as we move forward, not simply for a dream articulated by a man in the 1960s, but a message and commission declared by God to His church, for His glory and our good.

Why This White Guy Attended

Simply put - I attended this conference because I know there is a chasm in our nation, and in our churches that can only be healed through the gospel of Jesus Christ. I admire much of what Dr. King stood for, and his bravery exhibited through his ministry. I do not ignore the questions addressed by Dr. Piper and others at the conference. I know, as do pastor friends, that Dr. King was far from perfect, just as we are. I also know that he should not have been assassinated. Yet, as we reflect on an era in our nation where division defined us, we hope that things are better today...only to realize we may not have progressed as far as many think.

I attended because I love my brothers and sisters in Christ.

I attended because to ignore the racial divide in our churches and nation makes me as complicit as those who did so in generations past. 

I did not attend to please anyone in particular or to anger anyone in particular, but I sense that I likely have done both.

I guess I'm the kind of white person who is honestly seeking to live for the sake of the gospel, unapologetically lead others to Christ as God draws them to Himself, and to not be guilty of sinning privately or corporately by remaining silent about the things that matter to God and his church.

_________________

All videos and the complete sermons from the MLK50 Conference are available at The Gospel Coalition's Vimeo page here.


The Danger of the "Hebrew Roots" Movement

After leading five trips to Israel, spending time with and having deeply meaningful conversations with Jewish friends, learned teachers, guides, and theologians, I acknowledge that most Christians (myself included) have much to learn regarding Jewish traditions and the Hebrew roots of Christ and Christianity. Each trip to Israel reveals more that I had not previously known or acknowledged. Yet, the joy of these trips and these conversations is that the message of Scripture and the good news that is the Gospel is affirmed more and more, even as I seek to know more. 

It is true that during the days of the Byzantines especially and following, there was an effort by Christians and some in the church to erase the Jewishness from Jesus' story and the message of the New Testament. A cursory reading of the New Testament makes that assertion implausible.

The Jewish Jesus

Despite the ignorance and racism that precipitated such teaching, the facts remain - Jesus was Jewish. He spoke Hebrew. He likely spoke Hebrew more than has been acknowledged. He did not come to erase Torah (the law) or the teachings of the prophets but to fulfill them. 

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." Matthew 5:17-20 (ESV)

To discount the Jewishness of Jesus is ignorant at best, sinfully racist at worst.

What is the Hebrew Roots Movement?

Despite the need to acknowledge and understand the Jewish heritage of Christ and the teachings within scripture that begin with the creation of humanity and celebrate the one true God through his covenant relationship with his chosen ones, there is a dangerous theology emerging (actually not new, just a modern version, albeit wrapped in Hebraisms, of gnosticism) categorized as the Hebrew Roots movement.

8347381598_13f5564ac1_h
Photo credit: CodyAHoffman on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC

Here's a good overview of the belief system as taken from gotquestions.org...

Hebrew Roots movement is the belief that the Church has veered far from the true teachings and Hebrew concepts of the Bible. The movement maintains that Christianity has been indoctrinated with the culture and beliefs of Greek and Roman philosophy and that ultimately biblical Christianity, taught in churches today, has been corrupted with a pagan imitation of the New Testament gospels.

Those of the Hebrew Roots belief hold to the teaching that Christ's death on the cross did not end the Mosaic Covenant, but instead renewed it, expanded its message, and wrote it on the hearts of His true followers. They teach that the understanding of the New Testament can only come from a Hebrew perspective and that the teachings of the Apostle Paul are not understood clearly or taught correctly by Christian pastors today. Many affirm the existence of an original Hebrew-language New Testament and, in some cases, denigrate the existing New Testament text written in Greek. This becomes a subtle attack on the reliability of the text of our Bible. If the Greek text is unreliable and has been corrupted, as is charged by some, the Church no longer has a standard of truth.

Benefits of the Hebrew Roots Movement

As with many religious groups that claim their genesis in biblical Christianity, there are beneficial qualities of what many Hebrew Roots teachers proclaim. This is not unlike other groups who promote healthy living and morality, yet hold to biblically unorthodox theology. For Christians, learning details of Jewish life adds insight into many of the biblical stories, especially the parables and teachings of Christ. It is beneficial and good for believers to understand and study the feasts of Israel, the covenant teachings, and other aspects revealed through scripture, and even Jewish celebrations and teachings that are extra-biblical.

A study of Torah can enhance believers understanding of the teachings of Christ. Yet, while good for Gentile Christians to identify with Israel, it is not beneficial to identify as Israel. It is disingenuous at best.

Ultimately, the benefits of the Hebrew Roots movement are few and far between, and outnumbered by the dangers.

Grafted Branches

Gentile Christians have been grafted into God's chosen people. This is expressed by Paul in his letter to the Romans.

