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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SBC Annual Meeting 2018 - Dallas, Texas

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

Presidential Election

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

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

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

Denominational Leadership

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

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

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

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

Racial Reconciliation

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

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Can Anything Good Come From This?

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

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SBC Pastors Conference 2018

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

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


I'm That Kind of White Person

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When Matt Chandler, Pastor of The Village Church, spoke at the MLK50 Conference in Memphis, Tennessee, he asked this question...

"What kind of white people come to a conference like this? That wasn't a joke. I don't know why you all are giggling. Because if you look at Twitter, it looks like there ain't no white people in the fight."

 

Video via The Gospel Coalition

The question was part of Chandler's longer message. It wasn't the key point. It was, however a question that elicited some laughter from some, raised eyebrows from others, and an immediate challenge to one white pastor from the suburbs who traveled to Memphis with friends to attend the conference.

Fifty years ago, on a balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed by an assassin. At age thirty-nine, Dr. King was standing in the crosshairs (tragically, literally) of a divide in our nation between races. He was celebrated by some and vilified by others. Though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 effectively ended segregation, the racial divide in the nation continued. 

Sadly, even Christians were taking sides and fighting over allowing people of color to join or attend churches designated as "white churches" for generations. For a man born the year Dr. King was assassinated, it is impossible for me to understand fully, other than through reading historical accounts, listening to testimony, and watching documentaries of the era, what was happening in our nation.

Yet, here we are, fifty years later. That's five decades of living in an America that proclaims that racial division is a historical story, not a current one. At least that's the narrative. We now understand that while Dr. King's "dream" is celebrated, the division between races, most notably between some blacks and some whites, exists. Not only does it exist, but it seems to be widening as everything is politicized, messages are shortened to be tweetable, and biblically speaking, our enemy still seeks to steal, kill, and destroy.

As is the case with everyone, I tend to view life from a particular set of lenses. These lenses can be defined a number of ways, such as white, male, middle-class, suburban, evangelical, conservative, Christian, Baptist, pastoral, tall, formerly athletic, etc. 

That's not an apology. That's just a reality. In fact, I am not sorry that I am any of those things. Well...I am sorry that I'm formerly athletic. I really need to do something about that (typing as I drink my morning coffee and eat a donut.)

Nevertheless, recognizing that viewpoints are different, based on numerous factors, the truth becomes clear - I do not...no I cannot fully know what it is like to live as a black man today. Even if I attempted to pull off a John Howard Griffin Black Like Me charade, it would not be authentic. It may be insightful, but it would be temporary and fake. 

One of my friends in ministry, an African-American pastor, was speaking in a group around a table and was describing some things unique to his journey. He looked to me and said "You know how it is, right?" I had to answer, "I don't. Why? Because I'm a white man and while we are brothers in Christ, the fact remains that we have different experiences and some of those are based on the color of our skin. So, you're going to have to help me understand."

Unity Not Uniformity

Dr. Eric Mason's message on gospel unity was clear, powerful, and convictional. Unity is needed in the body of Christ. Yet, unity is not uniformity. For some, this is a hard concept to grasp it seems. Uniformity states that everyone must look alike, share the same heart language, culture, and heritage.

It is not the outward accoutrements that unify the Body. It is Christ alone that brings unity. And it is this that the Enemy attacks continually. Doctrine unifies the church. The gospel unifies the church. Skin tone, heart language, cultural heritage, clothing style, economic level, etc. are not the unifying items that allow Christians to call each other brother and sister. It is the cross of Christ that brings unity among those who come from varied backgrounds. This must be declared and lived, and not ignored.

 

Video via The Gospel Coalition

Segregated Sunday Mornings

Its has been said for years that Sunday mornings in our churches in America, remains the most segregated hour still. There are exceptions, but there are many instances in the evangelical world where this still remains true. Dr. Charlie Dates preached on Tuesday evening of the conference. His assigned topic was the continually segregated church. Addressing the crowd, Dr. Dates challenged churches to tear down the remaining walls of segregation, acknowledging that many are not intentionally divided. The address by Dr. Mason the following day chastised rightly, the predominantly white churches seeking to be multi-ethnic by simply hiring a person of color for their staff team, who otherwise was unqualified. Therefore, the call is to gospel living, not just gospel preaching. 

 

Video via The Gospel Coalition 

Not All Christians Celebrate

Using Dr. King's assassination as the backdrop for the conference allowed speakers and attendees to have open and clear dialogue that often does not happens. It has become clear based on blog articles, tweets, and social media postings, that not everyone celebrated the idea of a gospel-centric event connected with Dr. King's legacy. Some even have equated what was said in the MLK50 Conference to other events in the city of Memphis commemorating the 50th anniversary. While all MLK50 events and gatherings held in Memphis (and there were numerous unrelated events) centered on the assassination, not all were focused on ensuring the gospel was proclaimed and biblical fidelity upheld. And, based on some things I have read from Christian writers and pastors, some of those would even declare what was preached and stated at the MLK Conference I attended was not biblical. 

Whenever Christians speak about race, a dividing line develops. The vitriol that is spouted from believers and followers of Christ is done often under the guise of contending for the gospel, but actually comes across as anything but.

Would I agree with every word spoken by every speaker and attendee at the MLK50 Conference? No. Yet, I do agree that the gospel is unchanging, is true, and is vital for the church in all areas of worship, service, and ministry.

There are documented questions about Dr. King's theology. Debates rage about what he truly believed and what he didn't when it comes to orthodoxy. These were not ignored at the conference. There was no sugar-coating of some of the difficult topics. Dr. John Piper addressed his feelings on this well in his sermon.

 

Video via The Gospel Coalition 

For Those Tired of Apologizing

It has been said many times, by many people - even those within the church - that they are tired of apologizing for the sins of the past, especially the sins of our ancestors. I have heard this from white Christians (and being that I'm a white Christian, I'll just speak from this perspective.) As a Southern Baptist pastor, I remember when the SBC adopted a resolution of repentance for the support of and ignoring of slavery as an issue in America. While the resolution passed, it was soon discussed by many that confessing the sins of long dead Southern Baptists seemed for some to be a waste, and for others unbiblical.

Yet, there is biblical precedent for the repentance of corporate sin of those in the past that had led to division and sinful behavior. The sin of ignorance once revealed, must be addressed. I cannot attest to the feelings of my black brothers and sisters who feel personally slighted when reading of the history and founding of the Southern Baptist Convention, but I acknowledge the real pain (even though the pain was felt at first by their ancestors) and hurt experienced. 

I was recently studying the book of Ezra and noticed in chapter 9 that he was compelled and convicted by God to lead the people into a time of repentance and confession of sins that originated with their fore-bearers. In this case, it was the sin of intermarrying non believers of God. It wasn't a racial intermarriage, that was condemned. It was a faith intermarriage that was condemned by God. Yet, the ancestors of these people had done so and it had gone unconfessed for generations. I wrote of that here.

From this, it becomes clear that we are the pastors, leaders, Christians today who must stand for truth, affirm the gospel unapologetically, and humbly repent of sins that continue to divide and work against the unity in the faith that God commands.

Yet, once confessed, the realization that the road ahead remains. Therefore, as we glance and address that which is in the rear view mirror, may we be united in the gospel as we move forward, not simply for a dream articulated by a man in the 1960s, but a message and commission declared by God to His church, for His glory and our good.

Why This White Guy Attended

Simply put - I attended this conference because I know there is a chasm in our nation, and in our churches that can only be healed through the gospel of Jesus Christ. I admire much of what Dr. King stood for, and his bravery exhibited through his ministry. I do not ignore the questions addressed by Dr. Piper and others at the conference. I know, as do pastor friends, that Dr. King was far from perfect, just as we are. I also know that he should not have been assassinated. Yet, as we reflect on an era in our nation where division defined us, we hope that things are better today...only to realize we may not have progressed as far as many think.

I attended because I love my brothers and sisters in Christ.

I attended because to ignore the racial divide in our churches and nation makes me as complicit as those who did so in generations past. 

I did not attend to please anyone in particular or to anger anyone in particular, but I sense that I likely have done both.

I guess I'm the kind of white person who is honestly seeking to live for the sake of the gospel, unapologetically lead others to Christ as God draws them to Himself, and to not be guilty of sinning privately or corporately by remaining silent about the things that matter to God and his church.

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All videos and the complete sermons from the MLK50 Conference are available at The Gospel Coalition's Vimeo page here.


