Why the Jokes About Jenner Have to Stop

This has been a landmark year for advocates of the LGBT community.

In addition to the SCOTUS ruling that changed state recognition of same-sex marriage, a prominent celebrity (Bruce Jenner) slid to the far right of the acronym to announce that he is transgender and will begin living not as the gender he was born, but as a woman.

To be clear, I do not support the shift in gender that Jenner has and is going through. I don't even know the man, but my belief in identity and bestowed gender, founded on what I believe the Word of God to reveal, means that I cannot affirm this lifestyle choice. I wrote about Jenner's announcement here. I also believe that God loves Jenner as he loves all. Love, nevertheless, is not synonymous with affirmation and acceptance of life choices.

Jenner
CREDIT: Tony Duffy/Allsport/Getty Images, Annie Leibovitz/Vanity Fair

Since Jenner's "coming out" as Caitlyn, the entertainment and sports media has pointedly fought to find more details about Jenner and this has effectively pushed him back on the cover of magazines, on the stage at awards shows and as the lead story on many entertainment "news" shows. Some say this was what he desired all along. Perhaps, but I doubt that was the driving force. 

It's Not About Political Correctness

In a culture where political correctness reigns and celebrities, politicians, and athletes spend more apologizing for saying or Tweeting things that have been labeled as insensitive by the self-proclaimed political correctness police, I am not calling for the end of Jenner jokes and other LGBT jokes for this reason.

Like most guys, I love a good joke. Like most jokes that are really funny, there's always a hint of truth in them. Sarcasm is easy for me. Humor that may offend some has always been a default for me as well. While I find no humor in jokes laced with profanity, racial stereotypes or hurtful words, there are times I have told jokes, or at least laughed at some that are hurtful. What's worse than couching hurtful language in a joke that may cause an individual to feel personally ridiculed is the hurt that takes place for God and His Kingdom.

It Is Mission Critical

When missionaries are sent to international lands, they are sent with a mandate - a Commission. This is to love God fully as they love people with the intent of leading people to the rescue that is found only in Jesus Christ. Our missionaries are not taught to "Americanize" the natives. They are not taught to look down on those whom they been sent to serve. They are not led to water-down the Gospel for any reason, just to be accepted either. They are sent equipped to live among the culture that does not know Jesus, or in some cases is loudly opposed to Jesus.

Christians in America are discovering that the mission field is no longer only overseas. It's not just on another continent where a different religion reigns supreme. The mission field is here. In some cases, the mission field is within one's home and family.

Our culture is growing more loudly opposed to Christ and Christians. The marginalization of the church in cultural life is upon us. Yet, rather than lament the reality, we must celebrate that God has seen fit to place us here, now, for "such a time as this." Apparently, he is equipping us to be His ambassadors and His church for a mission field that is very dark.

Love Wins

While #LoveWins has trended recently as a call for unity and celebration by the LGBT community, the truth of the matter is that Love who wins has already won. Jesus Christ is the embodiment of love. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. And. . .lost people do not know that. Sometimes, they have been blinded to that truth because of religion, unfortunately.

So, Why Stop the Jokes?

Maybe you've never told or laughed at "gay jokes" or "transgender jokes." Or ... maybe you're like me. Here's why I feel the conviction to stop. I believe God has given us a unique opportunity to share His love and hope with those in our community who struggle with same-sex attraction and even deeply troubling gender issues. I know that previous statement is a challenging one, especially for those who are LGBT and are not struggling with it, by their own admission. Nevertheless, based on my faith convictions and understanding of Scripture, I would stand by my wording.

That being said, the Great Commission does not have an asterisk by it that eliminates certain people from our love through Christ. 

This is the biggest challenge - loving truly without affirming sin (and I mean any kind of sin - so don't think I'm just saying LGBT lifestyles. I do mean adultery, fornication, thievery, gluttony, etc.) If we can't love people who sin. . .well, we have to eliminate much Scripture.

Humor Is a Gift, But Can Be a Barrier

I believe humor is a gift from God. It's not a spiritual gift. It's not even a primary gift. I just believe that God, in his sovereignty and glory has gifted us with the ability to laugh (at ourselves mostly) and circumstances. Laughter can be healing (Ever see "Patch Adams?")

However, jokes can be hurtful. 

How many times has someone said something hurtful to another and then tagged "just kidding" at the end, thinking that makes it all okay?

Tweet: If we're going to live as missionaries in a culture far from God, we can't continue to make fun of those we are seeking to reach. @davidtarkIf we, as Christians, are going to be living sent, as missionaries in a culture far away from God, we cannot continue to make fun of those we are seeking to reach.

