Do You Remember When Religious Freedom Was a Right?

Oh, I know it's still in the US Constitution, but as I watch the cultural shift continue, it is clear that this thing we, as Americans, know as religious freedom will be viewed differently in the near future. As a reminder, or as a revelation for those who do not know, the first amendment to our Constitution is listed below:

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

I don't see the amendment being repealed, though that has happened with other ones in our past, but I do see a reinterpretation of the right coming. There are things that have historically been covered under this amendment as religious freedom, but may likely be eliminated. 

Just to be clear, this post is not about tax-exempt status for churches and religious entities (which, in my opinion, I see likely going away as well.) 

I am not seeking to be a "doom and gloom" guy. I'm not on the rooftops screaming at everyone as they drive by. I'm not wearing a sandwich board that states "The End Is Near." Those stereotypes tend to rise to the surface in times like these. I tend to think of myself as a realist and one who can discern the times.

Earlier this month an article by Michael Gryboski was featured on the Christian Press site. The story is titled "LGBT 'Shame List' of Christian Colleges Includes Azusa Pacific, Biola, Liberty, Wheaton." This is a story that others have referenced in recent weeks. Baptist Press ran a similar article, highlighting the great number of colleges, universities and seminaries related to the Southern Baptist Convention (full disclosure - I pastor an SBC church, have graduated from an SBC seminary, and currently attend a different SBC seminary for further study.) 

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Photo credit: UMaineStudentLife via Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

The Shame List

The Shame List is produced by Campus Pride and is advertised as a resource for young people and parents seeking schools that do not discriminate based on gender or sexual orientation. The site's description of the list is below.

The Shame List identifies the “absolute worst campuses for LGBTQ youth” in the United States. The colleges & universities listed have chosen to openly discriminate against LGBTQ youth and have requested Title IX exemptions to perpetuate the harms of religion-based bigotry.  The criterion to be the “absolute worst” campus includes either of the following: 1) Received and/or applied for a Title IX exemption to discriminate against LGBTQ youth and/or 2) Demonstrated past history and track record of anti-LGBTQ actions, programs and practices.

The Title IX exemption is the key element in the creation of the list. For most Americans, Title IX has been celebrated as the rule that created equal athletic opportunities for women in university settings. Parents of young girls have traditionally viewed this rule as a positive as it has pushed colleges and universities to create more women's sports and to push more money toward these "non-revenue" sports. Without Title IX, it is likely that the NCAA would not have the Women's Basketball Tournament, names like Pat Summitt, Diana Turasi, Mia Hamm, and Mary Wise would not be as well known and women athletes likely would have less opportunities.

However, Title IX is also the umbrella that leaves colleges and universities open to having to affirm lifestyles and actions that are polar opposites to their religious groundings, statements of faith, and belief systems.

With the culture blurring greatly the line between male and female, it is only a matter of time before funding for financial aid (FAFSA) to predominantly religious institutions of higher learning becomes the element used to force (or seek to force) the abandonment of religious convictions in the area of gender.

Campus Pride is clear in their desires. I actually appreciate the forthrightness in the organization's leaders. There is no doubt as to their purpose in existing and their modus operandi. However, I disagree greatly with their focus and stated beliefs. That, too is my right.

So, I'm not seeking to shut down their site or discredit their organization. I am disagreeing and seeing the reality that is now and to come. 

The LGBT revolution, which is actually an extension of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, has effectively pushed toward governmental policy and law changes. As the nation collectively watches North Carolina suffer from the loss of funds due to their statewide bathroom policies, it is clear that step-by-step, that which was considered unmovable and an inalienable right to believe a certain way will soon shift in the public forum

The LGBT rights people have effectively equated their suffering to that of people of color who led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Yet, I have many African-American and minority race friends who find that comparison offensive. 

Nevertheless, the "Shame List" is out and most all schools listed are religious in nature and affiliated with Christian denominations. Nearly one-third of the 100 plus schools are affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

No Shame In Being On The Shame List

President Jason Allen of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City had this response to having his school placed on the list:

"Regardless of what shaming -- online or otherwise -- may come, our convictions remain unchanged and our calling undeterred: we will winsomely, yet boldly, speak the full complement of Christian truth on this issue and every other issue to which the Bible speaks. And we will humbly point all, including Campus Pride, to Jesus as the only one who saves.

As we train our students, we seek to equip them to minister in a broken world, marred by human sinfulness and its consequences, including those harmed by the false promises of the sexual revolution. The good news is that Jesus Christ came so that whoever believes in Him -- gay or straight -- might be saved, and have their sins forgiven and their life transformed. That is the message Midwestern Seminary preaches and the message to which our students are giving their lives to declare."

The purpose of the shame list is ultimately lead Americans to not only not enroll, but to label and place these schools in a position where the title "haters" is most prominent. As I look over the list, there are schools listed that I would be proud to attend and have my children attend. At the same time, Christian or not, there are some that I would never attend or recommend. Yet, even in the cases of those I would not attend, there seems to be something lost when the right to hold to religious convictions is deemed hateful and evil. 

There are hundreds of colleges and universities that would be on the other end of the spectrum for Campus Pride. In fact, they also publish a list known as the "Best of the Best" for LGBTQ students. The list includes state universities and predominantly liberal-leaning schools, which is not surprising. 

It is a sticky situation. Most Christian students attend state universities. If Christian teenagers are effectively discipled and prepared to contend for the gospel (see Galatians 1) then attending such a university is not only a financially sound decision, but missionally focused one as well. Unfortunately, many students in our churches are not contenders and have and will fall prey to unbiblical teaching and liberal philosophy at the university level. These concerns include but go deeper than LGBT identification.

There are many students who discover their perfect fit for higher education not at the public university, but at a smaller, biblically-focused school. There are varied reasons for this. Sometimes it is academically based. Sometimes it is a chance to play sports at the college level (that was me). Sometimes it is simply the door that God is opening for His glory.

