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

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

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

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

Church Competition

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copy + Paste Programming

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Press on. Be encouraged.

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

 

 

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


Black History and White Pastors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'm Not Racist, But...

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

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

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

Racial Unity Must Be Gospel Unity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It may even be risky.

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

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

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

Unity in the Gospel

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Black History Month. 


When "It Could Happen Here" Actually Happens Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It could happen here.

Now, it has happened here.


Church Unity Is Not Always a Good Thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Church unity is not always a good thing.

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

Sometimes, unity can be sinful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet, they're unified.

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

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

They are wrong.

See what I mean.

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

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

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

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

So, unity is not always good. 

When Unity is Godly

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

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

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

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

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

May we be unified in Christ.

____________________

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


Pastor - Are You Prepared to Preach a Funeral?

I have the honor of serving with and leading numerous young pastors and church planters. These men have a passion for God and a heart for the gospel. Yet, there are those moments when pastoral expectations and responsibilities are thrust upon them that are far from what they were thinking when they first surrendered to God's pastoral call.

One such responsibility is preaching funerals.

We are only four days into 2018 and so far we have hosted one funeral, have two more Friday, one next week and another pending.

Since 1994, when I first began serving on pastoral staff at our church, I have attended and preached at well over 100 funerals. I have most of my messages saved. I have learned some things through the years and while this is not an exhaustive list, perhaps it may be helpful for young pastors and those who find themselves having to speak at a church member's or loved one's funeral service.

EXPECTATIONS

Everyone has their own expectations of what a funeral service should be. In fact, each region of our country expects different things. In our area, the visitation held the day before the funeral service is mostly gone. Yet, in some small towns in the South, I know that this continues. For example, in the small Tennessee town where my parents live, a dear friend of our family died on January 1 of this year. I received word of the service with the announcement that visitation would be held at the funeral home on the day prior to the service for three hours with an additional two hour visitation at the church where the funeral would be held. 

There's nothing wrong with that tradition, it's just an example of something that is rare elsewhere. 

Therefore, if you as a pastor are new to the community and have not attended a funeral in the area prior, ask some questions. Find out what is the norm for the region. There's no reason to push against what has been done prior, especially if it is simply traditional preference and not biblically wrong (I'll address biblical issues later in this post.)

Family members of the deceased often have expectations as well. This can range from having things they want done at the funeral to trusting you to plan and do everything at the funeral. Again, not an issue, just be aware. 

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Here are some bullet points on dos and don'ts for funerals (in no particular order):

DO

  • Pray before you meet with family that God will comfort them in their grief and provide you with wise words of counsel in preparation.
  • If you sense division among the family, take control of the planning of the service in a loving way, offering to ensure that God is honored. 
  • Ensure you know how to pronounce the name of the deceased.
  • Ensure you don't use a given name that was not preferred by the decedent or family members when referencing the individual.
  • Meet with the family members, or a family member, prior to the service when planning what to say.
  • Share stories of the decedent that bring smiles to loved ones and remind them of the life of their loved one.
  • Realize that a lifetime cannot be encapsulated in 30 minutes.
  • Have appropriate songs played, sung.
  • Ensure doctrinal teaching is biblically founded and correct.
  • When allowing family members or friends to speak, ask them to write down what they will be saying. Be firm in this. There's always that person who says "I don't need to write anything down. I'll just share from the heart." That's a mistake. You may find yourself correcting bad theology that is espoused, or sitting behind them as they speak, not hearing what they are saying. This may lead to you repeating what has already been shared. And, if they have it written down, you can provide them comfort in case they cannot finish when they began to speak by just reading their notes aloud on their behalf.
  • Remind family members that no one other than you is expected to speak, but if you would like to offer them the opportunity, do so (see above point.)
  • Pray during the service.
  • Pray for God to comfort those who grieve.
  • Create an order of service that flows naturally. (Example: Obituary Reading, Prayer, Family Message, Song, Pastoral Message, Prayer, Closing Song.)
  • Communicate with the funeral home representative regarding the order of the service so you know and they know what is coming next.
  • Ensure the casket is closed when the service begins. It's hard on the family and challenging for the pastor to speak behind an open casket. 
  • Offer hope - real hope founded in the gospel. You know this. Just make sure it's in your notes so you don't minimize it.
  • Ensure the message focused on Christ and that he is presented as the only one worthy of worship and that God alone can bring the peace, hope, and life celebrated on this day.
  • Make each funeral unique and special. The biblical message is unchanging, but the family stories and memories are unique. 
  • Offer a call to salvation. This does not have to be a "come down the aisle invitation" but should at a minimum be an invitation to come to Christ and speak to you or another Christian following the funeral.
  • If military honors are going to be provided, clarify when (likely at the graveside) and work with the honor guard to ensure a smooth transition. In most cases, at graveside service following the funeral, I will simply read a passage of Scripture and pray and then step back, turning over the remaining graveside service to the honor guard. If the folding and presentation of the flag is to take place during the funeral service, I finish my sermon, pray, then step back turning over the closing of the service to the honor guard. Communication and coordination is key to allow for proper service and protocol.
  • If the deceased was a believer, ask if he/she had a Bible they used and perhaps highlighted verses or took notes within. You may find some treasured memories or insights into what to share.
  • Pray and prepare and trust God.
  • Use Scripture (Some passages I've used in the past - Ecclesiastes 7:2, John 5:24, John 13:7, John 14:1-6, 1 Corinthians 15:50-58, Philippians 1:20-24, 1 John 5:13.)

