It seems that as pastors and ministry leaders we continually find a full calendar of events and "opportunities" for those in our church. All this is good, because the ultimate goal is to reach more people for Christ and to make disciples.
Yet, is it possible that our programming may be doing more harm than good?
Questions that must be asked regularly are:
What should we keep doing?
What should we stop doing?
What should we start doing?
Easier said than done, but it must be done. Otherwise, we will just keep greasing the gears of this machine called the local church and could miss the mission.
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It's easy to poke holes in the false "prosperity gospel" that permeates our church culture with "name it and claim it" promises, while taking advantage of the generosity of undiscerning parishioners and television viewers. Yet, there is another false gospel that is often ignored, and even welcomed into many of our evangelical churches. In fact, it may be more dangerous than the easily identified "gospel-lite" offered by many. This is called the therapeutic gospel and it's deadly.
By now, many in our community know we're launching a new campus of our church in the community known as Fleming Island (yeah, we know...it's not really an island.) When those in our launch team and others in the church share about this new campus to meet in Paterson Elementary School, the most common question asked is "Why do we need another church on Fleming Island?"
When I open Google Maps and type "church" in the search box, the following appear on the map (and to be honest, that's not all the churches that gather on "the island."
Granted, these churches express a wide variety of faith traditions. While all have the name "church" on their signs or websites, there are some pretty significant differences among doctrine held by those gathering. So, I'll just speak of those who are in our tribe (Southern Baptist) and in our denomination, there are already three SBC churches in this area. That leads to an even more pointed question, right?
Why do we need another Baptist church on Fleming Island?
Jon Wood, our Campus Minister, wrote of this on his blog not too long ago. Here's what Jon wrote (blog here):
We don't need another church on Fleming Island. But, we do need new disciples of Jesus Christ and the best way to make new disciples is through new work. Here are some stats that have been discovered over recent years in the US regarding church planting and community engagement:
A new church gains 60-80% of its membership from new conversions.
A new church baptizes 1 person for every 13 members (legacy churches have a ratio of 1 baptism for every 52 members)
A new church will bring six to eight times more new people into the life of the body of Christ than an older congregation the same size.
While there are nuances to every statistical analysis, these have proven to be true, especially as we see the rise of the "Nones" in our culture. Hey, do you remember the "Bible Belt"? Yeah, that's fiction. The truth of the matter is that even with almost 20 churches of various flavors on Fleming Island, there are more people living in the community disconnected and unengaged from church and more importantly from Christ than there are those who attend and participate regularly.
We've talked with some of the pastors of sister churches in the area and all agree - no one is doing enough to reach these people.
So, opportunities present themselves. A venue is open. God provides funding and leadership. Through prayer and seeking His lead, we step into a story that some say we should've been in about twenty years ago. Yet, now is the time. It's time for a new campus on Fleming Island.
Every new church plant and pastor starts with the same concept. I've heard it dozens of times - "We want to reach the people other churches aren't."
It's not revolutionary. I mean, what pastor would actually say "We just want to reach the people who already attend other churches but are bored and need something 'cooler'?" No one says that. Well, some people actually strategize to do that, but no pastor would ever say that.
So, we are pushing against the easy way. Anyone can build a crowd. Most people have enough friends at other churches who will "help just to get it started" and develop a gathering. In some cases, it feels like success. Yet, if all we do is plant a new campus or church and simply borrow (or steal) members from other churches, we are doing a disservice to the Kingdom. That happens all too often.
What if this works? I mean, really works. What if God has positioned us to come alongside our sister churches and those unengaged nones actually get reached?
But it won't be easy.
How We Will Know If We've Done This Wrong
And, if we end up with a room full of people gathering weekly who have a church membership resume of local churches that reveals little more than systematic hopping to the latest version of church (you know, the church that "meets my needs" or "feeds me") then we will be guilty of launching a church campus that was not only NOT needed, but harmful for Kingdom growth.
That's not the goal (and seriously, why would it be?) But, apparently this happens often. So, we have to continually push against that model.
The unengaged and unsaved population dwarfs the church crowd. (Well, in some cases the church crowd actually could be categorized as unsaved. Yeah...I said it.) That's why we need another church on Fleming Island. That's why we need to pray for our sister churches on the island who are preaching the Gospel and making disciples as well.
Maybe....just maybe....we're supposed to reach this community together?
We are almost two years removed from the landmark Obergefell vs. Hodges case where the US Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States.
As predicted, churches and Christian denominations began to discuss, or continued discussions, related to the recognition of such unions and the hosting of same-sex weddings. As expected, traditionally conservative denominations and churches have mostly held to the orthodox view that biblical marriage being between one man and one woman for . On the other hand, churches with more moderate or liberal viewpoints have declared acceptance of such unions. In some cases, strong affirmation has been stated. Truth be told, most of these groups had walked away from biblical inerrancy and truth so many decades prior that to have them state anything other than affirmation for that which stands opposed to biblical truth would be shocking.
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While the law of the land is likely not changing, the marginalization of those holding to traditional, biblically orthodox viewpoint will increase. This seems to be inevitable.
Many conservative evangelicals (of which I would be counted) continue to seek engagement of those in our communities and neighborhoods with the truth of the Gospel, while not capitulating on what we deem to be biblical truth. This leads to conversations with those self-identifying as LGBT. I do mean conversations, in that engagement with those in our community requires both talking and listening. Yet, based on the wide differences between the culturally-accepted and prevalent worldview and the biblical one, these honest conversations will eventually be less about the weather, sports, and our children's school events and ultimately will lead to deeper questions regarding truth and life. Missional engagement requires such.
Marriage and Divorce
When conversing about same-sex marriage, the evangelical church must readily admit that the track record for pure heterosexual marriage, even within the church, has not always been stellar.
For far too long, many churches (even, conservative evangelical ones) have winked at divorce among members and many pastors have refused to preach on the topic for fear of an upheaval among members (and likely financial supporters.) The sin of omission regarding divorce lands under the category of "fear of man" and therefore is often never addressed. So, in this sense, when Christians started railing against the prospect of the legalization of same-sex marriage, many on the other side of the debate responded with accusations of hypocrisy based on the divorce rate and broken families of those standing under the "family values" banner.
The church must have a biblical stance on same-sex marriage. However, in many cases, the church must reevaluate it's stance on heterosexual marriage as well and seek to value it more deeply.
God speaks of this.
"Let marriage be held in honor by all..." (Hebrews 13:4a ESV)
Conversely, He declares his opinion regarding divorce.
"For I hate divorce, says the Lord..." (Malachi 2:16 NASB)
Most of us who have been in church at length have heard the verse from Malachi. Other translations allude to that phrase as well. As the context reveals, God's desire is that covenants be kept. The passage states much more than just this one phrase and actually declares why divorce is hated by God. Click here to read more from gotquestions.org on this matter.
The question remains...
Let's presume the Bible to be true (which I do) and that God's truth is absolute regardless of culture, circumstances, or the reader of the Word's preference. In our current state where legalized marriage between two people of the same gender exists, how does God's view same-sex divorce?
This is the question never addressed by prior generations because the boundaries of acceptable morality and legal definitions were different. Yet, today, here we are.
Does God hate gay divorce?
The Bible does give instances where divorce is allowed. Yet, in every case, the relational definition remains heterosexual. Even when a believer marries a non-believer (which is not God's desire, either) the marital union between man and woman fits the design by God as expressed in Scripture. Dr. Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC stated it well in this article from Christianity.com...
Even if these marriages were entered into sinfully in the first place, they are in fact marriages (emphasis added) because they signify the Christ/church bond of the one-flesh union (Eph. 5:22-31), embedded in God’s creation design of male and female together (Mk. 10:6-9).
Therefore, from a biblical viewpoint, the marriage between two men or two women does not represent the image of the covenant relationship between Christ and the church. In other words, though legal in the eyes of the state, biblically the relationship is not truly a marriage.
Moore's statement continues...
Same-sex relationships do not reflect that cosmic mystery, and thus by their very nature signify something other than the gospel. The question of what repentance looks like in this case is to flee immorality (1 Cor. 6:18), which means to cease such sexual activity in obedience to Christ (1 Cor. 6:11). A state, or church decree of these relationships as marital do not make them so.
And...that means divorce, from a biblical standpoint, does not actually enter the equation. God hates divorce. This truth has not changed. However, in the case of same-sex marital relationship, there is no marriage biblically and therefore, no divorce.
Ashley O'Brien has been active in church her entire life, raised in a pastor's family and now serving on the Leadership Team of firstFAMILY (FBC Orange Park) as Director of Social Media
I genuinely get excited when someone surrenders their life to Christ. When a person listens to God and steps out to serve and be a part of something bigger makes me glad. It's inspiring and exciting when a man and wife plant a church intent on reaching the unreached. It's so exciting when Christians act like Christians! I love when people get excited about the Gospel and have to do something about it. However, sometimes it seems the steps taken seem to be focused wrongly. That's is what has led to my frustration.
Ashley and her husband Jordan
I, just like other Christians, want to reach people for Christ. I want everyone to be involved in church - a solid, biblically-focused church. I want people to know what they are getting into when they accept Christ. I believe they should feel at home when they enter the church's facility. Like many, I want to create a place that is attractive and inviting and what some would call “trendy.” Yet, I don’t want to sacrifice the Gospel for that. Jesus himself is attractional to a degree. Just look at the crowds that gathered to see him during his time of ministry around Galilee. Of course, not everyone in the crowd were truly followers. In fact, most were not followers of Jesus, just fans. Jesus' words were offensive. The religious leaders didn't like what he said. Eventually, those who were just there for the show walked away. Apparently, they were offended as well, or perhaps when they truly listened to what Jesus was saying (i.e. "Carry your cross") they decided it was too much.
Too many churches are founded on how to make church look “cool.” The flashy lights, the cool logo, the unusual name that hides the fact the group is truly a church all are part of the marketing strategy to reach Millennials. The great graphics and promos, the promise of free food and maybe a coffee mug, or whatever gets people to take a second look, to ask a question, to check it out are used by just about every new church, church plant, and legacy church seeking to engage the culture. In many cases, these things work. The room is filled. People come. Even Millennials show up. That’s the target audience is seems for most new churches now. And though it is exciting to reach this generation (my generation), the "stuff" that's offered can sometimes be nothing but "fluff." That’s the frustrating part. We fill the “church facility" (whether it's an established church building, a rented school cafeteria, a theater, warehouse, or even restaurant) but are we seeing transformations? Are we seeing people surrender their lives to Christ? Or are we filling up a room for an awesome production for people who look like they are worshipping (and in truth, many truly are) and appear to understand what God is saying through the pastor's message. But, let's be honest. sometimes the appearance or worship and engagement are based on what we think we're supposed to look like. You know, "This picture of me standing and worshipping will look great on Instagram or Snapchat!" Sorry, if that sounds cynical, but I have grown up in the era of big worship production events and while I love the music and the gatherings, it is just way too easy to fall into the trap of performance (even when you're not on stage) rather than truly worship.
It’s hard being a Christian in the world for obvious reasons. This is not earth-shattering. It's always been hard to be a Christian in the world. Why? Because the world never celebrates Christ. Believe me, as difficult as it is to be a follower of Christ in a post-Christian culture, I know what we face here in the west truly does not even compare to what our brothers and sisters in Christ face throughout the world, especially where persecution means death and not just being made fun of on social media.
Yet, I’m finding it becoming more difficult to be a Christian in the "church world." This was something I never expected. My frustration is growing in the area of church life that seems so close, but yet so far from what living missionally truly is.
I want to invite people to church, but I won’t apologize for when they hear the Gospel preached. If anything other than the biblical message is preached, then calling the gathering a church is debatable.
If a church spends all their capital seeking to not look or sound like God's church, then at some level either the Gospel is not being preached or the group has pulled off little more than a "bait and switch." It's one thing for the pastor to be versed in apologetics (contending for the Gospel and defending the faith,) but something totally different if the pastor is apologizing for the Gospel, seeking not to offend.
I would feel dissatisfied if all they heard was a therapeutic message. These types of messages are prominent and the crowd can listen without being able to discern if the message was from from the Bible or just a self-help book. The Gospel is offensive. It is truth. And, we all know that at times, the truth hurts. We don’t need to create churches that ignore truth. We don’t need another pastor building his kingdom and ultimately mar the Christian name. We don’t need a church that stands alone, either overtly or covertly building their crowds from those already attending solid (and maybe multi-generational) churches in the area. We need something else ... and I have no idea what that is, other than the truth and the Gospel.