The Shame List will lead many to just shake their heads wondering how we have come so far. For me, it's no surprise. In fact, how did we not see this coming? The days are not only coming, but are here. Religious liberty will be redefined and dumbed down. Some of these schools on the list may not be in existence in ten years. Others will refuse any federal financial aid and their costs will lead to needs for private donations and scholarships and ultimately a decreased student population. Still, others will capitulate and disavow their long-held religious convictions. This will be deemed as progress, but regress is more like it.

As my friend Christopher Yuan said based on this story "This is the beginning of the end of religious freedom."

 


Is God a White Racist?

I heard on the radio as I drove to work this morning that the racial unrest in our nation, most recently in Charlotte and Tulsa, hearkens back to 1968. Many of my contemporaries do not remember that year, but those who lived through the era affirm that great fear and division was the news of the night as Walter Cronkite would remind us "that's the way it is."

Much is being said, written, preached, and tweeted about the state of race relations now. This goes much deeper than protesting the national anthem, though that has become a daily news story as Americans are seemingly creating "Patriotic Scorecards" to keep track of those who stand at attention, those who kneel, and those who hold their fists aloft. 

Yet, with much being said...the truth is more must be said, but more truth cemented in the Gospel. Beyond saying the right things, the gap toward belief and and action must be covered. 

For a lily-white American pastor (that would be me) attempting to write or speak from the perspective of an African-American man comes across as disingenuous. It is not that I cannot speak on the truth of Scripture or the history (both good and bad) of the church. Affirming the veracity and inerrancy of God's Word allows me to speak confidently on the issues, but sometimes having the capacity to speak truth does not equate to being heard.

 

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Cameron Triggs

Therefore, I thought I would share the following from my friend, fellow pastor, and church planter Cameron Triggs. Cameron previously served with Pastor H.B. Charles at Shiloh Church in Jacksonville, Florida. He is currently serving in The Summit Network in North Carolina as he prepares to plant a new church in Orlando next year. Cameron is a gifted communicator and strong apologist for the Gospel. He recently published a short book titled Is God a White Racist: An Apologetic Dialogue. This short dialogue featuring two men, Walter and Charles, who are childhood friends and fraternity brothers. After college, they parted ways with Walter becoming the African-American Studies Director at a community college in Chicago and Charles becoming a pastor in Marietta, Georgia. 

The story is fictional, but the conversation is authentic and echoes what has been and is continuing to be a point of division and discussion within the African-American community.

I highly recommend my readers to take the time to read this little e-book. You will likely finish it in about fifteen minutes. 

Here are some things I gained from the read:

  • Contending for the Gospel is vital.
  • We must always be prepared with an answer. Saying "Let me call my pastor" will carry no water, and likely end a conversation with a non-believing friend. 
  • White American Christians need to think deeply about these issues.
  • All Christians need to think deeply about these issues.
  • Gospel thinking leads to Gospel-centric action.
  • No white person can fully grasp the African-American experience and to say "I understand" will likely end productive discussions immediately.
  • The Gospel has not changed, will not change, and is still God's gracious gift to humanity.
  • God is not a white racist, or a black racist, brown racist, tan racist. etc.
  • Behind all division and disunity among believers is the Enemy. 
  • Cliches and bumper sticker theology does not suffice.
  • Real life conversations on such deep issues are rarely resolved over one cup of coffee. 

Here's a portion of Cameron's story. Remember, Walter is a self-proclaimed agnostic and Charles is a pastor...

Walter: This all started about six years ago, Chuck. This is not an overnight metamorphosis. I really reasoned about this. I tried to reconcile how could a loving and powerful God be so unfair to people of color, and how could I, being a black man, follow a religion that enslaved us? A colleague of mine in the Philosophy Department really challenged my thinking. When he found out I was a “Christian”, he blatantly asked how. How could I follow a religion that supported slavery with exegesis from the “good book” itself? How could Jonathan Edwards, the so-called “Greatest American Theologian”, take on difficult philosophical issues, such as total depravity and irresistible grace, but never condemn slavery? Cotton Mather even argued that white people should teach their slaves that God has called them to be servants, and that they serve Jesus Christ while serving their masters. So, cotton-picking slaves served Christ while being beaten, hanged, raped, and whipped by white masters, right? These so-called “Christians” owned slaves as well. George Whitefield enslaved brothers too! Doesn’t that bother you, Chuck? Be real with me, man! It is that attitude of the church that projected books like, “The Negro as a Beast” by Charles Carrol! So, here we have a religion that is in direct opposition to our heritage and dignity.

Charles: Sigh…yea, Walt. I agree. Christians sin, sometimes grievously, against their own law. But what you just proposed is an ad hominem argument that is rather weak. Sure, the character of some Christians is corrupt, but Christianity as a whole can’t be thrown out with the bath water.

Click here or the image below to read the entire book.

Screenshot 2016-09-22 09.26.19

Special thanks to Cameron Triggs for producing such a timely and well-written dialogue.

Cameron Triggs web site - camtriggs.com

Jude3 Project - jude3project.com


firstFAMILY Podcast 018: "The Insanity of God" by Nik Ripken

Yesterday, the film "The Insanity of God" had it's one-night-only showing at our local theater, as well as theaters around the nation. The documentary is based on the book of the same title by missionary Nik Ripken. While this podcast is somewhat of a review of the film, I am focusing more on the message of the book and film and the implications for the western church. There's more than could ever be covered in one podcast and we hope to have Nik and Ruth here in the future to share.

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LifeWay Films & Nik Ripken

In the meantime, here are the videos and links referenced in the podcast.

Official Movie Site - insanityofgodmovie.com

Official Trailer on YouTube

Nik speaking at the Sam James Institute on Vimeo

Nik Ripken Ministries


How to Keep the Older Generation in Church While Reaching the Younger

Last week, our Leadership Team attended a conference sponsored by the Jacksonville Baptist Association featuring author and speaker Haydn Shaw. Haydn speaks to corporations, businesses, governments agencies, and churches throughout the nation on the subject of generational connectedness.

For the first time ever, we have four generations in the workforce and five generations in the church.

I highly recommend Haydn's books...