"But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, 'Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.' That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you." Romans 11:17-21 (ESV)

It should be noted, however, that the grafting in of Gentile believers is not into the Mosaic Covenant, but "they are grafted into the seed and faith of Abraham, which preceded the Law and Jewish customs. They are fellow citizens with the saints (Ephesians 2:19), but they are not Jews."(gotquestions.org)

The Danger of the Hebrew Roots Movement

Over the past few years, an increase of those who hold to the Hebrew Roots theology has occurred. Some Christians are abandoning traditional biblical orthodoxy and orthopraxy (justified by Hebrew Roots believers since they believe the church corrupted beyond repair.) Seminary students, pastors, and self-taught theologians have joined the movement. The dangers are expressed well here...

The Hebrew Roots movement is dangerous in its implication that keeping the Old Covenant law is walking a "higher path" and is the only way to please God and receive His blessings. Nowhere in the Bible do we find Gentile believers being instructed to follow Levitical laws or Jewish customs; in fact, the opposite is taught. Romans 7:6 says, "But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code." Christ, in keeping perfectly every ordinance of the Mosaic Law, completely fulfilled it. Just as making the final payment on a home fulfills that contract and ends one’s obligation to it, so also Christ has made the final payment and has fulfilled the law, bringing it to an end for us all.

Ultimately, the Hebrew Roots followers, though well intentioned I'm sure, have believed in teachings that are not grounded in scripture, nor affirmed in the teachings of Christ, but sound biblical (as opposed to being biblically sound.) Inerrancy of the Word of God is abandoned by those who believe in a "better way" or who have slid into what is also called Yahwism or the Sacred Name Movement.

Can the Hebrew Roots believers line up alongside evangelical Christianity? Apparently not, by their own admission. At this point, Ephesians 4 and other passages are ignored and forsaken and unity in Christ is abandoned, as division grows and falsehood is propagated. This is grievous. 

Some good insight on related issues:

What is Yahwism? What is a Yahwist?

What is the Sacred Name Movement?


Your New Church Has Great Music, a Trendy Logo, and Looks Great On Instagram...But, That's Not Enough

Laura M. Holson recently (March 17, 2018) wrote an article about a young, large, fast-growing church in southern California for The New York Times. Dr. Albert Mohler referenced the article and church in his podcast The Briefing, posted on March 23, 2018.)

As I listened to Dr. Mohler's podcast and then read the article, I could not help but think "I know churches just like the one in the article!"

Pastors serving in a metropolitan or suburban (and perhaps in some rural) areas have noticed an uptick in new church starts intent on reaching the next generation. I am excited to see more churches in our city. I am so glad to see men step up, not just as a career choice, but due to a God calling (BTW - not all who seek to pastor, should. I wrote about that in the past here). That's why I serve in our city network as a church planting assessor, offer our facilities for new works, and seek to help those called into pastoral ministry as best I can.

Lightstock_37583_small_david_tarkington

Now that I amazingly am an "old-timer" in our community since I've pastored here for over two decades, I often am asked about some of the new starts that pop up from my peers. Normally the question is something like "What's up with XYZ Church?" Sometimes I know the new pastor and have great things to say. Other times, I have yet to meet the new pastor and have no information to offer. Then, there are the other circumstances when I do know the pastor, know of his theology and focus, and seeking not to be negative, will just encourage others to pray for them (while never encouraging anyone to attend their church.)

Referencing the article from the NYT and Dr. Mohler's assessment once more, I noticed some things that stand out and should be addressed by evangelicals (based on a solid definition of the term). I list some of these below, in no particular order:

The Term "Evangelical" Has Become Almost Unusable

In America today, the term evangelical is used by some who understand the meaning to be related to an identified subset of Christianity that holds to biblical authority and the desire to reach out, or evangelize (thus, the name) those who are non-believers. This is a valid definition. It lines up with the explanation of the National Association of Evangelicals on their site:

Evangelicals take the Bible seriously and believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The term “evangelical” comes from the Greek word euangelion, meaning “the good news” or the “gospel.” Thus, the evangelical faith focuses on the “good news” of salvation brought to sinners by Jesus Christ.

However, most recently the term "evangelical" has been muddied. The media uses the term to identify any church or Christian that cannot be categorized as Catholic or Protestant Liberal. More troubling, the term has become an identifier of a perceived political ideology. Christians are likely to blame for this.

Marketing Is Celebrated More Than Message

To be clear, I love specialty marketing stuff. I have no real issues with churches creating attractive logos and plastering them on shirts, hats, or other items. Maybe that's a hold over from my business classes in college. A well-designed logo becomes identifiable in a community. Churches seeking to connect with Millennials often utilize social media (Instagram and Snapchat primarily) to spread the word and create a sense of "coolness" for what they're doing. I'm not opposed to it. Just call it what it is. It is not evangelism. It is not discipleship. It is marketing. While not a bad thing, the church must remember that we have not been called to market well, but to be "salt" and "light" in the world (Matt 5:13-16), commissioned to make disciples of Jesus Christ (Matt 28:19-20).