New church plants are exciting. I believe they're needed. The numbers bear this out. My generation is growing less and less connected with the church. Yet, superficial fluffy entertainment-driven gatherings are not really the answer, are they?
So, from my perspective, our current churches, new campuses, and new church plants must have these:
Founded on Truth not a pastor's personality
Deemed successfully engaging not by how many Christians from other churches they can gather in a room weekly, but by how many lost are reached
Brokenness for the lost in the community, even if they don't fit the prescribed demographic of choice
Seeking the unengaged, not just the disgruntled attenders of other churches
Passion for the Gospel
Love of God
Love of people
Desire to make disciples...not just photogenic "worshippers"
As Christians, if we are obedient to what God has called us to do, God will be obedient to what He said he will do.
So, your gathering may have really cool stage lights and a smoke machine (those aren't bad...our church has them), a worship leader and band that does well, and maybe some really good coffee (free trade coffee, of course) and a bagel or even a free coffee mug or T-shirt for first time guests. In fact, there's nothing wrong with any of those things. Do it. I like coffee mugs and free T-shirts.
But...don't miss the point.
Churches don't exist for us. They're for God. They're his to begin with.
Be attractional. No issue there, just don't focus so much on the things that don't matter in eternity and miss the Gospel.
Church planting is an exciting and scary adventure for most. I pray those pastors and launch team members hold tight to the truth and the reason behind it all. Reaching lost people for Christ.
As Baptists and Bible-believing evangelicals, the lies of the prosperity gospel are easily identified. This "name it and claim it" theological version of the gospel that lives somewhere at the far-end of DirecTV and on late-night television has been gathered funds from less-than-discerning followers for years. Years ago John Piper took a moment at a conference where he was speaking to share about his feeling regarding the prosperity gospel. It went viral and a few versions of that brief message are available on YouTube. I've linked one below:
For the most part, pastors and church leaders in the Baptist and evangelical world discount the false promises of the prosperity gospel and distance themselves from such.
However, there is another false gospel that exists and it seems to be gaining traction, even within the framework of biblically-centered Gospel-focused churches. Sometimes, it sneaks in as a "short-term small group study" and sometimes in sermons or Sunday School classes.
The Therapeutic Gospel
We live in an age where therapy is not only accepted but marketed as needful for all. When it comes to therapy, I do not discount the need for such. I believe in counseling as a help for those in need. As a pastor, I offer counseling as well. Biblical counseling (not to be confused with what is often marketed under the broad term "Christian Counseling") is a powerful use of offering help and hope to those in need through the inerrant truth revealed in Scripture.
It's the focus on "felt needs" that drives this.
David Powlinson, author, teacher, and counselor shared these distinctions regarding the contemporary therapeutic gospel back in 2010. Not much has changed (full article here).
The most obvious, instinctual felt needs of twenty-first century, middle-class Americans are different from the felt needs that Dostoevsky tapped into (in his book The Brothers Karamazov). We take food supply and political stability for granted. We find our miracle-substitute in the wonders of technology. Middle-class felt needs are less primal. They express a more luxurious, more refined sense of self-interest:
I want to feel loved for who I am, to be pitied for what I’ve gone through, to feel intimately understood, to be accepted unconditionally;
I want to experience a sense of personal significance and meaningfulness, to be successful in my career, to know my life matters, to have an impact;
I want to gain self-esteem, to affirm that I am okay, to be able to assert my opinions and desires;
I want to be entertained, to feel pleasure in the endless stream of performances that delight my eyes and tickle my ears;
I want a sense of adventure, excitement, action, and passion so that I experience life as thrilling and moving.
The modern, middle-class version of therapeutic gospel takes its cues from this particular family of desires. We might say that the target audience consists of psychological felt needs, rather than the physical felt needs that typically arise in difficult social conditions. (The contemporary “health and wealth” gospel and obsession with “miracles” express something more like the Grand Inquisitor’s older version of therapeutic gospel.)
In this new gospel, the great “evils” to be redressed do not call for any fundamental change of direction in the human heart. Instead, the problem lies in my sense of rejection from others; in my corrosive experience of life’s vanity; in my nervous sense of self-condemnation and diffidence; in the imminent threat of boredom if my music is turned off; in my fussy complaints when a long, hard road lies ahead. These are today’s significant felt needs that the gospel is bent to serve. Jesus and the church exist to make you feel loved, significant, validated, entertained, and charged up. This gospel ameliorates distressing symptoms. It makes you feel better. The logic of this therapeutic gospel is a jesus-for-Me who meets individual desires and assuages psychic aches.
Pastors lament the consumer mentality of many in the world today and yet, sometimes that which is complained about is propped up unknowingly by a version of the gospel that is less than complete. A less-than-complete gospel is a false gospel.
Signs That Your Church Members Just Want Therapy, Not the Gospel
Every pastor, at some point in time, will hear church members state that they're looking for a new church.
Most often the church members and friends do not state these directly, but just fade away in attendance and participation and eventually share that phrase with mutual friends or other church members. Then, over time, that phrase hits the ears of leadership.Sometimes God actually calls members of a local body of believers to unite elsewhere. However, unless that calling leads to missional engagement and missionary living, it all to often seems to be based on a desire for a new version of church, and sometimes is fueled by disagreement with pastoral leadership, theology, or programming.In all candor, it has been my experience that theological differences rarely are the tipping point. This proves to be the case when members join another local church that holds to the very same theological understandings.
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Those who have itchy ears for the therapeutic gospel (which, in case it's not clear, is a false gospel) tend to offer one of the popular statements such as...
"I'm not being fed"
"I need...something from someone"
"I'm not being discipled"
"We need a better group for our kids"
...or other such phrase.
Acquiescence to the therapeutic gospel is often identifiable through the overuse of "I" or "we" statements when it comes to what the church offers or does not offer.
The church and pastoral leadership do not get a pass here. Poor leadership leads to ineffective discipleship. Inwardly focused churches are not disciple-makers. Therefore, they are prone to offer therapeutic philosophy disguised as biblical truth. Pastors and leaders must continually push against the drive (even within themselves) to build small kingdoms, keep the tithers happy, and bow to the false god of self-preservation and self-worship.
Powlinson addresses the five elements of the therapeutic gospel biblically this way:
“Need for love”? It is surely a good thing to know that you are both known and loved. God who searches the thoughts and intentions of our hearts also sets his steadfast love upon us. However all this is radically different from the instinctual craving to be accepted for who I am. Christ’s love comes pointedly and personally despite who I am. You are accepted for who Christ is, because of what he did, does, and will do. God truly accepts you, and if God is for you, who can be against you? But in doing this, he does not affirm and endorse what you are like. Rather, he sets about changing you into a fundamentally different kind of person. In the real gospel you feel deeply known and loved, but your relentless “need for love” has been overthrown.
“Need for significance”? It is surely a good thing for the works of your hands to be established forever: gold, silver, and precious stones, not wood, hay, and straw. It is good when what you do with your life truly counts, and when your works follow you into eternity. Vanity, futility, and ultimate insignificance register the curse upon our work life – even midcourse, not just when we retire, or when we die, or on the Day of Judgment. But the real gospel inverts the order of things presupposed by the therapeutic gospel. The craving for impact and significance – one of the typical “youthful lusts” that boil up within us – is merely idolatrous when it acts as Director of Operations in the human heart. God does not meet your need for significance; he meets your need for mercy and deliverance from your obsession with personal significance. When you turn from your enslavement and turn to God, then your works do start to count for good. The gospel of Jesus and the fruit of faith are not tailored to “meet your needs.” He frees from the tyranny of felt needs, remakes you to fear God and keep his commandments (Eccl. 12:13). In the divine irony of grace, that alone makes what you do with your life of lasting value.
“Need for self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-assertion”? To gain a confident sense of your identity is a great good. Ephesians is strewn with several dozen “identity statements,” because by this the Spirit motivates a life of courageous faith and love. You are God’s – among the saints, chosen ones, adopted sons, beloved children, citizens, slaves, soldiers; part of the workmanship, wife and dwelling place – every one of these in Christ. No aspect of your identity is self-referential, feeding your “self-esteem.” Your opinion of yourself is far less important than God’s opinion of you, and accurate self-assessment is derivative of God’s assessment. True identity is God-referential. True awareness of yourself connects to high esteem for Christ. Great confidence in Christ correlates to a vote of fundamental no confidence in and about yourself. God nowhere replaces diffidence and people-pleasing by self-assertiveness. In fact, to assert your opinions and desires, as is, marks you as a fool. Only as you are freed from the tyranny of your opinions and desires are you free to assess them accurately, and then to express them appropriately.
“Need for pleasure”? In fact, the true gospel promises endlessly joyous experience, drinking from the river of delights (Ps. 36). This describes God’s presence. But as we have seen in each case, this is keyed to the reversal of our instinctive cravings, not to their direct satisfaction. The way of joy is the way of suffering, endurance, small obediences, willingness to identify with human misery, willingness to overthrow your most persuasive desires and instincts. I don’t need to be entertained. But I absolutely NEED to learn to worship with all my heart.
“Need for excitement and adventure”? To participate in Christ’s kingdom is to play a part within the Greatest Action-Adventure Story Ever Told. But the paradox of redemption again turns the whole world upside down. The real adventure takes the path of weakness, struggle, endurance, patience, small kindnesses done well. The road to excellence in wisdom is unglamorous. Other people might take better vacations and have a more thrilling marriage than yours. The path of Jesus calls forth more grit than thrill. He needed endurance far more than he needed excitement. His kingdom might not cater to our cravings for derring-do and thrill-seeking, but “solid joys and lasting treasures none but Zion’s children know.”
May we diligently focus on the truth of the Gospel and not settle for less than God truly offers. When our theology centers on self, and ultimately becomes a "me-ology" the church ceases to be church. This may be one of the greatest challenges we face nowadays, especially as the generations of church members and attenders dwindles. The natural response from many church leaders is to "offer what the audience wants" while sacrificing what we truly need.
As I reflect back to my life growing up in a Baptist church, I am amazed now at some of the things we did that just seem so wrong nowadays (and to be honest, they were likely wrong then as well, but times were different.)
Photo credit: Steven Polunsky via Visual hunt / CC BY
Here are just a few of the things we have done, and to be honest, some of the youth events were under my leadership.
Yeah, a real haunted house. Just to be clear this wasn't some "baptized" version of a haunted house that used recreated car wrecks or tragedies with guys dress like angels and a Jesus actor intent on scaring people into heaven. I was in junior high school. This was a traditional Southern Baptist church in the midwest and I am still not sure how or why we did this, but I will tell you this - the autopsy room and electric chair room we built was incredible! It was just...wrong. There was fake blood, but no talk of being "washed in the blood." Maybe we had snacks afterward? I don't know. I was in 8th grade. As I look back I cannot help but think "What?!?" Nevertheless, this happened. Once.
I'm not saying this is something that shouldn't be done. That's my way of saying "If you're doing a Judgment House or Hell House or whatever, that's on you." We, however, won't be doing it again. We hosted this at our church here in Orange Park once. It was huge and attracted many people. Yet, it was the "scare the hell out of you" and "scare the heaven into you" type of event that seems a bit over the top. It was like a bad Christian movie with some pretty good props (for a local church) but with acting that matched pretty well with the majority of the Christian films available at the time. Meaning: not good. This happened. Once.
Sunday School Drag Queen
Okay, this one is a bit misleading. Imagine a Sunday School class of 40 and 50 year olds. It's a couple's class and they have done what many couple's classes have done for decades in church life. They have planned a "fellowship." That means they have planned a class party complete with games and likely a bad take-off of "The Newlywed Game." They even have written a sketch that is supposed to be funny. So, with Flip Wilson (look him up young folks) as their model, the men come on stage (or in the front of the room) dressed as women...ugly women. It was supposed to be funny. Yet, prior to concerns about transgenderism and the LGBT revolution, these things were just done and people laughed them off. There was prayer for the food. Then, this group of Christians unknowingly (I hope) went on to blatantly disregard Deuteronomy 22:5. It was just a game, but whoa, in today's culture that's a big no-no. It should have been a no-no then as well.
