The Danger of Living in an Echo Chamber

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

What is an "echo chamber?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Echo Chamber of Politics

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

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

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Screenshot from The Guardian

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

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

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

It is at this level, the echo chamber develops. 

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

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

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

No one is immune.

The Christian Echo Chamber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winning debates is not the goal.

Watching God win souls is.


PASTORS: Watch Out for This Scam

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

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Photo credit: BioDivLibrary via Visual hunt / CC BY

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

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

Screenshot 2017-01-21 15.40.33

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

Pastoral Catfish Scheme

Things that made me question the authenticity of the request:

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

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

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

Right.

That's the deal.

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

Be careful. Be smart.

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


Campus or Church Plant?

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

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

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

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

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Church Planting

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

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

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

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

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

Campus Planting (Multi-Site Planting)

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

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

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

The Best Strategy

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

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

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

 


Maybe You're Not Called to Ministry?

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

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

But, how do you know?

Seriously?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

But I Love God and Feel Called...

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

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

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

Feelings Lie

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

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

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

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

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

That is evidence of the inward calling.

Yet, the outward calling is essential as well.

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

You are called to ministry when you have...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The last one - Longing is subjective (internal.)

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

Consider the Call

Mohler presents these questions in closing...

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

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


Oak Harbor - Our New Mayport Campus

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

Church Planting

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

The Other Side of the Coin - Revitalization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oak harbor logo

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

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

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

FYI - our agreement with Oak Harbor is available below.

Download OAK HARBOR BAPTIST CHURCH PARTNERSHIP AGREEMENT

 


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

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

God is faithful.

God responds to humble, repentant prayers of his people.

God forgives.

God heals.

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

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

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

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

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

"If my people who are called by my name"

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

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

"Humble themselves"

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

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

The humble heart is sought by God.

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

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

A lost art? Certainly.

A lost cause? Absolutely not.

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

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

God's love is unconditional.

God's forgiveness is conditional.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Chronicles 7:14 [widescreen]

 


Why Our Prayer Gathering Must Not Be Focused on America

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

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

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

Solemn Assembly

Solemn assembly fb event

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

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

Joel 1:14 (ESV)

Why Gather?

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

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

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

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

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

Wake Up

You don't revive the dead.

You resurrect the dead.

You revive the sleeping.

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

More Than Politics

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

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

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

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

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

There is a prerequisite for forgiveness.

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

1 John 1:9 (ESV)

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

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

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

 

 


Why Forgiving Oneself is Unbiblical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forgiveness is conditional.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Pastors and Politics

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

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

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

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

However...

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

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

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

Speaking on Policies

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

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

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

The Pot Issue

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

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Photo credit: fsecart via Visualhunt.com / CC BY

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

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

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

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

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

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