In some churches, especially the ones referenced in the article, music is incredible, complete with the best sound systems, incredible musicians and smoke machines.

Yet, the message is somewhere an afterthought. The message is toned down into a stream of tweetable thoughts of positive thinking, self-belief, with just enough Jesus sprinkled in to allow the gathering to claim to be Christian. But, it's dangerous.

From Holson's article:

Mr. Veach believes he can save souls by being the hip and happy-go-lucky preacher, the one you want to share a bowl of açaí with at Backyard Bowls on Beverly Boulevard, who declines to publicly discuss politics in the Trump era because it’s hard to minister if no one wants to come to church. Jesus is supposed to be fun, right?

“I want to be loud and dumb,” Mr. Veach said with a wide, toothy grin. “That’s my goal. If we aren’t making people laugh, what are we doing? What is the point?”

Asked about abortion rights, Mr. Veach declined to give a specific answer. “At the end of the day I am a Bible guy,” he said.

Mr. Veach’s father shrugged about his son’s equivocation. “Last thing you want to do is turn off a whole demographic,” he said of today’s pastors. “If you draw lines in the sand, people are going to think God hates them.”

And Mr. Veach wants Zoe to be a refuge for many, against the rhetoric of so many other dogmatic evangelicals.

“From the time I’ve entered, and, maybe, just what we grew up in, it’s, like, you don’t bring politics into church,” he said. “We’re here to preach good news. We’re here to bring hope to humanity. We’re here to talk about God. This is not the place for a political agenda. This is the last place. When I come to church, you know what I need? I need encouragement.”

Dr. Mohler responds:

Now before we dismiss that statement entirely, there's something profoundly true in what he said. People do not come to church in order to talk about politics. That's not what their souls need. But what he said is fundamentally wrong and it ends up being actually, not only allergic to politics but antithetical to the gospel because he reduces what people do need to exactly the wrong word, encouragement. There have been far too many evangelical congregations that have talked more eagerly and more clearly about politics and political issues than they have about the gospel and that is to their shame. But the inescapable fact is that if you are 'a Bible guy" then that means you have to teach the Bible and it means you have to believe the Bible as the inerrant and infallible word of God. It means that you have to preach the parts of the Bible that a contemporary society might find encouraging but it also means you've got to preach the parts of the Bible that a modern, very secular society will find anything but encouraging. Most importantly, if you claim to be committed to human flourishing, you have to be clear about whom the Bible identifies as a human and what flourishing would mean.

"Gospel Lite" with a Good Beat

Now, I do not know Mr. Veach. And, clearly, all I have to go on is what the church promotes online and an article written for The New York Times.

What I do know is that as I read the article about Zoe Church in southern California, as described in this article, I could not help but think of a few churches in our community that seem to have taken the exact blueprint for church launching and growth. They have great music, marketable goods, a trendy logo, an incredible social media presence. This is the Instagram and Snapchat generation and these churches are connecting well.

My concern is the sacrifice of good theology for the propagation of crowd gathering, bent solely on encouragement and good feels.

Many of these music-driven churches are based on others such as Hillsong, described in the NYT article as the "granddaddy of them all." Mohler says, "Hillsong is in many ways an updated millennial prosperity theology packed very well with contemporary music."

Worship Doesn't Have to Be a "No Smoking" Zone

To be clear, having a good band lead worship, complete with lights and even a smoke machine is not bad. Some lambast music styles, but I do not. I am firmly convinced authentic worship can take place through a variety of music styles. To argue otherwise is a waste of breath and ultimately moot.

However, just having good music does not excuse weak preaching. There are some incredible worship songs being written today and many have been sung regularly in churches throughout the world. Yet, the wise pastor would be careful to ensure the worship music (whether old hymns, country gospel, hip hop, modern praise, etc.) has strongly worded lyrics that affirm good theology.  A good rule of thumb is that if a band spends more time explaining why a lyric is biblical after being confronted by solid, biblically sound pastors regarding said lyric, the song should be deleted from the worship set.

I don't care if the band plays contemporary music. I don't care if there are lights and a smoke machine. I don't care that a trendy logo is slapped on various items. I really don't care if a church does that. My warning is to not major on the minors (all that stuff) and miss the main thing - the message of the gospel.

A Higher Standard

I care about these churches because I know some of their pastors and a good number of their members. I pray they will not sacrifice the good news for a good time.

However, if a local church proves to be more icing than cake, I will continue to pray for them and not recommend that anyone attend. 

And for those who counter "Well, they weren't going to church anywhere. At least that church is better than not going, right?" I say - "Probably not."

I care because I want people to come to Christ. I want the unreached reached. I want the lost found. I just don't want a fluffy, weak, watered-down version of Christianity to propagate.

There's too much at stake. 


Live for God and You Will Face a Sanballat & Tobiah

I have been leading our church through a study of Ezra and Nehemiah on Wednesdays recently. We have discussed much about the rebuilding of the Temple and walls of Jerusalem. We looked at the significance of rebuilding these structures and of the gates of the city as well.