Youth Group Drag Queen Game
Okay, so this one is on me. It wasn't really intended to be a drag queen issue, but way back in the late 1990s, I was leading a game at a youth camp. It was a typical youth group relay which involved as many people as possible. We based it on the theme "A League of Their Own" which was a movie starring Tom Hanks and Madonna about women's professional baseball. So, each level of the relay had something to do with baseball and women. It seemed funny at the time to have each team pick the burliest guy on their squad and have him go through the section where he's having lipstick put on him by blindfolded teammates, putting on a baseball jersey and even sliding on a skirt (over his shorts) before running to the next level. All in fun until one of my youth pastor friends came up to me afterward and said "Dave, we have a guy in our group that has been to counseling and struggles with gender issues. His mom finds him dressing in her clothes. This game has set him back." Ouch! I never thought of that at the time. Based on what we see happening with students today, in our families and churches, this game and others are now on the "NO WAY" list. We never did that relay again. Now, we did do "Mom's Apple Pie" but that just involved a lot of flour, butter, and a pie eating contest.
Pick Your Favorite Song Night
I loved these when I was a kid. It wasn't that I loved to go to church on Sunday night, but that this evening allowed my friends and I to pick hymns in the hymnbook that our Music Minister did not know and that had what we considered weird lyrics. In the 1975 Baptist Hymnal we would always pick number 20. If you grew up with these Pick a Hymn events, you likely know this one. The title is "God of Earth and Outer Space" and while the tune unfortunately sounds like any other hymn, we thought the lyrics were funny. Granted the song was written during the era of the space race, I think. Another great pick was "My God Is There Controlling." When the Music Minister would say "Does anyone have a favorite hymn other than Number 20?" (which he learned to say) we would offer this one. The first line is "We search the starlit Milky Way. A million worlds in rhythmic sway..." Lovely. I can't remember the tune, because I don't think we ever finished the song. Yet, as a teenager we would recite these lyrics like beatniks on an episode of "Happy Days." Here's the third line - "But as I grope from sphere to sphere..." Yeah. This was in the Baptist Hymnal. And you thought "Good, Good Father" was bad.
There are many other things we don't do anymore that we used to do in church. Some good. Some bad. Yet, these I have listed have stopped for very good reasons. If you can comment below without being negative, list some other things we have stopped doing for good reasons. No lamenting the greatness of the "good old days."
The lack of creativity in Hollywood has been spoken of in various venues over recent years. While it may not be waning creativity on the part of the filmmakers and artists, it does not take long to realize that remakes, sequels, and re-imagined stories of old seem to fill the "Coming Soon" lists from Hollywood. If not a lack of creativity, it certainly is a somewhat safe financial plan for the production companies.
The children of the 80s and 90s reminisce of days gone by as they find themselves forced into "adulting" (apparently, that's a word now.) For the Gen Xers, this explains the "GI Joe," "Transformers," "Dukes of Hazzard," "21 Jump Street" and "Chips" movies. For Millennials, perhaps this is why live action versions of Disney cartoons are such a big hit. In some cases, as with "Alice in Wonderland" and "Cinderella," the original animated films were made decades prior to the birth of the Millennial generation. Yet, it was when these young adults were children that Disney began to "unlock the vault" on occasion and release these classics on VHS. How many young twenty- and thirty-somethings grew up with those bulky plastic cases strewn around the room as they watched their favorite films over and over and over? As a parent, I remember these films being worn out and while "Robin Hood" was incredible, a man can only take so much "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo."
A Tale As Old As Time
The internet and media outlets blew up last year when it was announced that a live-action version of the newer classic Disney film "Beauty and the Beast" would be developed. Early clips shared online revealed that Emma Watson was to play Belle and the film was to be, in some cases, a scene-for-scene live version of the animated classic. Watson was cheered as the new Belle. The rose in the early trailer was celebrated online as just a glimpse of the new film began to elicit positive buzz.
Even when Angela Lansbury, one of the stars of the original, shared her confusion as to why the film was being made and clearly wasn't a fan of the endeavor, it was clear to those watching the industry, the film would be a huge hit and make millions. Disney is banking on that. In fact, that's the answer to Ms. Lansbury's question.
Photo credit: Castles, Capes & Clones via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND
Belle is more liberated, it seems. She's an inventor now, as is her father. This was revealed a few weeks back. Most read that and thought "No big deal."
Yet, last week another revelation was shared by Disney regarding their new film.
Disney's First "Exclusively Gay Moment" in a Children's Movie
Since this is an updated re-telling of the "tale as old as time" or at least as old as the early 1990s, the writers and directors have taken the opportunity to insert a sub-story into the plot revealing that one of the characters is actually gay. This story truly blew up the internet last week and continues to be shared online and through entertainment "news" television shows and media outlets.
To the Christian with an eye on culture, this should be no surprise.
When the online push to make Elsa a lesbian in the Frozen sequel began, it became inevitable that Disney would step even more intentionally than in the past into the LGBT revolution. Some have declared this to be the first gay character in a Disney production. That actually is not true. The Disney Channel show "Good Luck Charlie" depicted a lesbian couple as parents of a friend of the main character. The Disney produced television show "Once Upon a Time" on the Disney-owned network, ABC, presented familiar characters from film as outed lesbians in April 2016. Yet, the difference here is the fact that the upcoming film is marketed to families.
The Gay Sidekick
The protagonist in "Beauty and the Beast" is Gaston. His sidekick is LeFou. In a recent Washington Post article by Elahe Izadi, the following is stated:
In recent years, Disney has increased the racial and ethnic diversity in its stories, and has made strides to reimagine female characters as fully formed protagonists rather than simply damsels in distress.
But there have been callsamong some for children’s entertainment to portray same-sex relationships as well. Last year, a Twitter campaign asked Disney to make Elsa from “Frozen” a lesbian character in the movie’s sequel, inspiring the hashtag #GiveElsaAGirlfriend.
A few Disney movies have left viewers wondering about the orientation of characters, with allusions to same-sex relationships. “Zootopia” featured Bucky and Pronk, two male antelopes who live together, bicker like a couple and share a common last name. An episode of the Disney Channel show “Good Luck Charlie” included a character who had two moms.
But the live-action “Beauty and the Beast” will bring an overt depiction of a gay man to the big screen.
This has been called a watershed moment for Disney.
The culture celebrates the seemingly progressive step in this upcoming film. However, not all parents are excited. Many who planned to relive their childhood with their own kids while watching the film together in the theater are now questioning if they should. For some, it is the frustration that they may be forced to address an issue of sexuality with their children in a way they did not plan or desire to do.
Nevertheless, some will celebrate the opportunity to share the normalizing of such things. This is the cultural revolution in full swing.
To be clear, while turning a beloved animated film into a live-action movie is intriguing, I am not a fan of the subtext in this one. There are no accidental messages in such multi-million dollar presentations. There never have been.
Movies and Messages
Movies are made to make money, but in the process are not made in a vacuum. Movies (even the ones in the $2 bin of DVDs at the store) present a worldview. It's inevitable. It cannot be avoided. Christians have struggled with this reality for decades. And, surprisingly, not all Christians agree about movies. For generations, Christians were declared bad and sinful in the church-subculture if they ever went to a movie. Now, churches produce films intended to be shown in the multiplex.
So-called "faith based" films pop up. Some are good. Most are bad. Many create online debates. Ever heard of "The Shack"? Wow! That hot-mess of messed up trinitarian presentation is causing more confusion and frustrated Christians than even the bogus heaven-tourism flick "Heaven is for Real."
Yet, this new Disney film isn't marketed as "faith-based." I am not sure there's such a thing as a Christian Disney film. Since movies don't go to heaven, there may not be such a thing as a Christian film at all, but I digress.
Dr. Albert Mohler recently shared thoughts on this film on The Briefing and as followers of Christ in the midst of a worldview shift, his words are wise and should be considered.
But we also have to note that when we laugh at something and when we find something interesting and, not to mention, entertaining, effectively our thinking will become aligned with our hearts. That’s exactly why Hollywood is ground zero for so much of the change driving the moral revolution around us. But there is something even more ominous in all of this, and that’s this. We’re not here talking primarily about the effect upon adults, adults’ eyes and ears and minds and hearts, we’re talking about entertainment with an agenda, an agenda to reach eyes and ears and hearts and minds directed at children, and very effectively so.
I guess most of us suspected that it was only a matter of time before some film directors said something like,
“It is a nice, exclusively gay moment in a Disney movie.”
But now we know that that time is now. It may not be surprising, but it truly is shocking.
While some call for boycotts, I am not. However, I do think families should consider how what is sold as entertainment actually impacts belief systems. Parents should consider this.
It's Not "Just a Movie"
It's really not about "Beauty and the Beast" or the LGBT revolution. That's just the clear issue on the front-page today (it will be old news in about a week). It is about living with a biblical worldview as ambassadors for Christ in a world that rejected him.
Declaring loudly all that we are against will likely not lead to engaging conversations about the Gospel. However, ignoring the blatant worldview shifts seems to lead many to live isolated from the mission.
Oh, and please don't fall into the "It's just a movie" or "It's fiction, enjoy it" groups. Nothing is ever just anything. The story is much larger and the mission becomes even more clear.
The Real "Tale As Old As Time"
The "Tale As Old As Time" is truly about a battle and a rescue. It did not start in a castle with a beast and some talking dishes. It began in a garden. Actually, it began prior to that. This tale includes beauty, deception, rebellion, shame, death, rescue, and life.
Christians must be wise and understand the times. As for the characters in the latest Disney film, they are not real, but they represent the depravity of humanity clearly. Perhaps this is why people are so drawn to the stories.
For the past few years, church leaders and evangelicals have been lamenting the loss of younger people in the church. While some new church starts and mega-box churches have seen growth in seeming success in reaching the younger generation, the statistics show a loss overall. Much has been written about this and most hearkens back to Pew Research Center's 2015 report. While that report is two years old, it is likely no significant changes have occurred.
Generational labels differ based on what study is cited or book read, but by and large, the Millennials (born between 1981 and 2000) and Generation Z/Boomlets (born after 2000 ) are trending away from the church. There's not as much data regarding Generation Z, but the older portion of the generation are in high school and graduating this year.
In 2006 there were a record number of births in the US and 49% of those born were Hispanic, this will change the American melting pot in terms of behavior and culture. The number of births in 2006 far outnumbered the start of the baby boom generation, and they will easily be a larger generation.
Since the early 1700s the most common last name in the US was "Smith" but not anymore, now it is "Rodriguez."
There are two age groups right now:
Age 8-12 years old.
There will be an estimated 29 million tweens by 2009.
$51 billion is spent by tweens every year with an additional $170 billion spent by their parents and family members directly for them.
Toddler/Elementary school age.
61 percent of children 8-17 have televisions in their rooms.
35 percent have video games.
14 percent have a DVD player.
4 million will have their own cell phones. They have never known a world without computers and cell phones.
Have Eco-fatigue: they are actually tired of hearing about the environment and the many ways we have to save it.
With the advent of computers and web-based learning, children leave behind toys at younger and younger age. It’s called KGOY-kids growing older younger, and many companies have suffered because of it. Most recognizable is Mattel, the maker of Barbie dolls. In the 1990s the average age of a child in their target market was 10-years-old, and in 2000 it dropped to three-years-old. As children reach the age of four and five, old enough to play on the computer, they become less interested in toys and begin to desire electronics such as cell phones and video games.
They are savvy consumers and they know what they want and how to get it and they are over saturated with brands.
Religious “nones” – a shorthand we use to refer to people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is “nothing in particular” – now make up roughly 23% of the U.S. adult population. This is a stark increase from 2007, the last time a similar Pew Research study was conducted, when 16% of Americans were “nones.” (During this same time period, Christians have fallen from 78% to 71%.)
Overall, religiously unaffiliated people are more concentrated among young adults than other age groups – 35% of Millennials (those born 1981-1996) are “nones.” In addition, the unaffiliated as a whole are getting even younger. The median age of unaffiliated adults is now 36, down from 38 in 2007 and significantly younger than the overall median age of U.S. adults in 2014.