DON'T

  • Forget that this is a time of worship, where the Bible is preached, God is worshipped, and hope in Christ is made clear.
  • If at all possible, do not have an open microphone where people are invited to come forward and share about the decedent. It can be an wonderful moment, but it can also be stressful. If no one stands up to speak, people will be hurt. In most cases, it's because people are not comfortable speaking in front of a crowd. If people do begin sharing, the time could go on and on and be stressful for family and friends as well. However, if this becomes something the family really, really wants, ask if they have a few people who would agree to speak and then share with the congregation that you'll open up the floor to two or three more just to share a brief, two or three sentence testimony about the deceased. It may sound uncaring, but actually provides for an orderly service where God is honored and the loved one is remembered well. Also, be prepared if you have to do the open mic to have some things shared that probably should not be.
  • Allow music that is dishonoring to Christ. That does not mean every song must be a hymn, but some songs are inappropriate. Had one request for the decedent's favorite song to be played during the pre-service slide show. I had never heard of it and didn't know it was a request, but received a call from the funeral home asking "Is this song okay?" I guess the part about smoking pot and getting drunk on Courvoisier raised the question. We opted to not use that song.
  • Forget who your audience is. You're speaking primarily to the family members and close friends who are sitting up front. Focus on them. Don't worry about the others who came to the service.
  • Forget to offer hope in Christ.
  • Give false hope. If the deceased was not a believer, don't say "He/she's in a better place." You don't have to be rude. You don't need to be mean. Just don't give the family and others in the room the false hope that everyone gets to heaven. 
  • Share or affirm unbiblical ideas. No, dead people do not become angels. No, your loved one is not your guardian angel. No, your loved one is not watching over you. No, your loved one is not in your heart. No, your loved one is not in heaven just doing bigger versions of earthly hobbies (i.e. golfing in heaven, fishing in heaven, watching football in heaven regardless what Audio Adrenaline said, eating ... well, okay, there's eating.)
  • Talk forever. 
  • Let the video slideshow run during the service. It's great for pre-service, but distracting during the service.
  • Invite everyone to the meal following the service unless you've been instructed that everyone is invited and there is enough food available (if the post-service lunch is a custom in your area.)
  • Allow an open casket during the funeral. During the visitation prior that is fine (if the family chooses) but preaching behind an open casket is difficult, not just for the pastor, but for the family sitting before it.
  • Presume the family wants you to preach at the funeral. Clarify the ask.

There are many more things to do and not do, but as you serve God's church and the community during times of grief, these are some guidelines I believe may help. What are some other suggestions you have? Leave them in the comments. 

 


Thank You for Your Prayers, but You Can Keep Your Prayer Requests

Any long-time church attender in our nation, who has been part of a Sunday School class (or small group, or life group, or home group, or fellowship group, etc.) has likely, at one point, experienced "prayer request time." Now, I know I'm treading on thin ice here. If not read fully, some will say that I'm bashing prayer request time. I am not. I am, however, bashing gossip time disguised as prayer request time.

I touched on this recently in an interview with Janice Backer of Missions Mosaic magazine that focused on some prodigal issues within our family. Some of what is referenced below was covered in the article (link at bottom.)

Regarding Prayer

As our family was working through the shock and pain of revealed sin in our child's life, we found ourselves shaken deeply. Questions regarding personal and parental failures developed. Prayers and deep times with the Lord regarding continued service in the church and continued service in ministry as a pastor were common.

Someone asked if it felt like we had a child die. While I understand the question, and perhaps some similar emotions arose, to equate what we were experiencing with that of parents who had buried their progeny would be insensitive at best. My parents had a baby boy (my brother Michael) who died. My grandparents had a daughter who died at a young age. Many in our church family have suffered the grief of funeral planning for their children, so no, our grief was not the same.

Nevertheless, it was definitely grief we were experiencing.

For the most part our church family responded to our struggles as God's children should. My wife and I experienced the love and comfort from those who were hurting with us. The empathy and sympathy from those who had experienced similar stories was as a healing salve to a wound. Our child was never ostracized from the church. Our child was continually accepted (though the sin was not) and loved as part of the church family. Concerning our child's personal salvation, what seemed certain years ago now leaves us not we are now not certain, but the church never equivocated on the gospel nor on the call to love.

Nevertheless, some did believe it their calling to confront. They did so in love, at least the ones I am aware of. Yet, what is often meant in love may not be received as such. Since most of our confrontations are not loving, it is very difficult to actually do this biblically and in some cases, the "righteous love" that was intended was not perceived. I'm not blaming here, just point out the fact that any confrontation in Christian love, best be prayed about prior with heavy emphasis on "Christian love." That being said, Christian love may feel harsh to the confronted. In fact, it almost always does. Christian love is focused on redemption and righteousness. When those two elements are not present, it's not Christian love. 

The Prayer Requests

Well intentioned Christians can fall quickly into a mode of gossip under the banner of "prayer requests." This did happen in some cases. This was not helpful. In fact, it was wrong and remains wrong. 

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Photo by Listshack on Visualhunt / CC BY

I want to roll my eyes when the serial prayer requester starts talking about some unnamed neighbor's cousin's brother-in-law's circumstance in need of prayer...five states away. I wonder "Is this really a prayer request, or someone's need to be sure they have something on the list?" 