As you who have studied these books know, there are a few characters who show up early in the book of Nehemiah that seek to discredit Nehemiah's leadership and put a stop to the work being done in the city. These men are Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem.

The main protagonists are Sanballat and Tobiah. At first, they start hurling insults at Nehemiah and the people. Then, the threats lead to potential physical attacks. They are opposed to the work of God and are doing their best to stop it.

10468390795_3518f4ccc3_c
Photo credit: alvaro tapia hidalgo on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Nehemiah is seeking to lead God's people well and honor God through the work. The enemies seek to place themselves first, not God nor his people. This is clear in the writings. 

Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem were men of influence. They had authority in the community due to their roles as governors and leaders of their regions. They represented people groups that were originally expelled from the Promised Land of God's people centuries prior. 

While it's not necessarily a good thing to ask "Where am I in this story?" when it comes to biblical narratives, primarily because that seems to place self at the center of God's stories. In this case, there are some things that are not only clear historically, but applicable for churches and Christian leaders today.

There are always Sanballats and Tobiahs

Most pastors I know have experienced this reality. When a pastor or Christian leader seeks to do great, impossible, God-sized things for the glory of God, there is always opposition. In other words, there's always a "Sanballat" and "Tobiah" in the midst. These may be community members or neighbors. Sometimes, they are actually members of the church. 

Over time they become easily recognizable. Here are some things that occur within the church that reveal a Sanballat and Tobiah may be in the room:

  • A sense of "me first" or "our group first" rises to the surface when community engagement and mission expansion are presented.
  • A pervasive negativity fills the room and is stoked by the Sanballats and Tobiahs. Negativity is like a cancer and can turn a joyous gathering of Christians into a complain-fest that sees nothing positive happening.
  • Vision dissipates.
  • A desire to go back rather than forward is often expressed.
  • An "us versus them" mentality is expressed, either overtly or covertly. The confusion may come in identifying the "us" and the "them." 
  • New ideas (or even old ones cemented in biblical truth) are opposed.
  • A number of pastors have heard the "We were here before you came here. We'll be here after you're gone." expression regularly.
  • A continued reminder of how big a failure you are as a pastor or leader (i.e. "You didn't visit enough," "Your sermons are negative diatribes," "You love 'them' more than 'us,'" "You're changing things and we don't like it," "Your family is rude/mean/loud/unruly/undisciplined/etc."

Here's the good news - your Sanballats and Tobiahs are just members of a long-lasting club. It's a club no one should want to be a member, yet continues to grow in number, it seems.

Pastor, be encouraged. There's no pastor who has not faced this. You are called to shepherd and serve. You are not perfect. You will make mistakes. Believe me, people will let you know when you make mistakes. Just remember that God called and equipped a king's cupbearer for an impossible task of rebuilding a stone wall with large wooden gates around a city. This task he (Nehemiah) was given was impossible. Then, while continually facing opposition, even from those who were working with him, he was opposed by Sanballat and Tobiah. Yet, he finished the task. The city was restored. God's good hand (Neh 2) was upon him. It is on you as well. Stay focused on the task, grounded in the gospel and respond to the negative attackers as Nehemiah did...

And I sent messengers to them, saying, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” Nehemiah 6:3 (ESV) 

I love that! When Sanballat and Tobiah were working once more to distract and stop the work Nehemiah was called to do, he responds with "Can't talk now. The work of God I am doing now is too important." 

Take heart. You're not the first to face opposition. You' won't be the last. Don't waste time talking about it to those who are direly opposed to God and his work (regardless their position or title) and press on. Yes, this is easier said than done, but then most vital things are.

One other warning: Be careful not to become a Sanballat or Tobiah. It's really easy to slide into that mode, even justifying one's own sin while doing so.


Why We Let Other Churches Use Our Building

Among western, and especially American evangelical churches, a sense of territorialism has been a reality for as long as I can remember.

"Church A" has been in a community for a while. "Church B" exists in a neighboring community. A sense of ownership over a region develops, not unlike that which exists between school districts. The sense of ownership is not necessarily bad, especially when a church deems its neighborhood and surrounding community as their missional responsibility for engagement. 

The problems often develop when "Church A" gets upset at "Church B" for perceived encroachment on their domain.

A jealousy develops and negative thoughts and comments often result.

There are obviously issues in churches and at times, church splits happen and members leave to join another church. These rarely are the result of a Kingdom-mindedness and more often are the result of one or more issues (poor pastoral leadership, disagreements with doctrinal stances, consumer mentalities, seeking better ministries for kids, etc.) that are more prevalent among Christians than we'd like to admit. Sometimes sinful motivations are what push or pull members away from one church to another (or to none.) This is grievous and can be delved in more at a later time.

Nevertheless, the sin of Christian competitiveness rears its head at times and the church experiences jealousy or an isolationist mindset. 