Indeed, our Religious Landscape Study finds a clear generational pattern: Young people who are not particularly religious seem to be much more comfortable identifying as “nones” than are older people who display a similar level of religious observance. Nearly eight-in-ten Millennials with low levels of religious commitment describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.” By contrast, just 54% of Americans in the Silent and Greatest generations who have low levels of religious commitment say they are unaffiliated; 45% claim a religion. A similarly striking gap between Millennials and others is also seen among those with a “medium” level of religious commitment.
What Can the Church Do?
Normally, at least it has been my experience, when data like this surfaces, churches and denominations react, rather than respond. In many cases, the exodus of young people comes as a surprise, all too late. Parents who had faithfully attended church, signed their children up for every program and event from AWANA to DiscipleNow, youth camp, mission trips, etc. wonder where they went wrong when the now adult child seemingly walks away from church with no intent of coming back.
In the past, churches would say (well, not out loud, but it was a predominant thought) "Just wait until they get married and have kids. Then, they'll come back to church." Maybe that was true a generation ago, but it doesn't seem to be now. The fact is that young parents who just attended church and were entertained as teenagers seem to find more community in social networking sites, school activities, athletic endeavors for kids, and other areas and church is not avoided...it just never come across their minds.
Yet, all hope is not lost.
Reaction is not the answer, but godly response is.
What we are facing is not new. Have you ever read the Old Testament? When you read Moses' commands to the next generation in Deuteronomy 6 regarding the passing on of truth to the next generations, there is a since of fear in his words. The fear is that unless the family teaches of God, models worship in the home, and remembers the covenant past with God, the kids and grandkids will not only forget, but walk away. The journey away from God is not without consequence.
What faithful parent or grandparent of a prodigal hasn't shared similar lamentation in prayer?
Since trends tend to raise awareness, let's look at observable trends of those who have not abandoned the faith.
Jon Nielson, Pastor of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, recently shared an article highlighting some of the trends he has personally observed of faithful Millennials and young adults (full article here).
They are converted. Sometimes, we deem attendance as a faith indicator. Yet, just being in the youth room or the church building does not a convert make. Teenagers from "good families" who get good grades, play football, cheer, get accepted to multiple schools, etc. are considered by many in the church to be "good kids" and while they may comparatively be, the problem is when salvation is presumed. Christians truly don't abandon Christ. Church attenders and members do.
They have been equipped, not entertained. Oh boy, this is big. "Come to our youth group. It's really fun!" isn't a bad thing, but when everything in the ministry is focused on the student or young person, rather than on the God we worship we perpetuate a "better than the church down the street" model that defaults to the latest events, concerts, praise band, dodgeball tournament, ski trip, and other such events (which are not bad...they're just no the ultimate point.) I'm all for fun and I like being entertained, but if we're simply creating consumers of Chrstianese rather than making disciples, no wonder the younger generation walks away. "Big church" will never be that fun. Seriously - the deacon retreat is not quite the level of youth camp.
Their parents preached the gospel to them. Better yet, their parents worshipped with them and not just at church. The gospel was lived out, modeled, and shared. Normative home life was Christ-centric. Parents who are discipled well disciple well. When the parents are not believers, the church fills the gap. The problem occurs when Christian parents outsource discipling their children to the "professional Christians" at the church. Let's just say that after decades of promoting this model, the proof is in the pudding. It does not work.
Walker Moore of Awe Star Ministries developed a model of student ministry years ago where students led. The gifting of "significant tasks" to students for the health of the ministry allows God to work in and through young people at levels where the "come into the youth room and wait for the adults to feed you" model never will.
So, what can we do? We can remember. God has not abandoned young adults and teenagers. And, God is not through with the older generations, either. It's not like all the Boomers and Gen Xers are believers, right?
I'm not pessimistic when I read the statistics. I'm actually happy that the scales are now falling off our eyes. Sure, many are walking away, but it's not too late. We (the church) are now being forced back to Scripture and the model is clear. Disciple-making is our commission. It begins in the home, not the church building. Family equipping discipleship is more than a model. It's a biblical command (Deut 6).
I believe God is recalibrating our focus. While we may be as fearful as Moses, the hope we have in Christ remains. So, don't lose heart.
We are seeing over 900 churches close down annually in the SBC. The numbers are daunting and cannot be ignored. Yet, the question remains "What should be done?" The truth is that some churches need to close. They forsook their gospel witness years ago and are nothing more than buildings in communities. However, there are many who are positioned for rebirth and with partnerships with healthier churches, a rebirth can occur, thereby keeping a gospel witness alive and well in communities where it is needed. In this podcast I share our journey of revitalization with Oak Harbor Baptist Church, a church that apart from partnership and help would be closing it's doors within the year. We're in the midst of revitalization and it is not easy, but needed. Perhaps this could help you lead well into such a story.
In Christine Emba's report, she shares results from social scientists on the reality of such chambers.
The study focused on how Facebook users interacted with two narratives involving conspiracy theories and science. Users belonging to different communities tended not to interact and tended to be connected only with “like-minded” friends, creating closed, non-interacting communities centered around different narratives — what the researchers called “echo chambers.” Confirmation bias accounted for users’ decisions to share certain content, creating informational cascades within their communities.
Recently, one of my online friends who holds vastly different views politically, socially, and theologically, shared a story online that was opposite my view on many levels. We discussed the views cordially and I shared the reality that the views espoused were simply echoes of others. The concept of living in an echo chamber is a reality, and I am not immune either.
The Echo Chamber of Politics
Social scientists and political scientists have studied the surprising (to some) results of last year's US Presidential election. As results came in where states were colored either blue (Democrat) or red (Republican) to indicate Electoral College votes, our news showed the county-by-county vote totals of our state, Florida.
I would not be surprised to see other state breakdowns to show similar results. Here are Florida's results (screenshot from The Guardian)
Screenshot from The Guardian
For the most part, the blue counties are where large universities are located (FSU, UF, UCF, USF, UM, FIU, FAU, etc.) They are also the locations, other than Alachua County, of urban areas in our state.
This is no surprise in that many students in university settings are challenged intellectually regarding their belief systems and sense of fairness. It seems that over the decades, many of our universities have embraced a humanist worldview that leans left ideologically, politically, and theologically. This is not news.
However, I am not saying that individuals abandon their convictions and beliefs just because they enroll in college. In fact, no university populace is homogenous (well, except for Saturdays in the fall during football season) in their beliefs or support of ideologies. Yet, it is true that many students find themselves exposed to a worldview that sees things vastly different than the one experienced growing up under parental authority once at college.
It is at this level, the echo chamber develops.
And it is not just in the liberal, humanistic worldview world.
Just in case it's misunderstood, I'm not saying that the red candidate's voters were not in echo chambers. They were, too.
I am just pointing out how so many who leaned left were surprised at the election results primarily because they were trapped in an echo chamber. The same has been proven true for other sides over the years.
No one is immune.
The Christian Echo Chamber
As Christians, we must guard against the echo chamber as well.
But as we’re thinking about the entire question of this media ecology, there are two other issues that thinking Christians should keep in mind. This has to do with the echo chamber and what is known as confirmation bias. One of the great risks to all of us, whether of the left or the right, Christian or non-Christian, is that we will situate ourselves within a cocoon in which we hear no dissenting voices and no contrary arguments. This is probably, to be honest, more a problem for liberals than conservatives in terms of the print media because of the dominance of the liberals in major newspapers and editorial boards. But on television Fox News largely leveled the field, and now there is the risk that anyone of the left or the right or any other perspective can spend 24 hours a day listening to nothing but the echo of one’s own political positions and the bias of hearing confirmation of what one already believes.
This is where Christians need to understand the discipline of forcing ourselves to hear contrary arguments in order to understand evangelistically and apologetically the worldview of those who may not agree with us on so many issues. The political and moral—the worldview divide in America is now so deep that we can cocoon ourselves and hear almost no one who disagrees with us.
Some fear that even listening to dissenting political or ideological opinions flies too close to "the appearance of evil" but I hearken back to Paul's encounter at Mars Hill. To lovingly engage those far from God with the Gospel leads us out of the echo chamber (which for Christians can be filled with empty "Amens" on social issues apart from biblical foundation.)
If you check my Twitter account, you'll see that I follow many people. Many of those I follow view the world through a lens (a worldview) vastly different than the biblical one I do. They hold to beliefs of Scripture that I do not. They argue in favor of things that I believe are evil and wrong or at best, short-sighted. Yet, I "follow" them. To be clear, just because I follow you online, does not mean I agree with you.
Yet, to be clear, as a Christian I must spend the bulk of my time in God's Word when it comes to having a biblical worldview. Apart from the Gospel, I have no valid discourse with those who are pre-Christian.
Local news for the past few days in Jacksonville, Florida has featured stories centered upon the Jacksonville City Council and the Human Rights Ordinance proposal before the city. This is not the first time the ordinance has been presented and while past pushes for its passage have failed, as an observer, it seems more likely to pass now.
What is the Human Rights Ordinance?
Local news reporter Stephanie Brown of WOKV radio summarizes it this way:
A new bill that would expand anti-discrimination protections to the LGBT community for housing, employment, and public accommodations. (full story)
A full copy of the HRO (I believe it's the latest version) may be read here.
Ultimately the ordinance adds the wording "sexual orientation, gender identity or expression" throughout the proposal in addition to current wording designed to affirm and provide equality for all citizens within the city. This latest version offers exemptions for religious organizations and companies. This is why proponents believe it will pass now.
Photo credit: D. A. Lewis via Visual Hunt / CC BY
I am not for the ordinance. I have theological and philosophical reasons to not affirm this. However, I do not live in Duval County (Jacksonville) but what happens in Jacksonville impacts all surrounding counties and suburbs as well. I live in a neighboring community, but one of the campuses of our church actually is in Duval County. While my stance opposing the ordinance is not popular, I hold to it and...I'm not mad.
I'm Not Mad
Now, it's not a sin to be angry. Righteous anger was demonstrated by Christ. Remember when he turned over chairs and made a whip? That's a crazy story, right? Yet, in his anger he did not sin. The problem with many of us is that our "righteous anger" is far from righteous. I'm not saying people have no right to be angry. I am saying that often Christians claim righteous anger and they have no love. Apart from love, anger is not righteous. Otherwise, we become clanging cymbals that may spout truth, but will never be heard.
Based on what I have seen in local politics and online, there are many clanging cymbals out there.
Oh, one other thing about this - just because I am not mad does not mean I am happy or in agreement.
Hundreds Lined Up to Speak
The local news reported that hundreds flooded the City Council chambers. The citizens attending were told that everyone who desired to speak for or against the HRO would have their chance. That led to overflow rooms and people lining up and the meetings extending to the next day. The discussions were heated and divisive.
On the surface, the story seems to simply be about groups pushing against or affirming LGBT citizens and the lifestyle of those identifying as such.
It is, but it is also much deeper.
It Is About Worldview
This is about worldview.
I was prompted to write this post based on a short clip that was featured on First Coast News Facebook page. The local news station has a talk show that airs during the day called "The Chat." I have never watched a full episode, primarily because I am not home when it airs, and to put it simply, I am not their target demographic. The clips I have seen scrolling on my Facebook timeline have been interesting and humorous at times. I have friends who have appeared on the show as guests. So, let me be clear, I'm not bashing the show and I am not angry at what was said. It is a talk show, modeled after some nationally syndicated ones that are similar. The ladies at the table are paid to converse about current affairs and things that the viewing audience finds interesting. They do this well. Yet as this clip played (and yes, since it was short I watched it) it was clear the side of the aisle that the hosts were sitting regarding the HRO, but more importantly, I heard clear worldview statements.
While I disagree with the hosts' points, I believe their comments shed insight.
Ms. Alers-Alers states "Leave religion out" when discussing the HRO. I get this. I have heard it before and many people I talk with would agree with her. She is likely referring to, as she alluded, the many who spoke in opposition to the ordinance. I have watched a few clips of the feed and there are many who did quote Scripture (which they definitely have the right to do, and I would affirm and agree.) I can also see why Ms. Alers-Alers would say "leave religion out."
The fact of the matter is that people who are religious (in this story that refers to those claiming to be Christian) in our communities would state - it is really impossible to leave religion out. That's a worldview perspective. Some would say "Oh I can separate my faith from every day life." Perhaps, but as I have experienced, my faith is more than just something I've added into my life. When I became a Christian, Christ became my life, so in truth, I cannot separate it or "leave it out." Now, I don't have to be a jerk about it, but that's another point.
