GUEST POST: "Hard to be a Christian in the 'Church World'" by Ashley O'Brien

Ashley O'Brien has been active in church her entire life, raised in a pastor's family and now serving on the Leadership Team of firstFAMILY (FBC Orange Park) as Director of Social Media

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I genuinely get excited when someone surrenders their life to Christ. When a person listens to God and steps out to serve and be a part of something bigger makes me glad. It's inspiring and exciting when a man and wife plant a church intent on reaching the unreached. It's so exciting when Christians act like Christians! I love when people get excited about the Gospel and have to do something about it. However, sometimes it seems the steps taken seem to be focused wrongly. That's is what has led to my frustration.

Ashley
Ashley and her husband Jordan

I, just like other Christians, want to reach people for Christ. I want everyone to be involved in church -  a solid, biblically-focused church. I want people to know what they are getting into when they accept Christ. I believe they should feel at home when they enter the church's facility. Like many, I want to create a place that is attractive and inviting and what some would call “trendy.” Yet, I don’t want to sacrifice the Gospel for that. Jesus himself is attractional to a degree. Just look at the crowds that gathered to see him during his time of ministry around Galilee.  Of course, not everyone in the crowd were truly followers. In fact, most were not followers of Jesus, just fans. Jesus' words were offensive. The religious leaders didn't like what he said. Eventually, those who were just there for the show walked away. Apparently, they were offended as well, or perhaps when they truly listened to what Jesus was saying (i.e. "Carry your cross") they decided it was too much. 

Too many churches are founded on how to make church look “cool.” The flashy lights, the cool logo, the unusual name that hides the fact the group is truly a church all are part of the marketing strategy to reach Millennials. The great graphics and promos, the promise of free food and maybe a coffee mug, or whatever gets people to take a second look, to ask a question, to check it out are used by just about every new church, church plant, and legacy church seeking to engage the culture. In many cases, these things work. The room is filled. People come. Even Millennials show up. That’s the target audience is seems for most new churches now. And though it is exciting to reach this generation (my generation), the "stuff" that's offered can sometimes be nothing but "fluff." That’s the frustrating part. We fill the “church facility" (whether it's an established church building, a rented school cafeteria, a theater, warehouse, or even restaurant) but are we seeing transformations? Are we seeing people surrender their lives to Christ? Or are we filling up a room for an awesome production for people who look like they are worshipping (and in truth, many truly are) and appear to understand what God is saying through the pastor's message. But, let's be honest. sometimes the appearance or worship and engagement are based on what we think we're supposed to look like. You know, "This picture of me standing and worshipping will look great on Instagram or Snapchat!" Sorry, if that sounds cynical, but I have grown up in the era of big worship production events and while I love the music and the gatherings, it is just way too easy to fall into the trap of performance (even when you're not on stage) rather than truly worship.

It’s hard being a Christian in the world for obvious reasons. This is not earth-shattering. It's always been hard to be a Christian in the world. Why? Because the world never celebrates Christ. Believe me, as difficult as it is to be a follower of Christ in a post-Christian culture, I know what we face here in the west truly does not even compare to what our brothers and sisters in Christ face throughout the world, especially where persecution means death and not just being made fun of on social media. 

Yet, I’m finding it becoming more difficult to be a Christian in the "church world." This was something I never expected. My frustration is growing in the area of church life that seems so close, but yet so far from what living missionally truly is.

I want to invite people to church, but I won’t apologize for when they hear the Gospel preached. If anything other than the biblical message is preached, then calling the gathering a church is debatable.

If a church spends all their capital seeking to not look or sound like God's church, then at some level either the Gospel is not being preached or the group has pulled off little more than a "bait and switch." It's one thing for the pastor to be versed in apologetics (contending for the Gospel and defending the faith,) but something totally different if the pastor is apologizing for the Gospel, seeking not to offend.

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I would feel dissatisfied if all they heard was a therapeutic message. These types of messages are prominent and the crowd can listen without being able to discern if the message was from from the Bible or just a self-help book. The Gospel is offensive. It is truth. And, we all know that at times, the truth hurts. We don’t need to create churches that ignore truth. We don’t need another pastor building his kingdom and ultimately mar the Christian name. We don’t need a church that stands alone, either overtly or covertly building their crowds from those already attending solid (and maybe multi-generational) churches in the area. We need something else ... and I have no idea what that is, other than the truth and the Gospel.

New church plants are exciting. I believe they're needed. The numbers bear this out. My generation is growing less and less connected with the church. Yet, superficial fluffy entertainment-driven gatherings are not really the answer, are they?

So, from my perspective, our current churches, new campuses, and new church plants must have these:

  • Founded on Truth not a pastor's personality
  • Deemed successfully engaging not by how many Christians from other churches they can gather in a room weekly, but by how many lost are reached
  • Brokenness for the lost in the community, even if they don't fit the prescribed demographic of choice
  • Seeking the unengaged, not just the disgruntled attenders of other churches
  • Passion for the Gospel
  • Love of God
  • Love of people
  • Desire to make disciples...not just photogenic "worshippers"

As Christians, if we are obedient to what God has called us to do, God will be obedient to what He said he will do.

So, your gathering may have really cool stage lights and a smoke machine (those aren't bad...our church has them), a worship leader and band that does well, and maybe some really good coffee (free trade coffee, of course) and a bagel or even a free coffee mug or T-shirt for first time guests.  In fact, there's nothing wrong with any of those things. Do it. I like coffee mugs and free T-shirts.

But...don't miss the point.

Churches don't exist for us. They're for God. They're his to begin with.

Be attractional. No issue there, just don't focus so much on the things that don't matter in eternity and miss the Gospel.

Church planting is an exciting and scary adventure for most. I pray those pastors and launch team members hold tight to the truth and the reason behind it all. Reaching lost people for Christ.


It's Not Just the Prosperity Gospel That's the Problem - The Dangers of the Therapeutic Gospel

The Prosperity Gospel

As Baptists and Bible-believing evangelicals, the lies of the prosperity gospel are easily identified. This "name it and claim it" theological version of the gospel that lives somewhere at the far-end of DirecTV and on late-night television has been gathered funds from less-than-discerning followers for years. Years ago John Piper took a moment at a conference where he was speaking to share about his feeling regarding the prosperity gospel. It went viral and a few versions of that brief message are available on YouTube. I've linked one below:

For the most part, pastors and church leaders in the Baptist and evangelical world discount the false promises of the prosperity gospel and distance themselves from such. 

However, there is another false gospel that exists and it seems to be gaining traction, even within the framework of biblically-centered Gospel-focused churches. Sometimes, it sneaks in as a "short-term small group study" and sometimes in sermons or Sunday School classes.

The Therapeutic Gospel

We live in an age where therapy is not only accepted but marketed as needful for all. When it comes to therapy, I do not discount the need for such. I believe in counseling as a help for those in need. As a pastor, I offer counseling as well. Biblical counseling (not to be confused with what is often marketed under the broad term "Christian Counseling") is a powerful use of offering help and hope to those in need through the inerrant truth revealed in Scripture.

It's the focus on "felt needs" that drives this.

David Powlinson, author, teacher, and counselor shared these distinctions regarding the contemporary therapeutic gospel back in 2010. Not much has changed (full article here).

The most obvious, instinctual felt needs of twenty-first century, middle-class Americans are different from the felt needs that Dostoevsky tapped into (in his book The Brothers Karamazov). We take food supply and political stability for granted. We find our miracle-substitute in the wonders of technology. Middle-class felt needs are less primal. They express a more luxurious, more refined sense of self-interest:

  1. I want to feel loved for who I am, to be pitied for what I’ve gone through, to feel intimately understood, to be accepted unconditionally;
  2. I want to experience a sense of personal significance and meaningfulness, to be successful in my career, to know my life matters, to have an impact;
  3. I want to gain self-esteem, to affirm that I am okay, to be able to assert my opinions and desires;
  4. I want to be entertained, to feel pleasure in the endless stream of performances that delight my eyes and tickle my ears;
  5. I want a sense of adventure, excitement, action, and passion so that I experience life as thrilling and moving.

The modern, middle-class version of therapeutic gospel takes its cues from this particular family of desires. We might say that the target audience consists of psychological felt needs, rather than the physical felt needs that typically arise in difficult social conditions. (The contemporary “health and wealth” gospel and obsession with “miracles” express something more like the Grand Inquisitor’s older version of therapeutic gospel.)

In this new gospel, the great “evils” to be redressed do not call for any fundamental change of direction in the human heart. Instead, the problem lies in my sense of rejection from others; in my corrosive experience of life’s vanity; in my nervous sense of self-condemnation and diffidence; in the imminent threat of boredom if my music is turned off; in my fussy complaints when a long, hard road lies ahead. These are today’s significant felt needs that the gospel is bent to serve. Jesus and the church exist to make you feel loved, significant, validated, entertained, and charged up. This gospel ameliorates distressing symptoms. It makes you feel better. The logic of this therapeutic gospel is a jesus-for-Me who meets individual desires and assuages psychic aches.

Pastors lament the consumer mentality of many in the world today and yet, sometimes that which is complained about is propped up unknowingly by a version of the gospel that is less than complete. A less-than-complete gospel is a false gospel.

Signs That Your Church Members Just Want Therapy, Not the Gospel

Tweet: Every pastor, at some point in time, will hear church members state that they're looking for a new church. https://ctt.ec/KqG2f+Every pastor, at some point in time, will hear church members state that they're looking for a new church.

Most often the church members and friends do not state these directly, but just fade away in attendance and participation and eventually share that phrase with mutual friends or other church members. Then, over time, that phrase hits the ears of leadership.Sometimes God actually calls members of a local body of believers to unite elsewhere. However, unless that calling leads to missional engagement and missionary living, it all to often seems to be based on a desire for a new version of church, and sometimes is fueled by disagreement with pastoral leadership, theology, or programming.In all candor, it has been my experience that theological differences rarely are the tipping point. This proves to be the case when members join another local church that holds to the very same theological understandings. 

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Photo credit: Chicago Running Tours & more via Visualhunt.com / CC BY

Those who have itchy ears for the therapeutic gospel (which, in case it's not clear, is a false gospel) tend to offer one of the popular statements such as...

  • "I'm not being fed"
  • "I need...something from someone"
  • "I'm not being discipled"
  • "We need a better group for our kids"

...or other such phrase. 

Acquiescence to the therapeutic gospel is often identifiable through the overuse of "I" or "we" statements when it comes to what the church offers or does not offer. 

The church and pastoral leadership do not get a pass here. Poor leadership leads to ineffective discipleship. Inwardly focused churches are not disciple-makers. Therefore, they are prone to offer therapeutic philosophy disguised as biblical truth. Pastors and leaders must continually push against the drive (even within themselves) to build small kingdoms, keep the tithers happy, and bow to the false god of self-preservation and self-worship.

Powlinson addresses the five elements of the therapeutic gospel biblically this way:

  1. “Need for love”? It is surely a good thing to know that you are both known and loved. God who searches the thoughts and intentions of our hearts also sets his steadfast love upon us. However all this is radically different from the instinctual craving to be accepted for who I am. Christ’s love comes pointedly and personally despite who I am. You are accepted for who Christ is, because of what he did, does, and will do. God truly accepts you, and if God is for you, who can be against you? But in doing this, he does not affirm and endorse what you are like. Rather, he sets about changing you into a fundamentally different kind of person. In the real gospel you feel deeply known and loved, but your relentless “need for love” has been overthrown.
  2. “Need for significance”? It is surely a good thing for the works of your hands to be established forever: gold, silver, and precious stones, not wood, hay, and straw. It is good when what you do with your life truly counts, and when your works follow you into eternity. Vanity, futility, and ultimate insignificance register the curse upon our work life – even midcourse, not just when we retire, or when we die, or on the Day of Judgment. But the real gospel inverts the order of things presupposed by the therapeutic gospel. The craving for impact and significance – one of the typical “youthful lusts” that boil up within us – is merely idolatrous when it acts as Director of Operations in the human heart. God does not meet your need for significance; he meets your need for mercy and deliverance from your obsession with personal significance. When you turn from your enslavement and turn to God, then your works do start to count for good. The gospel of Jesus and the fruit of faith are not tailored to “meet your needs.” He frees from the tyranny of felt needs, remakes you to fear God and keep his commandments (Eccl. 12:13). In the divine irony of grace, that alone makes what you do with your life of lasting value.
  3. “Need for self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-assertion”? To gain a confident sense of your identity is a great good. Ephesians is strewn with several dozen “identity statements,” because by this the Spirit motivates a life of courageous faith and love. You are God’s – among the saints, chosen ones, adopted sons, beloved children, citizens, slaves, soldiers; part of the workmanship, wife and dwelling place – every one of these in Christ. No aspect of your identity is self-referential, feeding your “self-esteem.” Your opinion of yourself is far less important than God’s opinion of you, and accurate self-assessment is derivative of God’s assessment. True identity is God-referential. True awareness of yourself connects to high esteem for Christ. Great confidence in Christ correlates to a vote of fundamental no confidence in and about yourself. God nowhere replaces diffidence and people-pleasing by self-assertiveness. In fact, to assert your opinions and desires, as is, marks you as a fool. Only as you are freed from the tyranny of your opinions and desires are you free to assess them accurately, and then to express them appropriately.
  4. “Need for pleasure”? In fact, the true gospel promises endlessly joyous experience, drinking from the river of delights (Ps. 36). This describes God’s presence. But as we have seen in each case, this is keyed to the reversal of our instinctive cravings, not to their direct satisfaction. The way of joy is the way of suffering, endurance, small obediences, willingness to identify with human misery, willingness to overthrow your most persuasive desires and instincts. I don’t need to be entertained. But I absolutely NEED to learn to worship with all my heart.
  5. “Need for excitement and adventure”? To participate in Christ’s kingdom is to play a part within the Greatest Action-Adventure Story Ever Told. But the paradox of redemption again turns the whole world upside down. The real adventure takes the path of weakness, struggle, endurance, patience, small kindnesses done well. The road to excellence in wisdom is unglamorous. Other people might take better vacations and have a more thrilling marriage than yours. The path of Jesus calls forth more grit than thrill. He needed endurance far more than he needed excitement. His kingdom might not cater to our cravings for derring-do and thrill-seeking, but “solid joys and lasting treasures none but Zion’s children know.”

May we diligently focus on the truth of the Gospel and not settle for less than God truly offers. When our theology centers on self, and ultimately becomes a "me-ology" the church ceases to be church. This may be one of the greatest challenges we face nowadays, especially as the generations of church members and attenders dwindles. The natural response from many church leaders is to "offer what the audience wants" while sacrificing what we truly need.

What is needed? The Gospel.

The true Gospel.


Five Things We Did In Church That We Don't Do Anymore

As I reflect back to my life growing up in a Baptist church, I am amazed now at some of the things we did that just seem so wrong nowadays (and to be honest, they were likely wrong then as well, but times were different.)

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Photo credit: Steven Polunsky via Visual hunt / CC BY

Here are just a few of the things we have done, and to be honest, some of the youth events were under my leadership. 

  • Haunted House

    Yeah, a real haunted house. Just to be clear this wasn't some "baptized" version of a haunted house that used recreated car wrecks or tragedies with guys dress like angels and a Jesus actor intent on scaring people into heaven. I was in junior high school. This was a traditional Southern Baptist church in the midwest and I am still not sure how or why we did this, but I will tell you this - the autopsy room and electric chair room we built was incredible! It was just...wrong. There was fake blood, but no talk of being "washed in the blood." Maybe we had snacks afterward? I don't know. I was in 8th grade. As I look back I cannot help but think "What?!?" Nevertheless, this happened. Once.
  • Judgment House

    I'm not saying this is something that shouldn't be done. That's my way of saying "If you're doing a Judgment House or Hell House or whatever, that's on you." We, however, won't be doing it again. We hosted this at our church here in Orange Park once. It was huge and attracted many people. Yet, it was the "scare the hell out of you" and "scare the heaven into you" type of event that seems a bit over the top. It was like a bad Christian movie with some pretty good props (for a local church) but with acting that matched pretty well with the majority of the Christian films available at the time. Meaning: not good. This happened. Once. 
  • Sunday School Drag Queen

    Okay, this one is a bit misleading. Imagine a Sunday School class of 40 and 50 year olds. It's a couple's class and they have done what many couple's classes have done for decades in church life. They have planned a "fellowship." That means they have planned a class party complete with games and likely a bad take-off of "The Newlywed Game." They even have written a sketch that is supposed to be funny. So, with Flip Wilson (look him up young folks) as their model, the men come on stage (or in the front of the room) dressed as women...ugly women. It was supposed to be funny. Yet, prior to concerns about transgenderism and the LGBT revolution, these things were just done and people laughed them off. There was prayer for the food. Then, this group of Christians unknowingly (I hope) went on to blatantly disregard Deuteronomy 22:5. It was just a game, but whoa, in today's culture that's a big no-no. It should have been a no-no then as well.
  • Youth Group Drag Queen Game