As I write this, I am reminded that the sense of competitiveness and territorialism exists even within my own heart. Comparative ministry analysis between our church and others is an easy thing to do. Sometimes, it's helpful and healthy. At other times, it is simply an outgrowth of jealousy or desperation.

Acknowledging my own weaknesses in these areas, I continue to repent. I know that new works (i.e. new churches, church plants, church campuses, etc.) statistically reach people sometimes at higher rates than established churches. Why? I'll leave that for someone else to study. Sounds like a doctoral dissertation for someone, maybe?

We (our church) have joined others in our network of churches (Jacksonville Baptist Association), state convention, mission agencies and other groups throughout North America and the world lauding the church planting and new work efforts. I have served as a church planting assessor, have coached new pastors, sought to help new works get launched, find locations, funding, etc.

So, when a new church with solid doctrine, quality leadership, and a passion for the gospel seeks to launch in our community, I know to be frustrated, competitive or comparative is hypocritical at best.

That's why we have determined to work with new churches launching in our "territory," offering help when possible. Why? Because there are more unsaved people in our community than saved, and we know that we cannot reach them on our own. God continues to draw people to himself and we are honored and blessed to be part of his great story.

In the past, we have hosted other churches in our buildings. Some have been churches that met for just a few months. Others were focused on reaching people in our community who speak a different heart language than English. Some started as just a planter and core team seeking a place to pray and gather prior to taking their next steps.

DOXA CHURCH

We are honored to host a new church plant, pastored by Jeth Looney, for such meetings. Doxa Church is going to have some pre-launch meetings at our church building in Orange Park with the intent of planting in Orange Park soon. Jeth is a called pastor and gifted to teach and preach. His heart for the gospel and reaching this community for Christ is evident. Doxa will be part of our city network and convention moving forward and we believe that God is already at work through this new church as they have gathered in homes, and will do great things through them in Orange Park and beyond.

Screenshot 2018-03-14 08.47.47
Doxa Church Vision Meeting in the F Building of FBCOP on 3/18/2018

Do we really need another church in Orange Park?

Apparently, there are still unsaved, unreached, and unengaged people in Orange Park. So the answer is yes. Yes, we need more gospel-centric, unapologetic, missional churches in our community. We need these churches, and they need us. The mission remains and together we can do much more for the kingdom of God and the sake of the gospel than we can alone.

What if members of FBC Orange Park leave to join Doxa?

Hmmm, this is the real question isn't it? It's safer to host a meeting. It's dangerous to see church members leave to join another church in the community. However, unlike the common exits that are predicated by frustrations or doctrinal issues, if members of our church (well, it's really God's church, right?) leave to help launch a new work in Orange Park...good. In fact, "To God be the glory!" 

We have a choice - we can either continue to work on building our small kingdoms, believing that somehow this is good, or allow our actions to match our words and trust God to grow His kingdom through any means he chooses. Sometimes, he may call a church member from "Church A" to serve in "Church B." This is far different from the normal transfer member "growth." I do believe, however, that God never calls a church member from a church to another for the purpose of doing nothing but being served. I also believe that any "sent" members must be members in good standing, generous, service-minded, and action-oriented, not under church discipline, and not disengaged.

Pray for Doxa Church

Unnamed
Pastor Jeth Looney

Join me in praying for Jeth and his team as they seek to launch Doxa Church in Orange Park. May we continue to be part of movements of God greater than ourselves.

 


The Sin of Intermarriage

Today, I led our MidPoint Bible Study through the last two chapters of Ezra. I won't take the time to dissect all that is in these powerful chapters focused on a people's repentance, but will address the primary sin of God's people as addressed.

INTERFAITH MARRIAGE IS SINFUL

The people of God had disobeyed him by marrying and allowing their children to marry those from other faiths. From a 21st century cultural view that values an unbiblical and biased view of tolerance more than truth, this seems so out of step and wrong. Yet, God's Word was clearly given to his people as he led them through Moses' guidance from slavery in Egypt into the Promised Land.

“Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Take care, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst. You shall tear down their altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim (for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and you are invited, you eat of his sacrifice, and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters whore after their gods and make your sons whore after their gods. Exodus 34:11-16 (ESV)

Seems pretty cut and dried. God's people are not to intermarry with the idolators of the land.

Then, when God's people are brought back home to Jerusalem in another exodus from slavery, this time under Ezra's leadership, we read this...

After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands. And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost.” As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled. Ezra 9:1-3 (ESV

The people of God forsook the commands of God and the realization that much of their turmoil was based on generational sin that was ignored by leaders and excused by those committing the sins is clear. 

Ezra sought forgiveness from God and led the people to repent. Interesting because Ezra did not marry an idolatrous woman. Yet, he knew complicity of sins of the past and present was true and repented. This may help some who just cannot understand why a people group (for instance white Southern Baptists) feel the need to repent for the sins of long-dead ancestors. Yet, this biblical principle is clearly given here and present-day believers should take it to heart.