The Unspoken Prayer Request

The unspoken prayer request is good, but can be overused as well. Almost every group has the person who wants to express aloud...every meeting...that he has an unspoken. I often wondered as a kid "Wonder what that is? I bet it's really bad!" and sometimes it is. I am all for the wisdom of offering these types of requests and seeking intercession from the community of faith. Sometimes, the issue is just too embarrassing or not yet something for public discourse. Sometimes, unfortunately, it is an unspoken request because the person needing prayer just does not trust the others in the class to truly pray without spreading gossip.

The Un-prayed List

I often wonder how many in the group that gathers actually prays over the requests shared. I'm not seeking to throw anyone under the bus, but I've been guilty of being in a group, hearing requests and then just praying the "Lord, answer all these needs" prayer. Sometimes, I let someone else pray and I just agree by closing my eyes. I'm convicted of this.

At some point, the name on the list, if you do the list, needs to be covered. Find ways to ensure that these needs that have been deemed authentic are actually prayed for by believers. It could be by assigning a portion of the group to pray silently for a just a few requests, or even one. I don't have that answer, but I know that a name on a list with a generic "bless everyone" is not what is needed.

Prayer Availeth Much (James 5:16)

In our circumstance, we continually seek prayers from our church family...in all seasons. I know that many have been and continue to pray.

Thank you!!!!

We have found healing and strength beyond measure through God during these storms of life. The journey is long. One person's (or family member's) sin is no greater than another. Sin is never excused, but it can be forgiven. We are continually reminded that love and affirmation are not synonyms and this has been bedrock for us. 

We have been affirmed that our resting in Christ provides what we need when worry and stress seem overwhelming. (Sometimes, we need reminding about every 30 minutes.) 

Keep reading the Word. Keep trusting in God. Keep resting in Christ. Keep holding true to the Truth, without compromise. 

Keep praying...but consider your prayer requests, keep them holy.

__________

Story referred to from from the December, 2017, issue of Missions Mosaic. Used by permission. To receive this issue or to read more articles about how to exhibit grace in difficult life situations go tohttps://www.wmustore.com/missions-mosaic.


Thoughts on Marriage and Weddings from a Pastor's Perspective

As a pastor, I have the privilege and honor of standing before couples and presiding over services that unite them as husband and wife in holy matrimony. Over the years, I have learned some things about weddings and marriage. Many of these are things I wish I had been taught prior to getting married (as does my wife, because I think I would have been a better husband early on.) 

So, here are some insights...

Premarital Counseling is Vital

There are numerous online and face-to-face courses available for pastors to lead couples through prior to marriage. We have used many in the past and currently utilize Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott's SYMBIS assessment. SYMBIS stands for "Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts." We have found it to be helpful, but as with any online assessment, it is only as helpful as the couples are honest and open to feedback. The key is the analysis of the data and the assessor's leadership and guidance.

Premarital Counseling Must Be Focused on Biblical Truth

The SYMBIS assessment offers great insight into personalities, conflict management, expectations, and more. These allow for questions to be asked and considered in the counseling session. SYMBIS' is not an in-depth Bible study, so I have found that looking through biblical teachings regarding marriage, the role of husband and wife, the challenges faced, etc. is invaluable. 

Some things that must be covered...

  • Biblical marriage can only be between a man and a woman - (Genesis 2:24)
  • Male and female are not genders to choose, but created by God intentionally - (Genesis 1:27)
  • Marriage is to be between Christians - (2 Corinthians 6:14)
  • Marriage is to last a lifetime - (Malachi 2:16)
  • Sex is reserved for the husband and wife - (1 Corinthians 7:2)
  • Premarital sex, even for engaged couples, does not honor God - (Hebrews 13:4)
  • Marriage is not a contract, it is a covenant - (Matthew 19:6)

Insight from others such as Paul David Tripp and Jay Adams have helped as we look to Scripture for direction. 

Jerry Maguire Was Wrong

I have referenced the popular movie at times with couples (not an endorsement of the film, by the way) and now, I have found that many young couples have never seen the movie and therefore, do not know what I'm talking about. Nevertheless, there is a famous scene the film where Tom Cruise's character finally comes to grip that he is in love with Renée Zellweger's character, who happens to be his wife. Well...watch it below.

Sure, it's a romantic moment. It works for the film. Men and women alike go "I get it" and for Hollywood, this is pretty good. And "You had me at hello" sounds like it could be the name of a country song, but I won't go there. 

Yet, there's a problem. 

If one's spouse "completes them" then we have a big problem. No human being can bring completion for another. As Christians we know, well at least we should know, that only Christ brings completion. Once our "soul-mate" or whatever culturally devised term of endearment is attached to our spouse that places upon him/her a role that is reserved only for Christ, we devolve into practical idolatry. Disappointment at a minimum results.

Finances are a Big Deal

When one spouse has accumulated debt, once married, the couple has debt. Debt from student loans, cars, and especially credit cards is rampant in our society and younger people often do not see the problem until it is too late. Sometimes, age has nothing to do with these blinders. BTW - just paying the minimum on your credit cards will never get you free. 

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Remember - debt makes you a slave (Proverbs 22:7)

There's no escaping this. Justifying your debt accrual does not make it okay. It especially does not make it go away. 

Now, having debt is no reason not to get married, but refusing to talk about it and work together to devise a plan to get out of debt is a huge issue.

When two become one, communication lines must be more open than when dating. 

While it may be acceptable to have separate bank accounts and credit cards in some cases, I believe those cases are rare. To be divided regarding income, debt, and other financial areas leads to division in the relationship and provides fuel for the enemy in his attacks. Simply put, it is not wise to keep financial details and accounts from each other. 