For business leaders - Sticking Points: How to Get 4 Generations Working Together in the 12 Places They Come Apart

For church leaders - Generational IQ: Christianity Isn't Dying, Millennials Aren't the Problem, and the Future Is Bright

Following the teaching sessions last week, our association provided links to talking points videos from Haydn. The one here resonates with many in our church and surrounding churches. In fact, for any church over twenty years old, the question of connecting multiple generations is a often ignored. Sometimes churches ignore the reality of multi-generational needs and desires and ultimately wake up one Sunday to notice that there are fifteen people in the congregation. All are now collecting Social Security checks. The order of worship is exactly the same as it has been each week for the past three decades. Most tragically, the realization that there are no "next generation" church members to entrust with the next chapter in the church's legacy.

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Photo credit: Fouquier ॐ via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC

This is happening far too often in our denomination, as well as others. 

Presuming that doctrine is sound and desire to honor God is clear, churches are forced to address areas that previous generations never had to deal with at such a level. In this video, Haydn pulls no punches and addresses the issues related to reaching one end of the generational spectrum without missing the other. Watch this video clip...

Video 5: How Do We Keep from Hurting the Older Generations If We Change Things to Reach the Younger Generations? from Haydn Shaw on Vimeo.

 

 

 


Pastors and Politics - How To Lead In An Election Year

Every four years, at a minimum, questions are raised within the church regarding politics and political involvement. 

This year is no different and while the national stage has been set for the presidential election with Republican nominee Donald Trump and the Democrat nominee being Hillary Clinton, many Christians are now perplexed as for whom to vote. Of course there are some in both camps who are adamant about their candidate, but something interesting has happened this year. The development of the #NeverTrump and #NeverHillary camps within each respective party has created a bit of a conundrum.

A Vote "For" Is Really a Vote "Against"

We have all heard these reasonings. Mostly from friends and family members (and maybe from our own mouths) regarding intentions come November. One group just cannot stomach voting for Trump, so they will vote for Clinton. Another group fears what may happen if Clinton is President, so they will vote for Trump. It's the "lesser of two evils" argument.

Still others, due to convictions and conscience will opt to vote for neither and will either leave that block blank or pick a third-party candidate. 

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Photo credit: DonkeyHotey via VisualHunt / CC BY-SA

In a recent post on The Gospel Coalition site, Justin Taylor addresses this issue head-on. He quotes Matthew Franck, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Radford University and Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute who argues "it is wrong to think of a vote not cast for Leading Contender A as a de facto vote cast for Leading Contender B."

Not everyone agrees with Franck's assessment, but the argument is clear. Click here to read the full posting by Taylor.

All Politics Is Local

I know no pastor who hasn't been inundated with questions and strong opinions regarding elections each cycle. Our local community is not unlike yours, I would bet. 

There have always been, and likely always will be, the local church that candidates attend or join simply for the political push. I was sitting with an elected official at a prayer breakfast two years ago when the local cycle of elections was in full swing (as they are now.) The room for the community prayer breakfast was full. The official leaned over to me and said, "Well, you can tell it's an election year." I laughed because I knew exactly what that meant. This person then said, "I'm a member of _______ Church (not mine and not a church in my denomination) and I get these mailings from candidates that state they are active members of my church, but I know good and well that they joined the church just last week. Happens every year."

That too is true, I'm sure. 

Now, I'm not faulting the churches. We all want people to join our fellowships. We really like it when they are becoming part of our church families due to the leading of the Holy Spirit and the desire to serve God. Yet, sometimes other things motivate members and we still love them and serve them and guide them as best we can as pastors.

Sometimes, however, the politics in the community can be used by the Enemy to not only divide people by political parties, but to create division within the family of God. It happens all the time and in every community, no doubt. 

I lament the loss of church family members due to these issues. 

How Political Should the Church Be?

Pastor - here's a truth I offer you today that you can bank on.

You will never be political enough for some in your church and at the same time, you will be way too political for others.

One friend left our church after months of living frustrated over things that, in my opinion, weren't that vital to the gospel or the mission of the church. When he joined a sister church in the community, he felt "led" to email me one last message. In this one (and there were many prior) he stated, "This other church's pastor is more political than you and speaks from the pulpit all the time about elections, voting and whom we should vote for." He went on about the glory of the politically divisive and yet, I know his pastor and I know he (the pastor) does not do as was stated. Yet, perception is reality, I guess.

Politics is a way of life in our culture. To avoid it is to skip out on a subject that must be addressed from the gospel perspective. I believe Dr. Russell Moore, the President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission states it well in this short video.

 

What To Do?

Simply put, as Christians, we should be involved in the process of voting. We should speak clearly on the issues that are addressed in Scripture. We must remember that God ordains all that lead and that He alone is our answer and rescuer and no politician or political party can usurp (or should, at least) that role.

Christians should be more evangelistic about Jesus than their candidate of choice.

Can you imagine if the effort to tell people about the Redeemer was as intense as the effort to get people to vote for one's preferred candidate what may happen?

Pastors - regardless where you land regarding how political you are publicly, pray for God's lead and be ready with a biblical, godly, gospel-saturated answer for all you do and say. Remember, you're not called to shepherd people for just the next term, but to lead them into eternity as citizens of the Kingdom of God - faithful and true.

Oh, and please vote. Lead your people to participate not check out and stay home on election day. There's nothing wrong with having voting registration at your church. Don't lead your church to passively ignore their responsibility as citizens, but moreso as followers of Christ. 


What the Dallas Shootings Reveal

This past week has been horrific. Stories flooding social media and airwaves first from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, then Minnesota, and finally from Dallas, Texas.

 

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A Dallas police sergeant wears a mourning band on his badge during a prayer vigil in a park following the multiple police shooting in Dallas. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Regarding the Dallas story, Twitter and Facebook erupted with first-person accounts. Some were authentic. Some were likely fabricated. Some were posted too soon (remember the gentleman with the rifle who was peacefully protesting and immediately became the suspect due to an improperly posted image?) It happens all the time. In the midst of the reports (and we now live in a world where "official" reports from reputable news agencies are often too quickly posted just as uninformed tweets and FB postings.) Evil seems to be winning. Maybe evil is winning, but remember, the game is not over and, as in sports, it doesn't matter who's in the lead at half-time.