When religion is viewed similarly to club membership, it would not be hard. I agree that many see church membership and religion as a spiritual version of the Kiwanis, Lions Club, lodge or Rotary. Not bashing those groups, just saying - church shouldn't be considered similar. (Oh and if your church is just another club...consider joining another.)
Ms. Chrissovergis began with a comment about her gay friends who are good citizens. I won't argue with that. I'm sure they are. My friends and family members who are LGBT are good citizens, too. They are my friends and family members, and I love them (and believe it's reciprocal) but we disagree on some obvious things. Not just on political and cultural issues, but biblical ones as well. Why? Because we have different worldviews.
Ms. Chrissovergis continues to "preach" as she stated. She leaves with "I'm not here to judge and we're to love our neighbor." I would warn that it is easy to judge, even if you claim you're not. In this case, there may be some judgment of those in the City Council room who opposed the HRO. Just saying. It's a slippery slope. Yet, I believe Ms. Chrissovergis was seeking to emphasize the "love your neighbor" theme.
Well, AMEN to the "Love our neighbor" statement. I affirm that. Not because I choose to interpret Scripture that way, but because a biblical worldview centers on taking Scripture as inerrant and absolutely true and Jesus affirmed the Greatest Commandment when he declared in Mark 12...
And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” - Mark 12:30-31 ESV
The command begins with loving God. I'm not hearing the ladies on "The Chat" disagree with that. I'm just clarifying. Loving God fully is the starting point. Apart from that, there is no capacity to truly love neighbor. And, here's a truth often ignored -
You can love someone truly, but not affirm everything about them or their choices.
Most parents get this.
The divide in our community and culture remains. It will likely grow wider.
While I am opposed to the HRO and believe God's design for man and woman does not affirm an LGBT lifestyle, it does not mean I am a hater, though some would disagree. Yet this is my worldview.
Christ's love is unconditional. True.
His acceptance is conditional, as is forgiveness. That's biblical as well.
Each Christian holds a worldview and as the culture shifts, to hold tightly to a conservative, inerrant, biblical one will be a challenge.
I have been teaching on Wednesday evenings this month on biblical forgiveness. You'd think this would be a basic study, but I'm discovering how many Christians and those, like me, who have been raised in churched families have missed some fundamental truths regarding forgiveness. The fact is that all of us come to this concept of forgiveness with preconceived ideas of what is right and fair. When someone questions that which we have held to be true for decades, there may be pushback.
And there has been.
This is not uncommon, but has opened up opportunities for discussion.
I threw out a teaser prior to beginning the study that caused some questions and ultimately led people to want to attend.
I made a statement related to the living church members of the Charleston, South Carolina church who stated that they forgave the murderer, Dylann Roof for killing their family and fellow church members. I stated that while the offer of forgiveness was right and honorable, to unconditionally forgive Roof is actually unbiblical.
That statement caused some to question.
Perhaps they thought I was calling into question the motives of those who offered forgiveness. I was not. In fact, change the story to any other incident where an unrepentant individual was offered blanket forgiveness by the offended or others. I would say the same - that form of forgiveness is not biblical.
As I have studied the Scripture and read works by authors such as Chris Brauns and sermons by men like Milton Vincent, I am convinced that while we are commanded as Christians to forgive others as Christ has forgiven us, to equate that forgiveness to be unconditional actually waters down the gospel and opens the door for universalism.
Does God forgive everyone?
Simple question, but according to Scripture the answer is NO. God does not forgive everyone. Some live their entire lives never surrendering to Christ and seeking forgiveness of sins. God is prepared to forgive. It is an offer, but it is an "if...then" offer.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9 (ESV)
If we confess, or repent of our sins, he forgives. The central character of any forgiveness story is not self, but God. He created forgiveness.
Love is offered unconditionally. Forgiveness is conditional.
Otherwise, everyone's sins are forgiven and ultimately...everyone gets to heaven. That's not Christianity. That's universalism. It feels good, but it eliminates the consequences of sin and the value of God's holiness and love.
Why is this such a hard concept for even Christians to grasp? It is due to a centeredness on self and a idea of "fairness" that does not find biblical anchors. Even I have told people in the past that their forgiveness of others was really more about self-healing than releasing others of guilt. Sounds good, but that statement leans more toward therapeutic help than biblical truth. For that I repent.
I have posted the first two sessions on forgiveness on our website here and will post the third later this week. As stated earlier, no original material from me. Mostly gleaned from Brauns and Vincent.
So, from Chris Brauns' book Unpacking Forgiveness (highly recommended) here is the "TRUE OR FALSE" test I offered to our group two weeks ago. See how you do.
TRUE OR FALSE – Where deep wounds between people are concerned, forgiveness can be unpacked in a moment.
TRUE OR FALSE – Personal happiness and joy can legitimately motivate people to live out what the Bible teaches about forgiveness.
TRUE OR FALSE – Most Christian pastors and counselors agree about what forgiveness is and how it should take place.
TRUE OR FALSE – Forgiveness occurs properly only when certain conditions are met.
TRUE OR FALSE – Jesus said little about how people should resolve interpersonal conflict.
TRUE OR FALSE – A willingness to forgive is a test of whether or not a person will go to heaven when he or she dies.
TRUE OR FALSE – Good people get to the bottom of all their disagreements.
TRUE OR FALSE – There are times when it is wrong to forgive.
Here's more from Brauns on each point...
DEALING WITH THESE BIBLICALLY
Where deep wounds are concerned, forgiveness can be unpacked in a moment. FALSE
Unpacking forgiveness is like relocating a family. While you may move on a particular day, unpacking takes a lot longer.
Personal happiness and joy can legitimately motivate people to live out what the Bible teaches about forgiveness. TRUE
There are some excited about learning more of biblical forgiveness, but others who dread this. There is fear that you will find out what you ought to do and it won’t match what you want to do.
Most Christian pastors and counselors agree about what forgiveness is and how it should take place. FALSE
There are profound disagreements about forgiveness among pastors and counselors. Forgiveness is biblical. It is right. No question there. Remember that the choices you and I make regarding forgives shapes much of our lives. That’s why we must consciously work out what you believe about forgiveness and then intentionally put those beliefs into action. It is a process.
How can you know what is right when there are so many opinions being voiced? Examine the Scripture.
Now these Jews (Bereans) were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. - Acts 17:11 (ESV)
More noble because they examined the Scriptures for truth.
Forgiveness occurs properly only when certain conditions are met. TRUE
Most people answer “false” to this.
Does God forgive all? No. That’s an unconditional statement. Unconditional love is offered, but not unconditional forgiveness.
We have mixed our definitions and created a false theology with this.
The Bible is full of true stories of people who were not forgiven by God.
Goliath – not forgiven.
And as soon as David returned from the striking down of the Philistine, Abner took him, and brought him before Saul with the head of the Philistine in his hand. 1 Samuel 17:57 (ESV)
Revelation speaks of what happens to the unforgiven.
God's forgiveness is conditional. Therefore, our forgiveness is conditional as well.
Jesus said little about how people should resolve interpersonal conflict. FALSE
Matthew 18 – about discipline and conflict resolution.
A willingness to forgive is the test of whether or not a person will go to heaven when he or she dies. TRUE
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, 15 but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. - Matthew 6:14-15 (ESV)
Good people get to the bottom of all their disagreements. FALSE
There are times when good people just can’t resolve differences. What do you do?
There are times when it is wrong to forgive. TRUE
Some say that is a wrong statement. We’ll see why it is not.
Dennis Prager, “The Sin of Forgiveness” – WSJ 1997
The bodies of the three teenage girls murdered by a fellow student at Heath High School in West Paducah, Ky., were not yet cold before the students of the Christian prayer group that was shot at announced, "We forgive you, Mike," referring to Michael Carneal, 14, the murderer.
This immediate and automatic forgiveness of a murderer is not surprising. Over the past generation, the idea that a central message of Christianity is to forgive everyone who commits evil against anyone, no matter how great and cruel and whether or not the evildoer repents, has been adopted by much of Christendom.
The number of examples is almost as large as the number of heinous crimes. But one other recent example stands out. In August, the pastor at a Martha's Vineyard church service attended by the vacationing President Clinton announced that it was the duty of all Christians to forgive Timothy McVeigh, the murderer of 168 Americans. "I invite you to look at a picture of Timothy McVeigh and then forgive him," the Rev. John Miller said in his sermon. "I have, and I ask you to do so."
The pastor acknowledged: "Considering what he did, that may be a formidable task. But it is the one that we as Christians are asked to do."
Though I am a Jew, I believe that a vibrant Christianity is essential if America's moral decline is to be reversed, and that despite theological differences, there is indeed a Judeo-Christian value system that has served as the bedrock of American civilization. For these reasons I am appalled and frightened by this feel-good doctrine of automatic forgiveness.
CHRISTIANS MUST ALWAYS HAVE A WILLINGNESS TO FORGIVE OR AN ATTITUDE OF FORGIVENESS, BUT THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT FORGIVENESS ALWAYS TAKES PLACE.
Internet and Email scammers have been around for years now and unfortunately, many have lost money and some have been "catfished" through the process. It makes for interesting stories on news programs and talk shows.
Photo credit: BioDivLibrary via Visual hunt / CC BY
Last week, I received an email (actually the second time I have received such an email) that on the surface looks somewhat legit, but ultimately is a scam designed to play on the egos of pastors (yeah - I said it) and the opportunity to preach the Gospel in an international venue.
This email seemingly originated from the United Kingdom. Take a look below:
When I first read the email, I was suspicious. Primarily because I received a similar one a couple of years ago, but the names of the church and pastor were changed. However, I do have friends who serve as pastors and missionaries in the UK, so there was this slight chance that this was authentic. I even shared the info with one of my friends, but approximately five minutes after asking him if he knew the church, I discovered what I just knew to be true - THIS IS A SCAM!
Pastoral Catfish Scheme
Things that made me question the authenticity of the request:
I have never met Pastor Sherard Wood and know no one who knows this man.
Passion Conference is a strange name for a local church's event in that Louie Giglio founded and hosts the Passion Conferences annually. Sometimes these are international events and most local churches would see the problem in naming their event the same thing.
The website included in the email for Victory Church is authentic and actually goes to the church in Wales. However, there is no one listed on the Leadership Team named Sherard Wood.
Most churches now have email domains that match the church website, so the Gmail account was strange. It's not unheard of for a church to use Gmail. It is not even a bad thing, but it did look suspicious.
Under "Events" on the church tab, there is no indication that a "Passion Conference" is scheduled this spring.
Since I have many friends in Wales, where this church is located, it does seem strange to call the church Victory Church UK in the email. Most of my Welsh friends actually indicate "Wales" as their home and location. Just as my friends in England tend to say "England."
I did a quick Google search of the story and found that many have been scammed. It seems that when pastors respond, another email is sent with PDF documents attached which must be completed to allow the church to pay honorariums. The documents are actually authentic, but the rest of the story reveals how the scammers work.
This is the same strategy that King from Nigeria uses to get you to send money as well as all the other "Send money" emails people get from other sources. It seems there is a fee due to process the forms and yes, that needs to be paid, so just wire the money to the church's bank account and all is good.
That's the deal.
There's no conference in the UK paying thousands of dollars to American pastors who are mostly not known outside their region. It's flattering and it's a lie.
Be careful. Be smart.
Here are a couple of sites where others have broken down the scam just in case you may think your email is legit:
I was asked that question a while back and one answer given was "They're all church planters now."
I'm being facetious, but in this podcast I address the historical growth of student/youth ministry and the current trend and movement of church planting in light of pastoral leadership and biblical authority. I reference a few things in this podcast you may want to check out. First, the book Reinventing Youth Ministry (Again) by Wayne Rice
What is the difference between a campus plant and a church plant?
What is best? To plant a campus or new church?
We've been talking about both for years and yet, it is clear that the differences are not fully understood by all.
Dr. Jimmy Scroggins of Family Church in West Palm Beach recently hosted a discussion about this very thing at the Florida Baptist State Convention last fall. His honesty was refreshing as it became clear that the movement of Kingdom expansion that Family Church has embarked upon is the exact same strategy God has led our church here in Orange Park.
We are all in when it comes to church planting. While we would love to have planters in every focused area, God has clearly revealed our strategic partnerships over the years and we continue to serve as the sending church for Neil and Kaytee in Toronto and Mike and Carrie in Washington, DC. Additionally, we have been able to support others throughout the nation in cities such as Portland, Colorado Springs, Greensboro, and Tucson. Currently, we are seeking to partner with Cam Triggs in Orlando with a new plant launching this year.
We also have served as catalysts for local planters as we have served with Dr. Rick Wheeler and Dr. Josh Dryer and the Jacksonville Baptist Association in church planting assessment.
Church planting involves placing a pastor in an specified area, most often an urban area. The demographics reveal the unchurched reality of the community and the goal is to birth a new church where there is none.
The planter and wife embed themselves in the community for the sake of Kingdom growth. The strategies for engaging a community are as varied as the communities. Planters set off understanding the marathon that planting is, most often renting facilities and seeking to till up hard spiritual ground.
Our North American Mission Board has strategically focused on church planting over the past few years and we have seen many step into this story.
There is a difference between planting an autonomous church and a campus of an already established (i.e. legacy) church. The most recognizable difference is that the campus is not an autonomous church. This allows for some unique opportunities.
Dr. Scroggins shared the following realities of campus plants and what they offer. I offer my commentaries on his statements within the points as well:
ADDITIONAL SERVICES. Campus plants are viewed as additional services, just meeting at a different venue than the church's traditional campus.
MULTI-SITE IS LONG-TERM CHURCH PLANTING. In some cases, the campuses may grow into autonomous churches, but this is not true for all, and not expected.
TAKES ADVANTAGE OF SYNERGY AND ECONOMIES OF SCALE. In other words, a campus may be launched in a relatively short amount of time where a church plant may require a year or more of preparation.
ACCELERATES RATE OF CHANGE. No church wants to wake up one day to realize that they are too far gone to revitalize. There are fifty Baptist churches in our city (Jacksonville, FL) that will either close or sell off property within the next two years unless change among the internal church culture occurs. This is based on visible and recognizable statistics and realities.
CAMPUS PASTORS ARE EXTENSIONS OF THE LEAD PASTOR. Therefore, there is no separate vision, doctrine, or leadership style. This allows for unity and consistency regarding programming, strategy, and vision. In many cases, campus pastors are men who were sent out from the church to serve and already have the DNA of the local church. This allows for quicker growth and launching.
VIDEO OR LIVE? Though I prefer live, there are enough offering video venues that are working to discount this reality.
THIS IS DIFFICULT! It is much easier to stay at one campus. Yet, if God opens the door for multi-site, it reminds us that he has not called us to easy service.
THIS REQUIRES THE BEST! This means that campuses cannot be launched with those who are not already serving well. J.D. Greear has mentioned on many occasions about the uncomfortable stress that occurs when the "best" leave what has been deemed in the past as the "main campus" to serve at a multi-site venue. When faithfully and prayerfully done, God always "back-fills" the positions of service at the launching campus.
THERE IS NO MAIN CAMPUS. This has been a challenging reality for me, but needed. We do not have a "main campus" in that regardless where a person attends church services, that campus, be it a school cafeteria or tent by a ball field, is their "main campus." To call the traditional site the "main campus" presents a Varsity and Junior Varsity idea.
ONE CHURCH OFFERS MUCH. To remain one church with multiple sites offers one name (in our case firstFAMILY,) one budget, one leadership structure, one constitution and bylaws. These allow for quicker movement, safer structures, and long-term stability.
The Best Strategy
The question at the beginning was whether campus or church plants should be the strategy. The answer is BOTH. We believe that church planting is vital and that is why we continue to send and support many who have answered the call to do so. Yet, we also believe there are areas and situations where a campus plant (in our case, The Creek and IslandChurch) are the best options for community engagement. Therefore, we offer these as well.
There's the third option which would come under the "revitalization" heading, I guess. That is what we are doing at Oak Harbor Church now, but as we have agreed with the leadership there, we are treating Oak Harbor as a campus site with a pastor on site.
The end game is simple - love God by loving people well and making disciples. We know it is not easy, but these strategies allow us to move forward rather than stand still (which feels like moving backward.) It's risky. We cannot afford it. Yet, God has clearly called us to this story and we press on, trusting Him.
When it comes to the calling to ministry, the church seems to struggle, though not overtly with the concept.
Whether it be in service to God through the local church as a deacon, elder, minister or pastor or as a missionary on the field, the phrase "I've been called" has been stated and affirmed by hundreds of churches over the years.
But, how do you know?
Was it through a Macedonian vision like Paul received (Acts 15-18)? I'm not saying that it wasn't, but I will say unlikely simply due to the reality that even in Scripture that type of calling was rare.
To be called to ministry is an honorable and good thing. Of this there is no question.
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 1 Timothy 3:1 ESV
However, while all Christians are called to serve the Lord and the cause of the Gospel not everyone is called to that specific pastoral role or position within the church.
In many cases, a person will come to the pastor and state "I've been called by God to be a <fill in the blank>." The pastor is likely excited at this point, as he should be. Yet, to be honest, most churches in my experience, do not have a plan for discerning the calling.
Photo credit: amlusch via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA
Therefore, licenses and ordination certificates have been handed out like spiritual participation trophies, to the detriment of the church and the individuals.
This happens in Baptist churches when it's time to select deacons as well. With each church being autonomous, the processes for deacon selection vary, but in many cases, the candidate needs to be a man who fulfills the qualities expressed in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. At least these are the qualifications that should be followed. Unfortunately, in many churches, the passage in Timothy is considered, but then the candidates being nominated end up being the only men we can think of who attend regularly and, as is the case in many churches, haven't been divorced. And...the concept of calling is ignored, not to mention a firmer biblical understanding of qualifications and calling. Benjamin Merkle writes a concise post regarding such qualifications here.
Therefore, there are a number of men I can think of who need to turn in their ordination certificates since they have disqualified themselves, if in fact they ever were truly qualified...but, that's a posting for another time.
But I Love God and Feel Called...
Our church has been blessed to have a number of men surrender to God's call into pastoral ministry. Yet, there are some who have voiced their feelings for calling and for one reason or another have shown evidence that they were not. This is not to discount their calling as a Christian and disciple. That calling is for all who have surrendered to Christ as Lord.
Yet, not every Christian is called to be a minister/pastor/missionary or deacon.
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Ephesians 4:11-14 ESV)
Emotionally-based responses may be God-centered and Spirit-led, but they also may be responses to human manipulation (often not intended) and based on false expectations. I have met some well-intentioned men who are enamored with the concept of ministry, but were not called and ultimately suffered. I went to seminary with some.
I have also met some folks who seemingly regretted "missing God's call" earlier in life. I won't discredit that, but the calling of God is not like a pop fly to right field that can get lost in the lights. Yet, intentionally sinning by saying "NO" to God does happen. All too often.
Dennis Poulette, a friend, former missionary in Mexico, and fellow seminary classmate who works for Youth Ministry International, led a group of us through a discussion on this very topic. Insightful and challenging. Dr. Stuart Scott shared some information on this as well and the convicting reality is that we, the church, must do well to help those "called" to discern. The church plays a heavy role and in a culture where people change jobs like socks, the unfortunate reality is that the calling to ministry seems hot and fun right now and many may be licensed and ordained apart from God's calling. It is wrong for the calling to pastoral ministry to be viewed as just another temporary job.
Dr. Al Mohler refers to the affirmation as inward and outward calling. Mohler states...
Charles Spurgeon identified the first sign of God’s call to the ministry as “an intense, all-absorbing desire for the work.” Those called by God sense a growing compulsion to preach and teach the Word, and to minister to the people of God. (full article)
That is evidence of the inward calling.
Yet, the outward calling is essential as well.
Jim George of The Master's Seminary uses the acrostic C.A.L.L. to express the same thing. Since they teach acrostics in seminary, it's easy for me to remember.
You are called to ministry when you have...
C - Confirmation from your church's leadership. Pastoral leadership matters and his confirmation of your calling should be sought. Your confirmation of calling will be based on where you have been serving in the church already. There may be a season of serving required as discernment happens. No leader or minister can do so apart from willingness to serve.
A - Ability. Do you have serving gifts or speaking gifts? Just because you want to preach doesn't mean you can. It is true that being a talented speaker apart from the calling of God is possible. However, this is not speech class or debate club. And yes, I know "God wants your availability not your ability" but don't miss that God gives talents and abilities and equips the called.
L - Lifestyle of integrity. This is the 1 Timothy 3 emphasis. Think about how many "pastors" and ministers are featured on the local news due to immoral acts. It's appalling. I saw today where a pastor was arrested for participating in armed robberies of local convenience stores. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Seriously!
I was talking to a police officer while on a mission trip to another state years ago who told me he was at the funeral of a local pastor's wife and the pastor, right after the graveside service, walked up to one of the ladies in the crowd and said, "My bed is going to be cold tonight. Why don't you come over?" WHAT??? Yeah, this happens.
To be honest, most of the integrity failings aren't so obvious, but if a man has a history of immorality, debauchery, thievery, lying, etc., apart from repentance and clear life-transformation, it's easy to say "You're not called."
L - Longing. This is the desire to serve, share, and proclaim the Gospel. It's not "church work." It is something that cannot be ignored and when the Lord calls and transforms, He creates a longing for the Gospel and a love for God and others.
The first three - Confirmation, Ability, and Lifestyle are objective, biblical principles (external.)
The last one - Longing is subjective (internal.)
To be called is a noble honor and not one that is sought, but one received. The church would do well to helping discern with and for those "called to ministry."
Consider the Call
Mohler presents these questions in closing...
Consider your calling. Do you sense that God is calling you to ministry, whether as pastor or another servant of the Church? Do you burn with a compulsion to proclaim the Word, share the Gospel, and care for God’s flock? Has this call been confirmed and encouraged by those Christians who know you best?
Ministry is not easy. It is not always fun. Yet, when God calls and equips, the joy of serving in obedience and fulfillment that comes is wonderfully overwhelming.
It seems that everyone was posting that 2016 was the year to survive as we neared December 31. The seemingly high number of celebrity deaths played into this sentiment. Why is it so many Gen Xers and older adults were lamenting the loss of these pop culture icons? Grieving the loss of a person known is one thing. Grieving the loss of a celebrity of famous person is viable as well, but was the grief more for the loss of "characters" than the people? Perhaps it is the realization of the loss of one's childhood becoming clear that led to this?
This year has been...different, it seems. While there truly is nothing new under the sun (Ecc 1:9) this year has been chock-full of strange, somewhat surprising, and shocking news stories.
The advent and immediacy of social media pushes news (real news and fake news) to the forefront quickly. No longer do world events take place without the world knowing in real time, it seems.
There have likely been no more deaths this past year of celebrities and famous people than in the past, but with the aging Gen X population plus the advent of social media, it seems that more have passed. Just this past week, George Michael and Carrie Fisher died. These shocking announcements affect many, but especially those who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s when these young entertainers burst onto the public stage.
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-SA
Many of those who died played characters in movies or television that became "friends" of young fans throughout the years. Musicians, artists, political figures, and sports figures died as well. The list is long. The impact of these individuals upon pop culture has been immense, and in some cases will remain.
In many funerals that I preach, I reference Solomon's wise words regarding funerals and death. At first, it may seem harsh, but for Christians, it brings comfort. For non-Christians, it brings clarity.
It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Ecc 7:2 (ESV)
Simply put, God reminds us through this word that there are times it is actually better to attend a funeral rather than a party. Why? Because death is our destiny. It is part of life. The wise will realize this and live with the end in mind.
There is comfort in grief for Christians knowing that this life on earth is not the end. That's why funerals for Christians can actually be celebratory.
Funerals for non-Christians...well, those are more difficult due to the life-long rejection of Christ finding finality.
I Never Knew You
The strange reality is that many who mourn today do so for people they never knew. In some cases, the mourning seems to be less for the death of the individual, and more for the loss of a character or role played by that individual in the past.
Yet, the grief is real, isn't it?
A couple of years ago, Kenneth Morefield wrote a poignant article for Christianity Today titled "Not Another Celebrity Death Post." The article was written following the death of actor Robin Williams. In his article, he describes mourning in the social media world and what we must remember.
He reminds us...