One spouse may say "How are we doing financially?" and the other respond "We're okay. I'll take care of it."

While that may sound comforting, it actually works to create discomfort, distrust, and ultimately division. 

Just remember, it's hard to be one, as God commands, when you continually live as two.

So, finances must be discussed openly. Plans must be make jointly. It is okay for one spouse or the other to take care of all banking and bill paying. That's not an issue. But secrecy and lack of communication is not God-honoring and not honoring of the marriage covenant.

So...I don't like prenuptial agreements either, because that foresees a divorce. There may be cases when it would be acceptable, but those are rare.

Whose Home?

When a couple marries, and we're speaking of a Christian couple who is not living together, often one spouse will move in to the other's home, even if for a short while prior to getting a new home.

Interior-of-modern-room

The husband and wife must both be aware of the challenges here. If the single man has a place, even if he's a neat freak and actually cleans up, that is a bachelor's residence. When the wife moves in and starts redecorating and moving things and giving the home a "woman's touch" it can create tension. 

The "my house" verses "our house" transition is real.

The same is true if the woman lives alone and the new husband moves in. 

There's no real fix here, but awareness of the stressors that could come must be made known. 

Parents, In-Laws, and Family Members

Here's my recommendation to parents - don't drop in on the kids unannounced. Don't do it. Ever.

This may seem strange, but I have stories of couples I have counseled. They married. Each have great parents and yet, there was this never-ending drop in that took place and the young couple was finding themselves in a position of trying to figure out how to tell mom and dad to stay away without offending.

So, since parents are older and hopefully wiser - stay away and give the couple time to figure out what it means to be married. 

If you have a key to their house (because they gave it to you) don't use it to go over when they're not home. Yes, I knew of one set of parents that did that. Mom would go over and listen to their voice mails, read their mail, put pictures on their refrigerator, take pictures off. Write things on their calendar, etc. She was off the chain and yes, it caused problems. That couple eventually divorced. It wasn't all mom's fault, but she certainly didn't help matters (especially when she encouraged her daughter to divorce the son-in-law.)

In a Christian marriage, we believe it is God who brings the couple together. Rarely, if ever, does God ask the parents or siblings of the new husband and wife for their approval. Family members need to remember this. New family members may not become best-friends, but they do become family. 

Here's a hard reality - sometimes it is best for the new couple to be transferred to a new city, away from current friends and family. It may not be, but in some cases, the forced reliance on God and each other allows for strengthening of the marriage. In other cases, that support system at home is needed.

Marriage is More Important Than the Wedding

The wedding is a commodity marketed well today. From venue rental, floral arrangements, online registrations, saying "yes" to the dress, and thousands and thousands of dollars spent on a one-day event, it is easy to lose sight of what God is doing. 

Flower-wedding-love

In fact, even in the most beautiful weddings happening nowadays, God can actually be ignored, and left off the guest list entirely. We must remember that God created and ordained the marriage. He uses it as an image of Christ's relationship with his church. Marriage is God's idea, not society's.

Church weddings are becoming passé. That's okay because I have performed ceremonies in churches that ended up being godless as well (despite my focus and best efforts.) If the church is the people, then the building is not the focus.

Nevertheless, brides and grooms are now inundated with what must happen and occur for a wedding to be good. Those images rarely, if ever come from the Bible. They come from bridal magazines, TLC shows, and pressure to have the "best and most unique ceremony ever" that often looks just like all the other unique ceremonies that have happened over the previous years. 

Don't get me wrong, a beautiful ceremony is wonderful. My concern is that so much money and time and effort is spent on the ceremony being perfect and right that many couples are forsaking that which must be focused upon - the marriage. 

You can have a great ceremony and a terrible marriage.

You can also have a less than perfect ceremony and an incredible marriage. 

I fear far too many marriages end before the parents of the bride have finished paying the debt incurred for the "perfect wedding ceremony." 

Final Random Thoughts

Over the years, there have been many things learned. Here are some that just don't fit in any of the more important categories:

  • Your two-year-old niece or nephew is not more mature than others their age and probably shouldn't stand on the stage for the entire service.
  • Having the Lord's Supper is not good for evangelicals. That's an ordinance for the church alone.
  • Writing your own vows is great, unless you're a terrible writer and just downloaded something from the internet. In most cases, traditional vows are best.
  • Music is wonderful, but only when it's wonderful. A song in the ceremony that is God-honoring is good. Lady Gaga's latest hit...not so much. Save that for the reception maybe.
  • When your wedding is supposed to start at 1pm and it's outdoors, and it's 108 degrees, don't sit in the dressing room, in the air conditioning for an extra fifteen minutes making your guests sit outside in the heat. Be on time.
  • If you drop the ring during the ceremony, let the pastor pick it up. Otherwise, you're a YouTube hit.
  • If your best man or maid of honor forgets the ring, fake it. Get married. Find the ring later.
  • If everyone is not invited to the reception, tell the pastor before he invites everyone to the reception.
  • To the groom - make sure your bride likes the ceremony. Defer to her. This is best. No one comes to a wedding to see the groom.
  • If you use candles, don't wrap flammable greenery around the candelabras. This happened at our church. It's funny now. I think. We still talk about it, though the bride wishes we didn't.
  • If you have a reception and people are there waiting to eat, don't take another hour for pictures without letting guests go through the buffet. They're hungry. They love you and want to see you enter, but hurry up already with those pictures.
  • As Pastor Tommy Nelson once said, "This is the last time she (the bride) will be ready on time and this is the best he (the groom) will ever look."
  • When the pastors says "We can't to that" that means don't do that, whatever that is, regardless if you saw it in a movie, at another wedding, or if your mom or wedding coordinator wants it done.
  • Don't try to force everyone to dance at the reception, especially tall white-guy pastors who just would rather not. Not that he doesn't have moves like Jagger, but some things are best left to the living room at home while playing Just Dance on the Wii. Not that that ever happens. Just saying.
  • Remember, the wedding is a worship service and neither bride nor groom are the ones to be worshipped. Make sure God smiles upon you as you enter this covenant relationship.