Everything Is Political

The politicization of every tragedy seems to be the norm now. Maybe this was always the case, but with immediate, as-it-happens news updates, it now seems no public statement can be made without a politically-based leaning. Words are parsed. Spin is set. And the populace continues to shake their collective heads as if to say "Really? Wow! That's all you have?" knowing that tepid statements from leaders and influencers mean little.

Our nation has been divided since...oh, about 1776...along political and relational lines. Even our forefathers weren't exactly best friends (just read about the John Adams and Thomas Jefferson relationship.) The blackest time in our nation's history centers around division where brothers took up arms agains each other. Division has developed over religious, political, racial and even generational differences. The "United" States of America has always struggled to live up to that name. Yet, to be clear, I still believe the great experiment known as the USA is valuable, honorable, and the best option available among a world that has strived since the beginning for meaning, hope, and purpose. While I admit that not every founding father was a Christian, I believe God ordained the founding of this nation and did so for His glory.

Politics Will Not Solve Our Issues

Every generation has likely stated that "It's never been this bad, though," and that could be true. There have been moments of national unity, but often they're fleeting and prefaced by a tragedy (The Alamo, Pearl Harbor, 9/11, etc.) At times of crisis, the populace looks for a word of hope, of encouragement, of direction. At these times, those with an audience, those with influence, must speak and speak well.

In our nation, the President has been the one that most look to for words of hope and strength during times of war, fear, sadness and crisis. This has been the case throughout our limited history.

It is easy to see that, under the sharp discipline of civil war, the nation is beginning a new life. - Abraham Lincoln

We Americans of today, together with our allies, are passing through a period of supreme test. It is a test of our courage—of our resolve—of our wisdom—our essential democracy. If we meet that test—successfully and honorably—we shall perform a service of historic importance which men and women and children will honor throughout all time. - Franklin D. Roosevelt

America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand. - Harry S. Truman

I call upon Chairman Khrushchev to halt and eliminate this clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace… He has an opportunity now to move the world back from the abyss of destruction. - John F. Kennedy

Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall! - Ronald Reagan

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them — this morning, as they prepared for their journey, and waved good-bye, and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God." - Ronald Reagan

I can hear you, the rest of the world can hear you and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon. - George W. Bush

I believe that I speak for every single American when I say that we are horrified over these events, and that we stand united with the people and the police department in Dallas. - Barack Obama

Yet, even with these words of strength, clarity, and comfort...fear remains.

More Than a Race Problem

Is there a race problem in America? Absolutely. While we have come far, we are continually reminded that we have far to go. There is still a race problem. This became evident to me last week as I was driving through a small town in northern Arkansas and saw a billboard advertising "White Pride Radio." Now, in case you haven't checked...I'm white. Lily white. I've always been white. I identify as white. I don't even tan well. Yet, when I saw the billboard, I was angered. Cloaked in "racial pride" and featuring an image of a young girl holding a puppy along with the word "Love" plastered on the sign, I was angered at the deception. This wasn't love. It was hate disguised as love. I went to the website and immediately it changed to a KKK online radio station. Yeah, I deleted my browser history.

Now, I realize that one billboard does not define an entire town. There are people in every community who are "color blind." There are true Christians of all races and in every neighborhood who value life because we are God's image-bearers.

 

I cannot speak as a black man, brown man, tan man, red man, yellow man, or any other shade of melanin man because, as I stated before, I'm a white man. It's a bit disingenuous to speak on behalf of a person or people group that one does not belong. Yet, here's what I do know to be true - hatred is not reserved for any one race. Well, I take that back. Hatred is something that develops within a particular race all too well - the human race

This is why political statements and posturing will never completely solve the problem. Division is the nature of man. Pride is the default setting. Anger is natural. Evil and depravity need not be taught. 

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? Jeremiah 17:9 ESV

It's our nature. It's why we have crime. It's why we need laws. It's why we need police officers.

So, as the stories unfold and sadly, another tragedy will hit the news soon, I fear (not because I know any specifics, but because I know the heart of man) we can rest assured that within the storms, within the crises, in the midst of the fear and the anger and the danger known in this world, evil only appears to be winning. Ultimately, love does win. Not the watered down hashtag of #LoveWins that has been used the past few years, but the agape, grace-centered, gospel-founded love that is Jesus Christ! 

In the meantime, we pray. 

Yes - Pray!

Yet, let's be more preemptive in our prayers. Don't wait for the tragedy to create the latest #PrayFor_____ trend (which I've used and will, so I'm not knocking that) but let's pray now for those grieving and mourning, for those seeking to get through today and the next, for those who are sworn to protect us, for the black lives, for the brown lives, for the red lives, for the yellow lives, for the white lives (I just had a flashback to the "Jesus Loves the Little Children" song I learned as a child) and for the mixed races (which at this point in our history includes just about everyone on the planet) and the blue lives (which include all the previous ones listed but whom wear badges and run to danger.)

 

Let's pray for strength, protection, and security, but let's amp it up a bit. Let's pray for salvation and the rescue of the depraved and desperate hearts that Jeremiah mentioned are within us all. Let's pray for those who do not know the rescuer, the ransomer of hearts, the redeemer of souls, the way, truth and life to know and surrender all to him. And let's not just pray for them, but be obedient to tell them of this great salvation.

For you see, apart from Christ...there is no hope.

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. Ezekiel 36:26 ESV

But with Christ, we have true hope. A hope that gives assurance that in all the craziness we experience, God remains sovereign.

 


Why We Plant Churches & New Campuses

Back in 2011 I attended the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting in Phoenix with one of my good friends. It was during this conference we began to pray about the journey of planting churches. The North American Mission Board was unveiling the "Send City" strategy and the impact of reaching people in strategic areas around the US and Canada. Our church had already partnered with a church planter—Chase Delperdang of Tucson, Arizona. The partnership was our first foray into this updated strategy of community engagement.

Over the years, we have partnered with planters in cities such as Portland, Colorado Springs, and Los Angeles. We fund as a sending church a family in Toronto and and another in Washington, DC.

Even as we have continued these relationships and seek to discover ways to support more fully, God continues to call us and challenge us to engage in our own community even more. 

