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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SBC Annual Meeting 2018 - Dallas, Texas

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

Presidential Election

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

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

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

Denominational Leadership

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

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

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

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

Racial Reconciliation

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

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Can Anything Good Come From This?

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

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SBC Pastors Conference 2018

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Term "Evangelical" Has Become Almost Unusable

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

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

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

Marketing Is Celebrated More Than Message

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

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

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

From Holson's article:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Mohler responds:

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

"Gospel Lite" with a Good Beat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Higher Standard

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

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

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

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

There's too much at stake. 


Live for God and You Will Face a Sanballat & Tobiah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are always Sanballats and Tobiahs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Why We Let Other Churches Use Our Building

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

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

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

A jealousy develops and negative thoughts and comments often result.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DOXA CHURCH

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

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Doxa Church Vision Meeting in the F Building of FBCOP on 3/18/2018

Do we really need another church in Orange Park?

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

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

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

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

Pray for Doxa Church

Unnamed
Pastor Jeth Looney

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

 


A Little Monday Encouragement for the Pastor Who Is Done

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And all those comments likely came from the same service.

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

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

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

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

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

It's Monday. Never resign on a Monday.


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

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

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

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

Church Competition

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copy + Paste Programming

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Press on. Be encouraged.

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

 

 

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


Black History and White Pastors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'm Not Racist, But...

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

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

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

Racial Unity Must Be Gospel Unity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It may even be risky.

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

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

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

Unity in the Gospel

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Black History Month. 


When "It Could Happen Here" Actually Happens Here

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

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

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

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The mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., was one of the deadliest in American history. Credit Saul Martinez for The New York Times

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

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

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

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

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

It could happen here.

Now, it has happened here.


Church Unity Is Not Always a Good Thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Church unity is not always a good thing.

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

Sometimes, unity can be sinful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet, they're unified.

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

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

They are wrong.

See what I mean.

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

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

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

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

So, unity is not always good. 

When Unity is Godly

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

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

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

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

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

May we be unified in Christ.

____________________

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


Should I Visit or Join This Church?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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