What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate. - Matthew 19:6b (ESV)


She Walked Away from Church Wounded, Ready to End Her Life. But, Then...

I received this email from a member of our church yesterday. I asked permission to share the information in this blog post, believing it may be helpful to others who have felt alone, empty, and forgotten, not to mention those who have lived with scars and wounds brought on by sexual abuse and harassment. She said I could share and that hopefully, someone will be helped. 

WARNING: Some of the information below is graphic.

The story is from a woman who has been an active member of our church for years. She is a self-described introvert of sorts. She has served in various areas of ministry for seasons in the past, but last year (2016) she stopped attending church regularly. She has carried deep wounds from her past and has struggled with understanding her value to God and his church, and to others. The enemy's lies and accusations have weighed heavily upon her for years. Last year, she almost ended her life, believing the lies of the enemy that that would be best.

Woman-desperate-sad-tears-cry-depression-mourning-2

Thankfully, God has rescued her from that moment and continues to do so. Her email was shared with me after she shared it with her counselor. I have edited it for brevity and eliminated names as needed.

On Sunday, October 15, 2017, Pastor David preached a sermon from Matthew 18:10-14. This word from Christ references the lost sheep and how the shepherd rejoices when it is found.
 
Pastor David talked about our church. He talked of the ones who have been active, but would be described as introverted in personality.  He talked of the ones who are part of the church, but never really talk or share much in small groups. These are the ones who attend and are active, but just keep to themselves. The he shared what happens often. One Sunday, they are not there. They miss a small group meeting once. Then another. And before you know it, they aren't attending regularly, if at all.  Those who know them began to wonder about them and yet, that's all. They wonder, but no one thinks enough about them to see where they are or what is happening in their lives. 

Pastor David shared of a student he once had in youth ministry. This young lady was very active in the youth group and the church. She was there whenever the doors were open, so to speak. She attended camps and even went on mission trips. when he was a youth pastor. Then, one day, she was not there. That one day led to many. Pastor David later ran into her in a local store where she was working. He said, "It’s been a while since I’ve seen you. We’ve missed you at church."
 
She responded, "I've been gone. I'm like that lost sheep. Why was no one looking for me?"

This sermon had me thinking about what was going on during my recent nine months of not attending church at First Baptist Orange Park. This was kind of how I felt.  I felt lost and believed no one cared enough at FBC to come looking for me. In truth they did come looking for me. I know people are busy and they have their own lives and I was the furthest thing from their minds. It was completely okay, I made the choice to leave. (Please know that these are the lies I was believing at the time.)
 
Reflecting back on 2016: It was a hard year. Suicide has been something that I had thought about in the past, but never really acted upon. Yet, during this season, I actually did more than think about it. I took a step further because I planned out my suicide with detailed plans of how I would do it. If not for not having the one tool I was going to use to finish it, I may have. Things would be much different now for my family. 
 
My selfish thoughts were:
  • No one cares.
  • My family will be better off if I wasn’t around any more.
  • My husband can find a better wife who will take care of him and the children.
  • Others who know me will forget all about me within moments of me being gone - as if I never existed anyway.

These were just some of the thoughts I was having that led up to that day in May 2016. On that day, I shared with a friend and due to this friend's care, I was actually Baker Acted. My friend apparently cared too much for me to see me die.

Following my time in the hospital, I felt as if I was branded by society with labels - weak, gives up easily, worthless, no good, doesn’t belong here. It was one shaming title after another.

Going through the motions of life became more and more challenging because the darkness kept taunting my thoughts. The shaming pressure that I kept putting upon myself. I was listening to the lies, and ignoring the voice of God that speaks clearly through his Word.

I was keeping tragic memories alive. I was living in the wounds of the past. It was painful, but I was recollecting all that was done to me as a little girl. That girl (me) seemed like someone else, but I knew it was me and I could not find healing.

I was that little girl, living in shame from being sexually abused for nine years.

As I began to think about all that had happened to me and began to blame that little girl (myself) for the abuse. I forgot what she had to endure to survive. How she was told to respect her elders, no matter what.

"Do as your told with no arguing or discussing."

"Speak only when your spoken too and preferably, not at all."

This little girl was not a rule breaker, for the most part. She did as she was told, at times she would show her true colors and act out. However, for the most part though she just did what the adult told her to do.

The adult, the authority, would lay down  next to me.

"Take off your shirt. Let me have your hand. Touch me here and move your hand this way. This is our little secret. This is our precious time. You are so beautiful. You need to hurry up. Go faster. Stop wasting time. Your doing it wrong. Let me show you how to massage. Spread your legs."

As he began to "massage" her in ways that no man other then her future husband should be touching her. She just followed directions. She did not want to get in trouble.