We are an active support and assessing church for our local network and have recently created our own mini-network for the purpose of reaching more people in our community and surrounding towns. We know this is what we must do and yet, some, even within our church wonder why.

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Why Invest in Church Planting?

Some argue that planting churches is nothing more than a trendy movement. I have even heard some declare it to be unbiblical. Even when pointed to the unfolding of the church's expansion in the book of Acts, there are some who protest and do not see these as synonymous. Yet, I deem a church planting movement as not a new idea, but an outgrowth of cultural engagement and affirming, if not fulfilling, the words of Acts 1:8.

Granted, the term "church planting" is not in the Bible. However, disciple-making is and while some scoff that church planting is little more than institutional promotion, the reality is that healthy church plants (i.e. new expressions of local church bodies, grounded upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ) lead to the fulfillment of the Great Commission and Great Commandment. God is honored and loved. People are loved. Disciples are made.

That being said, the varied church plants we sponsor are led by men called by God to make disciples of Jesus Christ. This is about Kingdom-growth, plain and simple. When church planting fails in this area, it fails fully.

A few years ago, Ed Stetzer, then of LifeWay Research and himself a church planter wrote an article focused on why established churches should plant new works. Here is an abbreviated list of his reasons (full article may be found here.)

  • Church planting reaches lost people. Now retired Executive Director-Treasurer of the Florida Baptist Convention, John Sullivan stated in a denominational meeting that new churches reach lost people at a better rate than established churches. He stated that we don't know exactly why this is, but the results prove it to be true.
  • Church planting follows a biblical pattern. Church planter, John Worcester gives a good overview of church planting as a function of the New Testament church in the video embedded below. His site is churchplanting.net 
  • Church planting is essential for survival. For any movement to thrive, it must multiply. 
  • Church planting benefits the planting church. When life change occurs within the ministries and plants sponsored by a church, the Lord energizes the "dry bones" for His glory.
  • Church planting is necessary to reach North America. This is the foundation of the Send strategy.
  • There's never a good time to plant - do it anyway.

In addition to planting and supporting new church plants, we are expanding into other regions of our community with satellite campuses. Churches have done this for years and we hosted a couple of campuses in years past. We did much well, but also learned from some 20/20 hindsight as to how to map and strategize better. There are numerous options when it comes to satellite campuses. Our model is to plant these in community schools, focused on reaching families, while serving the community. Each campus will have an on-campus minister and messages will be live, not video presentations. At this time, our new campuses will meet on off-days and times from the traditional Sunday morning. Go to creek.church and island.church to see a brief preview of where we will launch.

Why Put a Campus Where There Are So Many Other Churches?

One question that continues to be raised by friends about these campuses focuses on location and "why?" In each case, there are numerous other churches (of varying flavors) around. Yet, there are some demographic realities that have become clear as we have studied the areas. The truth is that the majority of those in the communities, even with numerous other churches around, do not attend any church of any type.

Some would say, "But if they wanted to attend, there are enough options. Why plant another?"

The simple answer is because we believe God is calling us to do so.

I was talking ton one friend about the Fleming Island area where we hope to plant Island Church next spring. There are numerous churches in this highly populated area. In addition to a young, large Baptist Church there are Catholic, Methodist, Anglican and even a new, fast-growing ARC church. Each is unique and yet, many are not engaged. The lostness in the community is overwhelming, as is the case in most every area in our nation.

In Fleming Island, at the corner of the two major roads are six pharmacies. It seems odd, but at Walmart, Winn-Dixie, Target, Publix, CVS, and Walgreens, residents can get their prescriptions filled as well as purchase other desired and needed items. Six pharmacies! Isn't that too many? Wouldn't one be enough? Well, apparently no. Each one seems to be doing well and apparently there are many, many people in our community purchasing legal drugs. The rumors are that the illegal ones are pretty rampant as well, but because it's a nice community they seem to be mostly designer drugs...but, I digress (too many cop friends, I guess.)

It's not exactly a fair comparison, but if there's a need for six pharmacies for physical ailments, surely there's a need for as many "spiritual pharmacies" that God desires to address the spiritual ailments of the people. 

So, we are planting a new campus, in Fleming Island and near Orange Park South. While these two areas are close, the demographics are vastly different. The barriers (bridges, waterways, divided highways, subdivisions, etc.) clearly create separate communities where the church is needed.

We Plant for the Sake of God's Kingdom

Tim Keller put it well in his article "Why Plant Churches"...

WE PLANT CHURCHES AS AN EXERCISE IN KINGDOM-MINDEDNESS.

All in all, church planting helps an existing church best when the new congregation is voluntarily birthed by an older “mother” congregation. Often the excitement and new leaders and new ministries and additional members and income wash back into the mother church in various ways and strengthen and renew it. Although there is some pain in seeing good friends and valued leaders go away to form a new church, the mother church usually soon experiences a surge of high self-esteem and an influx of new, enthusiastic leaders and members.

However, a new church in the community usually confronts churches with a major issue—the issue of “kingdom-mindedness.” New churches, as we have seen, draw most of their new members (up to 80%) from the ranks of the unchurched, but they will always attract some people out of existing churches. That is inevitable. At this point, the existing churches, in a sense, have a question posed to them: “Are we going to rejoice in the 80 percent—the new people the kingdom has gained through this new church—or are we going to bemoan the situation and resent the three families we lost to it?” Our attitude to new church development is a test of whether our mindset is geared to our own institutional turf or to the overall health and prosperity of the kingdom of God in the city.

Any church that is more upset by its own small losses than grateful for the kingdom’s large gains is betraying its narrow interests. Even so, as we have seen, the benefits that new church planting offers to older congregations is very great, even if not initially obvious.

A New Metric

As we move forward in our planting and campus launching, we seek to do what every church says they want to do, but few succeed. We seek to reach lost, unchurched people for Christ. While most churches affirm this, many of our traditionally "successful" church starts (and I'm talking about in my denomination and community) reach fewer lost people and more saved, disenfranchised church members from other congregations. 

Just to be clear - moving Christians from "Church A" to "New Church B" is not Kingdom-growth. It may eventually lead to such, but unless Church A is celebrating the renewed heart of these transferred members and these people are fully engaged in big picture engagement (i.e. they're not just marketing their new brand of church, but are actually living their faith and sharing Christ) this is a facade of church growth.