The Danger of the "Hebrew Roots" Movement

After leading five trips to Israel, spending time with and having deeply meaningful conversations with Jewish friends, learned teachers, guides, and theologians, I acknowledge that most Christians (myself included) have much to learn regarding Jewish traditions and the Hebrew roots of Christ and Christianity. Each trip to Israel reveals more that I had not previously known or acknowledged. Yet, the joy of these trips and these conversations is that the message of Scripture and the good news that is the Gospel is affirmed more and more, even as I seek to know more. 

It is true that during the days of the Byzantines especially and following, there was an effort by Christians and some in the church to erase the Jewishness from Jesus' story and the message of the New Testament. A cursory reading of the New Testament makes that assertion implausible.

The Jewish Jesus

Despite the ignorance and racism that precipitated such teaching, the facts remain - Jesus was Jewish. He spoke Hebrew. He likely spoke Hebrew more than has been acknowledged. He did not come to erase Torah (the law) or the teachings of the prophets but to fulfill them. 

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." Matthew 5:17-20 (ESV)

To discount the Jewishness of Jesus is ignorant at best, sinfully racist at worst.

What is the Hebrew Roots Movement?

Despite the need to acknowledge and understand the Jewish heritage of Christ and the teachings within scripture that begin with the creation of humanity and celebrate the one true God through his covenant relationship with his chosen ones, there is a dangerous theology emerging (actually not new, just a modern version, albeit wrapped in Hebraisms, of gnosticism) categorized as the Hebrew Roots movement.

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Photo credit: CodyAHoffman on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC

Here's a good overview of the belief system as taken from gotquestions.org...

Hebrew Roots movement is the belief that the Church has veered far from the true teachings and Hebrew concepts of the Bible. The movement maintains that Christianity has been indoctrinated with the culture and beliefs of Greek and Roman philosophy and that ultimately biblical Christianity, taught in churches today, has been corrupted with a pagan imitation of the New Testament gospels.

Those of the Hebrew Roots belief hold to the teaching that Christ's death on the cross did not end the Mosaic Covenant, but instead renewed it, expanded its message, and wrote it on the hearts of His true followers. They teach that the understanding of the New Testament can only come from a Hebrew perspective and that the teachings of the Apostle Paul are not understood clearly or taught correctly by Christian pastors today. Many affirm the existence of an original Hebrew-language New Testament and, in some cases, denigrate the existing New Testament text written in Greek. This becomes a subtle attack on the reliability of the text of our Bible. If the Greek text is unreliable and has been corrupted, as is charged by some, the Church no longer has a standard of truth.

Benefits of the Hebrew Roots Movement

As with many religious groups that claim their genesis in biblical Christianity, there are beneficial qualities of what many Hebrew Roots teachers proclaim. This is not unlike other groups who promote healthy living and morality, yet hold to biblically unorthodox theology. For Christians, learning details of Jewish life adds insight into many of the biblical stories, especially the parables and teachings of Christ. It is beneficial and good for believers to understand and study the feasts of Israel, the covenant teachings, and other aspects revealed through scripture, and even Jewish celebrations and teachings that are extra-biblical.

A study of Torah can enhance believers understanding of the teachings of Christ. Yet, while good for Gentile Christians to identify with Israel, it is not beneficial to identify as Israel. It is disingenuous at best.

Ultimately, the benefits of the Hebrew Roots movement are few and far between, and outnumbered by the dangers.

Grafted Branches

Gentile Christians have been grafted into God's chosen people. This is expressed by Paul in his letter to the Romans.

"But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, 'Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.' That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you." Romans 11:17-21 (ESV)

It should be noted, however, that the grafting in of Gentile believers is not into the Mosaic Covenant, but "they are grafted into the seed and faith of Abraham, which preceded the Law and Jewish customs. They are fellow citizens with the saints (Ephesians 2:19), but they are not Jews."(gotquestions.org)

The Danger of the Hebrew Roots Movement

Over the past few years, an increase of those who hold to the Hebrew Roots theology has occurred. Some Christians are abandoning traditional biblical orthodoxy and orthopraxy (justified by Hebrew Roots believers since they believe the church corrupted beyond repair.) Seminary students, pastors, and self-taught theologians have joined the movement. The dangers are expressed well here...