I have addressed this before, but with today's current climate of division and the propagation of information (true and untrue) at such alarming speed, it leads me to go here once more.

INTERRACIAL MARRIAGE IS NOT SINFUL

Despite what some believe, what grandma said, what the culture you grew up in has stated, and unfortunately what some churches have even stated as true, interracial marriage is NOT a sin. It is not wrong. It is not even close to being a sin. To believe so is to admit that cultural prejudices remain and at that revelation the only right response would be to do as Ezra did.

I shared this earlier, but when church members years ago came to visit me seeking biblical counsel, complete with verses to give their daughter with hopes she would not marry a black man, they left discouraged. I did not give them the answers they sought. I did not give them verses to use as weapons to promote their personal prejudices. I did not give them a "white answer" intent on keeping the black man from their daughter.

I focused on God's design for marriage to be between one man and one woman. That still true precept is clearly under attack in our culture, but nonetheless, remains true. I shared how God intends for children of God to marry children of God and that the focus is for marriage to be a uniting of two who know the Lord personally so that the marriage may celebrate that relationship, draw each closer to God and be a witness to the world of God's grace, mercy and holiness.

And that, my friends is defined by faith, not by skin tone.

6678443189_2c316d92ab_b
Photo credit: Rod_Miranda on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

I addressed this back in a 2011 post (HERE) and believe more strongly now than ever that the church has allowed this version of racism to fester for far too long.

When a man joining our church asks "Will I be welcome at this church?" I had to ask "Why do you ask?" His response was "Well, as you can see, I'm a black man. My wife is white." When I heard that question, I was reminded at the stain of racism and how strong it is in our nation, our region, even in our churches. I was clear in my response and stated "Some may have an issue with that. There are unfortunately sins that have been deemed acceptable in the church. But, under my pastoral leadership, we are calling sin what it is and will not allow it to remain ignored." This man serves on our pastoral staff and is a key leader of our team. I appreciated his honest question, but was saddened that it had to be asked in 2018. 

Dr. Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary stated this:

"Diversity is not an accident or a problem; it is a sign of God's providence and promise. If the church gets this wrong, it is not just getting race and ethnic difference wrong. It is getting the gospel wrong." (from Removing the Stain of Racism from the SBC)

Ethnic diversity often gets lost in the conversations about gospel unity and we would be wise to get to the center of the issue. Often the interracial marriage beliefs bring these to the surface. 

Dr. Jarvis J. Williams says this:

But ethnic diversity is not the same as gospel-centered racial reconciliation, and the goal of gospel-centered racial reconciliation is not simply diversity. Gospel-centered racial reconciliation is the pursuit of love for the "other" that flows from the Spirit-empowered obedience of those who repent, believe in the cross and resurrection of Jesus by faith, and are justified by faith in Jesus Christ, the Jewish Messiah. (from Removing the Stain of Racism from the SBC)

Moses' Black Wife

Here's a passage that often is ignored by those who wish to propagate their sinful belief that God wants races to marry their "own kind. Moses married a Cushite woman.

Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. Numbers 12:1 (ESV)

It's there in black and white (no pun intended.) Moses married a Cushite. His brother and sister didn't like it. They didn't like the woman. God approved, but Miriam and Aaron did not. This woman is from Cush. Where is Cush? It's south of Ethiopia. The Cushites were a people with dark, likely very dark, skin. To be clear, Moses was not a pasty-white European as he has been portrayed in artwork and movies. However, Moses was not a very dark skinned Cushite either it seems. What becomes clear in the passage is that God was not disapproving. When Miriam did, God punished her. This is when she was given leprosy by God (v. 10) due to her response. There's more here, but the clear racism and frustration over Moses marrying the "wrong woman" was evident.

Back to the Bible Study

Ezra was grieved because God's people (the "holy race" in ESV is better translated as "holy seed" with reference back to the Abrahamic Covenant) had traded the Creator for creation and "whored themselves" to the false gods and goddesses of those surrounding people. This is deeper than telling your teenagers not to date non-believers, but gives credence to that command. When Christians date and sadly, marry non-believers the Christian journey suffers. It is disobedient to God's command. A mixed-faith marriage creates a weak faith and within a generation or two often results in a no-faith family.

While too much to go into here, it's clear that God's design for marriage is for a Christian man to marry a Christian woman and for that couple to remain married for life. This is for God's glory and the couple's good.

Personal Theology

God's people under Ezra's leadership were shaken. They were trembling. Why? Because they read the Word of God and knew of his holiness. Their sin was revealed and they would have to face it. Through their repentance and difficult steps of obedience, they were forgiven. 

Your theology should determine your belief system and your politics, not the other way around. 


A Little Monday Encouragement for the Pastor Who Is Done

It's Monday and for pastors out there reading this, I want to remind you "Never resign on a Monday."