I feel for the pastors and campus ministers who end up with a room full of former members of Church A. What do you do? Tell them to leave? Maybe, but that becomes a distraction as well.

J.D. Payne threw this option out on the Verge website...

We don’t need more flavors

What would happen if we recognized that a wise use of our Father’s resources (e.g., money, people) should be to assist in planting churches from out of the harvest fields, instead of establishing a new work in a community to provide a different style of worship/ministry for the believers who are already there?

We do not need another flavor of church in the Baskin Robbins of North American Christianity; we need missionary bands to settle for nothing less than disciple-making that results in new churches.

What would happen if we equipped and commissioned church planters with the task of only going to the lost in the people group/community?

Yes, we say we are advocating these things, but let’s begin to question our results.

Try this.  The next time you hear about a new church planted, a record number of new churches birthed in an area, or church planting goals reached, just ask the question, “What percent of the members of those churches recently came into the Kingdom of God?”

So, we echo the stated intention of every church planter and established church pastor I know when we say "We want to reach lost people!" Pray that we do and that we avoid the easy trap of using an old model that creates a perceived successful church, but no disciples. Pray that we live out our faith in ways that the lost are loved, even if they never come to Christ. Pray that we don't lose focus.

More to come as we continue on this journey. Please pray that much would be made of Jesus and that God alone would be glorified. 


Anxiety, Depression and the Church

I recently preached from Matthew 6:25-33. In this passage Jesus clearly commands his followers to not worry. In the ESV, the verse states "Do not be anxious about your life." It is pretty clear, as indicated in our congregation, when I asked "How many of you worry about things like money, clothing, home, your kids, etc.?" that just about everyone (and it looked like everyone) worries. Hands went up throughout the room. This may have been the most hands in the air in a Baptist church on record.

In reading the passage, Jesus speaks to his followers and basically asks "Why do you worry? God has this!"

It's true, even as Christians we tend to fall into this trap of wondering if God is going to come through. We ask "Did he get my request?" and sometimes, well, to be hones, we act like we have a better handle on what we need than God.

I mentioned that ultimately Jesus was speaking of the sin of unbelief. This is a natural drift based on the Enemy's strategy first revealed in the Garden of Eden. When the Enemy addressed Eve and Adam, he basically presented them with the possibility that God was untrustworthy and was holding out on them. That lie has been perpetuated ever since.

So, when Jesus says "Do not be anxious about your life..." he is addressing this core reality of unbelief. Do we really believe God? Do we really trust him?

To doubt and become anxious in this way is to subtly, and maybe subconsciously agree and affirm that God doesn't really care and will not come through. Jesus reveals the antidote for this sin of unbelief and it is found in verse 33 where he commands us to "seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness." Apparently, you cannot actively seek God and not believe God. Therefore, this action is preceded by repentance.

But What About Anxiety?

I have friends who struggle with anxiety and what has been termed a medical disorder. Anxiety, worry, and depression are not all synonyms, but there are some similarities. What about the man or woman who struggles so deeply with anxiety and finds it debilitating? What about those who know the Lord and sincerely pray for release and help? What about when those answers do not seem to arrive?

For years the church has ignored the reality of mental illness. In some cases a response of "Just pray about it" was about all pastors and fellow Christians would offer. Some actually seem to have traveled back to the first century where every physical and mental illness was the direct result of individual sin. While this may be the case at times, ultimately all illness results from the fact we live in a fallen world where sin has infected all of creation. 

So, as I preached Sunday on this passage regarding anxious living, some would rightly wonder if just "praying away" the issues is enough? 

Believe me a superficial prescription is never biblically sound. 

Since 99.9% of the congregation publicly admitted that worry was prevalent in their lives,  prayers of repentance of not believing God needed to happen. It needed to happen in my life.

As for those who have diagnosed anxiety disorders or some other affirmed mental illness (and those two words—"mental illness"—need not be forbidden by Christians) the truth remains that God is ultimately the answer. 

For my friends who ask "I keep praying and God isn't taking this away, so now what?" I cannot help but think of Paul and his "thorn in the flesh." However, I don't pretend to easily equate the two. It just comes to mind and makes me wonder. I also think of Job who suffered much. The physical suffering of God's children is not always removed in a timely fashion. The mental suffering isn't either. 

This we know...God is not absent, nor is he ignoring his children.

The crowd that heard Jesus say "Do not be anxious" apparently were much like me and many who were here Sunday. They (we) were sinfully choosing to not fully believe that God was sovereign.

Person-man-sitting-floor

I Believe, But Still Suffer

I grieve with those who seem overwhelmed by suffering, whether physical or mental. Christians are to grieve with those who grieve and to be honest, there are times when we just cannot understand what another is feeling.

I recently saw a commercial for a medication designed for people who suffer from migraine headaches. My wife suffers from these on occasion and she said that commercial nailed it. It is hard, if not impossible, to explain to another what is being experienced during these headaches. Words do not suffice. Pain is real and those who have never experienced it can be hurtful by simply stating "Just take some ibuprofen and take a nap." 

This is similar to those who suffer from anxiety or depression. They, too, have shared an inability to verbalize exactly what they feel and are experiencing. So, "Just be happy and get over it" is not really a helpful prescription.

So to those who suffer, my prayers for you are offered (comment below if you have specific requests). Repentance of the sin of unbelief is needed in my life, and likely in most every follower of Christ. Repentance of the sin of offering superficial prescriptions rather than true prayer and love for those suffering is needed as well.

An article by Brandon Peach on the Relevant website revealed this...

Anxiety and depression don't look how we often think.

When I've opened up to Christian friends about my own depression and anxiety disorders, they're often surprised. “You seem so happy all the time!” Depressed people become really good at hiding their symptoms, even from doctors, because of the stigma attached to the illness. Churches often don't address mental illness, which gives the worship team guitarist or the elder even more incentive to keep it hidden away. Furthermore, the symptoms of depression often tend to contradict each other, which makes it really difficult for a person suffering from depression to recognize it for what it is—let alone for the Church to recognize it.