  • It would be like a white Christian missionary being sent to a tribal area in an African nation and telling "black jokes"...
  • It would be like an American moving to Europe and continually making fun of European accents and customs...
  • It would be like moving to Miami and telling jokes that make fun of Cubans...
  • Or living in South Texas and telling Mexican jokes...

It would be like doing all these things and more and then expecting to be able to share the Gospel message with those you have just made fun of, expecting a good response.

Tweet: Christians, we cannot construct walls from within the church by laughing at the lost and expect the lost to respond to our Christians, we cannot construct walls from within the church by laughing at the lost and expect the lost to respond to our "love."

I know, some of you are already poking holes in my premise by stating that the LGBT community is not a racial or cultural people group. I agree. It is different. I do not equate them as the same. I oppose the use of the Civil Rights Movement in our nation as a parallel to the LGBT causal movement of today. They are vastly different.

However, this is what we do know to be a reality. The LGBT community is just that - a community. In most cases, there is unbridled acceptance within the community (unless you are vehemently opposed and then there is no place at the table.) Most are not angry gay men or lesbians. Many just want to live their lives and be left alone. There are some (and they're loud) who advocate pretty harshly. Harshness often attracts harshness.

Love Without Affirmation of Sin

The church is going to have to make a decision in this world where the biblical worldview is being pushed aside and redefined by many (wrongly, I might add.) Some denominations in our culture are already capitulating. In other words, they are wimping out and have sacrificed the authority of Scripture and adherence to such for short-lived applause by those who really don't like them anyway. 

Tweet: The church must decide if people are really worth loving and ultimately worth reaching with the Gospel. @davidtarkThe church that stands firmly on Scripture and does not bend in this area, must decide if those within their membership (and there are quite a few) and those who are seeking God really are worth loving and ultimately worth reaching with the Gospel. 

While some say that's an offensive statement, I say no. If we truly love God then we can truly love people (all people, not just those who live with church approved sins). If we love people, we must show that love so that ultimately LOVE WINS. This is not a bait and switch. This is what we have been called to do.

We are missionaries to a culture that is as dark as any unchurched part of the world. Let's live well, live holy, live uncompromisingly on the Gospel and love well and tell some good jokes along the way, but let's not build unnecessary walls.


A Bad Day Fishing Is Better Than. . .

For the past few days, my wife Tracy and I have been camping with family at Bull Shoals State Park on the White River in Arkansas. Each day consists of getting up early, taking the boat out on the river and working to catch the daily limit of rainbow trout. 

Tracy's father is an excellent fisherman and has years of experience on this river as well as other lakes and rivers throughout the state and Texas.

I, on the other hand, have very limited fishing experience. In other words, I don't know what I'm doing. Nevertheless, this has been a great week and we have caught our share of trout (Tracy easily out-fished me. For every one I caught, I think she had three or four.)

A Bad Day Fishing Is Better Than a Good Day at Work

I now understand fully the phrase "A bad day fishing is better than a good day at work."

So, as I sat on a boat for hours, throwing a fishing line into the water, I had quite a bit of time to think. For years, I've heard pastors reference Jesus' fishing illustrations in sermons. Here are some of the random thoughts regarding fishing and faith that came to mind, in no particular order:

  • It is good to be with someone who knows what they're doing while fishing. Mentors are vital. The Bible refers to this as "making disciples." (2 Timothy 2:2)
  • Sometimes, it's time to cast on the other side of the boat. (John 21:6)
  • The river is continually flowing. . .quickly. It's like the culture - changing quickly. The anchors we dropped were essential to allow us to fish effectively. (Hebrews 6:19)
  • Clean, proper bait is needed to catch the desired fish. (1 Corinthians 9:22)
  • We have to move the boat on occasion, otherwise, we're throwing lines out to empty water. (1 Timothy 4:7-10)
  • Sometimes the fish just play around with the bait, but never bite. This can be frustrating, but you just cannot make the fish bite. (Psalm 115:6)
  • If I had just stayed in the camper, read about fishing, talked about fishing and even developed great plans for fishing. . .I never would have caught anything. (Mark 16:15)

Then, I saw this sign posted in the park.

Life Jacket
It is obvious that the Arkansas State Parks are trying to encourage people to not just have life jackets in the boat, but to actually wear them.

I couldn't help but think that many people use Jesus just like they do life jackets. You know, they want to keep him close. . .but not too close. Unfortunately, unless you "wear the name of Christ" the life jacket will do no good. 

You must be born again. (John 3:1-21)

A bad day fishing is better than a good day at work, but here's the reality: There is no such thing as a bad day fishing.

As Christians we cannot worship vicariously. We cannot outsource discipleship. We must not just talk about sharing Christ with those in need of the Gospel (and we are all in need of the Gospel.)

And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. Matthew 4:19 (ESV)


David Platt's Speech Clarifies Policies & Goals for Global Missions #SBC15

During David Platt's first year as President of the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board, there has been a noticeable effort of refocus and clarification of mission and a strategic attempt to partner with our North American Mission Board and local churches for the propagation of the Gospel.

23360-123963At the annual SBC meeting this week in Columbus, Dr. Platt present the annual report for the IMB. In this, he addressed critical remarks and overstated media reports regarding some policy changes within the IMB. What began as a report, became a sermon. For this, I am grateful and when Dr. Platt concluded, there were no questions offered. This is a significant moment, perhaps missed by many, within our family of churches. 

May God continue to bless our missionaries globally and the leadership of our International Mission Board.

Here's Dr. David Platt's "report" in its entirety. Yes, it's worth ten minutes of your time. . .

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Video courtesy of the International Mission Board SBC.


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)

 


Michael & Carrie Godfrey - Church Planters in Washington DC

051015_1045_Mike Godfrey Interview

Michael & Carrie Godfrey were longtime members of First Baptist Church of Orange Park. While teenagers, here both were very active in Student Ministry and served in leadership roles. Following graduation, Michael answered God's call into ministry and after years of serving in pastoral ministry in Waynesboro, Georgia, the Godfreys are now moving to the Washington DC area to plant a church with the North American Mission Board. This is Michael's story of calling.

The audio link is an interview I had with Michael on Sunday, May 10. 

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If you wish to join in supporting the Godfreys financially, click the link below and choose the option to give to the Send DC church plant.

Give here


Broken: Part 5 "Broken Messenger"

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As Christ-followers, we are God's living letter to a lost world full of "junk mail." As Jason Dukes has said in his book Live Sent

You are a letter. Your everyday life is more than just a story being written. You were created to receive and send a message intentionally into the lives of the people you do life with daily. That's how humanity works. Together. That's how love is demonstrated and how relationships happen and how people find abundant life as they were intended to find it. We live out our intended purpose and mission when we live beyond ourselves. Are you giving yourself away in the daily, being to other people the letter of God's love that has been written on your heart? We must be that letter together. Our community needs us. Our world needs us. Let's LIVE SENT.

You can get Jason's book online at our online store.

Click here

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What Churches Commonly Fail To Do

Earlier this week I was asked to lead a Breakout Session at one of our state's denominational regional evangelism conference. I was asked to speak on how churches can stay engaged to reach those in their communities.

1114372_19748099I struggled with a title for the session and was glad I was given the opportunity to explain what it was about prior to beginning. We know in the western church, especially in the United States, there is a definite trend away from being connected to a local church and attending regularly. Carey Nieuwhof recently posted on his blog an article titled "10 Reasons Even Committed Church Attenders are Attending Church Less Often." He touched on an issue  just about every pastor I know is having to address. Those who aren't addressing it may just be living with blinders on, or could possibly be the anomaly in the church-world.

The title I ended up using for this session was "Reaching the People Near You Who Actually Exist." Honestly, I don't like the title but I couldn't fit "Be Sure You Know Your Community and Stay Up-To-Date On Changes and Open Your Eyes Every Now and Then Or You May Be Closing the Doors of Your Church In the Near Future."

Subtle, huh?

This session was primarily about neighborhood mapping. Though I didn't have enough time to cover all of the info, here's the gist. Church leaders should take this to heart.

An oft-quoted question has been asked over the past few years by pastors and church leaders seeking to live missionally and direct their churches to do so as well  - "If your church ceased to exist today, would your community notice?" - Pastor Rick McKinnley, Imago Dei, Portland, OR.

Button-tweet-this "If your church ceased to exist today, would your community notice?" - Pastor Rick McKinnley, Imago Dei, Portland, OR

The Relevant Church

Relevance in ministry is sometimes scoffed upon. It’s a word that causes people to bristle and push back. Some pastors and leaders will say things like “The Gospel is always relevant” as if that justifies a poorly organized and weak strategy within the local church to fulfill the Great Commission. No one is saying that the Gospel is not relevant (at least not here) but we must come to grips with the reality that sometimes we seek to reach people who simply do not exist. If your church is not making a dent in the culture nor reaching those in the area of your footprint, the sad reality is that you, as well as those reaching many, are perfectly organized and positioned to reach those you are reaching. In other words, while the Gospel is always relevant, your strategies may not be.

Button-tweet-thisWe must come to grips with the reality that sometimes we seek to reach people who simply do not exist.

In Dr. John Fuder's book Neighborhood Mapping he states "In a world that is constantly moving and changing, it is imperative that the church not only know how to interpret the Bible but also how to engage with and and adapt to those for whom the gospel message is addressed."

He speaks of the necessity to continually exegete the community where one serves. Otherwise, we become stagnant and continue to produce events, programs and mission engagement for the people who used to live there, rather than those who now do.

The longer you are in a certain place, the less you see.

As has been stated in various venues, the world is coming here, to the United States. In a sense it always have, but the numbers are quite staggering in today's culture. Our neighborhoods are in a continual state of change. In many cases, the local church is overwhelmed and unable, if not unwilling to respond.

This is why mapping one's community on a regular basis is vital.

Button-tweet-this"A map is the fieldwork out of which strategies can be formed." - Caleb Crider, IMB & Co-Author of Tradecraft.

Here are some basics on mapping one's community (more details may be found in the book Tradecraft: For the Church On Mission.)

A Theology of Mapping

In the 1960s urban planner Kevin A. Lynch conducted an extensive study and developed the five elements of a city or community, which are still vital for mapping today. These elements are:

  1. Paths
  2. Nodes
  3. Districts
  4. Edges
  5. Landmarks

I'll break these down briefly here.

Paths

 

Paths are important because they limit an individual’s experience of the city and shape his perspective of it. If you want to relate to someone, follow his paths. People tend to only know the areas along their paths. This shapes his understanding of the community. Church leaders may travel the route from home to church often and therefore, miss the community between. Over time, the community may shift unknowingly to the established church. This is why church plants often attract people where established churches are, simply because they hit what others miss or cannot see.

The paths one travels leads people to believe a city or community is a certain way or demographic, but that may be skewed to reflect only the areas around the paths.

Alternate routes can reveal a new-ness to a community previously unseen.

Button-tweet-thisTo know your community, you must know the paths people travel.

These can be streets, sidewalks, trails, subways, bus routes, etc. 

Nodes

 

Nodes develop where paths cross.

These are strategic spots in a community where people may enter and allows for interaction. It is a place of intermingling, but it is not intimate and people are often guarded (holding onto their purses or belongings tightly, looking straight ahead, not communicating with others, etc.)

Nodes are important for gaining cultural insight because they provide the opportunity to observe how people interact or avoid interacting (mall watching.)

Businesses use these places – billboards are placed here, signs, people spinning signs,  news stands, etc. These tend to be busy places. This is where flyers can be distributed, but normally no good one-to-one communication will occur. Prior to social networking, these were the promotional spots. These areas are not good for long conversations, but good for information distribution.

Districts 

Most community dwellers develop a sense of identity around the district in which they live, play or work. Each district has a reputation in the larger community. Jacksonville is a city of districts. The surrounding bedroom communities are as well. Districts are perceived differently based on your audience.

You may live in Jacksonville, but that's not descriptive enough. Where in Jacksonville? Are you in the Southside, Westside, Riverside, Beaches, Northside? If you're in a suburb, where exactly? St Johns, Fleming Island, Middleburg, Yulee, etc.?

Then within each area are sub-districts that have their own identities. This is the first place I have ever lived where people are actually very proud and identify themselves not only by city, town, or community but by sub-division. It seems strange to celebrate a builder's planned community, but you'll see license plates and bumper stickers identifying such.

Button-tweet-thisEach population segment has its own subculture, language and rules that present barriers and bridges to the spread of the Gospel.

Edges

These may be the most disregarded elements by churches. Edges create barriers that are not impossible to cross, but improbable. These may be any of the following. . .

  • Boundaries of a District (sub-division exit)
  • Streets
  • Divided Highways
  • Gates
  • Interstates
  • Bridges
  • Bodies of Water
  • Tunnels
  • Railroad Tracks

Until I acknowledged this, I could not understand why people near where I live had no understanding of where my church is located and mostly, would not visit. Then, I looked at these elements and realized that there are at least three divided highways, a railroad track, a body of water and a bridge between my house and my church. Edges. Not impossible to cross, but for those with no reason to do so, improbable.

Landmarks

 

When in your town, what do you use to tell people how to get from point A to point B? What about on how to get to your church? In many cases, our verbal directions do not include all the street names and compass directions, but do include landmarks. You know, "Turn by the donut shop." and the like.

Landmarks may be anything that the community knows.

In Orange Park, where I live, it was the Dunkin’ Donuts. I’d tell people to "Turn at the Dunkin’ Donuts, drive a mile or so, go over the railroad tracks, past the park on the right and turn left by the Animal Hospital." 

We all use landmarks.

Use yours to your advantage.

Most Important

Spiritual mapping is vital and most important. Prior to you planting or serving in your community, God has been at work.

Button-tweet-this

To effectively evangelize your mission field is to first acknowledge that God has tilled the soil. 

Follow His map and work where he has already done the heavy lifting.

Recommended Resources

Tradecraft: For the Church on Mission by McCrary, Crider, Stephens & Calfee

Neighborhood Mapping: How to Make Your Church Invaluable to the Community by Dr. John Fuder

 

 

 


Guest Blogger Ashley Tarkington: "My Journey From PK to Child of God"

Growing up in a pastor's home is not easy. Oh it can be a tremendous blessing, but there are also the pressures that those who do not live in this "fishbowl" just don't understand. My daughter, Ashley, is graduating from the University of North Florida this spring. She has been a pastor's kid (PK) her entire life. She's known no other story. While many PKs find themselves pushing strongly against the values and biblical worldview that is taught in the home and echoed in the church, and thereby creating the bad stereotype that is joked about often within church circles. However, there are many more PKs who discover a faith that is their own, not just a carbon copy of their parents. That faith is right and true and Gospel-centered and leads them onto journeys that rightfully bring glory to God.

This summer, Ashley plans to serve internationally as a summer missionary. As always, God has the right to change those plans, but her prayers and opened doors seem to leading down this path. In preparation for this summer, she must be able to clearly articulate her story of faith (i.e. her personal testimony.) She has been journaling for years and today at lunch, she shared the following with me. So, here's Ashley, my "Guest Blogger" speaking truth as a Pastor's Kid, but more importantly as a Child of God. . .

In 2000, a movie was released based on the popular book series, Left Behind. Now, it wasn't a great movie, but there was a message at it's core that had me asking questions. I was only six years old and up to that point (and even up to today) I had been in church all my life. At the time, my dad was the youth pastor at our church. You could say that I had never missed a Sunday or Wednesday service. As a child, my life revolved around church. Not only did I attend all the children's activities and events, I was also "cool" enough (at least that's what I still believe) to go to many youth events.

Staff - atarkAt the time of this film release, I was six years old. I was in first grade. I knew right from wrong. I knew that every Sunday I would sit in the front pew with my dad, while mom sang in the choir. Dad would stand down front at the close of each service with our pastor waiting for people in the congregation to come forward for prayer or to make a spiritual decision public in their lives. At this time, to me at least, it seemed like people were coming down front following the worship services to make a decision every week. It always seemed like there were baptisms happening as well.

Now, as much as my six-year-old self could understand, this was a great thing. People were being saved! Then, I thought to myself, "Am I saved?" 

I knew who Jesus was. I knew most of the major stories in the Bible. I knew Jesus going to come back one day. The Left Behind film was shown at our church when it was released and the building was packed. The story showed how horrible scenario was for those who were not saved. To me, so many in my church were making decisions for Christ and the thought came to my mind, "What if what happened in the movie happened now? I would be left behind. I'm only six-years-old, my mom pretty much did everything for me. I can't be by myself."

It was a moment of panic for me.

One Wednesday evening after church, I was riding home with my dad in the backseat of our Honda. I was asking questions. I didn't want to be left behind. The movie was just that. . .a movie, but my dad shared more about God and his promises. I prayed to God and received Jesus into my life as Savior. I was so excited. A few weeks later, I was baptized, and the cool part was that my dad baptized me. It was a great day! I even told my teacher at school about what happened.

But, life just kept going. I still attended every church thing that was offered. I grew in knowledge and as a Christian and did all the "churchy" stuff. As the years went by, some things changed in our lives. Right before I entered high school, my dad became the Lead Pastor at our church. Our previous Senior Pastor retired. I always said that dad was now the "big man." It was cool, I guess, but there weren't as many fun trips with him anymore. 

I went to the youth group, but it wasn't the same as when my dad was the youth pastor. High school was. . .well, high school. It didn't change me. I knew who I was and I was not ashamed of it, but I was pretty quiet most of the time. I behaved like I was expected to, how a PK should. I never pretended to know it all. Lord knows I never did. . .or will, but people would act like I did, or should. That was probably one of the most frustrating things.

I thought youth group was supposed to be more than it was. I wanted to be more involved and be a leader so I could make an impact. My life was pretty busy, though. I played basketball at school and during the season we had a lot of mid-week games, so it was impossible to make the leadership meetings.

I felt like I had nothing to offer. I was not blessed with the ability to sing or play an instrument. I wasn't super-outgoing and bubbly, so I wasn't sure how to engage with new people. I wasn't sure how to relate to people. In some ways, I felt that people were intimidated by me because of who my dad was. I hated going to youth group at times. I felt as if I didn't really belong, but no one could tell. I was good at putting on masks.

This was high school and at this point you're supposed to figure out where you belong and somewhat about who you are, right?

Then, my senior year began (2010-2011.) It was finally here! I was so excited. This was the year that I was going to become somebody and excel in the sport I loved. I was so ready for basketball season to begin. I had the potential to play in college. There were three schools looking at me at this point. Then, during our first game of our season, I suffered an injury - an ACL tear. I was  so angry and upset. 

Why me?

Wasn't I showing Christ to my teammates?

Did I not use my ability to play basketball to impact people for Christ?

My basketball career was over. I didn't know what to do.

This was the first time I cried out to God. I knew He had it all under control and that he had plans for me (Jeremiah 29:11), but I had to get to the point I truly believed that. I had to be able to see my complete identity in Christ. 2011 was the year that I felt I really became close with Christ. Our relationship went to an entirely new level for me. I knew I didn't want to just settle and live comfortably. I wanted to live for Him. I wanted, and still do, want people to see Christ in me way before they even see me.

Now I know this is pretty long and I've been told that testimonies, if you call this that, should only take two minutes to share, but this was just the beginning of my story. It's still being written. God is always working in my life, giving me desires and passions for Him and His glory that I never thought possible.

I find my identity in Christ. In some ways, I always have. I had to figure out how to bring Christ everywhere I went, to live for and become more confident in Him. 

It does not matter that I have not been given a talent as a singer or artist. God can, and does use me the way I am, exactly how He created me. 

I'm not as quiet anymore (I know some of my friends and family would laugh in agreement with that statement.) It's funny - when you get excited about Christ and what He does for you, you just can't really shut up about Him.

So, here's my two minute "testimony":

I was lost. I asked questions. I didn't want to be left behind. Christ died for me. He forgave me. I live for Him. I can't just keep that to myself.

I mess up. I sin. Yet, He still loves me and his grace is overwhelming.

I am saved. 

Now, I'm ready to go into all the world.

To tell others.

Everyday I try to live for Him and become more like Him.

As I said before, my story isn't over. Christ has put a passion within me that I am ready to act upon. Im ready to be sent. That could be across the street or across the world. I want to make an impact for His kingdom. I want to pour into teenagers and college students the truth of the Gospel. I want to be a part of the "big picture" - to live missionally and worship Him daily. To encourage, engage and serve.

I want to go.


It's Time to Stop Justifying Our Lack of Racial Diversity in Church

On this day of remembering the life of civil rights leader and pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the nation pauses to reflect on those who suffered for years in a culture of racial inequality, remembering a march on Washington DC that changed the course of our nation and declare that Dr. King's dream is coming to fruition.

Well, at least that's the idea.

477879_32397088While we have come so very far, as we reflect on the news stories of the past year and see tensions grow stronger in many areas of our nation between the races, the inevitable question arises, "Have we really made much progress?" 

Life is always filtered through current events and personal circumstance. In the larger picture, much progress has been done. No longer are there "Whites Only" and "Colored" water fountains in public places. There are no legally designated "black schools" and "white schools." No one can legally be denied service due to the color of their skin in our nation. That which would be categorized as unthinkable if not impossible about five decades ago has occured in our culture - a black man has been elected President. 

Yes, progress has been made in some areas.

We still have so much further to go. 

Sunday Is the Most Segregated Hour

Years ago, Dr. King stated that Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America. He was referring to the reality that church gatherings, for the most part, were far from racially diverse. While marches and protests were happening calling to allow people of differing races to go to school together, sit on busses together or even have a sandwich together in a restaurant, many were satisfied with keeping their houses of worship segregated. This is a generalization and this feeling was not held by all, at least intentionally.

Recently, LifeWay Research released data collected regarding diversity in churches. The results have been shared in numerous venues and news outlets with varying degrees of response and interpretation.

Here are some highlights of the research:

  • 8 out of 10 congregations are made up predeominantly of one racial group.
  • Two-thirds of American church-goers state their church has done enough to be racially diverse.
  • Fewer than half believe their church should do more to be racially diverse.
  • Evangelicals are most likely to say their church is doing enough.
  • Whites are least likely to say their church should become more diverse.
  • African-Americans and Hispanics are most likely to say their churches should become more diverse.

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"Surprisingly, most churchgoers are content with the ethnic status quo in their churches," Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, said. "In a world where our culture is increasingly diverse, and many pastors are talking about diversity, it appears most people are happy where they are -- and with whom they are." (Read the full article at Baptist Press here.)

Are you a Black Church or a White Church?

Author, blogger and church consultant Scott Williams (Big is the New Small) shares of when he was attending college and visiting local churches. He was getting his shoes shined and preparing to go to a predominantly black church one week when he struck up a conversation with the man shining his shoes. The man began to tell him about his church to which Scott asked, "Is your church a black church or a white church?" The man's response was classic. He said, "Young man - that's the stupidest question you could ever ask. It's not a black church. It's not a white church. It's God's church."

 

That is the right perspective.

But, We Worship Differently

As LifeWay's data has been shared, I have read some of the reader comments provided. In most cases, there is a common theme of "Yes, we need to be God's church and let racial barriers melt." However, there are many comments that are obviously well intentioned that seem so short-sighted and wrong. In these cases the argument goes something like this. . ."Each culture and race worships differently and therefore, segregated Sunday mornings are a good thing."

I don't discount that different groups have unique worship styles and practices. Our missionaries are educated in this as they serve in international locations in order to keep from leading those in other cultures to "do church the American way."

While there are numerous churches in my community with varying styles of worship, music and instrumentation, teaching styles, and meeting times, to say that we are satisfied being identified as a "white church" or "black church" or some other shade of melanin is to say that division is godly.

I have a dream, too. Mine is that the color designators of church will one day fade into history and that we will become wise as a shoe shine man and with our diversity, uniqueness and varying backgrounds settle only for being part of God's church.

Diversity's Symphony from Emanate Media, Samson Varughese on Vimeo.

 


Reflections From Three Days with Baptist Pastors & Leaders

I have spent the last few days in Lakeland, Florida attending the Florida Baptist Pastors Conference and the annual Florida Baptist State Convention. It has been a good few days as I have been able to reconnect with pastors and ministry leaders from throughout our state. The worship leaders were wonderful and the sermons challenging and definitely God-inspired.

Here are some observations, in no particular order, of this convention and my opinions and inferences about the future work of Baptists in the state of Florida:

Leadership Matters

We have been blessed these past 25+ years to have Dr. John Sullivan lead Florida Baptists as Executive Director-Treasurer. As with any leadership task so large, there have been many challenges over the years. Since people are. . .well, people, there have been some personality conflicts over the years with Dr. Sullivan and some in the state. There have been disagreements and differing views as to how certain things should be done and I'm sure different views regarding vision for the future of the Florida Baptist Convention and all that makes up our cooperating union. 

However, even with those issues, which are common in any organization or church, Dr. Sullivan has led with dignity and honor. In a world (and a Christian sub-culture) that is continually changing, I have been thankful for Dr. Sullivan's stance on biblical authority, church autonomy, missional growth and ultimately on seeing as many people in our state and world come to know Jesus Christ personally as Lord and Savior.

Dr. Sullivan is retiring now and leaves a legacy that honors God. There are still challenges ahead for Baptists in this state, so the leadership void will be looming. That being said, we look back with fond memories and thankful hearts to the years behind us, ready to step forward into a future that has the same God at the helm we have always served.

So, personally, I say "Thank you" to Dr. John Sullivan and am praying for our state's search committee and State Board of Missions as we seek to discover the man God has already set aside for this honorable role. It is vital that we hear the voice of God clearly because Godly leadership matters.

Encouragement Is Needed

The Pastors Conference is a gathering prior to the annual state meeting. It is a time where emphasis on pastoral leadership and health is paramount.

B2HtcN_IIAILeLaThe pastoral ministry is not easy. Any man serving in such role could attest to this. I'm not seeking sympathy or desiring to play a victim. That's not my goal at all. However, I have discovered in my own walk, and as I talk with others, that often the pressures of pastoring seem to creep up on an individual and ultimately, wear down a man until the joy of serving and leading seems foreign.

Encouragement is a strong tonic. To hear strong, inspired, challenging and comforting words from men speaking from the battlegrounds to other soldiers in the field is vital. I often do not realize how much I need this time until I am experiencing it.

A three-day convention gathering can be tiring as well, but it is more energizing as we see pastors ready to go back home to churches who love them. Pastors are ready to lead again, to serve again, to fight battles against an unseen enemy again and ultimately recharged for that which is ahead.

With as many pastors resigning and falling into sin as we see in our nation today, this time of encouragement and re-charging must not be forsaken.

The Mission Remains

As I hear of victories in local churches and watch highlight videos of ministries and mission endeavors throughout our state, I am encouraged, but also saddened. 

Here's why - with all the "wins" the reality of a state that is growing darker in sin and further from the Truth of the Gospel is our reality. We must celebrate the victories, but also remember that the task is great and there is much to be done.

To be satisfied with where we are and to sit on our small victories is like the baseball player who settles for a single, but never makes it around the bases to home plate.

Cooperation Is More Than a Tag-Line

Staying with the baseball motif, the runner on first often needs help getting around those bases. Oh, there's the rare player who steals second, steals third and may make it home on a pitching error. Even in those cases, the extra bases are gained based on the mistakes of the opposition. In most cases, the runner gets home "with a little help from his friends." The next batters play a major role in moving the runner along.

In our world, cooperating churches are needed to push back the darkness. God's church will prevail, but we must remember that "our" churches aren't really "ours." They're His!

Therefore, we MUST COOPERATE in this great mission in order to fulfill His Great Commission. 

We will never win this state to Jesus Christ if we continue to try to do so as individuals, with small kingdom mindsets and personal glory as the goal.

We Must Not Forget What It Means to Be Baptist

In an age where denominational titles seem to be less than vogue, it is vital that we, as Baptists do not forsake our distinctives. I agree with Dr. Ted Traylor who said that churches who take "Baptist" out of their name doesn't bother him, but churches who take "Baptist" out of their identity do. There is a reason we Baptists, in our autonomy and independence, with a firm understanding and belief in the inerrant Word of God, our ordinances and celebrations of new life (baptism) and renewed life (Lord's Supper) have been blessed by God so. 

Maybe it's education. Perhaps it's just living out our faith well. Regardless, we have a great heritage and a greater God. Christian first, absolutely. Baptist as a distinctive, definitely.

Mission and Missional Are Non-Negotiables

I had a gentleman berate me about leading our church to be missional not too long ago. My response was clear - "A church that is not missional is not a church." I stand by that statement. 

However, the term "missional" is becoming too much of a buzzword lately and unfortunately, seems to be losing some of its "oomph" (you know what I mean by that, right?) Yet, living missionally is our calling. It's more than a trend.

In addition to living missionally in our community and world, we must also be "on mission" at all times. These two terms tend to overlap, but there is a distinction. The mission we must be at is global in scope. In fact, it's a Kingdom-sized mission.

While our missional expressions that lead us to the local school to help teachers and mentor children, to the public playground to do acts of service and kindness, engagements with local organizations in need of volunteers or space, etc., our "on mission" actions lead us concurrently to engage strategically with the Gospel. 

Mowing your neighbors lawn in the name of Jesus is good and right, and missional. Intentionally sharing the Gospel with your neighbor is living on mission. 

We have missionaries throughout our state and many who are being sent by local churches to the uttermost parts of the world. 

As we push back the darkness, we must continue in this journey. To be a sending church requires faith and funds and family. This was made clear this week.

Healthy Church Plants are Wins for All

Sometimes I hear people complain about all the emphasis being placed on church planting. They lament that we need to focus more on established church revitalization. 

The problem with an either/or mentality is that . . . well, we stay exactly as we are and nothing changes. 

Yes, revitalization must happen and we saw some incredible stories of churches in our state working through that. However, the clear reality for churches who are crying "Revitalize! Revitalize!" is that it will not happen if the church is unwilling to change.

Churches stuck in the "this is how we always done it" mentality are perfectly positioned and organized to do exactly what they're doing now. It's going to take more than a new coat of paint and a better website.

So, for the church ready to change. . .let's revitalize. We need you alive and healthy where God planted you.

If you won't change, hurry up and shut down or hand over the facilities to another work so an engaged church may have a chance to be birthed where you are currently located but doing nothing.

As for church planting. The key is "healthy" church planting. New works reach more people quickly. There are caveats to that statement, I understand, but the results we are seeing in Jacksonville and throughout the state are clear. When a planter is assessed and partnered with a strong, established church, Kingdom growth happens.

More Diversity Is Needed

The racial makeup of our state is continually in flux. While I cannot change the color of my skin or the heart language I speak, I know that we must seek to grow churches and partner better with those who are not lily-white and English speaking. While some may joke that Miami and south Florida is more like Latin America than the rest of America, the word I hear from pastors in those regions is that more churches are needed, more pastors are needed, more workers are needed. The fields may be "white" unto harvest elsewhere, but in south Florida and in many of our urban areas and other pockets of subcultures throughout our state, those fields are "brown" and "black" and every other shade of skin. 

It's Time to Have a Spanish Sermon

I shared with one friend that perhaps it's time that one of the key messages brought at the annual meeting is done by a Spanish speaking pastor with a heart for the Kingdom. It does not matter than I do not speak Spanish. There are many churches in our state where English is the primary language and we have guests and members who speak another heart language. Maybe it's time for the subtitles to be put on the screen in English for those of us who are mono-lingual and let the Word be broadcast in the room (and throughout the state and world since it's streamed live on the internet) in the heart language of a growing portion of this wonderful state?

There's Much Work To Do

Overall, it has been a good week, but as I reflect on this state and our Baptist partners, I know, as do others, that there is much to be done. As one pastor mentioned over the weekend "There's no place for lazy pastor in God's Kingdom." Amen to that and I add to it, "There's no place for a lazy Christian in God's Kingdom." There's much to be done and to God be the glory.

Thankfully, We Are Not Alone

I am so thankful for pastor brothers and friends in ministry. It is so encouraging to see that even though the work ahead is daunting, I am not in this battle alone. Not only do I have brothers and sisters in Christ along in this journey, I rest fully on the reality that my God is with me as well. As H.B. Charles stated this evening, "God's personal presence is also His perpetual presence."