Sundays are big days for pastors. Days of preparation, even if to the average church attender, every Sunday feels like every other Sunday. Sundays take a lot of time. Much prayer goes into the services and events scheduled at most churches. In most cases, pastors delay their family time, time off, fun time with the kids, relaxation time, etc. - you know Sabbath - in preparation for these weekend gatherings.

365947854_ca2a0bb787_o
Photo credit: CJ Sorg on VisualHunt / CC BY-SA

Then, it's time for church and amazingly, people actually show up. That's always encouraging.

Yet, once the day is over, Monday hits and it's time for the "post-game press conference" at least in our heads (unless your John Crist, then you actually have one. See here.)

Perhaps you have heard the following, or things like this in the last 24 hours:

  • The music was too loud.
  • The music was great.
  • The music was bad.
  • The music was perfect.
  • I felt welcomed.
  • No one greeted me.
  • I loved it here.
  • It was a terrible experience.
  • I'll be back.
  • I'm never coming back.
  • Loved the sermon.
  • Weak sermon.
  • Sermon was deep. Really made me think.
  • Sermon was shallow. Milk, not meat.
  • Sermon was like a seminary class. Loved that!
  • Sermon was like a seminary class. I don't want to know all that language and history. Boring.
  • Small group was great. Felt like home.
  • Small group was a basically a clique. I think they were upset I showed up.
  • Youth group time was great. Kids loved it.
  • Youth group was terrible. No one there my kids go to school with. 
  • Youth group was great. Teachers were engaging. Class was fun.
  • Youth group was terrible. Teachers were mean. Boring.
  • Loved the small group. Teacher was so prepared.
  • Hated the small group. Teacher didn't show up.
  • My kids loved their group. Thank you for being so friendly, welcoming and providing a safe place.
  • Hate the kids and preschool groups. Hate having to go through the security program. Won't be back.
  • You guys are so down to earth and relatable.
  • You guys are stuck up. 
  • Pastor makes me feel comfortable because he doesn't wear a tie. 
  • Pastor is disrespectful because he doesn't wear a tie.
  • Pastor - we hate it, but our job is transferring us so this will be our last Sunday here. Thanks so much.
  • Pastor - we've put up with it long enough, but we don't like what this church is, and our feelings are hurt again, so we're leaving and this will be our last Sunday here. Please take us off all the email lists.
  • It's exciting to see what God is doing locally and globally through this church.
  • We're frustrated that so many other things are happening when we think the church should just meet here.
  • So glad we're able to engage globally on mission. Love our priorities.
  • We probably should keep more of the money we're giving to missions and just pay off this building. Hate our priorities.
  • We love you.
  • We don't like you.
  • You are such a caring person. 
  • You didn't visit me or my family member.

And all those comments likely came from the same service.

No, I didn't hear all those yesterday, but I have heard all those at some point. And, they're likely all true, at least from someone's perspective.

So, pastor, be encouraged. It's Monday. There will be more, but we don't serve the Lord for the applause of man, right? Yet, we do like that applause. 

I know it hurts when the negative statements come. They're taken personal, because regardless how they're prefaced...they are personal.

Hang in there. Next Sunday is going to be awesome...unless it isn't.

Just make sure you're prayed up and prepared to preach the gospel. Preach it clearly, unapologetically, and with love. Never compromise the truth. Never lean on your own understanding, or skillset, or personality, or ability to motivate, or speaking style, but lean only on Christ.

It's Monday. Never resign on a Monday.


When Villains Become Heroes

Each month, I gather with a group of friends, some Christians, others not, at a local comic book shop to discuss the connection between stories, theology, and culture. We call our gatherings CHAT (Costumed Heroes and Theology) and the open discussions have been healthy and thought-provoking.

Last Sunday evening, I threw a concept out to the group to discuss. The concept centered on forgiveness, redemption, and how a comic villain could become a hero (and ultimately, how that could happen in real life.)

The Avengers films and the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been so successful that even those who did not grow up reading comic books or care about the narratives are at least familiar with characters like Captain America, Iron Man, Hawkeye, the Scarlet Witch, etc.

The original Avengers comic book was printed in 1963 and featured the following characters (now famous from film): Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Ant-Man, and the Wasp. Some other minor characters like Voyager, Rick Jones, and Willie appeared as well, but the core was made up of the now famous heroes.

By issue 16 (May 1965) it was time for the team line-up to change. Over the decades this has happened often. What makes issue 16 so interesting (well, for comic readers at least) is that the new team would feature the following characters joining Captain America:

  • Hawkeye
  • Quicksilver
  • Scarlet Witch

Eventually, even Black Widow would join.

Avengers_Vol_1_16

Original team members like Thor, Hulk, Giant-Man (previously Ant-Man), the Wasp, and Iron Man would leave the team.

What is so significant about the addition of Hawkeye, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, and Black Widow? Each of these characters began as a villain in the comics. 

There was much talk in our gathering about this, about forgiveness, redemption, how one can shift from one side of the aisle to the other, how a villain can become a hero, etc.

