Dave Paxton's List - "101 Things In Student Ministry (To Do & Not Do)"

On Monday we gathered to remember the life of our dear brother and long-time minister of the gospel Dave Paxton. Dave had served over forty-years in student ministry in churches from Tennessee, Texas, and Florida. Over the years he impacted thousands of students and adults for the sake of Christ and he is dearly missed. A few years back he told me about one of the conferences he led at the Conclave in Chattanooga, Tennessee. This annual conference for student pastors draws thousands and Dave's breakout titled "101 Things in Student Ministry (To Do & Not Do)" always filled the room. 

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He shared this list with me. Of the items on the list, he experienced many of them, but a few were collected from other student pastors over the years. What I do know is that each is true and not just a made up illustration. And...as you read them, you too may be saying "I want to know the story behind that one." Sorry, I don't know the stories, but i do have the list. Enjoy.

  1. Love students. Work to build an atmosphere where students love one another, their families and those in need.
  2. Contact students. Contact students on a weekly basis. Seek ways to do this.
  3. Live expecting God to work supernaturally within the students and yourself—fulfilling God's vision for the community.
  4. Know Christ. Invite every student into a personal and transforming relationship with Jesus Christ.
  5. No animals/pets/reptiles may be brought along or purchased on trips.
  6. It does not matter how great a communicator you are or how awesome you are at hanging out with kids, if you cannot administrate the daily needs of the ministry. If you cannot do these administrative tasks parents will not trust or respect you to take care of their students.
  7. Do not just randomly show up for a prepackaged summer camp without first being sure that you have the dates correct.  (A youth minister in our area arrived at BigStuf in Panama City Beach with his students on a bus. The camp staff stepped on the bus to welcome them searching for their church name. They could not find the church name on their list. The youth pastor made a joke saying "Wouldn't it be funny if we are here the wrong week." They checked the camp database. Sure enough, they were scheduled for following week. BigStuf worked it out. Fortunately for the youth pastor.)
  8. Never talk about church members to other church members unless you know them well.  You never know who is related or good friends.
  9. Be careful about contacting parents about a student’s choices or lifestyle.  Have a rule of thumb and use much discernment and wisdom in knowing how to proceed.  Do what is responsible...but maintain ministry options with the student if possible.  (Some new guys are too quick to overreact - I was.)
  10. Never host a Christian rap group for a bunch of white, preppy, rich kids.  It just does not work.
  11. Bad volunteers are hard to get rid of.  It is better to take the time and make sure you have the right person for the job on the front end.  It is easier to have never enlisted them than to have to "fire" them later.
  12. Don't just show love to and befriend the popular kids.  Do what no one else is doing and reach out to those who are tough to love!
  13. Don't mess with the pastor's kids...just let it go.
  14. On trips–Don’t ever allow girls and guys in rooms together...anywhere, anytime.
  15. Always be sure that you have checked out the people involved with you and your ministry. No exceptions.
  16. Plan ahead….far enough ahead to get the word out. Last minute stuff usually stinks.
  17. Once you set a ground rule for trips….don’t blink!
  18. Never be alone with a student, use the two adult rule.
  19. Never punch a student in the face in front of a deacon.
  20. You teach what you know but you reproduce who you are.
  21. Be sure the work you are doing for God is not hindering the work of God within you.
  22. People are more important than programs. Remember the value of relationships.
  23. Treat youth with respect and kindness. Someday they will be adults, who are treating youth the way you do.
  24. Take a serious approach to your ministry, but not to yourself.
  25. Cultivate flexibility and a willingness to change. Avoid the “concrete syndrome”.
  26. Be Patient. God can use time, people, and new beginnings to cure a lot of ills.
  27. Take care of yourself and your family or risk losing your ability to minister to others.
  28. Invest in a support group because you will need to make a withdrawal when times get tough.
  29. Care for and affirm your adult workers. They will stay with you longer.
  30. Equip youth and adults to take ownership of the youth ministry. Use the “BEST” approach to developing leaders.
  31. B - BELIEVE in them
  32. E - ENCOURAGE them
  33. S - SHARE with them
  34. T - TRUST them
  35. Make yourself more available and approachable.
  36. Spend more time nurturing and supporting Sunday School.
  37. Pay more attention to parents of youth.
  38. Devise strategies for enabling youth and adults to take ownership of the youth ministry.
  39. Avoid requiring volunteers to do anything. Instead, ask them to make a commitment to a set of expectations.
  40. Invest more time in equipping adults to equip youth to reach, teach, care for, and minister to their peers.
  41. Learn to care for, instead of ignoring or getting rid of troublesome people.
  42. Deacons are not your enemy. Be careful about jokes pointed their way. Develop positive relationships with them.
  43. Senior adults can be a major support group. Set an example of showing love to senior adults. You will be one someday. Oh…and by the way……they have a lot of scholarship money available for students. Enough of the “Blue Hair” jokes.
  44. If you cannot fully support your pastor, get out.
  45. Have frequent meetings with the pastor.
  46. It is YOUR job to communicate with the church your successes and goals. Teach the church to respond to kids who don’t look like the rest of the church.
  47. Parents are the number one influencers in the faith development of a teenager. It is not your job to disciple them, but to equip parents.
  48. Don’t expect what you don’t inspect.
  49. "Whatever else you do, if you do not take kids to the cross frequently, nothing else matters." - Dawson McAllister
  50. Ignore your baptism numbers and they will decline.
  51. Connect with a local network of youth ministers, even if you get nothing personally from the relationships.
  52. You are not the hottest thing on the block and the former guy was probably not a ditz. Not everything he did needs to be done away with. Build on it.
  53. Insecurity is a very poor motivator and a terrible way to run a ministry.
  54. Old guys in ministry made a lot of mistakes before you came on the scene. Learn from them.
  55. The five “W’s” (who, what, where, when, and why) are important on every advertisement. Remember them. Too many flyers with inadequate information are sent out every week by student ministries. It makes you look stupid.
  56. Do not accept cash or registrations from students. Have a drop box. One of our staff lost a student’s registration in his own pocket.
  57. Clearly communicate expectations to parents and workers.
  58. Too many rules create a legalistic ministry. Too few create one that is out of control.
  59. Trust is a wonderful thing. Set proper boundaries, but operate on a beginning of trust. Students respect that.
  60. Have medical consent forms on file for any out-of-town trip.
  61. Hall walkers (adults who do little else) at youth camp allow you and the volunteer staff to head to bed at the end of the day at camp. They free you up to get much needed rest and help assure volunteers for next year. Hall walkers get everyone in bed, and make sure they are up the next morning. They sleep during the day.
  62. If you can let someone else drive, do it. Spending time with students is more important than driving.
  63. Don’t assume anything on contracts with bus companies or retreat facilities.
  64. Be careful with a cash drop in the sanctuary. Kids will kill each other to grab a dollar bill.
  65. Always proofread everything.  There is a difference between Proverbs 3:5-6 and Philippians 3:5-6.  (the latter was proudly displayed on a t-shirt for one of my D-Now weekends)
  66. Do not keep the pastor in the dark about youth events.
  67. Do not serve chili dogs early in a lock-in.
  68. Carefully word your announcements when you get the microphone in big church.  “The big girls retreat” is not as effective as “the girls retreat for everyone.”
  69. Do not try to be someone you are not, in order to “fit in” to the youth culture.
  70. Do not discipline the whole group when it is just a few who are at fault.
  71. Do not speed in a church van.
  72. Do not speed in your own car with students on board.
  73. Never watch a rated R movie with a student, even if it is only rated R for violence.
  74. Do not get naked with the kids, even as a joke.
  75. Do not cuss in front of the kids no matter how bad you mashed your finger or stumped your toe.
  76. Never reserve spots for kids for a camp or retreat without payment in advance. People who don't pay, don't show!
  77. No matter how much they loved, trusted and respected your integrity and abilities at your last church, none of that is transferable. You start from scratch at a new church. (Hard lesson)
  78. When a student asks you to pray for them, do it then! Take their hands, standing in the middle of the hallway and pray. An immediate response shows you care, and too many adults say “I’ll pray for you,” yet never do.
  79. Don’t allow coed seating on long bus trips – especially on long bus trips during the evening hours. And spread your leaders out on the bus.
  80. Going along with the above, don’t think just because they are a minister’s son on your staff that they can be trusted. I caught one of our minister’s sons making out with a girl at about 3AM one morning on the bus.
  81. While at camp, if rooms have fire extinguishers, do not forget to make an explicit rule that they are not to be messed with or used unless a fire actually exists.
  82. Going along with the above, once again, don’t think just because a student is a minister’s son on your staff that they can be trusted. One of our minister’s sons and some of the boys from another room decided to have a fire extinguisher fight in their room.
  83. While on a student trip and you are running low on gas, don’t think that you can make it to the next gas station. Stop while you can. Five minutes invested can save an hour on the side of the road.
  84. Do not just take any sponsor that wants to go with you on a trip. Pick and choose your sponsors carefully and with great wisdom.
  85. Do not ever be shocked at what you may see or have to deal with while at camp or any other student outing. And don’t let it flavor the entire event.
  86. Do not ever forget that what you are doing matters and does make a difference in young people’s lives.
  87. Do not make promises to students that you cannot or will not keep. They never forget.
  88. Do not be so quick to think the grass is greener somewhere else. There is great blessing and satisfaction in longevity in student ministry at one place. I am celebrating my tenth year this month at our church and it has been a huge blessing to see students who have come through our ministry and grow into some of the godliest young adults I know.
  89. You cannot take the credit or the blame for student ministry until you have been there more than three years.
  90. When you first go to a church, there will be some upperclassmen who may never follow your vision. They are still mad the last guy bailed out on them (their perspective.) Love them anyway. You may win a few, but for some, you will just have to outlast them. 
  91. Do not become a full time minster and a part time follower of Christ.
  92. Do not send out a poll to get information. They always come back split.
  93. Do not believe that everyone is against you just because you have a few loud complainers.
  94. Do not believe everything your biggest fans have to say about you.
  95. Do not speak badly about the person who had the position before you. Build a relationship with him. He can become a great friend and resource.
  96. Do not forget to celebrate with your volunteers and staff.
  97. Know that if you are leading well not everyone is going to like you.
  98. Do not let your boss be caught off guard by an issue or problem in your ministry.
  99. Do not give up your day off.
  100. Do not forget to date your spouse.
  101. Do not finalize your youth calendar unless your wife approves it.

Wise words from a wise man.

Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future. - Proverbs 19:20


Talking Honestly & Biblically with Children About Death

When death impacts our families the forced reality of explaining the feelings, emotions, and reality of death with children moves to the forefront for many. Those who do not have decades of life experience have many questions and often they go to their parents, older siblings, grandparents, or other trusted adult for answers.

But what do you say?

How do you talk about death with a child? What should you say? What should you not say? How can you soften the blow? Should you talk about it all?

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These and other questions often come up and to be honest, how we talk to children about death is insight as to how we deal with it ourselves as adults.

There are numerous resources available and dozens of websites with good insight. Many say similar things and some give great advice. I am writing this article specifically because our church family is reeling through the very real grief of the death of our recently retired associate pastor Dave Paxton. Dave was killed in a motorcycle accident earlier this week and while retired from full-time ministry at our church, he continued to serve students and children here. His connection with children in our Wednesday evening programming where he planned games and activities has left many children asking their parents to tell them what happened to "Mr. Dave." 

We actually canceled our mid-week gathering this week to enable parents and leaders to process better their own grief (not that they are over the death at all) to better be able to talk with their children.

We will be collectively grieving for some time and individuals will be as well at different rates and in different ways. But regarding the kids, here are some of the points I think need to be addressed when parents and leaders seek to discuss death with them.

Be Clear and Specific

Sometimes when we talk with children we tend to use euphemisms like passed away, gone home, transitioned, passed on, and more. Many do this when talking to adults as well. In fact, I had an adult tell me they did not want me to talk of their loved one dying, but to say he passed away. This is confusing for children and can be unhealthy for adults who often appear to be doing anything they can to avoid addressing the reality of death. The Bible speaks of death clearly. How we discuss death impacts how we understand life, the life offered through Christ that is abundant, free, and eternal. So, be specific and use the words death, died, and dying. 

Be Brief

Don't answer the question not asked and do not fall into the trap of long exposition when a simple, clear, brief answer is sufficient. Lori Wildenberg mentions the need to be concise especially if a loved one dies after being ill. Do not simply say "He died because he was sick" or you may unintentionally lead the child to fear that he will die when he gets a sore throat. Lori says "If the person was sick say, 'She was really BIG sick. Not regular sick (sore throat, flu, cold).' If the death was due to disease, name it. 'She had a disease called cancer. The cancer made her body BIG sick, not regular sick.'"

Prepare Your Child for the Funeral

If you bring your children to the funeral, and if it is a funeral with a casket, prepare them for what they will be seeing. Say something like "When we get to the church or funeral home you will hear people crying. You may hear some laughing, too. You will hear a lot. You will also see [loved one] in a box. That's a casket. It will look like she is asleep, but she's not. We will sit and the pastor will speak and we will either sing or hear songs. We will talk about God and about [loved one] and share some great stories together remembering how much we loved her." Of course, the details may be different, but preparation can help much and can help you when you are being inundated with questions from your child about all that is happening. 

Lightstock_262465_medium_david_tarkingtonMost people do not attend funerals often and so preparing your child for what is to come will help them process what they are seeing and hearing. Children at different ages will process the entire event differently. Know your child and talk plainly. Be prepared for questions and tell him you will talk more after the service. 

Should you take your child to the funeral? 

I've been asked this often and it is a great question. Parents are concerned about what their child can handle. For very young children (preschoolers and younger) they likely will not understand nor remember much of what is happening. I personally believe that school-aged children should attend, but each parent knows their children well. 

Your Grief Can Help Your Child Grieve

You don't have to run to another room to cry just because you don't want your child to see you being human. You likely have questions. You may be dealing with deep areas of grief. Your child is not your counselor, so do not lean into making them codependent. However, when you are crying because of the death of a loved one, cry. Let them see you cry as that will eliminate some of the lies our culture propagates about who can cry, who cannot, and how we must grieve. 

Your child will likely be experiencing grief as well and they may have feelings and questions that come to mind that from a child's perspective make sense, but you know are not true. They may feel confusion or even guilt or fear about death. Sometime a child will blame themselves. "Maybe I caused [loved one's] death?" You can address those fears and questions honestly. Talk with your child about their emotions. It is best if you don't seek to numb yourself by hiding your feelings but talk honestly about how they are feeling.

Children Process Grief Differently

I do not mean they process differently than adults, which likely they do. I mean that children process grief differently from each other. You may have more than one child and one may be responding with questions, being more talkative than normal, crying for long periods while the other may seem silent and stoic. God wires each of uniquely in his image and for His glory and while your children may share DNA or be raised by the same parents, they are not clones. Respect and recognize this. Sadly, I have no "Do this and everything is good" instructions, but being aware is a wise start.

Tell Them the Truth

Christ said "Let the little children come to me" and our faith conversations should not wait until our children are in high school. Talk about God's perfect plan and about how sin entered the story. Share how death was not in God's plan but is a result of sin. But don't stop there. Share about our great God's love for us and his plan for rescue. Your children may not be processing all that God is doing in this, but trust God who loves your children more than you do to give you the words they need to hear. Trust Him to speak to them well and lovingly. Just tell the truth and do so in love.

You Don't Have To Have All The Answers

Your child may ask "Why?" a lot when discussing the death of a loved one. You may not have an easy answer to the why questions. Don't pressure yourself to have the answers. Sometimes you just have to be honest and say "I don't know." Yet, as a Christian, be sure to state that you trust God to help.

Maturation

I found these descriptions on a Hospice website and while the site is not Christian in nature, the developmental information for children and grief may be helpful. Nevertheless, understand the unique bent of each child and realize that these descriptors may vary. Here are the points made.

INFANTS can grasp that the adults in their life are sad or angry, but cannot understand the concept of death. 

PRESCHOOLERS may see death as a reversible, non-permanent event and may invent magical theories as to what causes death and what is related to the dying process.

ELEMENTARY SCHOOL-AGED CHILDREN understand the permanence of death and understand the correlation of events that lead to someone's dying. However, death is often perceived as an event that solely happens to other people.

MIDDLE SCHOOL-AGED CHILDREN have a full understanding of the physical aspects of death and its finality; however, some abstract concepts surrounding death and dying may be beyond their reach.

HIGH SCHOOL-AGED CHILDREN have a full understanding of death and dying, its finality, and the impact of a death on the lives of themselves and others.

God sees you. He knows your suffering. He understands your pain. He loves you and he loves your children. Don't shirk the responsibility of talking about the reality of death. May that talk lead you to a deeper discussion of what life truly is.


What If Your Church Was the Last Church Family You Will Ever Have?

The local church is often considered to be a family. Most churches, mine included, use words to describe, promote, and explain the value of being a member that are good, right, and even biblical. Words like "family," "life," and "community" come to mind. Yet sometimes it seems (my opinion here) that those terms are often only used because they are trendy, marketable, and useful in advertising programs in an attempt to grow the church numerically.

There is nothing inherently wrong with marketable phrases and graphics. Our church uses such for sermon series, mid-week gatherings, and special events just as most evangelical churches do.

However, just using the right terms does not mean that the church actually is creating or fulfilling that which is promoted. "Come to our church. We are friendly, welcoming, and love people" is a wonderfully kind invitation, but just saying those words does not automatically turn every member into an outwardly focused, welcoming, happy-to-be-around person. And at this point, you are likely thinking of the saint in your fellowship who embodies the term "curmudgeon." Just don't sit in his pew.

Most recently a group of friends from church and I have been working through a teaching series by Del Tackett titled "The Engagement Project." One of the convicting themes that resonates throughout this series is the command of Christians to truly love our neighbors and as believers in a local church to love one another at a level often never experienced between the morning prayer requests, coffee and doughnuts, and the 45-minute biblical lecture known as a Sunday School lesson...much less what occurs in the corporate worship gathering. 

The Growth of the Formers

Not every church experiences this, but those similar to ours (suburban church, historic heritage, former hey-days of high attendance, changing community demographics, etc.) often have revolving doors of church membership. Maybe due to this, many newer churches do not even bother with official membership?

At funerals of long-time members and even at community events, I notice a large group of formers in the room. These are former church attenders, former church members, former event participants, former Sunday School members, etc. They have been disconnected from our church for so long that most conversations I can have with them center on common stories from decades prior rather than current life stories.

I am not angry about this. I think I am beyond being disappointed or surprised. Maybe I'm mellowing in my old age, but this large number of formers from our church family just is.

Of course, it could be said that our church just needs a better membership philosophy and to be more biblical in this area. That is likely true, but I am not sure that would actually fix the majority of the issues revealed. It certainly will not heal past rifts.

What are these formers doing now regarding the local church?

Some are members of other local churches. Some found new places of service and moved to a church closer to their homes. Some simply do not attend anywhere. Perhaps they stopped once their children graduated high school and then just slid into a new schedule. Some are simply spiritual orphans without a faith family and in many cases, they either do not care or realize how dangerous that is.

My conviction is that far too many of the formers in our community just slipped away, did not show up for a few weeks, then were basically forgotten until seen again at a funeral or community event. 

Smaller, Healthier Groups Are Key

It hit me last night as our group was meeting and discussing the value of deep friendships with a small group of fellow believers. We discussed the need for relationships with others that can survive ups and downs, that lead people to be there for one another, that create a sense of security where isolation is not an option, and where faith grows deeply.

I don't think this type of connection can be created in a large group. I do believe in the group philosophy that churches have used for generations, whether groups are called Sunday School, Small Groups, Connect Groups, Life Groups, or something else. It should be noted that just because you creatively label your groups the desired life-long connections are not automatically the result. Disciple-making takes place in the "one anothers" of life and more often than not in groups where everyone is known and loved.

Is that the missing element? Perhaps. 

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There is much to be done in this regard. It could entail a restructuring of group strategies. It likely will require an adoption of a new scorecard for the church where just cramming as many in the room as possible is no longer viewed as a win. 

We know this, but our marketing-motivated, big-is-always-better cultural reality makes this so very difficult. This is not only difficult for pastors who continually are fighting the messaging that they are not good enough, but also for the church members who desire to be part of the biggest, most significant church in the community.

The Last Church You Join

But...what if?

What if when people joined a local church they truly believed that unless God were to call them into full-time vocational ministry, the church were to commission them and send them out to plant a new work, or some unforeseen and uncontrollable life issue were to happen, that the local church they joined would be the last local church they would ever join.

It is family they say and family shouldn't be forsaken and exchanged for a new one (Yes, I know that happens outside of church as well. It is sinful then, too.)

I am not referring to cheap church membership that asks nothing of members. I am not speaking of the type of church membership where one's name is simply put on a roster and a mailing list to be held in perpetuity so that one's children can get a free facility for an upcoming wedding or a large room for a future funeral. 

I mean "What if the local church member joined a fellowship that truly became family, not a spiritual version of a local community club?"

It would be messy. Doing life together is difficult. 

Maybe that is why so many church family relationships fail to go deeper than the surface?

Maybe. I don't know. This is just a thought that came to mind last night as I was praying and asking God to lead our church to engage well and love as he loved us.

There is more I am sure. May we see it come to fruition.


What Is Happening in Ukraine Matters To Us All

"Wait! What is all this in the news about Ukraine?"

Questions about an eastern European country began resounding earlier this week and after yesterday's update more and more people are stopping to see what the talk is all about.

In the era of streaming and on-demand television many do not find out about current world events when the news "interrupts this program" any longer. Thus, global stories sometimes trickle out to various groups in different ways than before and once something big happens, it trends throughout the media and social media. Suddenly, all the other "big" stories disappear for a moment at least.

And Now...War

David Leonhardt of The New York Times states this is "the most significant European war in almost 80 years." I do not think this is an overstatement. As of late last night (EST in the United States) reports of bombings in Ukraine from Russian military were being shared. Now, as the western hemisphere awakens we are notified that Russian planes and missile launchers have attacked Ukrainian cities and airports. According to the map below from The New York Times, the bombings have not been limited to border areas of the nation.

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Red markings denote places where attacks have been reported. - The New York Times

 

Dr. Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has been speaking of the coming Russian aggression over the past week or so in his daily The Briefing podcasts. Dr. Mohler is well-versed in the history of Russia and especially the post-WW2 history of the region. He stated this on Monday, February 21, 2022:

This is likely to be a very big, very historic week because there are certain fissures on the world surface that are going to break loose. And by that, I mean, politics, war, geopolitics. We're looking at huge headlines rushing at us. Something is going to happen in Ukraine. Something is going to happen and Russia is going to be the instigator, regardless of what Russia claims. We are looking at a continual effort by Russia to destabilize the entire Western order and by now, we really do know what we are facing. 2

Dr. Mohler is no prophet, but he was spot-on in this analysis. Something big has happened this week and just as predicted, Russia is the instigator.

Why is Russia so fixated on Ukraine? This is a good question and goes back further than even the creation of the USSR. Even as far back as the empires of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, Ukraine has been considered part of the "sphere of influence" of Russia. The Rus' people, an early medieval group who lived in what is now Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and other eastern European areas are connected by heritage, ancestry, and share culture, history, and etymology.

In Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent address to the world essentially, he stated "I would like to emphasize once again that Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us, it is an integral part of our own history, culture, and spiritual. It is our friends, our relatives, not only colleagues, friends, and former work colleagues." As he spoke, he hearkened back to hundreds of years of history, but truly was longing for the days of the Soviet regime to return. He has positioned himself through his statements as the "liberator" of the Ukrainian "occupation" of their own land. But, as he states "Ukraine was simply invented by Russia." Therefore, the independence of the nation is something he does not recognize. As the world watches, a tyranny is taking place and believe me, it matters.

With Ukraine being invaded as I type this, unless something unforeseen occurs, Russia will own the land once more. This will put Russian territory on the border of Poland and that matters as well for Poland is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO.) The NATO charter states affirms an agreement of collective defense that basically states if one NATO nation is invaded or threatened all are. Thus, the military of NATO nations must come to the defense of the one being attacked. 

What About Taiwan?

What would Taiwan have to do with Ukraine? 

As Pastor Bob Roberts Jr. tweeted yesterday...

 

The west is watching what is happening in Eastern Europe. The east is watching how the west responds. I believe Pastor Roberts may be right as China looks to the response with plans for Taiwan. I pray that war does not break out globally, but there was a time when the US was embroiled in a two-front war - one in Europe and one in the East. The players have changed, but sometimes it seems that history repeats.

Thus, this trending news report that seems to be centered around one issue on the Russian border is much larger.

Pray Now

What can be done? Politicians and military leaders are no doubt gathering in rooms in Washington and throughout Europe even now. Steps will be taken. Some will be avoided. And we watch and wait. Yet, while we wait, Christians must pray. This is more than the trendy, weakly offered "thoughts and prayers" that people often give. What is needed from the church now is face-down, heart-wrenching, God-believing, intercession for our brothers and sisters in Ukraine and surrounding areas. Images of praying Christians have been shared on news stations. 

We have missionary friends in Ukraine and surrounding areas who are sharing the on-the-ground updates.

An evangelist friend has tickets to travel back to Ukraine in two weeks. Of course, those plans will likely change. He shared that over the last year numerous churches have been started in the nation. Hundreds have come to faith in Jesus Christ. These are our friends, brothers, and sisters. A Slavic revival has been happening among the people. While many foreigners are now leaving the nation, the native Ukrainians are unable do so. So they pray and we must join them.

The video below aired yesterday and shows people of Kharkiv praying as the impeding invasion comes.

 

So, we pray for Ukraine. We pray for the surrounding nations. We pray for those in Taiwan who are watching this unfold with their own fears. We pray for God's grace to abound. 

Send Relief has released some prayer points that many are sharing, so we now pray together for these items. Praying. Believing. Hoping.

Click Here to Download the Ukraine Prayer Guide 

Send Relief also has available a giving option for those who wish to donate to provide resources for the displaced during the crisis. You may give here.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7 (ESV) 3

__________________ 

Leonhardt, David. “War in Ukraine.” The New York Times, 24 Feb. 2022, link.

Mohler, Albert. "The Russian Bear is Poised for Attack: Russia Escalates Situation in Ukraine to Explosive Proportions." The Briefing, 21 Feb. 2022. link.

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Php 4:6–7). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

 

"The Times Are A-Changin'" and the Churches In My County Have to Be Ready

Come gather 'round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin'
And you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'

Bob Dylan penned these words for his song "The Times They Are A-Changin'" in 1964. While this and many other songs from this era became anthems for a generation caught in the aftermath of the button-down fifties and the rising radical sixties, the words resonate today for many reasons.

This song came to mind as I was going over data from our county in preparation for a meeting with other pastors and church leaders from our expanded community last week. I have lived in this county since 1993 and while that does not make me a native, it does give me a bit of a perspective that those who have just arrived in recent years do not have. A good number of my pastor friends have been here as long or longer than I have (some are natives) and yet most in our area are relatively new to the region.

Local History Matters

I believe local history is important and over the years I have learned much about our county - Clay County, Florida. Clay has a rich history complete with pre-Civil War stories, possible presidential stopovers, the infamous "monkey farm," murdered sheriffs, Stricklands, Spencer's Farm, new schools, dirt roads that are now multi-lane highways, swamps that are now subdivisions, a WWII POW camp, the largest city (town) sign in America, JC Penney's planned retirement village for missionaries, filming locations for big time Hollywood movies, and more. 

But...most of the people I know in our community are unaware of this rich history. In fact, most do not care. This has more to do with the fast-paced lifestyles and busyness of many who call this area home.

But...the times they are a changin'.

Change & Growth Realities

The 2010 US Census shows that our county had 190,865 residents. In 2020, population grew by 14 percent to 218,245. Those who study such numbers and prognosticate future growth state that Clay County could likely be the fastest growing county in Florida (which as a state is growing quickly, too) in the next few years.  By 2030 the number is expected to be over 252,000. By 2045 the number is expected to be more than 285,000 and long-term projections show the numbers continuing to rise through 2070.1 

As of this writing, there are at least 35,000 homes being built in an area of our county that has been forest and fields up to this point. The PARC Group (Master Developer of the Nocatee and eTown communities in St. Johns County) is developing a new community in Clay County that will cover over 3,000 acres with an estimated 4,000 homes along with retail and office space.2

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Where Are These People Coming From?

Now, I know this post is very specific to my region and my church, but I believe there may be some insight here that is transferrable to other areas of our nation, especially suburban areas that are changing rapidly.

As the group of pastors discussed the coming changes, one question that came up was "Where are these people coming from?" and "Where do they work?"

The answer may be surprising. With the "work-at-home" option now normative for many, it seems that many new residents of neighboring counties and planned communities (like Nocatee) did not change jobs when they relocated to the area, but simply work via Zoom or online from their home-office. One friend told me that the majority of his neighbors are from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and other areas outside the Sunshine State. The mayor of Jacksonville is even featured on billboards that have popped up in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and other large cities promoting Jacksonville and our surrounding areas as a great place to relocate. Thus, the thousands of homes coming will be likely filled with relocated families from other states. While Reddit threads and online discussion boards give details to many related to relocating their families to new homes, planned communities, better schools, golf courses, beaches, etc. few are discussing the great churches in the area. Why? Because they're mostly not looking for church.

What does this mean?

From my perspective, at a minimum, it means the following:

  • People believe safe neighborhoods matter
  • A higher value will be placed on entertainment and amenities
  • More schools will be built
  • Even with the building of a new expressway, traffic will increase greatly and drive times will increase for just about everyone
  • County politics will change as this traditionally very red county becomes purple and traditional "good ole boy" relationships will die out
  • Megachurches will continue to grow, and while they will have thousands attending regularly, tens of thousands...if not over one-hundred thousand plus of our residents will not be attending any church 
  • More church plants will be needed, but space will be a premium
  • Those who hate change will become curmudgeons because...change is happening
  • Churches that continue to calendar, function, and program like it is 2005 will be focused on reaching people who no longer exist and after a good number of funerals will be panicking as they struggle to stay open
  • Churches that believe putting a sign up inviting the community to the latest Christian event will sufficiently reach the already saved who attend other churches, but will not make a dent in the unchurched community
  • Traditionally rural churches will be forced to recognize that they are now suburban churches
  • Traditionally suburban churches will have to face the reality that their ministry focus and community now are more urban than in the past
  • Legacy churches must embrace and support church plants
  • Church fostering and shared space plans will have to develop
  • Churches that continue to live in silos rather than partnering with like-minded, doctrinally-aligned others in the community will die
  • Demographic shifts will mean that churches who are mono-racial in their leadership and membership makeup will be effectively missing the actual neighbors in their community

There are more and while I am no prophet, nor the son of a prophet, I do believe these realities are upon us.

Since the churches that will reach the majority of these new neighbors likely do not exist today, we must pray for God to call out the planters and pastors within our own community churches. I long to see dozens of new churches planted in our county and I believe the majority of them need to be led by called out, qualified, God-loving, gospel-centered individuals who have called Clay County home for years. 

Friends, the harvest is here. And while the majority are not looking for a new church, a Christian group, or even desire such, just as with Isaiah when he was called and sent by God, we must be willing to say "Here am I. Send me!"

The world is coming. We must welcome them with the Gospel.

 

__________________

1 Florida Department of Transportation, "Technical Memorandum: Projections of Florida Population by County, 2020-2070," p. 11.

2 The PARC Group, "The Future: Clay County, Florida."


Giving to Your Church or Other Non-Profit Through a QCD

We have many in our church family who are retired or at an age where retirement is on the horizon.  The faithful, generous givers in our church family continue to seek wise ways to continue their contributions to our church and other non-profits.

My friend and member of our church, Chris Daunhauer is a financial advisor and has written this article to help people understand the concept of Qualified Charitable Distributions (QCDs) and how these may lower one's taxable income. I am thankful for the wise counsel offered by Chris and his simple explanation. I am providing some links to various organizations that may offer additional helps as well.

QCD Explanation and Encouragement by Chris Daunhauer

If you are charitably minded AND you have to take required minimum distributions (RMDs) from an IRA or 401(k) because of your age, then you should consider doing at least the first portion of your charitable giving via QCDs (qualified charitable distributions) directly from your retirement account.  QCDs lower your adjusted gross income (and your taxable income) and they may reduce your future Medicare premiums and the taxability of your Social Security benefits.

QCDs have become more popular since the 2018 tax code changes. 

The doubling of the standard deduction that year has dramatically reduced the percent of taxpayers who itemize.  It’s dropped from 30 percent of all returns down to only 10 percent.  If you are in the 90 percent who do not itemize, your charitable giving no longer has any impact on the amount you pay in federal income taxes.

But….if you’re a retiree who must take required minimum distributions every year (you’re an IRA or 401(k) account owner who is at least 70 ½ years old), there is a potential work-around.  The tax code allows you to donate some or all of the annual distribution from your retirement account directly to charities of your choice (up to $100k per year).

When done correctly, a qualified charitable distribution (QCD) satisfies the IRS rules for RMDs, and does so without that distribution being added to your AGI or taxable income.  And, because your AGI is lower, Medicare premiums and the taxability of your Social Security may be lower as well.  You pay no taxes on the portion of your RMD given to charity, and you can still claim the full standard deduction elsewhere on your tax return.

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A QCD can help keep your charitable giving fully deductible regardless how high the standard deduction is.

QCDs offer surprising flexibility. You may split your RMD into multiple parts–some to yourself as taxable income for your own needs, and some directly to your favorite charities through QCDs.  You can also give to multiple charities in a single year, and, if you prefer, you may make your QCD gifts to charity anonymously.

For most retirees, most of the time, doing as much of your charitable giving as possible via a QCD is better than taking your RMD as regular taxable income and then writing checks to your favorite charities from that income.

First Baptist Church of Orange Park already receives QCD donations from some in our fellowship, and our financial secretary can point you to more information on this method of giving.  You can also contact your IRA or 401(k) custodian, your tax preparer, or financial advisor to learn more. QCDs are easy to do, tax smart, and fully recognized by the IRS.

Additional Links:

https://swbts.plannedgiving.org/secure-act

https://www.samaritanspurse.org/our-ministry/ira-retirement-account/

https://www.gowestwood.org/ira-distribution/

https://baptistnews.myplannedgift.org/give-from-your-ira

https://www.fbc-h.org/transfer-ira-money-to-charity/

https://www.shades.org/give/ira-distribution

https://www.abhe.org/ira-charitable-rollovers-qcds-rmds/

https://www.nobts.edu/development/default.html

https://www.txamfoundation.com/News/A-Gift-That-Can-Lower-Your-Taxes-Without-Itemizing.aspx


The Question I Should Have Been Asking All Along

The challenges that pastors of legacy churches in older, changing communities continue to increase. And as Carey Nieuwhof shared in recent post, crisis is both a revealer and an accelerator. Carey writes...

The crisis of the last few years has done two things for every church and business. It’s revealed what’s working and what isn’t. And it’s sped up the consequences of both.

While a few churches have seen rapid growth during the crisis, most churches are still hovering between 30-70% of their 2019 attendance.

A survey of over 15,000 churches conducted just before COVID hit shows that between 2000 and 2020, median church service attendance dropped from 137 people to 65.

The updated graph will probably show an even more precipitous decline.

So what’s the insight?

Because crisis both reveals and accelerates, perhaps you’re seeing today what your church would have looked like in 2030. The longer your church has been fully open for in-person services, the more true that is.

As sobering as that might be, perhaps it’s a gift.

If the old approach hasn’t been working for 20 years, the accelerated decline can be a gift to help you see that a new approach is needed.

If the old approach never led to renewal, trying harder won’t bring about different results no matter how hard you try.

And if the old model of church wasn’t working before, it’s probably not going to work again, no matter how sincere you are, how loudly you shout it, or how desperate you feel.1

When I speak of pastors in older, legacy churches in changing communities I have first-hand knowledge. Our church turned one-hundred years old last May and our community that bumps up to the southwestern corner of Jacksonville, Florida is changing at a rate hard to comprehend. In just a short number of years our area has moved from being a destination for families to buy homes, imbed themselves, and remain for decades to being a "drive-by" community from the fast-growing Jacksonville to the former swamp and forest-filled areas in the central and southern part of our county where new subdivisions have been and continue to be planted. New highways and thoroughfares are being built in these areas and the old-timers who may think nothing is going to change are in for a rude awakening. 

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Years ago I shared with our church's deacons and leadership about how missional mapping reveals the great difficulty of actually getting to our church's property from many parts of our county. Barriers that keep people from moving from location A to location B include gated communities, divided highways, waterways, bridges, railroad tracks, and more. As an example, for me to drive from my home to my office at the church, I must cross a divided highway, go by a gated community (I don't live in one,) cross a waterway over a bridge, and cross a railroad track. Thus the "Field of Dreams" philosophy that states "If we build it, they will come" that developed through the church growth era is defunct, if it ever was truly valid.

It's Not Just Small Churches Needing Revitalization

Church networks, mission agencies, and denominations have been and are working to develop strategies to help the thousands of churches across our nation that are on life support. In many cases, the targeted churches are in communities that have had dramatic demographic shifts and yet the church seems to be living in a time warp where upon entry one feels as if they've stepped back a few decades. 

Some have found their membership aging and numbers dwindling to just a a dozen or so. In these cases, one does not need a degree on anthropology or even an advanced math degree to determine that unless something changes, the church will soon no longer exist.

Many in these smaller churches do not realize change must take place until it is too late.

Sadly, many in historically larger, legacy churches in our communities have the very same blind spots. They just have more financial resources so they often do not recognize their very real needs until decades after they should. And as stated before, the crisis of the pandemic has thrust us all about ten years into the future as it relates to church attendance. So, some are now thankfully noticing such needs that would otherwise be ignored for years.

But What To Do?

In our most recent deacons meeting the men asked some very sincere and needed questions regarding the many changes that have recently happened in our church. These changes have included the retirement of two full-time pastors, the retirement of an administrative assistant, the shift from full-time to part-time for some employees (by their request) and the very real issues of deferred maintenance to our buildings that are now having to be addressed.

Concerns abound that we are doing less ministry than in the past, but after discussing this honestly with our deacons and staff, it is not so much that ministry is not happening. It is more that we have been forced to take the steps we should have years prior to eliminate the mindset that the "professional Christians" (e.g. paid pastors and staff) do the ministry and the church members receive the ministry. While there is certainly ministry actions and services offered to church members, we all know that one of the roles and callings of pastors and ministers is to equip the saints for the work of ministry. Thus, we have been recently blessed with a shift from obvious consumer-Christianity to biblically-based gospel service.

I will say that it is a very difficult shift for those who have spent decades in a church model that seemingly fuels consumer-based thoughts and functions to one that is biblical. I understand this and actually feel this tension.

In our discussion and in many one-on-one talks I have had with church members, I hear recommendations from those seeking to serve the Lord through our church. As ideas are shared I hear the desperation in the voices. Examples of what could be done (or should be done) clearly are based on what has been experienced in decades past, or in other churches. I have heard well-meaning saints express that we should implement a bus ministry (but we don't have a bus,) restart our children's sports leagues, sing more hymns in worship, sing more praise choruses, increase our choir numbers, get rid of the choir, turn up the lights, turn down the lights, have a big youth event weekly, do more trips, restart mid-week meals, do Bible studies in homes, offer better and more classes for Sunday morning, have the preacher (me) do more topic-based sermons, have the preacher (still me) do more verse-by-verse sermons, go back to what we did years ago (in various ministry age-groups,) and more.

The good news is that all these brothers and sisters care deeply about our church.

The challenging reality is that just about every recommendation comes from a rear-view mirror. That makes sense because we know what we know, not what we don't know. What we know is what we have experienced. We often think about how church was when we loved it most, met our spouse, had our baby dedicated, developed deep friendships, experienced revival, etc. and long for that again.

The Question That Hit Me Like a Brick

Back to that deacons' meeting. We talked. I wrote on a white board. I listened. I offered opinions. Then one of our men asked a question. It was a question I did not expect, but should have. It was the question that caused me to stop and to be honest, led to a bit of a conundrum in my mind. 

You see, I believe that planting new churches is needed in our nation and throughout the world. I serve with our mission board as a cohort leader for new church planters. I serve in our local network to connect church planters with legacy church pastors. I offer expertise (what little I have) to church planters looking for resources, insight, demographic studies, and next steps for the churches God is leading them to begin.

But this question...well, it shook me.

This brother asked "If our church did not exist but you were a church planter looking to plant a church at this location, what would you do and what would you not do?"

Uh...

This is the question that must be answered.

While the legacy of one-hundred years of service in our community is good and vital, in order to continue serving the Lord faithfully and impacting our community...our dramatically changing community...I must ask this question regularly.

It has been said often and must be repeated, the unchanging message of the gospel is never up for debate. The doctrines of the faith are cemented and secure. Who we are as God's church is founded upon him. Yet, to live missionally in any community means that contextualization must continually occur. Otherwise, we will wake up one day to the reality that we have systems in place and structures developed as a church that are perfectly designed to reach a people who no longer exist.

What would I do if I were planting a church here today? 

It seems we have been thrust into this due to the global crisis and this "time machine" has led us now to what otherwise would not have been recognized by many of our church members until years from now. But it is now and God has sovereignly allowed us to remain as his light in this darkness. To be salt and light in this community remains founded on the very same Word, but the way we share that with the world may be changing. It obviously has. 

I am thankful that things are not as dire as they could be, or are for many. But, I know that to ignore the realities of now by simply going backward is not the answer.

We cannot put new wine in old wineskins, though many try. 

I will wrestle with this question as will many others in our church. Perhaps by reading this, other churches and leaders will as well. In the midst of very challenging post-pandemic (or current pandemic) days, may we not cease to live as missionaries and ambassadors to a world not seeking God, not desiring God, but needing him. 

______________

1Carey Nieuwhof. “5 Faulty Assumptions about the Future Church.” CareyNieuwhof.com, 21 Jan. 2022, careynieuwhof.com

 

How Scripture Strengthened This Saint Through Her Cancer

On Thursday, January 13 we held our first funeral service of the year. Many came because of their love for the one who had died. Many others wanted to be there but were unable. Every now and then you come across someone in your life who impacts you with their demeanor, their words, their kindness, and their faith. Linda Massey is one such person. Oh, she was not perfect, as she would tell you, but she was redeemed as a child of God and her faith was on full display for God's glory, not in a showy way, but as a daily act of worship. 

Linda and her husband Al have been dear friends for years and members of our church. It was just over seventeen years ago when they received word that Linda had been diagnosed with a very aggressive form of cancer. Prayer meetings were held. Support from friends, old and new, came. Linda, as many who are given such a diagnosis, determined to be strong, fight the disease, and prayerfully lean on God as her strength.

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She told me as I met with her last November that she is so thankful God gave her the many years of life following her initial diagnosis. She and Al were able to celebrate the marriage of their son Blake to Tammy (whom they adore.) She was able to see the beautiful granddaughter Everly join their family. She was able to travel, experience life, and impact so many. 

From back in 2004 she began putting notes together for her funeral service. Over the years she would edit the notes, select different songs to be sung (though she picked Matt Redman's "10,000 Reasons" early on and kept that on the list. She loved that song,) and even picked the scriptures to be read. I had a very clear roadmap for preaching this service yesterday. It was good. It was godly. It was worship.

One aspect of the service that was so very impactful was what she titled her "Scripture Story." From back in 2004 she had begun praying and reading the Word of God in a different way. As she was fighting cancer, getting treatments, planning for the future, and even lamenting the challenges faced, she would turn to scripture. 

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These are vital scriptures to Linda that she read throughout the years during her journey with cancer. She calls them her “scripture story” as she placed them in a certain order to be read today as a picture of the journey she took.

She asked a friend and sister-in-Christ from our church family, Linda Cannon, to read this journey at the service. Linda Cannon was the perfect choice to read these verses. The Holy Spirit was moving and hearts were being tugged in the most glorious way. God remained the center of our service, though it was a funeral for a dear friend. This is how it should be always. 

Many have remarked about the Scripture Story, so for those who wanted to read it for themselves and for those unable to be at the service, I present it here.

Linda Massey's Scripture Story

2004-2005 

First and most important verses. I was led straight to these verses when I was first diagnosed.

1 Peter 1:6-7 (NIV)

In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

Deuteronomy 4:29, 30a, 31a (NIV)

But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul.

When you are in distress and all these things have happened to you…

For the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you…

2011

James 5:14-15 (NIV)

Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.

2 Chronicles 20:12 & 15a

(cancer is my “vast army”)

Our God, will you not judge them? For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”

…This is what the Lord says to you: ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s.

2013

Deuteronomy 31:6

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.

2014

John 14:27

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

2014

Jeremiah 29:11

"For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."

2015

(Praying for health for Blake and Tammy’s wedding)

Isaiah 40:29,31

He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak…

…but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.

2016

(After a week in the hospital)

Psalm 118:17

I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done.

2016

(Cancer verse for the end)

John 14:2-4

My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.

2017

Matthew 11:28

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

2017

2 Corinthians 4:16-17

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

2017

Psalm 117

(very important for me)

Praise the Lord, all you nations; extol him, all you peoples. For great is his love toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever. Praise the Lord.

Jan. 2018

Psalm 23:1, 3, 4, 6

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. he restores my soul. I will fear no evil...and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Sept. 2018

Psalm 40:2-3 (NLT)

He lifted me out of the pit of despair,
    out of the mud and the mire.
He set my feet on solid ground
    and steadied me as I walked along.
He has given me a new song to sing,
    a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see what he has done and be amazed.
    They will put their trust in the Lord.

I have preached many funerals for dear saints whom I miss but know where they are and will enjoy the reunion to come with those who are children of God. Linda ensured the theme of her service was on one thing - the grace of God. 

Grace gives hope for those who do not deserve it. Grace offers love for the unlovable. Grace provides forgiveness through Christ for the deadly sins we commit. Grace, grace, God's grace. Grace that will pardon and cleanse within. Grace that is greater than all our sin.

 

May Linda's Scripture Story be an encouragement to us all. For those who are fighting their own battle with cancer or other physical malady, may these verses give you strength as well as you face that "vast army" that attacks. 

I would like to add one more verse to Linda's Scripture Story. 

2021

Matthew 25:23 (ESV)

His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 


It is Great to Be Gospel-Driven, But You Don’t Have to Tell Everyone

Church life is replete with themes, growth strategies, title phrases, and trendy belief statements. At one point the only differentiator among churches in a community was the denominational tag.

As non-denominational churches expanded and those within our Baptist world divided, grew, and launched into the church-growth strategies so prevalent in the late twentieth century, we added to our lexicon such church designators as seeker-friendly, purpose-driven, contemporary, family-based, and more. As a response, or perhaps a reaction, other churches sought to ensure that they were known for not being any of those things declared by neighboring churches by promoting their version of church as traditional, “old-time religion” or even “KJV-only.” Words matter and these were designed so that potential church members would know they version of church that was available.

It sounds like a marketing strategy because it is.

Often these descriptive phrases ended up on promotional pieces, church signs, t-shirts, banners, and whatever could be used to promote the local church.

As we work with church planters and journey with them through the process of naming their church and getting the word out to the community, often these same marketing techniques, though updated for the digital age and changed to be more “relevant” tend to rise to the surface. I am not at all opposed to a proper marketing technique and right ways to get the word out about one’s church. I do believe there are some things pastors should consider.

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If you’re intent on being a gospel-centered or gospel-driven church, then be that. You just don’t have to put that on your promotional material. I actually believe every church should be gospel-centered/driven because the gospel is the good news and the good news is Christ. If a new church is seeking to reach the previously unchurched, lost, unsaved people in its community the phrase “gospel-centered/driven” will actually mean nothing…because that’s a church phrase. However, if a church is intent in reaching the already churched, those who attend other churches, disgruntled former attenders and church members, etc. the term may work. Yet, if the goal is to be a church that presents the good news to those who have never heard it, drop the churchy taglines and just be that type of church.

Be gospel-centered/driven. It will become clear as you reach and disciple those who need this good news.

This is the true for just about every other church-centric tagline that is used. At the church where I pastor, we thought about putting “We love God. We love people,” on our church sign, but we have nixed that. Why? Because if I have to emblazon this truth on our sign that we are the people who love our neighbors…it may mean that we have never shown them that we love this. It could mean that we do not love them actually, just philosophically. We desire our community to know we love God by our actions. We want them to know we love people through what we do and how we treat them. We desire that all know we love where we live because we exemplify that. We desire to do all this in Christ’s name, for the glory of God. While we won’t shy away from using the words, there is more value in saying it to someone in person while showing these realities to them, than by just posting them on a sign or website.

Nevertheless, we do have these things visible within our church building and on internal communications as part of our church’s vision frame.  We continually repeat the values of “Love God, love people, love where we live, etc.” not for the people outside our church family, but for the members already here…just so they/we do not forget. Like the ancient Israelites, we are all forgetful.

Pastor, planter, replanter, revitalizer, I encourage you to know why you do what you do. Know the unique version of local church God has called you to be. Preach the Word. Stand firmly in the faith on the Way, the Truth, and the Life, but focus more on being than on telling everyone what you are. Otherwise, your tagline will be little more than aspirational and you may just miss your target.


The Power of Panic

There are many questions about life that come to mind when a young person is preparing to step into full-fledged adulthood. Questions about work, marriage, relationships, and many other things abound. Faith questions are real for those who grew up in the American evangelical Christian world. These young people begin to flesh out their faith in Christ. Do they truly believe or are they just holding onto their parents' belief system? Is Christ real? Would they believe in Jesus if they had grown up in a non-Christian family? What about...fill in the blank?

I actually loved growing up in a family that treasured God and his church. My faith was strengthened throughout my childhood by my parents as well as God-fearing adults and teachers in the churches where we served. This does not mean I did not have questions. I did. I just found that God in continually drawing me to himself provided answers through his Word and through his church. During my first couple of years in college I found I was actually more secure in my faith than I was in high school. Sadly, I also found I was drawn to a certain sub-culture of Christianity that sensationalized certain things to create a sense of urgency. It was not a biblical urgency based on Christ or his great commission, but an urgency that seemed to grow louder and more angry over time, seeking to create stories that did not exist for the purpose of "rallying the troops." (We Christians tend to love militaristic metaphors.)

I started to listen to talk radio and enjoyed the takes on politics and personal freedoms that were displayed. This may actually be the genesis of the age of mean-spiritedness disguised as free speech that we now have. I even found Christian talk radio programs that paralleled the political ones. In fact, there was not much difference in the programming. Both were bombastic and loud. Both were built upon the personality of a host who was more entertainer than news reporter. Both were perpetually raging about the dangers of the "others" out there, most often liberals and evil spirits. Both were selling products–maybe a newsletter subscription, books, caps, t-shirts, and bumper stickers. 

Then, in 1988 while I was a junior in college, something happened that thrust the evangelical Christian world into panic. Due to me being hooked by the voices of the day, I found myself deeply interested. A movie had been produced by an Oscar winning director that would depict Christ in a blasphemous way. In addition to the Oscar-winning director, the film featured some big name Hollywood actors, but that was not what pushed it to the front-page of my university's newspaper and the others in cities across America.

It seems that even without seeing the film, a backlash from evangelical Christians grew so loud that the production company did not really have to spend money on promotion. The controversy was enough. Thus, when The Last Temptation of Christ was released many went to see it just to discover what the big deal was all about. 

When Evangelicals Panic

What was the big deal in 1988 regarding this film? This was The daVinci Code before Dan Brown ever wrote his blasphemous novel (BTW - Christians did the same thing in 2003 with Brown's book and the movie when it was released. I am guilty of getting on that bandwagon.) How could a film cause so many Christians to panic? Christian leaders such as Bill Bright, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, James Wildmon, along with Catholic leaders in the United States pushed very hard to stop the production and to keep the film from premiering. It has been reported that Bill Bright even offered Universal Studios ten-million dollars to buy up all the film prints and negatives just to destroy them.

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Photo credit: antgirl on VisualHunt

No wonder people lined up to see this film. Curiosity alone makes the typical person think "I need to see what all this is about."

While Christians gathered with placards and protested the studio and movie theaters, more and more stories about the film, its content and message were shared. It also seems that more people actually paid money to view the film than otherwise would have. As they say, any publicity is good publicity, right?

To put it bluntly, the organized Christian talk radio effort, petition signing, and righteous rallying did little but cost money and create the opposite of what was intended. According to Coleman Luck, a Christian who worked for Universal in Hollywood at the time, it did more damage to his evangelistic attempts to love his coworkers and community and introduce them to Christ than any other single event at the time.