    Okay, so this one is on me. It wasn't really intended to be a drag queen issue, but way back in the late 1990s, I was leading a game at a youth camp. It was a typical youth group relay which involved as many people as possible. We based it on the theme "A League of Their Own" which was a movie starring Tom Hanks and Madonna about women's professional baseball. So, each level of the relay had something to do with baseball and women. It seemed funny at the time to have each team pick the burliest guy on their squad and have him go through the section where he's having lipstick put on him by blindfolded teammates, putting on a baseball jersey and even sliding on a skirt (over his shorts) before running to the next level. All in fun until one of my youth pastor friends came up to me afterward and said "Dave, we have a guy in our group that has been to counseling and struggles with gender issues. His mom finds him dressing in her clothes. This game has set him back." Ouch! I never thought of that at the time. Based on what we see happening with students today, in our families and churches, this game and others are now on the "NO WAY" list. We never did that relay again. Now, we did do "Mom's Apple Pie" but that just involved a lot of flour, butter, and a pie eating contest. 
  • Pick Your Favorite Song Night

    I loved these when I was a kid. It wasn't that I loved to go to church on Sunday night, but that this evening allowed my friends and I to pick hymns in the hymnbook that our Music Minister did not know and that had what we considered weird lyrics. In the 1975 Baptist Hymnal we would always pick number 20. If you grew up with these Pick a Hymn events, you likely know this one. The title is "God of Earth and Outer Space" and while the tune unfortunately sounds like any other hymn, we thought the lyrics were funny. Granted the song was written during the era of the space race, I think. Another great pick was "My God Is There Controlling." When the Music Minister would say "Does anyone have a favorite hymn other than Number 20?" (which he learned to say) we would offer this one. The first line is "We search the starlit Milky Way. A million worlds in rhythmic sway..." Lovely. I can't remember the tune, because I don't think we ever finished the song. Yet, as a teenager we would recite these lyrics like beatniks on an episode of "Happy Days." Here's the third line - "But as I grope from sphere to sphere..." Yeah. This was in the Baptist Hymnal. And you thought "Good, Good Father" was bad. 

There are many other things we don't do anymore that we used to do in church. Some good. Some bad. Yet, these I have listed have stopped for very good reasons. If you can comment below without being negative, list some other things we have stopped doing for good reasons. No lamenting the greatness of the "good old days."


The Danger of Living in an Echo Chamber

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

What is an "echo chamber?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Echo Chamber of Politics

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

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

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Screenshot from The Guardian

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

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

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

It is at this level, the echo chamber develops. 

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

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

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

No one is immune.

The Christian Echo Chamber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winning debates is not the goal.

Watching God win souls is.


Worldviews And the Divide Over LGBT Rights

Local news for the past few days in Jacksonville, Florida has featured stories centered upon the Jacksonville City Council and the Human Rights Ordinance proposal before the city. This is not the first time the ordinance has been presented and while past pushes for its passage have failed, as an observer, it seems more likely to pass now.

What is the Human Rights Ordinance?

Local news reporter Stephanie Brown of WOKV radio summarizes it this way:

A new bill that would expand anti-discrimination protections to the LGBT community for housing, employment, and public accommodations. (full story)

A full copy of the HRO (I believe it's the latest version) may be read here.

Ultimately the ordinance adds the wording "sexual orientation, gender identity or expression" throughout the proposal in addition to current wording designed to affirm and provide equality for all citizens within the city. This latest version offers exemptions for religious organizations and companies. This is why proponents believe it will pass now.

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Photo credit: D. A. Lewis via Visual Hunt / CC BY

I am not for the ordinance. I have theological and philosophical reasons to not affirm this. However, I do not live in Duval County (Jacksonville) but what happens in Jacksonville impacts all surrounding counties and suburbs as well. I live in a neighboring community, but one of the campuses of our church actually is in Duval County. While my stance opposing the ordinance is not popular, I hold to it and...I'm not mad. 

I'm Not Mad

Now, it's not a sin to be angry. Righteous anger was demonstrated by Christ. Remember when he turned over chairs and made a whip? That's a crazy story, right? Yet, in his anger he did not sin. The problem with many of us is that our "righteous anger" is far from righteous. I'm not saying people have no right to be angry. I am saying that often Christians claim righteous anger and they have no love. Apart from love, anger is not righteous. Otherwise, we become clanging cymbals that may spout truth, but will never be heard.

Based on what I have seen in local politics and online, there are many clanging cymbals out there.

Oh, one other thing about this - just because I am not mad does not mean I am happy or in agreement.

Hundreds Lined Up to Speak

The local news reported that hundreds flooded the City Council chambers. The citizens attending were told that everyone who desired to speak for or against the HRO would have their chance. That led to overflow rooms and people lining up and the meetings extending to the next day. The discussions were heated and divisive.

On the surface, the story seems to simply be about groups pushing against or affirming LGBT citizens and the lifestyle of those identifying as such.

It is, but it is also much deeper.

It Is About Worldview

This is about worldview.

I was prompted to write this post based on a short clip that was featured on First Coast News Facebook page. The local news station has a talk show that airs during the day called "The Chat." I have never watched a full episode, primarily because I am not home when it airs, and to put it simply, I am not their target demographic. The clips I have seen scrolling on my Facebook timeline have been interesting and humorous at times. I have friends who have appeared on the show as guests. So, let me be clear, I'm not bashing the show and I am not angry at what was said. It is a talk show, modeled after some nationally syndicated ones that are similar. The ladies at the table are paid to converse about current affairs and things that the viewing audience finds interesting. They do this well. Yet as this clip played (and yes, since it was short I watched it) it was clear the side of the aisle that the hosts were sitting regarding the HRO, but more importantly, I heard clear worldview statements.

The clip that played on my timeline is below:

 

The two ladies speaking in this clip, Catalina Alers-Alers (from Orange Park - whoo hoo) and Maria Chrissovergis shared their beliefs and...it's their show and they should.

While I disagree with the hosts' points, I believe their comments shed insight.

Ms. Alers-Alers states "Leave religion out" when discussing the HRO. I get this. I have heard it before and many people I talk with would agree with her. She is likely referring to, as she alluded, the many who spoke in opposition to the ordinance. I have watched a few clips of the feed and there are many who did quote Scripture (which they definitely have the right to do, and I would affirm and agree.) I can also see why Ms. Alers-Alers would say "leave religion out."

The fact of the matter is that people who are religious (in this story that refers to those claiming to be Christian) in our communities would state - it is really impossible to leave religion out. That's a worldview perspective. Some would say "Oh I can separate my faith from every day life." Perhaps, but as I have experienced, my faith is more than just something I've added into my life. When I became a Christian, Christ became my life, so in truth, I cannot separate it or "leave it out." Now, I don't have to be a jerk about it, but that's another point.

When religion is viewed similarly to club membership, it would not be hard. I agree that many see church membership and religion as a spiritual version of the Kiwanis, Lions Club, lodge or Rotary. Not bashing those groups, just saying - church shouldn't be considered similar. (Oh and if your church is just another club...consider joining another.)

Ms. Chrissovergis began with a comment about her gay friends who are good citizens. I won't argue with that. I'm sure they are. My friends and family members who are LGBT are good citizens, too. They are my friends and family members, and I love them (and believe it's reciprocal) but we disagree on some obvious things. Not just on political and cultural issues, but biblical ones as well. Why? Because we have different worldviews.

Ms. Chrissovergis continues to "preach" as she stated. She leaves with "I'm not here to judge and we're to love our neighbor." I would warn that it is easy to judge, even if you claim you're not. In this case, there may be some judgment of those in the City Council room who opposed the HRO. Just saying. It's a slippery slope. Yet, I believe Ms. Chrissovergis was seeking to emphasize the "love your neighbor" theme.

Well, AMEN to the "Love our neighbor" statement. I affirm that. Not because I choose to interpret Scripture that way, but because a biblical worldview centers on taking Scripture as inerrant and absolutely true and Jesus affirmed the Greatest Commandment when he declared in Mark 12...

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 12:30-31 ESV

The command begins with loving God. I'm not hearing the ladies on "The Chat" disagree with that. I'm just clarifying. Loving God fully is the starting point. Apart from that, there is no capacity to truly love neighbor. And, here's a truth often ignored -

You can love someone truly, but not affirm everything about them or their choices. 

Most parents get this.

The divide in our community and culture remains. It will likely grow wider.

While I am opposed to the HRO and believe God's design for man and woman does not affirm an LGBT lifestyle, it does not mean I am a hater, though some would disagree. Yet this is my worldview.

Christ's love is unconditional. True.

His acceptance is conditional, as is forgiveness. That's biblical as well.

Each Christian holds a worldview and as the culture shifts, to hold tightly to a conservative, inerrant, biblical one will be a challenge. 

 


PASTORS: Watch Out for This Scam

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

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Photo credit: BioDivLibrary via Visual hunt / CC BY

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

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

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

Pastoral Catfish Scheme

Things that made me question the authenticity of the request:

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

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

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

Right.

That's the deal.

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

Be careful. Be smart.

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


When a Celebrity Dies

This year has been...different, it seems. While there truly is nothing new under the sun (Ecc 1:9) this year has been chock-full of strange, somewhat surprising, and shocking news stories.

The advent and immediacy of social media pushes news (real news and fake news) to the forefront quickly. No longer do world events take place without the world knowing in real time, it seems.

Famous Deaths

There have likely been no more deaths this past year of celebrities and famous people than in the past, but with the aging Gen X population plus the advent of social media, it seems that more have passed. Just this past week, George Michael and Carrie Fisher died. These shocking announcements affect many, but especially those who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s when these young entertainers burst onto the public stage.

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Photo credit: Gage Skidmore via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-SA

Many of those who died played characters in movies or television that became "friends" of young fans throughout the years. Musicians, artists, political figures, and sports figures died as well. The list is long. The impact of these individuals upon pop culture has been immense, and in some cases will remain.

In many funerals that I preach, I reference Solomon's wise words regarding funerals and death. At first, it may seem harsh, but for Christians, it brings comfort. For non-Christians, it brings clarity.

It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Ecc 7:2 (ESV)

Simply put, God reminds us through this word that there are times it is actually better to attend a funeral rather than a party. Why? Because death is our destiny. It is part of life. The wise will realize this and live with the end in mind. 

There is comfort in grief for Christians knowing that this life on earth is not the end. That's why funerals for Christians can actually be celebratory.

Funerals for non-Christians...well, those are more difficult due to the life-long rejection of Christ finding finality.

I Never Knew You

The strange reality is that many who mourn today do so for people they never knew. In some cases, the mourning seems to be less for the death of the individual, and more for the loss of a character or role played by that individual in the past. 

Yet, the grief is real, isn't it?

A couple of years ago, Kenneth Morefield wrote a poignant article for Christianity Today titled "Not Another Celebrity Death Post." The article was written following the death of actor Robin Williams. In his article, he describes mourning in the social media world and what we must remember.

He reminds us...

First—and most importantly—it’s not about you. Avoid the temptation to turn someone else’s death or grief into a teaching moment. However noble the lesson—and there have been some good, important, and true ones in the wake of Robin Williams’s passing—using someone’s recent death to highlight it risks coming across as opportunistic and exploitative. I’m tempted to say that the reason it risks coming across that way is because it is those things.

Second, remind yourself that the first few tastes of grief can be overpowering. We should try to be charitable in our judgments towards those whose method of dealing with it involves being more expressive than we might be. Yes, I suspect that in a year or two or five people who aren’t actually narcissists or attention whores may look back on things they wrote about Robin Williams (or Philip Seymour Hoffman) and be chagrined at how much they treated him, even in death, as a means to an end. But if they don’t, if they truly are opportunists, then our calling them out only brings them the attention they crave and encourages them to act out again the next time somebody passes.
 
Wise words.
 
So, should you grieve the loss of those you have never met? Certainly. The loss of any life is cause for grieving. Yet, I believe we should look back to Solomon's words of wisdom regarding death. Remember, death is the destiny of all and the living should take it to heart. As followers of Christ, this reminder is to not waste our days and to live with the end in mind. With that, we are challenged to tell others of this great reality which is the gospel. There is good news. Death does not have to be the end.

Cops, Coffee, and Community Relations

Much has been reported over the past few years regarding police officers, race, violence, justice, and injustice. To discount the issues facing our nation and especially those in the black community would be not only a disservice to a significant demographic group, but to all people. Yet, as we all know, negative news spreads quickly while good news stories sit on the back burner on some back page of Facebook and social media and often goes ignored.

Our town of Orange Park covers just over three square miles. While the community is much larger than the town limits, Orange Park is fairly small. Within the borders of our county, the Clay County Sheriff's Office serves well. In our municipality we have the Orange Park Police Department. 