First—and most importantly—it’s not about you. Avoid the temptation to turn someone else’s death or grief into a teaching moment. However noble the lesson—and there have been some good, important, and true ones in the wake of Robin Williams’s passing—using someone’s recent death to highlight it risks coming across as opportunistic and exploitative. I’m tempted to say that the reason it risks coming across that way is because it is those things.
Second, remind yourself that the first few tastes of grief can be overpowering. We should try to be charitable in our judgments towards those whose method of dealing with it involves being more expressive than we might be. Yes, I suspect that in a year or two or five people who aren’t actually narcissists or attention whores may look back on things they wrote about Robin Williams (or Philip Seymour Hoffman) and be chagrined at how much they treated him, even in death, as a means to an end. But if they don’t, if they truly are opportunists, then our calling them out only brings them the attention they crave and encourages them to act out again the next time somebody passes.
So, should you grieve the loss of those you have never met? Certainly. The loss of any life is cause for grieving. Yet, I believe we should look back to Solomon's words of wisdom regarding death. Remember, death is the destiny of all and the living should take it to heart. As followers of Christ, this reminder is to not waste our days and to live with the end in mind. With that, we are challenged to tell others of this great reality which is the gospel. There is good news. Death does not have to be the end.
Like most churches, we order curriculum items to help us as we teach the Bible in small groups across the generations. We order material every quarter and, like many churches we often have left over or "gently-used" material at the end of each quarter.
There is this tendency to order more pieces than is needed and if your church is like ours, there are stacks of magazines and Bible studies sitting on shelves or in the corners of rooms. Even as we have strategically worked to cut-down on over-ordering, we still end up with some left overs.
Rather than just dump all the books in a recycling bin or the trash, we have partnered with missionaries in the Philippines to provide material. You see, it doesn't really matter if the dates on the front of the magazines have already passed, these missionaries and church leaders find the treasure within the pages helpful in teaching biblical truths to the people in their communities.
I recently received an email from a friend and church member (Paul Williams) who has taken it upon himself to collect these items from our church and others in our network, pack them up, and ship them to the Philippines.
To be honest, sometimes...if we even remember these items have been shipped away...we may wonder "Does this really make a difference?"
Well, look at this photos...
Bob Courson, our friend in the Philippines gave us permission to share these photos. We are thankful for his work and service in making Christ known in this nation. Praying for him and for those men, women, boys, and girls who seem thrilled to receive these items. May much be made of Jesus in the Philippines and among these dear people.
Much has been reported over the past few years regarding police officers, race, violence, justice, and injustice. To discount the issues facing our nation and especially those in the black community would be not only a disservice to a significant demographic group, but to all people. Yet, as we all know, negative news spreads quickly while good news stories sit on the back burner on some back page of Facebook and social media and often goes ignored.
Our town of Orange Park covers just over three square miles. While the community is much larger than the town limits, Orange Park is fairly small. Within the borders of our county, the Clay County Sheriff's Office serves well. In our municipality we have the Orange Park Police Department.
Though only a three-square-mile area, there are many people who live in the town limits and thousands who travel through daily. To put it plainly, this bedroom community of Jacksonville, Florida is busy.
Cops and the Community
Over the past year or so, our Police Chief, Gary Goble, has led the department to host "Coffee with a Cop" encounters at local coffee shops and restaurants. I was talking to him earlier in the year (I serve as the volunteer chaplain for the OPPD and OPFD) about these events. These are organized gatherings where members of our community have the opportunity, in a relaxed atmosphere, to get to know the men and women behind the badge. The event is promoted with this description - "No agenda or speeches, just a chance to ask questions, voice concerns, and get to know the officers in your neighborhood!"
Today, we hosted a "Coffee with a Cop" gathering in the community near Grove Park Elementary School. The pastor and membership of New Hope Pentecostal Church were gracious enough to be our hosts as we set up a table with free coffee and doughnuts (okay - here's the cop and doughnut joke, but seriously...who doesn't love doughnuts?)
We had the tables set up outdoors underneath the church's overhang.
As would be the case, after weeks of no rain in our area, today we experienced a rain storm. It was torrential for a few hours. Yes, during the scheduled coffee time, but we pressed on regardless.
Despite the rain, people from the community arrived. The community where we hosted this has a predominantly African-American population. As we drank coffee, told jokes, and shared stories of Orange Park, we soon moved into the church's worship center where members of the community were given opportunity to ask questions of the officers.
The honesty was refreshing.
When People Fear the Police
Men and women in the community shared that many fear the police and that much of that fear is based on what has been seen on the news and viewed on social media. Whether fear is founded or not does not remove the reality that it exists.
One man asked "If our children are pulled over by an officer, what should they do? They're scared and with the stories flying around out there, we want to give them wise instructions. But, there are so many stories. What do we say?"
That was a great question.
Moms and dads and younger people in the room nodded their heads in agreement and sought insight from the officers.
The officers present gave practical, step-by-step instructions that would be protocol for anyone pulled over. The fact of the matter is when the blue lights flash in our rear window, stress levels increase and fear is often common. Since I am a 48-year-old white man, I will not even pretend to understand what a young black man would be experiencing in today's culture. It would be insulting to do so. Yet, the officers answered honestly and well.
I will offer this from today's meeting - that one question led to others and the conversation was rich and valuable.
Relationships Are the Key
As the conversation continued, the overall feelings expressed were those of appreciation from the community to the officers for offering the opportunity to talk and be honest. That appreciation went both ways as the officers were deeply grateful for the attendance of those (even in the rain) to come and talk.
This won't be the last "Coffee with a Cop" and I echo what one man stated today as we closed. He said, "Trust is built on relationships. We know you as people, not just as police officers. You know us as people. That's the key. The law is the law and we know that and appreciate that. We just have to keep building relationships."
What a powerful and correct statement!
Is this a perfect community? Of course not. There are citizens seeking to live well and do right. Then, as one lady mentioned today, "There are criminals around here, too" and that is true. It's true in every community. That speaks of the depraved hearts of humanity.
I'm thankful for a police department that is committed to the law they have vowed to uphold, but who also love this community enough to "serve and protect."
Many communities have such gatherings following a tragedy. As I talked to one of our neighbors at the event today, we discussed how we pray that no tragedy hits our community, but that we will have these gatherings now and continually. We'll be better off, safer, and stronger.
And...who doesn't want a free cup of coffee and a doughnut?
A number of weeks ago a good friend and pastor, Dres Lavanderos contacted me regarding the possibility of bringing a sister church under our wing for a season for the purpose of revitalization.
We believe in church planting and launching new campuses and churches in areas where a Gospel witness is needed. We have and are partnering with numerous church planters across the nation and internationally. We will continue to do so, believing that God blesses these new works and many are and will come to Christ through them.
The Other Side of the Coin - Revitalization
Yet, as many already know, while we celebrate the launch of new churches, there are many who are shutting their doors for good each year. Many of these churches are about forty to fifty-years-old. They were launched in a different era in communities that have changed dramatically. Many have done what came naturally and followed a prescribed schedule and programming model that was effective for years, only to discover that as times have changed, so has the community.
This is not a "good-bad" discussion regarding programming. In some cases, closure is due to poor leadership and even moral failure. However, in many cases, churches have found themselves in ruts regarding worship, planning, and missional engagement. In fact, some are "doing church" like it's 1985 and wonder why they're not growing?
This becomes an Isaachar discussion. Churches must remain faithful to the gospel and be as the men of Issachar in the Old Testament. These were men defined as those who "understood the times." Of course, the context for this tribe was much different, but the premise of being contextual and aware remains true.
While dozens of churches close for good each year, not all must.
The biggest challenge facing these churches is first the recognition that if something doesn't change, the inevitable will occur and their doors will lock, the property will be sold and a business will take it's place. I'm all for new businesses, but not at the cost of local churches in communities.
Pastor Dres is currently serving as the interim pastor at Oak Harbor Baptist Church in Atlantic Beach, Florida, near Mayport Naval Station. This church is part of our network (Jacksonville Baptist Association) and has been working through issues over the past few years that has led them to reach out for more than just prayer and pulpit supply. This has been a challenging and difficult journey for the Oak Harbor Church.
Yet, as of Sunday, December 4, the membership of Oak Harbor has agreed to partner with our church and become our Mayport campus. While retaining their autonomy, the agreement is extensive. Our church (firstFAMILY) will offer resources, leadership, strategic focus and help to shift Oak Harbor's focus and practices in ways that will hopefully see them become a vibrant, Gospel witness to the Mayport area once more.
Pastor Dres will remain at Oak Harbor as our Campus Pastor and along with other preaching team members of firstFAMILY, will work with me in planning and leading.
This is a new reality for our church and while the challenges are immense, we believe God has prepared us for this opportunity. Change is difficult and the fears are authentic. How honorable for the church at Oak Harbor to set aside their fears for this opportunity. One church member at Oak Harbor told me that it is time for him to risk change and discomfort for the sake of the Kingdom. That's a great statement. To be at the place where personal preference is pushed aside so the Gospel can be proclaimed clearly is huge.
Please pray for our church and the new Oak Harbor campus as we seek to honor God and experience revival and revitalizaton.
FYI - our agreement with Oak Harbor is available below.
Last week, as we celebrated Thanksgiving with family and those in our community, I was once again reminded of the strangeness this week now holds.
On Thursday (Thanksgiving) people gather with friends and family and pause to reflect on how blessed we are and offer thanks to God.
On "Black Friday" people fight and scrape to get into shopping centers to buy things they otherwise wouldn't just because the deals are so good. In other words, just 24 hours prior we're content and thankful and then...BOOM! WE HAVE TO HAVE MORE!
On Saturday, people go shopping at smaller stores for "Small Business Saturday" to encourage them to stay in business even though they struggle competing with the big box stores. Then, everyone goes back home to watch college football rivalry games that create division among family members and friends.
On Sunday, people (well some people) go to church.
On "Cyber Monday" people get more great deals online. This is basically Amazon's version of Black Friday.
Then, when all disposable income (a term that has never resonated in my home) is gone, it's time for "Giving Tuesday" where charities and non-profits seek to gain donations to help end-of-year expenses.
And some people wonder why Thanksgiving is the forgotten holiday?
As Christians, there are many commentaries on all these marketed, hashtag days. First of all, thanksgiving should never be relegated only to one day a year. Greed should never be celebrated. Worship should never be just during one hour on a weekend day and generosity should be natural for all followers of Christ.
Yet, today is #GivingTuesday and every non-profit and ministry out there seems to be taking advantage of the moment. To be honest, I don't blame them and in fact, there are many groups we sponsor as a family and ministries we support as a church family that could use a boost in donations. Yes, this day is a marketing strategy. Yet, when compared to "Black Friday" and the like, this one focuses not on self, but on others (unless you give so you can brag about giving, which then makes it selfish.) While not an extensive list, here are some options (in addition to your local church, which BTW is a non-profit as well) that you may wish to prayerfully consider giving generously to on this day.
There are many others. Before dropping that coin or sending a donation to a non-profit, do some checking. Ensure that the organization is legitimate and if a religious or Christian organization, it would be wise to discern the theology or teaching your donations support.
Happy Giving Tuesday. Oh and if you don't get to donate today, you don't have to wait another year. Generosity isn't bounded by calendared events.
The four connections are our church's prescription for healthy Christians. However, this seems to be shocking to many who have never broken out of the traditional expectations and schedules of local church life.
A number of years ago I led our church to move the ministry of "orphan care" to a primary focus. Basically, I read the book of James and knew God desired this of his church.
You have likely read the verse in question...
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:27 (ESV)
The reality set in during a pastoral staff meeting as I looked around the room and realized that each pastor on our staff, except me, had adopted children into their homes. I then began thinking about the membership of our church and numerous families came to mind who had gone through the journey of fostering or adoption as well. At this point, it really wasn't rocket science. It was clear - God has been working and was leading our church to engage strategically and intentionally in this area.
Over the years, we have joined CAFO, partnered with the Florida Baptist Children's Homes, provided child sponsorships at our orphanage in Haiti, networked with Lifeline, set up short-term loans for families through Abba Fund, resourced families by offering state-required classes for fostering or adopting and developing a family wrap-around strategy for those on the journey. There is much more to be done and while orphan care is not the only ministry of our church family, it is a vital one.