These words and so many others are like are like broken record in my thoughts. I have visions or flashbacks of different experiences from my childhood like this. They haunt me and have kept me in bondage.  

In the past, I would just find ways to punish myself by cutting or not eating.

It was the only way I could find control when it seemed like everything was out of control.

These choices are no longer an option.

I have chosen to work through my past and the pain that was inflicted upon me. In the past, I had chosen to stay stuck at times because it was too much to take on.  I had chosen to turn away from God because I believed the lies of the enemy that I was no good and just a waste of his time.

Hearing these lies on a continuous basis, somehow they felt like truth. Over time, going to church and hearing and singing about how great is our God and how awesome he is felt like torment within my spirit.

The battle between what I was raised to believe and what I was experiencing became too overwhelming and the only thing I knew to do was walk away from the church. I knew I was to far gone and was not able to be healed.

At least that is what I thought I knew.

Thank God he had a different plan and the same friend who made the phone call to have me Baker Acted also took me under her wing. She mentored me and took me to her church. They prayed with me and guided me through so I could stand once again.

I'm learning to ask for forgiveness when I fall short, instead of remaining paralyzed with self-affliction or condemnation. I'm believing God and his Word and trusting him.

I’m no longer an abused victim. No one is causing pain or purposely hurting me. The only one that has kept the past alive is me and it is time to put that time to rest. It is time to say good-bye to a man that caused so much confusion and pain in my young life. I'm learning what biblical forgiveness is. I now see that I have lived a life of blame - blaming others and blaming myself, and in so doing, finding no healing. 

Today (October 22, 2017) our church, First Baptist Church of Orange Park will be singing at the Orange Park Fall Festival at the Town Hall grounds. We will be singing "Trust In You."

Shelvin, Lamb, our Worship Pastor, has a way of picking songs that go to the core of your soul. Sometimes these songs are so hard to sing because of the bondage that I have chosen to live within. This makes it hard to speak truth when you allow lies to feel like truth.

I’m learning to trust in Him. It is a daily challenge, but as each day that goes by He continues to show me how much He loves, cares, and cherishes me even when I do not. He draws near to the broken-hearted. He brings rest to the weary. His promises are truth and He will never break them.

So today, I am praising God for being my shepherd. For bring the right people in my life at the right time to minister and pray with me as I went through the struggles of 2016.

This year has been a learning experience and with that, painful at times. As always, God knows what we need and He continues to meet our needs. This sheep strayed for a while, but because of who He is, she has found her way back home. I love my First Family and missed being part of the choir so much. Thankful that they welcomed me back.

What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.  - Matthew 18:12-14 (ESV)


It's Not the Victims' Fault! - Why Christians Must Not Ignore the Weinstein Story

For the past week, it seems that every news report, trending topic, and entertainment update has been about the fall of Harvey Weinstein.

Weinstein, along with his brother Bob, founded Miramax and the Weinstein Company.  The multi-millionaire entertainment mogul has numerous Oscars and hit films to his credit. He's been politically active through donations and appearances over the years. Nevertheless, he is trending now not because of his political leanings or entertainment business prowess, but because he has been accused of numerous sexual indiscretions and harassment. 

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Harvey Weinstein - Photo credit: Thomas Hawk via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC

Actress and director Rose McGowan started this story trending when she went public via Twitter with how Weinstein harassed her. Once she opened this story to the public, many others have shared their stories. 

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Rose McGowan - Photo credit: gdcgraphics via Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA

However, as with any news story featuring prominent people, numerous click-bait stories are developed and responses that either totally miss the point or skew the story by making it about something else. In this case... 

It's Not the Victim's Fault

Some have seen these stories on the news and online and the added public testimonies from other actresses (and some actors such as James Van Der Beek and Terry Crews) and have wrongly tried to minimize what Weinstein is accused of doing. When you hear someone say "Well, where were these women years ago?" or "Why didn't they say something earlier?" the not-so-subtle message is that the women are to blame or at a minimum, they're just joining the crowd and may not truly have a story.

Victims of sexual harassment often do not feel strong enough to go public with their story. There is shame attributed to them by the harasser. There is fear that grows - in this case, fear that careers will end and opportunities lost among other things.

To blame the victim with such statements as "Well, they were asking for it" or "It's Hollywood. That's how things are done" do nothing more than elevate sin as acceptable.

Time Doesn't Heal

Many of the stories coming out now are based on incidents that took place years prior. An abused, harassed young person can and will likely carry the memory of the event throughout life. Time may heal in the sense that it's easier to move forward, but the over-simplification of believing just existing more days will eliminate the pain is unfounded. Some of you reading this know the truth of that. You were abused, attacked, harassed at some point years ago, but even now, at times, that memory comes back. And it's not helpful. 

When I was a young boy of about eight, an older teenage boy attempted to sexually attack me. I won't get into the details, but rest assured that memory of the two of us walking in a field is in high-definition in my mind. Thankfully, my vocal chords were working well and the older friend acquiesced and the stopped. It was dealt with at the time, and nothing was actually done to me, but I was scared and ashamed. Even as a child, I knew something was very wrong. 

Unfortunately, there are others who did not have their incidents end as mine with no physical damage. 

It's Not About Politics

Due to Weinstein's far-leaning liberal political bent and friendships with certain politicians, some have used this story to make it all about politicians and liberal politics. While I am far from a liberal politically, to stoop to using this tragic story as fodder simply for political positioning and proclamation.