Professor Mark White states, "In the universe of comic books, unlike the real world, it's possible to change the past. Sometimes heroes or villains go back in time to change or preserve the course of history. More often, writers decide that something happened in the past that they failed to mention or that their characters did not know about, so they fill in the gaps, not changing history as much as completing it (after the fact.)"1

I have never read the actual Avengers comic where this introduction to new members happened, but I have looked it up online. I talked with some who did read it and it seems that a significant event took place to allow these former "bad guys and ladies" to be admitted into the club known as "Earth's Mightiest Heroes." 

They had been redeemed.

They had an advocate.

Each characterization was unique, but by and large, Captain America vouched for the new team of heroes. 

Cap, the image of virtue and morality (at least prior to the weird short-lived recent storyline where he revealed he was a Hydra/Nazi sleeper agent) basically stated "These people are with me."

And, that was enough.

Our Advocate

It reminded me of an actual story of real people expressed in Scripture. Paul (aka Saul,) the Christian killer and enemy of the church was converted by Christ on the road to Damascus. His conversion story is covered in Acts 9.

He truly was transformed, but it would not be easy for all the current Christians (the ones previously sought by Paul for destruction) to accept him into their group.

Yet, there was a man. A righteous man who stood beside Paul an advocated for his admission to the church.

And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. Acts 9:26-28 (ESV)

Barnabas advocated for the former villain to join the ranks of the Christians in the church, as an apostle.

I'm sure some in the church still gave Paul the side-eye on occasion, but the change was real, not orchestrated by an author trying to sell another magazine, and time would prove this.

This is what happens for each person who surrenders to Christ as Lord. In fact, apart from Christ, we all stand as enemies to God. Yet, through his grace and mercy, we are invited into his story, not as extras or unimportant characters, but as sons and daughters. 

Our advocate isn't Barnabas. It surely isn't Captain America.

Our advocate is Jesus Christ. He has taken upon himself the entirety of humanity's sin debt. Through our repentance and surrender to him, we have the privilege of stepping away from a title of "enemy of God" to something much greater than getting to join the Avengers. We attain the rights of children and friends of God. Through Christ, we belong, not because of our righteousness, but due to his.

It's amazing how a comic book can lead to deeper conversations.

___________

1Mark D. White The Avengers and Philosophy: Earth's Mightiest Thinkers (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2012), 84.


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

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

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

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

Church Competition

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copy + Paste Programming

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Press on. Be encouraged.

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

 

 

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


Black History and White Pastors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14735852666_ebd14e6693_b
Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images on Visual Hunt / No known copyright restrictions

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

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

I'm Not Racist, But...

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

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

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

Racial Unity Must Be Gospel Unity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It may even be risky.

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

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

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

Unity in the Gospel

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Black History Month. 


When "It Could Happen Here" Actually Happens Here

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

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

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

Merlin_133873680_862ce2de-0981-4b8a-82fe-d6a9820704ed-master675
The mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., was one of the deadliest in American history. Credit Saul Martinez for The New York Times

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

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

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

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

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

It could happen here.

Now, it has happened here.


Church Unity Is Not Always a Good Thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Church unity is not always a good thing.

14791928268_39a574277b_c
Photo credit: <a href="https://visualhunt.com/author/a99b2d">tHeDiGiTaLdRoPoUt</a> on <a href="https://visualhunt.com/re/2dad6e">VisualHunt</a> / <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/"> CC BY-NC-SA</a>

Sometimes, unity can be sinful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet, they're unified.

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

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

They are wrong.

See what I mean.

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

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

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

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

So, unity is not always good. 

When Unity is Godly

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

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

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

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

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

May we be unified in Christ.

____________________

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Naive? Clearly.

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

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

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

Why Does This Matter?

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

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

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

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

Of course, that's my opinion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dream Remains

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

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

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

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

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

Clearly, I disagree with Pastor White. Strongly.

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

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

Mlk 2018

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

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

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


Pastor - Are You Prepared to Preach a Funeral?

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

One such responsibility is preaching funerals.

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

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

EXPECTATIONS

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

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

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

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

3716839104_d9a2d5faca_z

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

DO

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

DON'T

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

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

 


Should I Visit or Join This Church?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lightstock_153488_max_david_tarkington

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Regarding Prayer

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

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

Nevertheless, it was definitely grief we were experiencing.

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

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

The Prayer Requests

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

32904795925_0048cbdc29_c
Photo by Listshack on Visualhunt / CC BY

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

The Unspoken Prayer Request

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

The Un-prayed List

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

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

Prayer Availeth Much (James 5:16)

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

Thank you!!!!

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

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

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

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

__________

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Do You Have To Go To Seminary to Pastor?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pastoring Without Seminary

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

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

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

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

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

Speed Doesn't Justify Poor Theology

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

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

Reaching and discipling are not synonyms. (TWEET THIS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planters, Pastors, and Missionaries in Hurry Up Mode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our SBC seminaries: