I Just Wanted to Eat My Donut In Peace

I woke up pretty early this morning with a plan.

Every Wednesday, I lead a boys' mentoring group at one of our local junior high schools. That begins at 8am. It finishes around 9:15am or so and I head to my office at church. I then have a 10:30am Bible study for senior adults each week. These are two highlights of my mid-week. 

So, as is the case on Wednesdays often, I stopped at our local Dunkin' Donuts for a coffee and a French Cruller (an incredibly good donut that is low-calorie because there's so much air inside - well, that's my theory.) The employees see me coming and now, these two items are always waiting. I'm a creature of habit. One of these days, I'm going to mess with them and get a frosted donut. It'll blow their minds!

Dd coffee

Nevertheless, my plan was simple. Drink my coffee. Eat my donut. Sit in a booth, read my Bible app and study for the day's sessions.

Please Leave Me Alone So I Can Do Some Christian Stuff

Everything was going according to plan. I was not seeking to engage anyone in conversation. I simply wanted to be left alone to read. You know, like you feel on an airplane when you just want to read, watch a show on your iPad and not have to talk to the stranger seated next to you. This is why Dr. Dre invented Beats - so you can put on headphones on an airplane. These headphones declare "Leave me alone" to the rest of the passengers.

My Beats are blue, by the way.

Well, as you have probably figured out by now, a woman came into the donut shop. She sat in the booth directly in front of me, and was facing me.

Awkward!

I looked up and it felt like we were sitting at the same booth, especially since there was nothing but empty benches in between us.

I smiled and said "Hello" because that's what nice, Christian guys do.

She said "Hello" back.

Whew! That was close. I thought we'd have to actually talk. Remember... I wanted to be left alone.

Then, this woman asked if I lived near the donut shop and she began talking about the community and how nice, but different it was. She lives on the Westside of Jacksonville and was going to a doctor's appointment in a nearby office. She was just waiting at the donut shop because her taxi picked her up too early.

Oh, she's a single mother with two adult children and a teenager. She is having a tough time and is dealing with fear and worry about some life situations.

How do I know this?

You guessed it. She began to talk to me and I had to listen.

Are You A Christian?

She then said, "Are you a Christian?"

What? Why would she ask this? I'm definitely a Christian, but I wasn't reading my Bible (just the app) and am not wearing anything with Jesus fish or other churchy embroidery on it. I mean, I'm honored she asked and I said, "Yes" unapologetically, but was wondering why she asked.

I thought "I wonder what she thinks about Christians?" and yet, it wasn't going to change my answer.

I then asked, "How did you know I was a Christian?"

She said, "I don't know. I just did."

Hmmmm.

At this point, I figured I was all in on this potential divine encounter. In other words, I thought "Okay, God. I get it." 

I closed my iPad and asked her "Are you a Christian?"

She answered "Yes" and then moved into my booth.

That was unexpected and caused me a little discomfort.

Are You a Preacher?

She then asked, "Are you a preacher?"

Oh boy, now I'm caught. Do I look like a preacher? I don't slick my hair back (don't have enough to do that). I don't talk with a preacher voice. I didn't say "sister" or "amen" every other phrase. I am wearing a golf shirt and khakis. I looked like a Best Buy employee. I didn't even have the traditional preacher uniform on (I knew I should've worn my Chuck Taylors today).

I answered "Yes" and discovered that apparently caused her relief.

Nonetheless, we talked for about fifteen minutes. She shared her story a bit. I stated that I had to leave to go to the junior high. Then we prayed. We prayed for strength and for power. We prayed for the worry that had overtaken her that led to an unhealthy fear and stress would be relieved by God's Spirit. We prayed over her children. 

Then I said, "Good-bye."

I don't share this to say "Hey look at me. I did a good Christian thing."

I share this because I intently did NOT want to engage anyone in conversation. I wanted to just go through my routine. I wanted to read my Bible, not talk to someone about the Bible. I wanted to eat my French Cruller (well, I did to that) and drink my coffee in peace.

And then she showed up.

And then God nudged me as if to say "This is why you're here right now."

I wonder how many times I miss the moment? I wonder how many times my routine reigns in my life so I can just get through another day? I wonder how she knew I was a Christian, much less a pastor? I wonder where I can go to eat a donut in peace? Ha ha.

Nevertheless, I was reminded of this verse...

But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. 1 Peter 3:15 (ESV)

So friends. Be ready. Oh, and if someone says "You look like a Christian" that hopefully, is a good thing (unless their idea of a Christian is some warped caricature. In that case, just be real and change that perspective.)


Should We Continue Doing Short-Term Mission Trips?

Churches, such as mine, have sent teams on short-term mission trips for years. These one-to-two week endeavors take adults and teenagers all over the world for the purpose of "doing missions" and serving contextually in different regions. 

Recently, some writers and pastors have decried the short-term mission trip as being little more than a "religious vacation." As the mission trip season comes upon us, churches are planning, registering, getting tickets, passports and preparing once again. While there are some legitimate arguments against going on short-term mission trips, I believe the value of a properly planned and executed trip far outweigh the negatives.

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Arguments Against Short-Term Mission Trips

Michelle Lynn Stayton recently blogged on The Almost Doctor's Channel about the futility of going on short-term mission trips. The title of her post is "7 Reasons Why Your Two Week Trip to Haiti Doesn't Matter: Calling Bull on 'Service Trips'"

Her points for not going on these types of trips are...

  1. They are entirely too focused on how the volunteers benefit.
  2. The lasting impact of short-term voluntourism trips is often negligible.
  3. "Voluntourism" is offensive and can even contribute to further problems.
  4. They're an egregious waste of money.
  5. They promote a cycle of dependence.
  6. There's a difference between skilled and unskilled help.
  7. They promote the western savior complex.

Stayton's article is well-written, but with a sense of frustration coming through. Based on what she has described and what I have experienced in the past, she is right to be frustrated. 

Yet, I would say that throwing out all short-term mission trips is not the answer. Rather, a reevaluation of the purpose of such trips and a proper and healthy process of preparation for team members is needed.

I remember a mission trip to Israel about fifteen years ago where I led a group of teenagers from our church who would be leading a mission camp for locals prior to touring Holy Land sites. This was a combination mission trip/camp and tourism event. One of our young men stated while at a layover in Europe as we walked through the airport, "Dave, look at all the foreigners!" It was at that moment that I realized I had not properly prepared this young man to serve on mission. I looked to him and said, "They're not foreigners. You're the foreigner!" It was as if a light came on at that moment.

I also remember decades ago when our previous senior pastor led a team to Australia on a short-term trip. (Who wouldn't want to suffer for Jesus in Australia?) The team returned and on a Sunday evening, they stood on the stage of our worship center and shared with the congregation about the trip. I don't remember much about the report. However, one portion of the report has stayed with me. One of our team members shared how she spent some time with one of the Australian Baptist pastors and his congregation. I guess this trip was to encourage and equip some of the churches down under, primarily. Anyway, as she shared of her experience, she stated that the church was preparing to observe the ordinance of the Lord's Supper and lo and behold, they pulled out a bottle of wine! Real wine! She then shared how she instructed this pastor about how wrong that was and how, here in the US, we use grape juice. 

I cringed at that report and while we do use grape juice, the fact of the matter is that using wine in observing the Lord's Supper is not a sin, regardless what prohibitionists and grandma said. To tell gospel-centric, Bible-believing, missionally-engaged Christians in other cultures that by doing exactly what the Bible says to do is a sin because it doesn't match a portion of evangelical American culture's practice is ludicrous.

So, in truth, the "great western savior complex" does rear its head at times.

Other points from Stayton are valid as well. I wonder how many pieces of "Jesus junk" purchased in bulk at Oriental Trading have moved quickly to the trash heap once the missionaries have boarded their planes back to the States? 

Perhaps the greatest challenge is ensuring that the people being served do not become little more than social media fodder and human souvenirs. In our case, with multiple trips to Haiti, the front-burner reality is that our children in the orphanage and in the local sponsored schools are not items to be collected in photos or video clips to be brought home as virtual souvenirs. These are real children. Some have parents living in the region who cannot afford to care for them. Others have no living parents. Our children are loved and yet they, as Stayton states, "do not need your pity, temporary attention or to be featured in your Facebook profile photo for a month." Now, she's a little harsh about Facebook here, yet the point is clear. The question must be asked "Why are we collecting photos?" (Full disclosure: We do take numerous photos of our trips and share these with our families.) I believe a photo shares a portion of a story and when I see these, I don't feel pity. I am spurred to prayer and reminded of the value of our service and love to God as we love our neighbors (whether next door or across the sea.)

Maybe we should post photos of those we are praying for locally as well? Perhaps this would eliminate the "tourism" feel of gathering pictures and push us to seeing all people with the eyes of Christ? 

Arguments For Short-Term Mission Trips

I have pushed back against poor mission trips for years. Even in doing so, I readily admit we have far to go.

Why, as a pastor, would I continue to encourage and have our Missions Director plan more short-term trips? Why, especially knowing the shortfalls of such endeavors?

I do so because I have seen and believe in the value of serving God in this way. I have experienced moments where God has used a change of scenery, a portrait of need, a removal of distractions and an openness to the Spirit's leading to guide young men and women (and not-so-young as well) into a transformational place of service. 

I do believe that often the most impacted people on short-term mission trips are the ones being sent, not the ones being served. Is this bad? I don't believe so. I believe that a lifetime of service and missional engagement may be birthed in the heart of a believer while on a short-term trip.

I too have seen students and adults on trips who come home totally unfazed. It's unfortunate, but it's a reality. The hardened heart is not always softened just because a week without air conditioning and overdoses of bug spray have been experienced. Yet, we trust God to do that which only he can do. Otherwise, we become behavioral manipulators.

The short-term trip can be a blessing and a ministry to those being served as well. Knowing the missionaries on the field and communicating well prior to a scheduled trip can lead to a week of refreshing and and strength to those being served. 

However, the "western savior complex" must be intentionally abandoned. Maybe some of the "Jesus junk" should be left at home as well.

No missionary or orphanage director will be blessed by a team that arrives and then with a spiritual arrogance begins to tell them how to do the work they have been called to do. A team should never arrive on field with a "We're here to fix everything in two weeks" mentality or the missionaries and those being served will celebrate your departure with greater joy than they ever did upon your arrival.

Caleb Crider, in the book Tradecraft, shares the following account:

In had been a church planter in Western Europe for about six years when I began to realize just how great the divide was between churches and God's mission. Throughout the year, groups from various churches in the States would come to assist us in our ministry. For them, this was a "mission trip," but for us, it was real life. We wanted to treat them as peers - a bit of fellowship, some mutual encouragement, and then go out and engage people in gospel conversations. But for the most part, the well-meaning participants on these trips were missiologically illiterate. They were incapable of participating in international mission in any meaningful way.

One Monday morning, we sent a group of American Christian college students to hang out at the local university to learn all they could about the spiritual climate on campus. We prayed together, divided the group into pairs, and sent them on their way. Of the six teams, two had trouble navigating the metro system and never found the campus. Two teams played frisbee on the soccer field, not speaking to a single student the entire time. One team quickly put together a "survey" and approached random students to ask them spiritual questions. Because what little response they received was quite negative, this team was discouraged. None of the teams came back with any meaningful spiritual insight about national college students.

These groups were good at doing what they were told. On previous trips, they had all painted fences, handed out blankets, and played games with children. For the duration of their ten-day stay, group members were perfectly happy to sleep on the floor, walk great distances, and feel generally out of place in this "foreign" environment. But when it came to the reasons for doing these things, the whys of mission, most of them had no idea beyond some vague concept of "reaching people" and a performance-based sense of duty.

So when we asked these volunteers to go out and incarnate the gospel, they were at a loss as to what, exactly, that might mean and how, practically, to do that. They had no understanding of urban living, social tribes or persons of peace. They had no experience gathering pertinent geographical, social, or spiritual information that might assist in church planting efforts. They were unfamiliar with the unchanging gospel, and fearful of culture. Worst of all, few had any sense of why they were participating in such a trip in the first place. Without basic missionary tradecraft, a Christian is incapable of moving beyond volunteerism into partnership in mission.

Whether a trip to an orphanage or to a coffee shop in Europe, mission teams must be properly prepared and educated on living missionally. Short-term trips are valuable, but only when done well. Tourism disguised as mission trips are not only a waste of time and money, but do more harm than good for the kingdom of God.

So, sign up and go on mission. Just do it well.

You may find that you begin living missionally daily upon your return. That's the point, right?

Love God and love people, just don't give yourself a point for living missionally simply because you changed your Facebook profile picture to a smiling orphan in an under-developed country. 

 


GameDay Church and the Inevitable "Beer Question"

Since we announced the launch of GameDay Church at the site of Old St. Andrews Church prior to the Jaguars - Colts game on December 13, we have had many questions from various sources.

The Beer Question

Drink-beerWhether it has been from church members planning to help make it happen, other church leaders in the city, community friends or news agencies, it seems that a few questions regarding the church service rise to the forefront. They are. . .

  • Why are you doing this?
  • What will it look like?
  • What about beer?

Honestly, the beer question tends to be the first one we are asked. The other two tend to be logistical.

It seems that our response to the beer question has the potential of creating more controversy than a red cup at Starbucks.

Nevertheless, here's our answer to the "beer question."

"We are not providing it."

There. That's it. Simple, right? Well, I thought so, but apparently is not sufficient for some. 

Clarification

Let me be clear, just in case there is some misunderstanding. I do not partake of alcoholic beverages. I do not believe it is a good thing to do so. I do not recommend it at all. Likely, this is due to my upbringing and my years of working with teenagers from challenging homes where alcohol played a role, not to mention the under-age, binge drinking that I have observed and worked young people through. Therefore, the partaking of such is not encouraged by me.

Yet, it is clear that while getting drunk (Ephesians 5:18) is sinful and declared such in Scripture, the partaking of alcoholic beverages is not. I'm well versed in the "do not be a stumbling block" passage and affirm that, but I'm not going to break all that down in this posting, due to the fact it will result in the potential online, comment-driven, debates that do nothing to reach people for Christ and ultimately do the Kingdom no good, but if you'd like to read more regarding this question, from a biblical worldview, check out this link at GotQuestions. (GotQuestions is a solid, biblically-conservative Q & A resource.)

It appears that the only thing that could rival the questions of a Baptist church hosting a tailgating/worship service at an NFL game would be if we hosted a "Line Dancing" event. While the "Baptists don't dance" mantra still exists, I declare that it is more that most "Baptists can't dance." It's apparently a rhythm issue, at least in our church. This is made clear as many in our congregation attempt to clap in-time along with some of the worship songs. But. . .I digress.

No Beer Garden, but No "Beer Guards," Either

So, a simple answer of "We're not providing beer" leads to the follow-up question from some that sounds like this, "But, what if someone shows up with a beer in their hand?"

And, this is where my answer causes some raised eyebrows. Remember, we're meeting under an open-air tent. We will have a grill set up with some BBQ available and some bottled water as well. Yes, it is a family-friendly event, but then, so is the football game, right?

People will be walking by the tent on the way to the game. Most attendees will stop by for a few minutes, step under the tent, eat some BBQ, play some corn-hole and then move on to the stadium for the beginning of the game. Most, except for those serving and leading, are not thinking about going to a church service. They're thinking about going to an NFL football game.

And, some of those who stop by (not all, because not all who will partake of an officially NFL-licensed Bud Light that day, will be doing so at 11am) will have a beer in hand. And, we are NOT going to set "beer guards" by the entrance telling people to get rid of their beer before they can come in and worship and hear the Gospel. Why? Because we know at that point people will just walk away and think "That's not for me." 

A Simple Focus

1e85eb_ed431ec6c6b24d268fa5ece97ea14d84Simply put, our focus at GameDay Church (as it is at any of our campuses or events) is Jesus Christ. We focus on Him alone, and trust the Holy Spirit to do what He does best.

GameDay Church is an event. We acknowledge that. It is a front-door event for many. It is the church seeking to go where the crowd is, as opposed to simply creating another crowd.

Believing that God has led us to offer this worship and teaching experience at the cross-roads of cultural engagement, leads us to trust Him to draw those to Himself that day. Focus means we must not be side-tracked on issues that are not vital. This is not a watering-down of the Gospel. In fact, by being so solidly focused upon it, it leads us to be missionally engaged in ways that we often just read about and "amen" but never do.

Tweet: If Christianity is simply behavior-modification, then we have lost focus. @davidtark @gamedaychurch http://ctt.ec/B9h25+If Christianity is simply behavior-modification, then we have lost focus.

So, if you're a football fan and have friends who would never attend a traditional church service with you, why not get a few tickets here (use our GAMEDAY code) and come to GameDay Church on your way to the game? Let's trust God to do what His Word declares. He does more than modify behavior, he transforms hearts.

The question has been answered. Now, let's pray that God will draw many to Himself through His church.


What's In a Name? The Birth of the firstFAMILY

Since the chartering of First Baptist Church of Orange Park (the church I pastor) in 1951, the focus of our mission has been and always will be to honor and love God and to reach people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Over the years the location of our church has changed as has leadership and models of ministry. However, our focus has never shifted from the Gospel and it never will.

(CLARIFICATION: First Baptist Church was actually begun as a Bible study class on Mrs. Carrie Clarke's front porch in 1919. In 1921, the church held its first business meeting. The sponsor of the new church in Orange Park was Murray Hill Baptist Church in Jacksonville, where Mrs. Clarke was a member. The 1951 date is when the church was officially chartered with a constitution and by-laws. The church was incorporated in 1976. So, regardless which date you choose, FBCOP has been around for quite some time.)

To state the obvious, the community where God planted our church campus has changed dramatically since 1951. I still run into some Orange Parkians (not sure that's really a word) who will tell me they remember when the four-lane, divided avenue our church is located was nothing but a dirt road with orange trees planted in the medians. Now, most all orange trees in Orange Park are just images on our street signs.

As our community has dramatically changed, we have sought to seek ways to continue reaching people for Christ in our neighborhood and beyond. Our county and nearby Jacksonville, Florida are areas that identify greatly by geographic names and community identifiers. When one speaks of living in Jacksonville to a native, the next question is "Where in Jacksonville?" and that question is a pointed one with an expected answer of a region such as "the Westside, Southside, Riverside, Avondale, San Marco, Northside, the Beaches, Mandarin, etc." Each area has a distinct identity and then within each area, there are more distinctions. In Clay County, where Orange Park is located, those distinctions often are defined by the names of housing developments or neighborhoods such as Pace Island, Eagle Harbor, Oak Leaf, the Ravines, Ridgecrest, Bear Run, Orange Park South, etc.

Yet, over time as as we have grown to be less internally-focused and have sought God's lead into areas of ministry, doors have opened for our church to begin new expressions of church in various locations throughout our county, Jacksonville and beyond.

"First Baptist Church of Orange Park" has been the name of our church since its founding. Apparently, there were no points given for creativity back in the 1950s. As is the case with many legacy churches, names prominently stated the denominational affiliation and the geographic location. In our case, it also designates that we arrived on the scene before any other Baptist churches. For those who have grown up in the Baptist world, this is normal. Yet, over the years I have been asked many times (and more recently) if all First Baptist Churches are the same. I used to joke that we were franchises like McDonald's, but have stopped due to the fact that most of the people asking believe me. 

In some areas of our nation, the denominational tagline is a hindrance. That is not so much a problem in the area of Florida where we are located, but thanks to the protesting, pseudo-church in Kansas that uses the Baptist name, I have had to explain to a number of young men and women that we are in no way connected to that group.

Proverbs 22:1 reminds us the value of a good name and thankfully, our church has been able to develop a name in the community over the years that brings with it good connotations. This is due to our church family members and their willingness to love people and serve those in our local schools and community. 

Forty New Expressions of Church

God is sending us outside Orange Park.

As we have been praying through and I have been preaching through the reality that God sends his church into a world that needs light and salt, it is clear now that we will not be limited only to the area of Orange Park. We have already experienced the sending of missionaries and church planters throughout the world, as those from our family have said "Yes" to the call and have been sent. 

There will be more.

There will also be more churches birthed through the ministry of First Baptist. Our desire is to see forty new expressions of church birthed through First Baptist. These will be satellite locations, new church plants, special-event gatherings and culturally-defined churches. 

The birth of the firstFAMILY

In truth, the ministry of First Baptist will be a mini-network of churches and missions founded on the Gospel and focused on implementing the "Big 3" of 1) Loving God, 2) Loving people, and 3) Making disciples.

GameDay Church at the Jacksonville Jaguars home games is one of our first new endeavors. As we began to put the pieces together for this expression of church, it became clear that we would be seeking to connect with people throughout the Jacksonville area. While the name "Baptist" may be attractive to some and a turn-off to others (and much has been written about that over the years, so I won't delve into that) we discovered that the regional name was going to be a larger barrier. Missionally-speaking, it is unwise to create barriers to reaching people with the Gospel, especially since we are called to engage the culture for the sake of God's Kingdom (not our little ones.) 

First family logo all blue

So, firstFAMILY was birthed and has become the banner under which all our ministries, venues, and mission endeavors function. The name is all-encompassing and travels well.

Don't Hear What I'm Not Saying (or Don't Read What I'm Not Writing)

Here are some answers to the FAQ:

  • We are NOT changing the name of the church. First Baptist Church of Orange Park remains our legal name and also remains the hub of all ministries hosted as the firstFAMILY. Our offices are at FBCOP. Our primary worship services and ministries are housed at this location. In a sense, FBCOP is the headquarters for all that is firstFAMILY.
  • As mission support is shifting for Southern Baptists, we will continue to give through the Cooperative Program, but also will be supporting missionaries on the field who are not funded by the International Mission Board or North American Mission Board, but who are doctrinally-aligned with us. In many cases, these are missionaries who were previously serving with the IMB, but have been released recently due to financial realignment. This mission support will be under firstFAMILY Missions and will help us continue to engage the world for the sake of the Gospel, especially in areas where we have connections and a vested interest.
  • Satellite campuses will be tagged with the name firstFAMILY. We have opportunities now and are praying through others regarding the placement of campuses in the Northside, Oakleaf and Swimming Pen Creek areas. Since geographic titles are not bad, these will likely be named something like firstFAMILY-Northside, firstFAMILY-Oakleaf, etc. The names flow better than "First Baptist Church of Orange Park at the Northside." Not only does that have two regional names, causing confusion, it is too long. A firstFAMILY-Toronto venue is not out of the realm of possibilities either.
  • New expressions of church will continue to be birthed in the firstFAMILY network. GameDay Church is our first non-traditional church expression. 
  • We are developing a Church Planting Center at our church, that will work in conjunction with the Jacksonville Baptist Association to assess, prepare and resource those called to plant churches.
  • Our orphan care ministry is already growing and will continue to expand services to those seeking to foster or adopt children as well as support children located in orphanages locally and internationally.

We continue to seek clarity regarding where God is at work in our area and throughout the world and will join Him there. Rather than create crowds, we will go where they already gather, taking the message of the Gospel with us and trusting God's Spirit to do what He always has. Our role is to be obedient.

There is value and power in the name "family." In fact, it is a "good name." When people join God's family, they cease to be "those people." This is a significant step. The term "family" brings with it a sense of identity and unity. 

These are exciting days and I'm convinced the best is yet to come.


The Strength of the Church That Risks

If you do a search online for churches that risk you find page after page focusing on insurance for religious organizations. These are gathered under the title "Risk Management." In other words, this is the exact opposite of what I was actually searching. 

I was not seeking to find ways to manage risk, though I'm not saying that's necessarily bad, especially in the area of protecting families and property. It just seemed funny that the sites that popped up on my screen focused solely on the ability to keep churches safe and I was seeking to find examples of churches who refuse to stay safe (and I'm not talking about insurance or lawsuit related issues.)

Over my twenty-plus years in pastoral ministry I have served on church staff that sought to maintain status quo at times. I've also experienced moments that could be described simply as "risky endeavors."

I have not taken a survey. I have not studied the data on this. I'm speaking simply from my personal perspective and what I discern to be true about the church where I pastor. 

Tweet: When we take risks, we are at our best. @davidtark http://ctt.ec/_W3aN+ When we take risks, we are at our best.

The church that refuses to take risks soon becomes irrelevant to the community in which it lives.

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It seems to me that most every church plant and new start, and I'm not just talking about new churches planted recently, but when legacy churches began decades and maybe centuries ago, there was great risk involved.

Maybe risk isn't the word the comes to mind, but it is accurate. At some point in the early part of the 20th century, in the community where the church I pastor is located, a woman began hosting a Bible study for children on her front porch. This Bible study was the genesis of what became First Baptist Church of Orange Park. Now, Mrs. Clarke likely didn't see that Bible study as risky, but looking back at the circumstances, it was. There was a need revealed to a woman who loved her community and area children. Like many planters in today's culture, when you throw out a crazy idea like a group gathering to study the Bible, there is no way to know who will show up or even if the effort will take root. 

In this case, it did. There were other factors at play in the birthing of the local Baptist church, and hindsight is always 20/20, but at the time, there was no way to know if a church would be birthed and if so, would it mature.

Here we are a number of decades later and as I look back at our storied history, it is truly miraculous that we still exist. Like many churches, there have been some great chapters, but just as many terrible ones. When I was called to pastoral staff here back in the mid-1990s, this church was still healing from scandals and pastoral failings from a decade earlier. 

We took risks for the sake of the Gospel

In a different era, under the leadership of Dr. Allen Harrod, our Senior Pastor at the time, this church took some significant risks. Dr. Harrod's leadership in this time was essential. He led a church reeling from scandal and poor theology into an era of growth and solid Gospel footing. Facilities were built. Others were upgraded. Ministries were developed and not unlike the birthing of this church decades prior, no one really knew how these new efforts would pan out.

Eleven years ago I was called to serve as Lead Pastor here. Since ministry options and new ideas had become the norm in our church culture, risk was not viewed as our enemy. It was not something viewed as frightening. This is likely due to the many new steps taken under the tenure of Dr. Harrod.

I think back to events and ministry options we began under the title "This is an experiment. Let's see if it will work." In truth, we were seeking to discover ways to continually look outward in a church culture that defaults to looking inward. The biggest challenge was revealed quickly. 

Most people avoid risk at all costs

This is true for people in the church as well. 

If your church has an influx of "transfer members," which many legacy churches do, there is a tendency for transferred fear (or risk-averse culture) to infect a growing, outwardly-focused family.

Yet, as one wise senior adult told me years ago, "It's not that we're so afraid of new things. We just need you to lead us into understanding what it will mean and why it's worth the risk."

That's the role of the pastor/leader. 

So, as I look back over the years, I remember some pretty risky efforts in ministry (at least for us) that slowly moved our church to begin to live more missionally while presenting an attractional God to those who never even knew He existed.

There are numerous things that precipitate a risky choice in church life. In most cases, it's the revelation that to do nothing new leaves a local church just going through the motions and eventually wondering why they aren't growing or living effectively on mission.

As I read the Bible, I see numerous risky steps taken by men and women of God. In each case, whether it was Moses speaking boldly to Pharaoh, David stepping in front of a giant with little more than a sling, Esther approaching the king, or even Jesus declaring his role to the religious and political leaders in Jerusalem, these were only risky from the human perspective.

Adversity is very big when it’s all you can see. But it’s very small when it’s surrounded by opportunity. - Glen Llopis

Tweet: The church that refuses to risk is the same church that refuses to step out in faith. We call those dead churches. @davidtark The church that refuses to risk is the same church that refuses to step out in faith. We call those dead churches.

Taking risks for the sake of the Gospel is not to be done apart from prayer.

Tweet: To step out in faith without listening, hearing and discerning God's voice isn't risky. It's dumb. @davidtark http://ctt.ec/ao2R5+ To step out in faith without hearing, discerning and listening to God's voice isn't risky. It's dumb.

So, take some risks. Dare to step out. It's when you're at your best as a church.

Our latest risky endeavor is GameDay Church. Check it out here - gamedaychurch.org.


Has Your Church Peaked?

I was reading post this morning by Seth Godin about the Mac and how businesses and primary products seem to hit a peak. That is, there is this point where the product isn't improved dramatically, the customer base is no longer increased and creativity stalls.

Godin writes. . .

The Grateful Dead hit their peak in 1977. Miles Davis in 1959, Warhol perhaps ten years later. It's not surprising that artists hit a peak—their lives have an arc, and so does the work. It can't possibly keep amazing us forever.

Fans say that the Porsche arguably hit a peak in 1995 or so, and the Corvette before that. Sears hit a peak more than a decade ago. It's more surprising to us when a brand, an organization or a business hits a peak, because the purpose of the institution is to improve over time. They gain more resources, more experience, more market acceptance... they're not supposed to get bored, or old or lose their touch. If Disney hadn't peaked, there would never have been a Pixar. If Nokia and Motorola hadn't peaked, there never would have been a smart phone.

One reason for peaking turns out to be success.

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One does not have to look too far to find articles and blog posts about the rise of the "Nones" in American religious life and the stories of the marginalization of local churches.

Since the early 1980s, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of megachurches in the United States. The most common definition of a megachurch is a church that averages over 2,000 attenders weekly. There were approximately fifty megachurches in the US in 1980. Today, there are over 880. One statistic states that a new megachurch emerges in the US every two weeks in today's culture.

As America has become a predominantly urban and suburban culture, the growth of such places of worship was inevitable, it seems. The impact of these fellowships has been good, for the most part, and attractive for those seeking to be part of a larger story.

However, even with the rise of the megachurch, church attendance and participation in our culture seems to be going the opposite direction.

Why?

Have many churches peaked?

Bob Russell, former pastor of Southeast Christian Church, speaks of the reality of a local church's "shelf-life." He states. . .

One can trace the history of most churches through the swing of a bell curve. Birthed out of a need, it progresses upward through vision, commitment, enthusiasm, growth, and reputation, peaking at pride of achievement. Then the church slowly declines through tradition, dwindling attendance, indifference, bureaucracy, cynicism, and eventually death. 

In a conference I attended years ago, Reggie McNeal stated "All churches have a shelf-life. That's why we're not talking about the church at Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonica, etc. as modern pictures of a health and growth."

It's a wake up call for most pastors and church members.

Even in the suburban community where the church I serve is located, we have had to address the amazing demographic changes that have happened in just the past decade. To continue to program and plan to reach people as we did ten to fifteen years ago means that within ten to fifteen years, we may be struggling for survival.

Tweet: No church wants to be known as the  No church wants to be known as the "Sears" of the church-world, or even worse - the "Montgomery Ward."

Has Your Church Peaked?

A strategic and honest analysis of the health of your church is needed. To believe that everything is okay simply because there are people attending today is not enough. Since disciple-making is the goal of, and commission to the local church, it behooves us to ensure we (pastors and leaders) are equipping the saints for the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:12). 

Tweet: Equipped saints are not equipped just to maintain status quo. @davidtark http://ctt.ec/Rv0P9+ Equipped saints are not equipped just to maintain status quo.

Tweet: Disciples are not called out and ransomed just for the here and now. @davidtark http://ctt.ec/nf6h9+ Disciples are not called out and ransomed just for the here and now.

I think about the twelve whom Jesus called out as apostles. For three years he taught, led and poured truth into them. This was done for their present situations, but he had a larger story in mind. Peter, James, John, Andrew, Bartholomew and the rest had no idea that the work they would be commissioned to do for the sake of the Gospel would ever be more than the "holy huddle" of the twelve plus Jesus. Then, as he equipped them, he revealed to them their calling. 

He is still doing this.

The Local Church Is Valuable

The expression of the local church is valuable and God's design for impact in a community and ultimately the world. While His church will prevail, even when faced against the "gates of Hell" and the power of the Enemy, the reality is that numerous local churches no longer exist. This is not threatening to God or cause for distress. It is, however, a potential wake-up call for the fellowship of local believers.

We have a calling for now. The local church is still viable. However, the local church that becomes so inwardly focused and content to remain in small stories that ultimately do not matter, a funeral is coming. By the way, this is the truth for the mini-church and the mega-church.

We are wise to heed the words of Christ to the seven churches in Revelation (Bob Russell):

  • “Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first” (2:5).
  • “Be faithful even to the point of death” (2:10).
  •  “Hold on to what you have until I come (2:25).
  • “Be earnest and repent” (3:19).
  • “Wake up!  Strengthen what remains and is about to die…” (3:2).

Tweet: Death comes when memories of the past exceed the vision for the future. @davidtark http://ctt.ec/8Xe8E+ The adage is true - "Death comes when memories of the past exceed the vision for the future."

Your Church Has Peaked. . .Now What?

In this age where church planting is celebrated in the evangelical world, many established and "legacy" churches are struggling to discover their identity in a changing culture. While some may have to shut their doors and eventually sell their property, not all have to go this route.

Revitalization is key. 

To revitalize a dying church requires strategic "heart surgery." I have heard of far too many churches still gathering in old buildings, with rusty baptismal pipes (Baptist churches) and just a handful of senior adult ladies and one or two senior adult men gathering on Sunday mornings wondering what will happen in just a few years. 

Until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change, nothing will likely happen.

However, I have also had the privilege of watching a handful of dying (actually these churches weren't dying - they were actually dead and had been for years. I call them Zombie churches) churches swallow the pride of yesteryear and seek partnerships with growing, healthy and new expressions of church in their community. In some cases, the skin tone of the leadership had to change to better impact the changing community. In other situations, the heart language was different as immigrants have moved into an area. It's the same old story - the community changed and the church didn't respond. The wonderful thing is that in these cases, it wasn't too late.

The original expression of church peaked, but then was re-introduced through a healthy partnership and a newer, strategic vision. This is more than a fresh coat of paint on a broken-down building. This is a rebirth.

These churches have been born again.

Time ran a story a while back on "10 Companies That Radically Transformed Their Businesses" with illustrations of corporations who used to sell certain products then shifted and remain impactful today. IBM still exists because they realized at some point the business of creating punch-cards and tabulating machines would end. Nokia used to be a paper mill that sold rubber and cable works. Now, they make cell phones (though they may have to shift that too as Apple and Samsung seem to have cornered that market.)

The difference in these businesses and the church is that the "core product" is the only thing that will never change for the church. The Gospel is unchanging and always relevant. The means for sharing this Word changes over time, yet the Word never changes.

The local church may peak, but the Gospel never does.

The word to the wise is to know the Gospel, learn from the past, live in the present and look forward to the future. Just don't water-down or change the message.

 


At Some Point, You Have to Stop Asking "Isn't There Another Church Doing This?"

Yeah, I know - "There's nothing new under the sun."

It's a wise saying from a wise man and it still holds true.

However, as we seek to lead well and pastor with integrity in a swiftly changing culture, the fact is that often we (the church, pastors, leaders, etc.) find ourselves just doing the same things over and over again and wondering why we aren't seeming to gain any ground.

Unchanging Gospel

Now, I am referring to methodology here, not doctrinal soundness. To be clear, the unchanging truth of the Gospel remains the solid footing upon which we stand. There is no changing of the Gospel. There is no value in "watering it down." There is no viability in "making the Gospel relevant" because in and of itself, the Gospel is always relevant, for all people, in all cultures, at all time.

Changing Methods

What I am speaking of are the methods of "doing church" in our culture. I grew up in a Baptist world where regardless where I lived (Mississippi, Alabama, Ohio, Texas, Tennessee, Alaska, etc.) the way we held church weekly was virtually unchanged. Sunday School was always at 9:45am on Sunday morning. That was followed by an 11am worship service. Most Sunday afternoons were short in that we were back at the church building for Training Union/Church Training/Discipleship Training and an evening worship service. Tuesday was church-wide visitation and Wednesday was filled with "Prayer Meeting" for adults and a combination of choirs, missions education and student worship services for the rest of the congregation.

In most of my Baptist church families, the bulletin on Sunday mornings were the same (we all bought them from the Baptist Book Store - now LifeWay) and in many cases, the layout of the facilities were identical. This was due to the fact that our family often joined churches that were small in size and received building blueprints from the Baptist Book Store or somewhere in Nashville, so the L-shaped or U-shaped buildings with a "Sanctuary" on one end and offices and Sunday School rooms on the other were common.

New Wineskins

There comes a time when the methods for connecting and reaching people in the community (i.e. mission field) where God has placed His church must change. In most cases, churches struggle with this because we tend to lean on old models that worked decades ago and therefore put money and effort into plans ultimately designed to reach people who no longer exist.

Tony Morgan has recently blogged about the reality and danger of churches that are so predictable in all they do that, for the most part, they are finding themselves being ignored by a culture who does not care what they are "selling." Unfortunately, this is not just reserved for those who are outside the church. Some who have attended for years are wondering how they found themselves in such a rut.

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In Tony's post titled "Predictable: 9 Reasons Your Church Services Are Stuck in a Rut" he gives some great insight. (You should click the link and read his full list as well as related posts in the "Predictable" series.)

His first reason is this:

Tweet: All your new ideas comes from others churches - the same churches that are too predictable. @tonymorganlive All your new ideas comes from others churches - the same churches that are too predictable.

When I read that, I thought "YES!!! Someone finally said it. Thank you, Tony!"

I cannot tell you how many meetings I have had over the years with pastors, in our church and in our network, and other leadership team members when a new idea was thrown onto the table that resulted in someone saying "Surely someone else is doing something like this. Let's go see them or visit their website or talk to them."

Now, I fully agree that the wise leader will seek information and detail from others who have gone down a similar path, but the fact of the matter is that when God reveals new and creative ways to do ministry for the sake of His name and the intent of reaching the people (i.e. mission field) surrounding one's church, there is likely NO ONE doing ministry exactly how you will do it, or should.

Tweet: At some point, you should be the first to do  At some point, you should be the first to do "something" ministry related.

We live in the age of the mega-church. So many great and creative ideas have been developed and new ways of connecting with people have been birthed. While the Gospel remains unchanged, there are few, if any, vibrant, healthy churches that look like the churches I attended back in the 1970s and 1980s.

Just because City Church, Passion City Church, Saddleback, North Point, Summit or any host of other solid churches around our nation and network do ministry a certain way does not mean that is the exact way you should.

Know Your Community & Culture

Tweet: The pastor should know his culture so well that it would not be a stretch to connect on a real, relevant and deep level. @davidtark 
 The pastor and leadership team should know their culture so well that it would not be a stretch to connect with them on a real, relevant and deep level. 

If your community (you know, the mission field) is full of people who wear camouflage, drive four-wheel drive trucks, listen to outlaw country music, own big dogs, hunt and fish and love their Budweiser, it is likely that preaching in skinny jeans, bowties, hairstyles where the back of your head is shaved and the top just flows like a One Direction member, referencing kale salads and soccer games is not the "new, creative" steps needed to engage. However, I don't advocate becoming something you are not, pastor, in order to connect. Sure, be all things to all people, but ultimately, be authentic. Most anyone can see through fake-ness.

Fear Stifles Creativity

Hopefully, you have a leadership team (these are not always paid staff members, by the way) who have the freedom to think creatively. Celebrate that freedom, especially if you are not naturally bent to be creative. Listen well and take some chances. Predictability may be safe, but there are many "safe churches" who are closing their doors. 

Remember, this calling we have is not a calling to safety, but a dangerous calling for His sake.

We are the "sent out ones." 

So, while there may be someone who has done it before (whatever "it" is) please quit stifling what the Holy Spirit may be birthing for sake of safety.

Tweet: Predictable churches are led by predictable leaders who often are just afraid of stepping out in the faith they proclaim. @davidtark Ultimately, predictable churches are led by predictable leaders who often are just afraid of stepping out in the faith they proclaim.