Photo credit: 藍川芥 aikawake via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND
Simply put, we understand that not everyone is called to adopt a child, but we do believe that every Christian is called to advocate for the orphan. In some cases, this does lead to fostering and/or adoption. For the church, this ministry is not new. For centuries, it has been God's church that has led in this area of orphan care. Only recently, in the modern and post-modern world, has the church seemingly stepped back to allow government agencies and non-Christian groups take the lead in these areas.
Here are five facts you should know about orphans in America and around the world:
A common assumption is that an orphan is a child who has two deceased parents. But the more inclusive definitions used by adoption and relief agencies tend to focus on a child who is deprived of parental care. An orphan can be further classified by using definitions such as UNICEF's “single orphans,” which is a child with only one parent that has died, or “double orphans,” which is a child who has two parents that are deceased. Under U.S. immigration law, an orphan can also be a foreign-born child with a sole or surviving parent who is unable to provide for the child's basic needs, consistent with the local standards of the foreign sending country, and has, in writing, irrevocably released the child for emigration and adoption. The majority of the world's orphans have families who are merely unable or unwilling to care for the child.
According to UNICEF estimates, there are 140,000,000 children who have lost one or both parents due to any cause as of 2013. Out of those, 17.7 million were orphaned because one or both parents died of AIDS.
According to the U.S. State Department, U.S. families adopted 5,647 children from another country in 2015 (compared to the peak of 22,991 in 2004). Based on the 2012 report (the last on which such data was collected), Americans adopted the highest number of children from China, Ethiopia, Russia, South Korea, and Ukraine. The top adopting states were Texas, California, New York, Florida, and Illinois.
In the United States in 2014 there were 415,129 children in foster care and 107,918 waiting to be adopted. The average age of a child in foster care waiting to be adopted was 7.7 years old. The average age of children in foster care being adopted was 6.2 years old.
A study by the Rand Corporation found that as of 2002, a total of 396,526 embryonic humans have been frozen and placed in storage in the United States. Since then many thousands more have been added, and the vast majority will live and die in an IVF clinic. That is over 400,000 orphans whose names we will never know and whose faces we will never see.
Are we doing enough? No. However, by engaging in the conversation and with the small steps we have taken, God has blessed and continues to do so.
Orphan Care Should Be a Given for the Church
Stepping strategically into the orphan care story is not about adding another ministry to an already busy church calendar. It is about doing that which God has declared to be pure, undefiled, and good. It would be ludicrous for a church to vote on the whether to engage in orphan care. That would be like voting whether to be evangelistic, whether to make disciples, or whether to obey God. Unfortunately, many churches and Christians are still debating obedience.
No guilt. Just truth. Advocating for the orphan is not up for debate.
The Cubs won the World Series last night in amazing fashion. Why is it so many of us love the underdog (BTW - it's hard to call a 100+ win team an underdog, but the Cubs have held that title for decades). Maybe it's how we're wired? Maybe it's because we relate? Maybe it has something to do with the nature of man?
It's the most popular Bible verse for American Christians during election year. The verse is found in the Old Testament and centered on God's people and the building of his temple by Solomon. While the context is clearly for the people of Israel and related to Solomon's faithfulness, the holiness of worship in the temple, and the fidelity required of those who claim to follow God, the underlying truth revealed in the passage is timeless.
God is faithful.
God responds to humble, repentant prayers of his people.
If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 2 Chronicles 7:14 (ESV)
Believing fully in the inerrancy of God's Word, this verse is not unlike others. It is powerful, true, and valuable (2 Timothy 3:16)
As stated earlier, this verse seems to be dusted off and pulled out of storage when Christians (American ones especially) find themselves at a point of despair. This most often occurs when the political machine is in full swing during election year. While it is clear that some Christians do struggle with idol worship when it comes to nationalism, the vast majority, in my opinion, truly are seeking insight and healing from the Lord.
The church must be clear when using this verse as a sermon theme, prayer gathering banner or in an attempt to garner oneness regarding the nature of our nation.
Some things to consider, based on the wording of the English translation of this verse...
"If my people who are called by my name"
While directed at God's chosen people (Israel) in the Old Testament, all believers are now included in this "my people" phrase due to the message of the gospel and the inclusion of grafted branches. Therefore, this is a message for the church, not Washington DC, Tallahasee, or the center of government where you reside. Of course there are believers who live and serve in these offices of government, and to them (as members of the "my people" group) the message is declarative. Yet, the unregenerate will not get this, nor should Christians continue to expect non-beleivers to act like the redeemed.
This matters because it is so easy to see the sin in others, but so difficult to see it in ourselves. Maybe this is a bit of the "speck and log" story Christ shared?
This may be the most forgotten section of the verse. Humility is rare and in an election cycle where major candidates garner news coverage, trending stories, and news coverage by being crass, self-centric, and loud, the simple idea of humility seems like a lost art.
While it should be expected to see arrogance as the theme of the day in the world, when it enters into the church and becomes a celebrated characteristic, it is time to wake up and repent.
The humble heart is sought by God.
Here's what we know, self-centric celebrity Christians and arrogant pastors and spiritual leaders, while honored by many, embarrass and break the heart of God.
This passage reminds us that God is seeking for his people to be humble.
A lost art? Certainly.
A lost cause? Absolutely not.
Oh, and being humble is not something you can brag about. Once you do that...well, you're not humble.
"And pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways"
God's love is unconditional.
God's forgiveness is conditional.
There is an action step required from his pcople (the church). This action step is not sought from the government leaders who are not believers. This is not sought from the community organizers, petitioners, talk show hosts, pundits, or spin masters. This action step is sought by God from his children - his people - his church.
I think of the parent of the small child who is chastising the child for disobeying. The child says "But my friends are doing this. They don't get in trouble." To this the parent responds "I don't care about the other children. You're my child. You know better. This is not acceptable."
That's our loving Father chastising and disciplining us, his children and then providing steps for reconciliation.
"The I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land."
For the Israelites, it meant that the rains would come, the crops would grow, peace would reign and worship would be as it should be. For us today, it means that God will hear our prayer (just as he says) and will forgive us (conditionally, not unconditionally) and heal our land. How big is this "land" he will heal? Maybe just yours and my small spheres of influence? Maybe collectively the land we call home?
Maybe we're too concerned with God healing our land and then telling God where our surveyed boundaries lay?
Maybe the healing begins where it must to make the biggest impact. Guess what? That may not be the swampland that was drained so that Washington DC could be built, but is the land of our hearts. In this Old Testament passage, the land of God centered where his temple was built. Since our bodies are now the temple of the Holy Spirit, perhaps this is the land that must be healed?
I'm seeing postings on the web and am actually getting postcards and mailings from churches promoting church and community-wide prayer gatherings. Most of these are tagged with "Pray for the USA" or "Pray for Our Nation" and are focused on gathering the church to pray together prior to Election Day on November 8.
Those gatherings are good, so I'm not throwing shade upon the churches or organizers. However, to gather solely for politically-flavored prayer may reveal more than is sought.
We, too have scheduled a time of corporate prayer for this coming Sunday night. Yet, I must share some convictions about our gathering and some things we are NOT doing.
We are seeking to have a solemn assembly Sunday evening as a church family. Sadly, I have felt led to schedule this prior, but have not, so now it appears to be just another "Pray for the Election" gathering.
Consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly. Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord your God, and cry out to the Lord.
Joel 1:14 (ESV)
It's a biblical principle to gather as the people of God for prayer.
Claude V. King shares this about solemn, or sacred assemblies:
Sacred assemblies were occasions for God's people collectively to worship Him, to repent of personal and corporate sin, to remember His special blessings on them, and to anticipate future blessings.
In a true sense, God may utilize the gathering of his church to ignite revival among his people.
For clarification - revival is an awakening and therefore, not the typical evangelistic meetings that have been termed "revivals" in American churches for decades. There's no special "pack a pew" night, or youth night with pizza, or a special guest bringing a word needed. While there may be a place for those types of gatherings, to call them revival is a misnomer.
You don't revive the dead.
You resurrect the dead.
You revive the sleeping.
That's what the church in our culture needs. That's what every true New Testament church needs - an awakening.
More Than Politics
If you're praying only because you're candidate of choice (if you even have one) may not win in November, you likely need to revisit your focus in prayer.
God has convicted me as a pastor that if we pray only as a "last resort" and slap 2 Chronicles 7:14 on everything we can just because the candidate of choice may not be elected, we are playing games.
However, we will gather and we will pray for our elected officials and potential leaders. To be clear, we should have been doing that all along. Yet, we will be praying for so much more.
We will pray that God will guide our people and that His will be done. This is how we should be praying continually.
We will pray for forgiveness, recognizing that forgiveness is not automatic.
There is a prerequisite for forgiveness.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
1 John 1:9 (ESV)
So, this Sunday evening at 7pm, we will gather, confess our sins to the Lord as his church, repent of overt and covert sins, and seek his forgiveness and guidance. To God be the glory.
We will rest in the assurance that regardless what happens on November 8 and beyond, God remains on his throne and sovereign over all.
Then, we will gather again as we must. May we never be the church that only prays every four years prior to an election.
I have written about this before (here) but the propagation of therapeutic forgiveness among Christians continues to muddy the waters when it comes to to understanding biblical forgiveness.
Never in Scripture is there indication that "forgiving oneself" is expected, much less possible.
Forgiveness requires two people (or God and a person.) In a culture that continues to focus on self, the inevitable centering on self-esteem, self-worth, self-health and ultimately self-worship arises.
Now, if you were to Google "Bible Forgive Self" you would find a variety of sites, blogs, and postings about the subject. While the focus on "Bible" seeks to eliminate the unbiblical aspects of the search, the truth is that many Christians still propagate a self-forgiveness strategy as healthy and right.
To help clarify, I share some thoughts from others who hold to the veracity of Scripture:
Never does the Bible talk about the idea of “forgiving yourself.” We are told to forgive others when they trespass against us and seek forgiveness. When we ask for God’s forgiveness based upon Christ having already paid for our sins and our having trusted in Him as Savior and Lord, He forgives us. - gotQuestions.org
I have never preached that anybody should forgive themselves. At least, I don’t remember ever saying it. And I have never used it as a way of dealing with my own self-hatred or condemnation or whatever that it is supposed to deal with. I don’t think it is in the Bible, and the reason I don’t think it is in the Bible is that I think it would be intrinsically confusing about the nature of forgiveness if it were. Maybe the reason the Bible doesn’t think in these categories of self-forgiveness is that, to have forgiveness, you need a person who has been wronged and a person who did the wrong. - John Piper
While is a good thing to want to move beyond your mistakes and the consequences they have reaped, there are fundamental problems with even raising this question. As I stress throughout Unpacking Forgiveness, forgiveness is something that must occur between two parties. In light of that truth, it makes no more sense to talk about forgiving yourself than it does to talk about shaking your own hand. - Chris Brauns
Forgiveness isn’t something you can give yourself. It is something [God] has purchased for you. - Nancy Leigh DeMoss
Forgiveness requires both a victim and an offender, and so to forgive myself means that I am playing both roles. And so a part of me is allowed—even required—to play the victim for something that I did. But I shouldn’t get to play the victim, for I am the offender in this case. If I forgive myself, then I am asserting that I am a victim of my sin. - Justin Taylor
The person who says, “I just can’t forgive myself,” may simply be expressing an inability or unwillingness to grasp and receive God’s forgiveness. This seems to be the most common explanation behind “self-forgiveness” talk. We say that we can’t forgive ourselves because we really doubt that God has forgiven us. Or we don’t see our need for forgiveness from God, so we take over the job ourselves. Unsure of a solution to our real or perceived failure, we posit a need for self-forgiveness to satisfy our lingering guilt or to supplement God’s insufficient forgiveness. - Robert D. Jones
To seek forgiveness from yourself would be to ask yourself to forgive you for what you've done against yourself. But this doesn't make any sense. We are not the ones who make moral laws that we can break. Rather, God does that, so forgiving yourself just doesn’t make sense. - Matt Slick
And yet, there are many who would say "But that's just semantics, right?" No. It's not. It's more of a shift to understanding what is biblical and what is not and pushing against the cultural centering of self. BTW - this is nothing new. It's been going on since the Garden of Eden.
Forgiveness requires two people - the sinner and the sinned against.
Forgiveness is conditional.
"Forgive others as God has forgiven you" is what believers know to be true. It is vital to understand how he has forgiven you (or us.)