The Hebrew Roots movement is dangerous in its implication that keeping the Old Covenant law is walking a "higher path" and is the only way to please God and receive His blessings. Nowhere in the Bible do we find Gentile believers being instructed to follow Levitical laws or Jewish customs; in fact, the opposite is taught. Romans 7:6 says, "But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code." Christ, in keeping perfectly every ordinance of the Mosaic Law, completely fulfilled it. Just as making the final payment on a home fulfills that contract and ends one’s obligation to it, so also Christ has made the final payment and has fulfilled the law, bringing it to an end for us all.

Ultimately, the Hebrew Roots followers, though well intentioned I'm sure, have believed in teachings that are not grounded in scripture, nor affirmed in the teachings of Christ, but sound biblical (as opposed to being biblically sound.) Inerrancy of the Word of God is abandoned by those who believe in a "better way" or who have slid into what is also called Yahwism or the Sacred Name Movement.

Can the Hebrew Roots believers line up alongside evangelical Christianity? Apparently not, by their own admission. At this point, Ephesians 4 and other passages are ignored and forsaken and unity in Christ is abandoned, as division grows and falsehood is propagated. This is grievous. 

Some good insight on related issues:

What is Yahwism? What is a Yahwist?

What is the Sacred Name Movement?


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Term "Evangelical" Has Become Almost Unusable

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

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

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

Marketing Is Celebrated More Than Message

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

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

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

From Holson's article:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Mohler responds:

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

"Gospel Lite" with a Good Beat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Higher Standard

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

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

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

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

There's too much at stake. 


The Sin of Intermarriage

Today, I led our MidPoint Bible Study through the last two chapters of Ezra. I won't take the time to dissect all that is in these powerful chapters focused on a people's repentance, but will address the primary sin of God's people as addressed.

INTERFAITH MARRIAGE IS SINFUL

The people of God had disobeyed him by marrying and allowing their children to marry those from other faiths. From a 21st century cultural view that values an unbiblical and biased view of tolerance more than truth, this seems so out of step and wrong. Yet, God's Word was clearly given to his people as he led them through Moses' guidance from slavery in Egypt into the Promised Land.

“Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Take care, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst. You shall tear down their altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim (for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and you are invited, you eat of his sacrifice, and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters whore after their gods and make your sons whore after their gods. Exodus 34:11-16 (ESV)

Seems pretty cut and dried. God's people are not to intermarry with the idolators of the land.

Then, when God's people are brought back home to Jerusalem in another exodus from slavery, this time under Ezra's leadership, we read this...

After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands. And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost.” As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled. Ezra 9:1-3 (ESV

The people of God forsook the commands of God and the realization that much of their turmoil was based on generational sin that was ignored by leaders and excused by those committing the sins is clear. 

Ezra sought forgiveness from God and led the people to repent. Interesting because Ezra did not marry an idolatrous woman. Yet, he knew complicity of sins of the past and present was true and repented. This may help some who just cannot understand why a people group (for instance white Southern Baptists) feel the need to repent for the sins of long-dead ancestors. Yet, this biblical principle is clearly given here and present-day believers should take it to heart.

I have addressed this before, but with today's current climate of division and the propagation of information (true and untrue) at such alarming speed, it leads me to go here once more.

INTERRACIAL MARRIAGE IS NOT SINFUL

Despite what some believe, what grandma said, what the culture you grew up in has stated, and unfortunately what some churches have even stated as true, interracial marriage is NOT a sin. It is not wrong. It is not even close to being a sin. To believe so is to admit that cultural prejudices remain and at that revelation the only right response would be to do as Ezra did.

I shared this earlier, but when church members years ago came to visit me seeking biblical counsel, complete with verses to give their daughter with hopes she would not marry a black man, they left discouraged. I did not give them the answers they sought. I did not give them verses to use as weapons to promote their personal prejudices. I did not give them a "white answer" intent on keeping the black man from their daughter.

I focused on God's design for marriage to be between one man and one woman. That still true precept is clearly under attack in our culture, but nonetheless, remains true. I shared how God intends for children of God to marry children of God and that the focus is for marriage to be a uniting of two who know the Lord personally so that the marriage may celebrate that relationship, draw each closer to God and be a witness to the world of God's grace, mercy and holiness.