“Learning to recognize the signs” then is often a failing strategy. If churches begin responding to mental disorders as a community willing to offer encouragement and support, people suffering from those illnesses may just be able to accept the help. It may just be people you never expected.

Even churches that seek to provide a safe haven for those suffering in their midst might not have a judgment-free place to discuss their struggles. Programs like Celebrate Recovery can provide an invaluable forum for people to interact with others who experience “hurts, habits, and hangups,” and can help deal with some of the self-medication many people with depression and anxiety use to numb themselves. Without a carefully planned strategy to deal with mental illness, though, “all are welcome” might not be enough. Healing comes from a prayerful, loving community that seeks to truly understand major depressive disorder and related conditions, and one that develops a positive response.

Most churches probably have the very best intentions when dealing with issues of mental illness. Like the rest of society, however, the Church may misinterpret these clinical conditions and respond to them in ways that exacerbate them—and as a result, demoralize those suffering. Christ, the Great Physician, came to heal the sick. As His body, it's time the Church leads society in helping to do the same.

A Pastor's Look at Depression

Perhaps one of the most helpful stories regarding these issues comes from Pastor Tommy Nelson of Denton, Texas. Tommy entered into a depression that led to severe changes in his life. Even as a pastor of a Gospel-centric, Bible-believing church, he found the church's readiness to respond lacking. Below is a video of him sharing his story at a chapel service held at Dallas Theological Seminary. It's a long video, but worth the time.

 

 


When Chick-fil-A Opened on Sunday

Full disclosure: I'm a Chick-fil-A apologist.

I worked at Chick-fil-A when I was in high school. Those were the days when the restaurants were pretty much exclusively in malls and the menu included such things as deep-fried apple pies (they need to bring this back,) the Chick-N-Q and meals were served in cardboard boxes that looked like barns.

My children both worked for Chick-fil-A during high school and college.

We still eat at Chick-fil-A regularly. I even recommend students in our church to work for our local restaurants. I keep hoping for a kick-back in free nuggets for that.

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Photo credit: StockMonkeys.com via VisualHunt.com / CC BY

There are many people who love Chick-fil-A.

There are also many people who hate the restaurant. Most of those who declare their hatred for Mr. Cathy's restaurant online and in the news state that it is the "intolerant" beliefs of ownership and the anti-LGBT policies of the business. This stems from CEO Dan Cathy's statements regarding his personal convictions that oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage. You may remember that firestorm that hit the airwaves a number of years ago. I wrote about that here in a post from 2012. I remember squeezing into our local Chick-fil-A for a "Stand with CFA" grassroots event that drew more customers than in the history of the restaurant. Nevertheless, the cultural barrage continues to this day.

Some cities declared Chick-fil-A was not welcome to open restaurants within their municipalities. The news goes on and on and on. And Chick-fil-A continues to grow and while labeled as hateful for those who disagree with the owners religious and personal convictions, the local restaurants continue to illustrate their openness to hire qualified employees with no regard to race, religion or sexual orientation.

Sundays at Chick-fil-A

One of the most widely known characteristics of the Cathy's restaurants is that they are not open on Sundays. This was founder Truett Cathy's conviction as a Christian and active member of his local church. Though money is to be made by being open seven days a week, he refused to allow this. There are stories of individual operators who lost their restaurants when it was discovered by corporate that they were opening on Sundays. Even the powerful malls of the 1970s and 1980s could not sway Chick-fil-A to open. This is still true today. I remember a few years back as I was leading a mission team back to the US from a two-week project in Europe. We were to land in Philadelphia. We were pretty excited because we knew there was a Chick-fil-A in the Philadelphia airport. Yes! In Philadelphia there is sweet tea! It did not take long for our excitement of having our first American meal in two weeks of a Chick-fil-A sandwich, waffle fries and sweet iced tea wane due to the realization that we landed in Philly on a Sunday. 

Nevertheless, the "closed on Sundays" rule has remained. Apparently, it hasn't hurt Chick-fil-A as a business. They continue to grow and increase influence through leadership training, Winshape Camps and other ventures.

The Story Most Aren't Hearing

There are stories that hit the news and there are some that never make it on television at 6pm. Here's a good news story in the midst of a tragic event that illustrates that loving our neighbor is still the best policy.

Apparently, last Sunday in Orlando, the local Chick-fil-A opened. However, this operator is not likely to be in trouble. In fact, it seems that Chick-fil-A approved of this special Sunday opening. The opening was unique and in response to the terror attack at The Pulse nightclub.

Here's the story by Lairs Johnston:

Chick-fil-A is famous for two things…chicken sandwiches and controversy.

Like last month when the New York City Mayor urged people to boycott the restaurant because he felt they portrayed a hateful message towards the LGBT community. Well, this past Sunday, a day they’re infamously closed, they decided to do something out of character to help the victims.

Upon hearing the news of the Orlando shooting the restaurant opened its doors and fired up the grill, cooking hundreds of chicken burgers and orders of fries. The only thing is, they didn’t sell any. Instead, they donated everything to the local blood drive where people were gathered to donate and help out the victims of the massacre.

According to the DC Gazette, hundreds of people were fed and even posted about it on social media this past Sunday.

The owners of the popular Christian company have shown Christ in a time of tragedy. They didn’t compromise their beliefs, just showed them by extending love, opening their doors on a day they’re known for staying closed.

“They will know we are Christians by our love”–not for our best friends, not for our families or other Christians, but by how we love those who hurt us and disagree with us.

The Orlando shooting was an attack on the LGBT community. Let us not allow it to turn into more attacks – on the LGBT community, on the Muslim community, on each other.

Does This Really Matter?

Well, truthfully, it's just a local restaurant giving away chicken sandwiches. In the larger scheme of things, maybe it is really not that big a deal. Yet, here's why I believe this is significant. Johnston states it well when he says "They didn't compromise their beliefs, just showed them..."

Not every employee at Chick-fil-A is a Christian. Not everyone who works for the company agrees with the CEOs personal convictions. These are facts that are likely true in every corporation. Chick-fil-A is not really a "Christian company" because only people can be Christians. No restaurant goes to heaven when it finally closes. Yet, the people who work at this local restaurant (and I'm sure there were other restaurants and organizations that provided free meals and drinks as well to those in Orlando) did what Christ modeled. They actually did what the church should.