Conservatives and liberals alike must understand that voting record does not determine whether sexual sin is present or not. Both ends of the spectrum have far too many abusers in their ranks.

The Church Is Not Immune

Amazingly, some have pushed back when our local church implemented stronger security measures for leaders and volunteers. Yet, there are enough (far too many, actually - and one is too many) examples and stories of pastors, evangelists, teachers, and leaders who have taken advantage sexually of others in the church to warrant such steps. We have all read stories and heard testimonies of those who were abused by conservative, evangelical pastors or Catholic priests, or liberal church leaders. The sins of those claiming their roles as divinely given resonate and must be addressed as well.

It's About Power

What do Weinstein and others like him have in common? There are numerous things, but ultimately it's about power. Whether an older teenager abusing a child, an adult doing so, a stronger man abusing a women, or a pastor, politician, boss, or media mogul, perceived or actual power over the victim leads to the abuse. In the case of Weinstein, the threat of losing roles or having one's script shelved, left some actresses vulnerable to his attacks. While many of the stories coming out now are from superstars who by their own words, escaped the hotel room of the creepy, bath-robe wearing executive without actually having been abused physically, some have shared they were not so fortunate. I fear there are many others who have yet to go public that may have been abused in ways I cannot imagine. And, what about the non-celebrities who did lose their chance by walking out?

Power can corrupt, and often does. When Tom Hanks was asked about Weinstein, he referenced a quote that rings true - "When you become rich and powerful, you become more of what you already are."

It's Ultimately About Sin

Hanks quote is true at so many levels. The Hollywood Reporter ran an interview with Bob Weinstein (here). The title states it clearly "Bob Weinstein Gets Emotional on 'Depraved' Harvey."

Harvey is depraved...and so are all of us. And that is why we need a Savior.

We all like comparative analysis to make ourselves feel better. That's human nature. I mean, "I'm bad, but at least I'm not Weinstein bad," right? Well, hopefully you're not, but that doesn't mean you're not depraved.

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

There Is Hope

That's the message of the gospel, right? Apart from Christ, the sinful heart cannot change. It cannot be rehabilitated. It cannot evolve. Apart from Christ and transformation through him, sin is excused, blame is shifted, justification of evil reigns. God's great light reveals our darkness and the fact that we cannot fix our problems ourselves. There's not enough therapy in the world to impact this epidemic.

But there is hope, and his name is Jesus Christ.

God promised his children in the Old Testament that he desires and can change the hearts of men.

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)

Thankfully, we have a chance at redemption through Christ.

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)

Forgiveness is available and transformation can happen. Yet, while there is no condemnation for those in Christ, consequences remain. For sins such as those being revealed, blanket forgiveness for unrepentant people is not biblical. Yet, willingness to do so is. As for consequences, if found guilty Weinstein (and others as well) must not have their indiscretions ignored or justified. 

For the entertainment industry, the casting couch stories must end today.

Don't Miss the Point of These Stories

So, while you're watching the news or reading the latest trending stories on Twitter, be careful not to miss the real stories here. The world is shrinking thanks to social media. Publicists no longer have complete power of creation when attempting to paint their clients in a good light, when evidence otherwise mounts.

You may not agree with Rose McGowan's politics or worldview or even be a fan of her films, but she should be lauded for her willingness and bravery in bringing this story to light. Others have shared their voices, but many would have likely remained silent had Ms. McGowan not opened up.

She may not desire it, but I'll be praying for her and the others. These are not two-dimensional characters from films. These are real women (and men) who have suffered as victims and their voices must be heard. Prayerfully, action from those with the power to make changes will come. More than a "like" on a tweet is needed.


Revered and Reviled - the Life, Death, and Impact of Hugh Hefner

Hugh Hefner is trending because Hugh Hefner has died.

News reported this morning that the founder of Playboy Enterprises died last night at the age of 91. 

Hefner has been an iconic individual in western culture since the 1950s when launched the first issue of Playboy magazine. The first issue featured Marilyn Monroe (whom Hefner never met) on the cover in a photo from her 1949 nude calendar shoot. That issue sold 50,000 copies and a new industry of acceptable and easily-accessible pornography was born.

Photo credit: Alan Light via Visual hunt /  CC BY
Photo credit: Alan Light via Visual hunt / CC BY

Hefner's biography has been told in snippets, documentaries, and streaming mini-series, but most remember the image he portrayed as a playboy (go figure) who wore silk pajamas all day, surrounded himself with beautiful women, had numerous girlfriends, lived in a mansion, created the Playboy bunny imagery, and developed an entertainment empire that amazingly is now considered mainstream by many in the culture.

The son of traditionally conservative midwestern parents became a voice for sexual freedom as a revolution took hold. Yet, as tweets and statements of thanks fill social media today with people attempting to be humorous by thanking Hef for all the "articles" in his magazine, it is with deep sadness that as a Christian I heard of his passing.

Dr. Russell Moore says it well (full article here)

The death of any person is a tragedy. Hugh Hefner is no exception to that. We can’t, though, with his obituaries, call his life “success” or “a dream.”

There is no doubt that the pornification (a word borrowed from Pamela Paul's book Pornified) of America and western society has harmed individuals and families and continues to do so. When Hefner and others pushed against the boundaries of decency, cultural outrage was high...and now, what was once deemed as harmful is considered "no big deal" by many. 