Though only a three-square-mile area, there are many people who live in the town limits and thousands who travel through daily. To put it plainly, this bedroom community of Jacksonville, Florida is busy. 

Cops and the Community

Over the past year or so, our Police Chief, Gary Goble, has led the department to host "Coffee with a Cop" encounters at local coffee shops and restaurants. I was talking to him earlier in the year (I serve as the volunteer chaplain for the OPPD and OPFD) about these events. These are organized gatherings where members of our community have the opportunity, in a relaxed atmosphere, to get to know the men and women behind the badge. The event is promoted with this description - "No agenda or speeches, just a chance to ask questions, voice concerns, and get to know the officers in your neighborhood!"

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Today, we hosted a "Coffee with a Cop" gathering in the community near Grove Park Elementary School. The pastor and membership of New Hope Pentecostal Church were gracious enough to be our hosts as we set up a table with free coffee and doughnuts (okay - here's the cop and doughnut joke, but seriously...who doesn't love doughnuts?)

We had the tables set up outdoors underneath the church's overhang.

As would be the case, after weeks of no rain in our area, today we experienced a rain storm. It was torrential for a few hours. Yes, during the scheduled coffee time, but we pressed on regardless.

Despite the rain, people from the community arrived. The community where we hosted this has a predominantly African-American population. As we drank coffee, told jokes, and shared stories of Orange Park, we soon moved into the church's worship center where members of the community were given opportunity to ask questions of the officers.

The honesty was refreshing.

When People Fear the Police

Men and women in the community shared that many fear the police and that much of that fear is based on what has been seen on the news and viewed on social media. Whether fear is founded or not does not remove the reality that it exists.

One man asked "If our children are pulled over by an officer, what should they do? They're scared and with the stories flying around out there, we want to give them wise instructions. But, there are so many stories. What do we say?"

That was a great question.

Moms and dads and younger people in the room nodded their heads in agreement and sought insight from the officers.

The officers present gave practical, step-by-step instructions that would be protocol for anyone pulled over. The fact of the matter is when the blue lights flash in our rear window, stress levels increase and fear is often common. Since I am a 48-year-old white man, I will not even pretend to understand what a young black man would be experiencing in today's culture. It would be insulting to do so. Yet, the officers answered honestly and well.

I will offer this from today's meeting - that one question led to others and the conversation was rich and valuable.

Relationships Are the Key

As the conversation continued, the overall feelings expressed were those of appreciation from the community to the officers for offering the opportunity to talk and be honest. That appreciation went both ways as the officers were deeply grateful for the attendance of those (even in the rain) to come and talk.

This won't be the last "Coffee with a Cop" and I echo what one man stated today as we closed. He said, "Trust is built on relationships. We know you as people, not just as police officers. You know us as people. That's the key. The law is the law and we know that and appreciate that. We just have to keep building relationships."

What a powerful and correct statement!

Is this a perfect community? Of course not. There are citizens seeking to live well and do right. Then, as one lady mentioned today, "There are criminals around here, too" and that is true. It's true in every community. That speaks of the depraved hearts of humanity.

I'm thankful for a police department that is committed to the law they have vowed to uphold, but who also love this community enough to "serve and protect."

Many communities have such gatherings following a tragedy. As I talked to one of our neighbors at the event today, we discussed how we pray that no tragedy hits our community, but that we will have these gatherings now and continually. We'll be better off, safer, and stronger. 

And...who doesn't want a free cup of coffee and a doughnut?


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

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

God is faithful.

God responds to humble, repentant prayers of his people.

God forgives.

God heals.

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

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

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

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

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

"If my people who are called by my name"

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

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

"Humble themselves"

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

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

The humble heart is sought by God.

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

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

A lost art? Certainly.

A lost cause? Absolutely not.

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

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

God's love is unconditional.

God's forgiveness is conditional.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Chronicles 7:14 [widescreen]

 


Why Our Prayer Gathering Must Not Be Focused on America

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

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

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

Solemn Assembly

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

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

Joel 1:14 (ESV)

Why Gather?

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

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

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

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

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

Wake Up

You don't revive the dead.

You resurrect the dead.

You revive the sleeping.

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

More Than Politics

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

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

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

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

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

There is a prerequisite for forgiveness.

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

1 John 1:9 (ESV)

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

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

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