And that, my friends is defined by faith, not by skin tone.

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Photo credit: Rod_Miranda on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

I addressed this back in a 2011 post (HERE) and believe more strongly now than ever that the church has allowed this version of racism to fester for far too long.

When a man joining our church asks "Will I be welcome at this church?" I had to ask "Why do you ask?" His response was "Well, as you can see, I'm a black man. My wife is white." When I heard that question, I was reminded at the stain of racism and how strong it is in our nation, our region, even in our churches. I was clear in my response and stated "Some may have an issue with that. There are unfortunately sins that have been deemed acceptable in the church. But, under my pastoral leadership, we are calling sin what it is and will not allow it to remain ignored." This man serves on our pastoral staff and is a key leader of our team. I appreciated his honest question, but was saddened that it had to be asked in 2018. 

Dr. Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary stated this:

"Diversity is not an accident or a problem; it is a sign of God's providence and promise. If the church gets this wrong, it is not just getting race and ethnic difference wrong. It is getting the gospel wrong." (from Removing the Stain of Racism from the SBC)

Ethnic diversity often gets lost in the conversations about gospel unity and we would be wise to get to the center of the issue. Often the interracial marriage beliefs bring these to the surface. 

Dr. Jarvis J. Williams says this:

But ethnic diversity is not the same as gospel-centered racial reconciliation, and the goal of gospel-centered racial reconciliation is not simply diversity. Gospel-centered racial reconciliation is the pursuit of love for the "other" that flows from the Spirit-empowered obedience of those who repent, believe in the cross and resurrection of Jesus by faith, and are justified by faith in Jesus Christ, the Jewish Messiah. (from Removing the Stain of Racism from the SBC)

Moses' Black Wife

Here's a passage that often is ignored by those who wish to propagate their sinful belief that God wants races to marry their "own kind. Moses married a Cushite woman.

Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. Numbers 12:1 (ESV)

It's there in black and white (no pun intended.) Moses married a Cushite. His brother and sister didn't like it. They didn't like the woman. God approved, but Miriam and Aaron did not. This woman is from Cush. Where is Cush? It's south of Ethiopia. The Cushites were a people with dark, likely very dark, skin. To be clear, Moses was not a pasty-white European as he has been portrayed in artwork and movies. However, Moses was not a very dark skinned Cushite either it seems. What becomes clear in the passage is that God was not disapproving. When Miriam did, God punished her. This is when she was given leprosy by God (v. 10) due to her response. There's more here, but the clear racism and frustration over Moses marrying the "wrong woman" was evident.

Back to the Bible Study

Ezra was grieved because God's people (the "holy race" in ESV is better translated as "holy seed" with reference back to the Abrahamic Covenant) had traded the Creator for creation and "whored themselves" to the false gods and goddesses of those surrounding people. This is deeper than telling your teenagers not to date non-believers, but gives credence to that command. When Christians date and sadly, marry non-believers the Christian journey suffers. It is disobedient to God's command. A mixed-faith marriage creates a weak faith and within a generation or two often results in a no-faith family.

While too much to go into here, it's clear that God's design for marriage is for a Christian man to marry a Christian woman and for that couple to remain married for life. This is for God's glory and the couple's good.

Personal Theology

God's people under Ezra's leadership were shaken. They were trembling. Why? Because they read the Word of God and knew of his holiness. Their sin was revealed and they would have to face it. Through their repentance and difficult steps of obedience, they were forgiven. 

Your theology should determine your belief system and your politics, not the other way around. 


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

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

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

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

Church Competition

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copy + Paste Programming

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Press on. Be encouraged.

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

 

 

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


Black History and White Pastors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'm Not Racist, But...

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

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

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

Racial Unity Must Be Gospel Unity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It may even be risky.

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

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

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

Unity in the Gospel

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Black History Month. 


When "It Could Happen Here" Actually Happens Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It could happen here.

Now, it has happened here.


Church Unity Is Not Always a Good Thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Church unity is not always a good thing.

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Photo credit: <a href="https://visualhunt.com/author/a99b2d">tHeDiGiTaLdRoPoUt</a> on <a href="https://visualhunt.com/re/2dad6e">VisualHunt</a> / <a href="https://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.