If you're in Orlando or following the reports focusing on the community, you will notice that many churches and followers of Christ have and are serving those who are hurting. Pray for those who wear the name of Jesus as they seek to love those the culture says they hate. Pray for our churches as they seek to minister and reach those who are hurting and scared and need to know that there is a Way to Life and He is Truth.

Love wins. And that's more than a watered-down hashtag.

 


Resurrecting the Dead Church

Christians are all about resurrections. At least every Spring when the pastels come out and Easter services are planned. 

When we baptize individuals in our churches, we're declaring a resurrection. In fact, I tell each person I baptize that they are about to preach the most powerful sermon ever. At that point, I tend to get a worried look as the person is thinking "I didn't know I was going to have to preach?!?" Then, I tell them that the very act of believer's baptism is the greatest illustration of life from death. The immersion reminds all who watch that Jesus died and was placed in a tomb  (buried.) When I pull the person back up out of the water, it is a picture of Jesus rising from the dead! What a sermon!

The baptism also shows that the individual died when he/she surrendered to the lordship of Jesus Christ and was raised up a new creature in Christ. Old is gone and the new is here! 

It's a powerful image and I never grow tired of baptizing. 

What About Resurrecting the Church?

But what happens when the local church is in need of resurrection?

The numbers declare the reality - churches have a life-cycle. Based on statistical analysis from the North American Mission Board, over 70 percent of SBC churches are plateaued or declining. While attendance is not the only indicator of health or life, it is a strong one. Even so, as we look across the board, only 10 - 15 percent of our churches can be categorized as healthy and multiplying.

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By the Numbers

  • Across the SBC, we see close to 900 churches close annually
  • Two-thirds of these closures are churches over ten years old
  • Two-thirds of these closures are churches in growing, metro areas
  • The implications for Florida are that we see approximately 65 churches close annually
  • In the Jacksonville area, this means that almost 30 churches could be called "healthy," around 150 "plateaued or declining," and approximately 30 at or near risk of closing

In a meeting with denominational and regional leaders recently, we compared these statistics with known numbers of churches in our area and the data matches. Fortunately, our leaders and engaged churches are not content to see the statistics remain. We are blessed in our region to have wonderfully strategic, godly, and discerning leaders focused on these issues (Thank you - Rick Wheeler and the Jacksonville Baptist Association, especially.) Nevertheless, no denominational strategy will ever be sufficient to turn the tide. Working harder is not the answer. 

We have been able so see some amazing success stories in our city relating to church renewal and revitalization. In most cases, our associational leadership has played the role of broker between churches in the healthy ten percent and those in the bottom grouping. For this we are grateful.

While it is clear that God is moving among churches in Jacksonville and through the Jacksonville Baptist Association, we know that small victories will not shift the 70 percent into the category of "healthy and multiplying."

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Dying Churches Need a Strategic Shift

Many of our churches throughout Jacksonville were launched in the 1950s. They experienced growth and have histories of community engagement and victories. However, in many cases, the best days are decades in the past and the community around the church changed. Unfortunately, some churches have died. Honestly, some needed to die. Yet, I personally hate to see a church turn inward, ignore the gospel, grow calloused and die on the vine, especially in communities that are so in need for a clear, loving, biblically-relevant, gospel witness. 

John Mark Clifton, Lead National Strategist for Revitalization/RePlanting at NAMB, recently wrote a post about the reality of dying churches. In this post (found here), he breaks down the "Signs of a Dying Church" and all should take this to heart:

There is one reason a church dies. The church in Ephesus loved doctrine, they believed the truth, they worked hard, and they endured. But they were doomed to die if they did not return to that which they did at first. The church of Ephesus began with a bang (literally). It was birthed with a passion to reach its community and to make disciples. Over time, however, this passion waned. When a church ceases over a period of time to make disciples who make disciples and realize community transformation, that church will die.

The symptoms of a church near death are many and they include:

  1. They value the process of decision more than the outcome of decision.
  2. They value their preferences over the needs of the unreached.
  3. They have an inability to pass leadership to the next generation.
  4. They cease, often gradually, to be part of the fabric of their community.
  5. They grow dependent upon programs or personalities for growth or stability.
  6. They tend to blame the community for a lack of response and in time grow resentful of the community for not responding as it once did.
  7. They anesthetize the pain of death with over-abundance of activity and maintaining outdated structure.
  8. They confuse caring for the church facility with caring for the church members.

Most church leaders and members of local churches can see how these eight things can happen. In truth, most of us must repent for allowing these things to happen. This isn't rocket science - when we turn inward and focus on that which doesn't matter for eternity and the sake of the gospel, we begin to die. Sure, churches have life-cycles. Seriously, who's talking about the latest great things happening at the Church at Ephesus?

Yet, even with the known "life-cycles" of local churches, it is unhealthy and sinful to ignore that which God has called us to do. Is it possible that 70 percent of SBC churches have unintentionally allowed the worship of the church or the past to keep them from being who God has called them to be? Autonomy is wonderful, but we must not ignore the benefits and gospel-centered strategies (i.e. as exemplified in the book of Acts and Paul's letters) of being Kingdom-focused, community-engaged, partnered (or maybe "cooperating") churches. If the chain is only as strong as its weakest link, there is the possibility that we are only as strong in our community as our weakest church.

So, it's clear that dying churches need a strategic shift, but in many cases, they may not have the personnel or resources to do such. This is why strategic cooperation is so needed. The big church vs. small church battles that have grown in so many areas over the decades must go away. The battle is too grand to spend time focusing on issues that do not matter. So, as we check our egos at the door, we must come together for the sake of the Gospel. Is it possible? Not without divine intervention. 

Some dying churches will refuse to change. In many cases, they will become a local community's new CVS or Walgreens (depending on which corner the other one is built.) While affordable prescription drugs may fill a need for a community, I still believe a sold, Gospel witness will fill a greater need.

Will it be easy? Nope! But, who said ministry was easy?