A Church That Calls Out the Called

As I was preparing to preach the ordination sermon for Robert L. Powell last Sunday morning, I started writing down names on my church bulletin of men and women who were (and in some cases, are) members of our church who in the past said "Yes" to God regarding the calling to full-time Christian ministry. Of course, as I began to write down the names, it became clear that I would miss some. Nevertheless, here is a sampling of some of the names of those who have been a part (even if just for a short time) of the ministry at our church (First Baptist Church of Orange Park) who have stepped forward in answer to the call to serve. In some cases, there are couples who serve together. In most cases, many are still serving in ministry full or part-time (pay is the only part of ministry that is part-time, by the way.) Here's a portion of the listing, in no particular order, of those who have or are serving on ministerial staff at a local church, in a ministry, on the mission field. These are in no particular order:

  • Eddy & Monica - worship pastor, worship leader
  • Art - evangelist and pastor
  • Susan & Karl - missionaries
  • Karla - worship leader
  • Kerrie - missionary, church staff
  • Shanna - church ministerial staff, pastor's wife
  • Andy - pastor
  • Michael - church ministerial staff
  • Heather - minister's wife
  • Neil & Kaytee - church planters, missionaries
  • Jason - missionary
  • Brian - church ministerial staff
  • Brian - men's pastor
  • Robert - children's pastor
  • Brandon - student pastor, worship pastor
  • Lee - associate pastor, group home leader
  • Michael & Carrie - church planters, missionaries
  • Jon & Mandi - church ministerial staff
  • Nik & Mandy - church ministerial staff, children's minister
  • John & Monica - orphan care ministry, director of orphanage
  • Austin & Nicole - church ministerial staff
  • Kenzie & Ryan - church ministerial staff
  • Crystal & Jacob - church ministerial staff
  • Callie - Christian camp staffer
  • Patrick & Selena - mercy ministries pastor
  • Scott & Brittany - church staff & mission support ministry
  • Boyd - pastor
  • Curtis - missionary
  • Patrick - military chaplain
  • Nicole - missionary

Now, here's the problem with this list. . .I know I've left some off. I don't, at this time, know which names have been left off, but I am getting older, so I know I've left some names off. So, if you would add names of those who were a part of our church for a season (and that could be through the student ministry) who have answered God's call to full-time ministry in the comments below, I would appreciate it.

Lightstock_77331_small_david_tarkington

Following the ordination of Robert (Bobby) Powell on Sunday, one of our deacons shared with me this truth:

"If all those over the years who have said 'yes' to the calling had stayed in their small groups and in this church over the years, we may have a couple of dozen more in the seats on Sunday, but think of all the hundreds who would not have been reached by these faithful men and women."

It's true. While I affirm the sovereignty of our God and the reality that He doesn't need us, I celebrate the reality that He so chooses to invite us into His great story.

All Christians are called by God to serve. Some are called to the noble role of pastor and many others to serve in full-time ministry. The church is God's instrument to affirm the "calling out of the called." 

I am humbled by how God has done so here and how He continues to draw men and women to Himself.


A Church for Football Fans? Could This Work?

There are some things that identify my community every fall. I live in Jacksonville, Florida (well, actually a suburb of Jacksonville.) When I meet people from out of state, I find that they have heard of Jacksonville, but aren't too sure where on the state map it is located. So, just in case you need a geography primer, Jacksonville is located at the "bend." We are located in the northeast corner where the panhandle meets the Atlantic Ocean and turns south.

Jacksonville is the kind of area where people who are transferred here due to work (CSX and US Navy, mostly) decide to stay after retirement. 

It's the "biggest little town" I've ever known with over 1 million residents.

I would say the largest religious preference in our community isn't Baptist, Catholic or another denominational tagline, but would have to be "Football."

Every fall, the weekend schedules for many center around high school, college and professional football.

Like many, I too am a fan and love to cheer on our local teams and sit back and watch the roller coaster of emotions of others in our community when their teams fail to perform to expectation.

Back when I first moved here, this city was as excited as I have ever seen it. The NFL had awarded Jacksonville with a franchise that would dramatically change this "little big town" (not the country band, BTW).

I did exactly what others did at the time. I jumped on the bandwagon of fans at the outset and put aside my other allegiances to become a Jacksonville Jaguars fan. I was at that first Monday Night Football game when the Jags beat the Steelers in the last seconds. Wow!!! What a night. The years of Brunell, Boselli, Thunder & Lightning and playoff runs were unbelievable. While the most recent years have tested the faith of those who love the teal and black, the Jags are still our home team, and I'll remain a fan.

So, as I think back to those first seasons, I remember when many local pastors would preach sermons that intended to guilt their church members regarding their Sunday activities. In other words, beyond the beach and time with the family at the lake, there now was a community-wide gathering just about every Sunday at 1pm in the fall. This gathering was at the now-named EverBank Field as fans gathered to watch the Jaguars play.

Over the years, I have heard less guilt-driven sermons intent on making Christians feel bad for watching football on Sunday. Well, it wasn't really that pastors were upset that their church members were watching football on Sunday. It was more that pastors were frustrated that church members tended to leave early on Sunday to get to the game or stayed all afternoon and in the days of "Evening Worship" would miss the church gatherings.

Let's just say that "guilt-driven" sermons based on football viewing did little to sway the attendance patterns of fans. Now, the play on the field did much to affect attendance, but that's a subject for another day.

Churches Aren't Too Good At Creating Crowds

For years, churches in the west have attempted to create crowds for events, services and programs. Sometimes, they (we) have found success, but mostly these are short-lived. Sometimes, the crowd-gathering efforts seem weak and are often viewed as an end and not a means to an end.

The truth of the matter is that most churches do not create crowds well. When the money and effort is finalized and the crowd hasn't arrived (or the intended crowd, at least) the church faces feelings of failure.

Go Where The Crowd Already Is

The missional movement among churches helped leaders view things differently in the community. Over the years, I have shared this concept with our leaders and with other pastors. Rather than try to create a crowd, why don't we go where the crowd is already gathered?

In many cases, whether at community events, concerts, high school games, or festivals, our church has sought creative ways to serve at these events. Serving at these gatherings is much different than "crashing the community party" and gives authentic, practical opportunities for connecting with those outside the church walls.

GameDay Church?

That brings us to our new endeavor as a church. I asked the questions to our Leadership Team, "What if we brought the church to where the crowd is already gathered on Sundays in the fall? What if we 'did church' at the Jaguars game?"

 

The Jaguars play in EverBank Field. Located on the same piece of property, next to our minor league baseball park and basically in the parking area for EverBank is an old church building. This church building - Old St. Andrew's Church - is owned by the City of Jacksonville and maintained by the Jacksonville Historical Society. We have contacted the leadership of this group and initially were told we could rent the facility on Sundays, other than home game dates for the Jaguars. Then, we explained what we desired to do. We wanted to have a church service specifically on those home game dates, for fans who already have tickets, are early arrivers (tailgaters) and who may desire or at least be curious about possibly attending a church service prior to kickoff.

