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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why all the talk about pastoral endorsements?

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

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

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

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

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

What does an endorsement really mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I believe this to be true.

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

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

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

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


firstFAMILY Podcast 003: Where To Go To College?

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

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Graduation will come soon and decisions are being made.

What would you recommend?

There are numerous options.

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

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

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

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

What would you say?

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Is Divorce Ever An Option?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But...

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

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

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


Should We Continue Doing Short-Term Mission Trips?

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

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

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Arguments Against Short-Term Mission Trips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arguments For Short-Term Mission Trips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

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


firstFAMILY Podcast 001: GameDay Church

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


When the Church Grieves

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

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

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Men and Women in the Bible Grieved

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Our Family Members Who Are Grieving...

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