Pornography is a $50 billion industry (and that's a conservative estimation) and with the pushing of boundaries, it became newsworthy with Playboy announced just a few years ago that they would no longer feature nude imagery not for moral reasons, but as was stated in an article featured in The Week at the time:

The decision was made by top editors and founder Hugh Hefner, who agreed that Playboy and its nude women don't pack the same punch they did when the magazine launched 62 years ago. 

Nevertheless, Playboy has gone back to nudes. It seems that the shock of clothed women in magazines wasn't as profitable as originally expected.

Every Man Has a Story

The stories about Hefner and Playboy keep trending today. From references to his many girlfriends, the launch of his Playboy Clubs, his arrest for breaking decency laws, to appearances in The Simpsons, references in Iron Man movies, and the mainstreaming of the grandfather-figure who lived carefree and without boundaries. 

Yet, at some point, from the biblical worldview, we must concede that the image presented publicly was likely not the full story. It never is.

A number of years ago Karen Covell and her husband Jim found their calling in Hollywood. Jim is a composer for film and television. Karen is a producer. As followers of Christ in the entertainment Mecca, they seek to live as lights in the darkness.

It was a number of years ago when Karen was hired as an associate producer for Headliners and Legends with Matt Lauer. The show aired on MSNBC and featured interviews with some of the individuals who had proven instrumental in shaping culture. Karen mentioned that her desire was to start by featuring an interview with Dr. Billy Graham. She was overruled and her first feature would focus on Hugh Hefner. I shared of this encounter at a men's retreat a number of years ago. Here's the story of Karen's encounter with Hefner:

Karen’s first reaction, “It really disturbed me.  I came home to Jim and I said, 'I don’t think I can do this.’  Jim sat and looked at me and said, ‘You know, you need to start praying right now for Hugh Hefner and for the opportunity God is going to give you.'"

Karen felt like she’d been hit by a ton of bricks.  After all, Paul went to Athens and Corinth, the seat of pagan influence and sexuality in his day, why should she run from the Playboy Mansion?  And so, the next day while talking to Rick, her producer, Karen took the risk of sharing the conversation she and her husband had had the night before, knowing he might not understand or support her perspective, her jaw dropped when he responded, "You know, I’ve struggled with this - doing this interview."  Together, as producer and associate producer, Rick and Karen decided to develop a different slant on the story.  They would focus, not simply on Hefner’s successes and renown, but on why he became who he did.  After all, everybody has a story. 

When the day of the interview arrived, they sat down with Hugh Hefner and the producer asked questions based on their research.  What were Hefner’s parents like?  What was his upbringing?  What characterized the early days of his life?  Imagine the shocked crew, listening as Hefner began to pour out how he had been raised in a puritan home of religious tradition.  His parents believed in God, but not a God of grace, love or compassion.  Theirs had been a rigid religion.  They never told Hefner, nor his brother, ever, that they loved him.  His mother never kissed him because she  wanted to avoid germs.   And so, Hefner set out to find love wherever he could.  With dry eyes, Hefner recalled how his parents had given him a blanket, when he was a child.  His security blanket.  He painted a very vivid picture going to bed at night, hugging his blanket, the only thing he had to hug, the only thing that returned any warmth.  The blanket was bordered with bunnies.  It became his bunny blanket.  Hefner recounted how, as a boy, he always wanted a puppy.  But his parents, especially his mother, said that dogs spread germs, so there couldn’t be one in their house.  It was only after they discovered a tumor in Hefner’s ear, that they thought they would finally buy Hefner a dog.  No one could have predicted, however, that the dog would unexpectedly die after just five days.  Hefner recalled how he wrapped his dying dog in his bunny blanket as a means to comfort the puppy.  But when they puppy died, his mother buried the dog and burned the blanket.  Both, sources of his deepest comfort, were suddenly gone.

And then he said very matter of fact, “I guess I’m still just that little boy, trying to find love.”  

Karen said, "The room was hushed in silence as we all sat and listened to this famous man pour out his story.  We realized the gaping void that had existed deep in this man’s soul.  He went on to tell us that every Friday night, he gets together with close friends and watches old romantic movies because he’s still searching for the love that he never had. I realized that this man had confused sex with love and had turned a desperate need, into a way of making money." 

It was after that interview that she had the privilege of writing Mr. Hefner a letter.  “I thanked him for the opportunity to tell his story.  I thanked him for time he allowed us to get to know him better.  I told him that in spite of all he had accomplished, I still believed there was one thing still missing in his life.  He hadn’t met a loving God and did not know him personally.  And so, I challenged him to seek him out. 

I was amazed when, two weeks later, he wrote me back. He thanked me for the interview that he said he enjoyed very much and he would consider my words.  That following Christmas, after running into him again, I gave him a beautiful Bible with his name on the front.” 

Now does that necessarily mean that’s going to change Hefner’s life?  No.  But what it does mean, is that the Covells understand what it means to be salt and light in the workplace. (story from Bob Reccord and Randy Singer's book Made to Count)

Many stories and responses today regarding Hefner's death will continue to enter the public discourse. There are those who revere him. There are those who revile him. Yet, as I read Karen's account, I'm reminded that every person has a story. Each person's story reveals a gap, an emptiness. Clearly only Christ can fill that need.

Even for Hugh Hefner. He was a man who lived with a deep father wound. A wounded man who sought healing and peace in places that led to deeper wounds. 

Hefner was no different than anyone else. And, as far as we know, he did not respond to the free gift (not just the Bible, but the message within.) 

And for that we can grieve.

Click here for the MSNBC feature referenced.