After a few weeks of conversations and negotiations, we are attempting to move forward with GameDay Church. Since the church building is not available on the date we need, we will be unable to meet indoors, but have been given permission to erect a large tent on their lot for this gathering.

So, on Sunday morning at 11am on December 13, GameDay Church will launch on the grounds of Old St. Andrew's Church. We are still in the planning stages, but on this day, the church will gather for worship, teaching from the Word of God and perhaps some time of fellowship (i.e. tailgating) with BBQ and other grilled items and maybe some games prior to the big game!

 

Gameday church 4

While we acknowledge that the majority of people who will likely attend are already church members/attenders in our community, we are praying that some of them will bring a friend or two to this church gathering in the parking lot of the Jaguars stadium? 

Tweet: Trusting the Gospel to do what it has always done, we are moving forward to go where the crowd is already gathered. http://ctt.ec/0JYLK+ Trusting the Gospel to do what it has always done, we are moving forward with the concept of going where the crowd is already gathered.

Gameday church 5

Is this a Mars Hill moment? There may not be many philosophers gathered as Paul encountered, but there will be a crowd, nonetheless. There will likely be some interesting conversations as well. 

Many in our community do not think about going to church on Sunday mornings. What if the church went to them? Sounds biblical to me.

More to come on GameDay Church. In the meantime, check out the website here - gamedaychurch.org.


I Know the Scorecard Has Changed. . .But It's Hard Not to Look at the Old One

The news media has been reporting what they declare to be the decline of Christianity in America. It seems the latest Pew Survey (this is the name of the research group, not a survey of number of pews in your church. . .though that survey probably exists somewhere) reflects this reality by showing the PF_15.05.05_RLS2_1_310pxgrowth of the "Nones" (those with no religious affiliation, and the decline of mainstream Christian denominations and groups with the greatest decline being with Mainline Protestant affiliations.

Is The Sky Falling?

The simple answer is NO. The church will not fail, even if buildings close and denominations lose traction. Some churches should close. Some denominations, based upon unbiblical and ungodly choices will decline. . .and should. And, the reality is that as the culture swings further away from biblical morality, those churches who continue to stand firmly on the Word of God and seek to love Him and others well, will likely be marginalized by a culture that cannot understand.

This is not unique to the United States, nor is it unique to our time in history.

Nevertheless, as Ed Stetzer pointed out in an op-ed for USA Today. . .

While it should be noted that evangelicals' share of the overall U.S. population dropped by 9 percentage points over the last seven years based on denominational affiliation, the percentage of U.S. adults who self-identify as evangelical or born-again rose from 34 to 35% over the same period of time. Don't miss that: More than one-third of Americans call themselves evangelical.

And despite what many are saying, evangelicals are attending church more than ever. The latest (2014) General Social Survey found that in the last two years of the study a greater percentage of evangelicals are attending church than in any other time of the last 40 years. Currently, 55 percent of evangelicals attend church at least nearly every week.

This is part of the growing "evangelicalization" of American Christianity in which the church in the U.S. is increasingly taking on the attributes of evangelicalism. According to Pew, half of all Christians self-identify as an evangelical or born again.

The Old Scorecard

I have read the books on missional movements and engagement. I have led conferences on the paradigm shift that must take place within local churches in order to honor God and engage a lost culture. I get it. The scorecard has changed. Yet, even though I know this. . .it's difficult not to default back to that which I have always known.

I like scorecards.

There, I said it. I actually like scorecards.

When I was a kid going to Cincinnati Reds games, I'd take a pencil and, at least for the first few innings, keep score on the provided scorecard program page. It kept me interested in the game and since baseball seems to be the sport that focuses most on statistics, I felt like I was in the know.

As a kid, I would play baseball, basketball and even soccer (just one season - we lost every game except the one I missed. I figured out then that soccer wasn't my sport.) I have a few trophies from those years, but they were for winning. Even as a kid, the score mattered to me. I know we now live in the "everyone gets a trophy" age where the score isn't even kept in certain situations. I get it. I understand the reasoning, but I also know this - the league may not keep the official score for the kids' sports, but most every parent in the stands knows exactly what the score is.

We like scorecards.

Why? Because we like to win.

That's a message for another day.

Nevertheless, another scorecard of sorts was released today. This one is from Baptist Press and reveals the state of Southern Baptist Churches in our nation, supposedly. I read the article and did what everyone I know does when they see these lists and charts. I went to my state (Florida) to see how we have done financially, church number-wise, number of baptisms and all other indicators. Then, I looked at where were were in relation to other states, which is crazy because Florida Baptists aren't part of a sports league. It's not like we are competing against Georgia (we beat them in baptisms, by the way) or Tennessee (we beat them in baptisms, too) or Texas (that's unfair, they have two conventions and more teams. . . uh, churches). You see, this can be really unhealthy.

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Click Image to View Larger Version

 

Here's what every Baptist pastor knows about SBC statistics as provided by State Conventions - they're flawed. This is not really anyone's fault. It's the nature of the autonomous church. These statistics are built upon numbers provided by churches, as they choose to provide them, to the state conventions. Some churches keep lousy records. Others are meticulously anal when it comes to numbers. Some provide data. Others do not. Therefore, even with our best working on this, the numbers are never going to be 100 percent accurate.

Do Numbers Matter?

Yes, numbers matter. Sometimes, numbers can be used by God to spur us on to better service. If a community is growing exponentially and the church lives in a silo, the numbers on engagement with the community may show a need to do better. 

The reality is that there are likely many small churches who are better engaged and more missional than comparatively larger churches.

Baptisms are perhaps the best indicator we have of life change, yet that is likely a flawed number as well. 

Biblical Precedence

There's no ignoring the reality that people were counted when the church gathered in the New Testament. Even prior to the institution of the church, when Jesus would enter a town, perform miracles, teach the people, etc. someone was counting the number of those in the crowd. It was apparently so important that the numbers attending were listed in Scripture.

A Better Scorecard

Though the old scorecard will likely remain for years, another element must be added (or used as a replacement for some of the items counted now) and that is the number of "sent" Christ-followers. For years, we have counted the gathered. Yet, I cannot help but remember Christ's instructions for his followers to pray that the Lord of the harvest would send out more workers. 

I am encouraged that many of our SBC churches are seeing this and entering into this story intentionally. Now, it's not new. For years, churches have sent missionaries globally. Churches would start "missions" in unreached areas. What must count today is what counted years ago. We are a sending church, part of a sending denomination. We must remain so.

The Win

Scorecards show where we're winning. . .and where we're losing. So, where's the win? The win is that even though the Enemy has called to the bullpen and seems to be throwing his biggest and best at the church, he will not prevail. We know the win is life-change. We know the win is transformation. We know the win is God being glorified. Let's all "live sent" for we have a great task before us.

And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:17-19 (ESV)