This was so long ago that many have likely forgotten the story. We as evangelicals were scuttled from one panic-fueled protest to another over the years in order to "fight the good fight" and "win the world to Christ." Looking back I just am not sure that these boycotts of Disney, AT&T, Universal, MTV, Microsoft, Burger King, Ellen, JCPenney, Old Navy, Nutrisystem, and many other companies and groups actually did was was intended. I have yet to meet anyone who has come to Christ as a result of a corporate boycott. Perhaps it has occurred, but I have yet to see it.

What was the actual win?

"Well...they knew where we stood on issues." Okay, I get that. "They" being the decision-makers at such companies and organizations, I presume. I still am not sure if this had any real impact.

Syncretism Fueled By Panic

In addition to such cultural boycotts and stances the church also, at least seemingly, married the state in many areas as the syncretistic union of faith and politics occurred. In Julie Roys recent interview with Coleman Luck, he states "Two-thousand years ago, Jesus Christ said that His Kingdom was not of this world. His followers have been trying to prove him wrong ever since.”

I wonder of we are actually aware of the power of panic in our lives and in our churches. 

Panic is a tool used to get groups to do what is desired. It is a true motivator, but a fear-based motivator. When panic is fueled, anger grows. Have you encountered anyone living like that? Do you know anyone who is seemingly so overwhelmed with fear that they are perpetually angry. That anger is strengthened by the talk shows they listen to, the podcasts they subscribe to, the news shows (which do not actually share the news) where talking heads declare the worst that is being done by others, and the echo chamber they live within. Sadly, sometimes these panic-fueled moments are exacerbated by the church and even by church leaders.

This is not to say that Christians should be living with a "Pollyanna" worldview defined by weakness and overt passiveness. Yet, just as I was enthralled as a young person by the loudest voice in the virtual room that used warnings and scare-tactics to grow an audience, so too can it happen now. Age alone does not bring along maturity. Only Christ can truly give us mature spirits. 

We surely should be active in our faith. We must be fulfilling the commission given to us by Christ. We actually do not have the privilege of opting out of the expected lifestyle and worldviews scripture proclaims. Yet, we must not slide into falsely believing that God needs us, that God is so thankful we were finally born so that we can right all the wrongs in the world, that our strength is in our numbers, our volume, or our political acumen. We must remember that to live as Christ lived is to understand that coming as a servant, a suffering servant, is key. Sure, Christ was righteously angry at times and when he turned over of tables in the temple, it was pretty amazing, but many Christians seem to live as if that is the goal - turn over as many tables as you can and claim your anger is righteous when in fact...it is just anger.

There is power in panic and as sheep of the Good Shepherd we must be sure we are listening to his voice. Otherwise the loudness of the sheep rustlers that are everywhere will continue to influence us into actions that not only embarrass the Good Shepherd, but fragment the flock and lead us to losing our witness.

For God gave us a spirit not of fear (so don't panic...that's my paraphrase - DT) but of power and love and self-control. - 2 Timothy 1:7 (ESV)


Baptists, Sexual Abuse, and the Long-Awaited Next Steps

Sometimes stories trend and then disappear. They become the lead story in the news or online for a season and then there's another story that pushes it to the side. Often it is just one tragic reality after another as readers and viewers take in the depravity of our world. Whether a shooting, a trial, an exposé of abuse, or the latest celebrity controversy (like Britney's conservatorship,) trending stories come and go. Yet, for those who are the subjects of such stories the focus and impact often never ceases. 

For example when the current trials in Wisconsin and Georgia are complete, families of all involved will continue to relive the issues being discussed, as well as the aftermaths while the majority of Americans shift to the next trending story.

That is just how it is. It is how it has been for as long as there have been news outlets and latest headlines and updates.

Trending Sexual Abuse Stories - Not Just for the Catholics

In the 1980s the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandals involving priests and coverups became known globally. Since that time, more and more stories have been shared. Victims may have received settlements and some clergy may have been removed, but scars and pain remain. 

In Baptist life, when the Fort Worth Star-Telegram ran an exposé of independent fundamental Baptist (IFB) churches regarding hundreds of cases of sexual abuse by pastors and leaders, many in local evangelical churches began to take note. It wasn't just a Catholic issue (like we ever truly thought it was.) Yet, even then it seemed that many were saying "That's terrible! At least it didn't happen in our church, or in our denomination." 

But we knew better. 

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The victimization of the vulnerable has been a tactic of the enemy since Eden. With humanity's depravity on full display due to the inherent sin nature of all, the sinful desires of evil men and women at times infiltrate the most sacred and holy places. 

In February 2019 the truth was laid bare for all to see when the Houston Chronicle's exposé regarding sexual abuse within Southern Baptist (SBC) churches was published. Suddenly, many shifted into damage control, but sadly, this was more than a story to be addressed or a trending issue to be survived. The instances revealed were not hearsay, but documented cases of pastors, ministry directors, and volunteer leaders who abused boys, girls, and teenagers sexually, leaving many to doubt the righteousness and love of God, not to mention the validity of sacred trust and leadership within the local bodies of faith.

I have written in the past of the disgusting and systematic abuse perpetrated by a pastoral staff member at the church I now have the honor of pastoring (though this took place many years prior to my arrival) and the tragic impact it has had on our church, community, and especially the men and women who were teenagers at the time of their victimization. My article about this is available here.

Sexual Abuse Pushed to the Forefront

What has happened within the past few months within the world of Southern Baptists has been the very public conversations, debates, votes, arguments, and varied issues brought to the floor of the annual meeting of Southern Baptists and the subsequent meetings of the SBC Executive Committee. Whether one agrees with the steps now taken regarding the waiving of attorney-client privilege (by the mandate of SBC messengers) of the Executive Committee is not my focus here (as I have also written of that here.) What is the focus is what is now occurring in many of our state conventions.

I do not know anyone personally who has excused proven sexual abuse issues within the convention's entities or cooperating churches. No one I know personally is seeking to minimize the impacts of sexual abuse within the faith community. But...as they say, perception is reality often and the perceived ignoring of sexual abuse, especially partnered with the perception of cheap forgiveness with no actual consequence has caused great harm. 

Perhaps there some within the SBC who truly hate that sexual abuse has occurred within our network of autonomous churches, have grieved over the hurt done, said the proper words regarding these issues, but would rather this just be an issue for a season, delineated in a toothless resolution, filed away as a dark chapter in our history, then ignored (maybe ignored is too harsh a word, so possibly just pushed to the back burner) so that the next denomination-wide emphasis or church theme can be promoted well and...we can move on. Yet, just as when a trending story is no longer on the front page, the pain felt by those impacted remains.

State Conventions Take Steps

November is state convention season in our network. For two to three days, Baptist messengers from churches affiliated with local state conventions gather for meetings. This is not unlike the national meeting when it comes to the business sessions and polity on display. Perhaps the major differences (as evidenced by updates on social media from participating pastors and messengers throughout our network) are that most often the state conventions now have less negative drama, more intentional focus on unity and mission, and a true sense of family as pastors who may be on different sides of the aisle when it comes to denominational politics and processes seem to actually like each other. 

I serve in Florida and our Florida Baptist State Convention was held in Lakeland on November 8-9. In what may have been a historic moment, the State Board of Missions (full disclosure - I served on this board for seven years, completing my term on November 9) brought only four recommendations to the state convention for a vote. Each recommendation was simply stated and affirmed with no issues. The only recommendation that elicited any comments from the floor was Recommendation 4. This recommendation was for the newly elected president of the Florida Baptist State Convention (Paul Purvis) to establish a special committee of the state convention to examine all policies and procedures governing sexual abuse allegation reporting, sexual abuse survivor care, and sexual abuse prevention within state convention entities and partner ministries. 

The full recommendation is included here in an article from Florida Baptist Convention by Barbara Denman -> CLICK HERE.

The comments from the floor were to ensure that while having a female sexual abuse survivor on the to-be-established committee, we must not ignore the reality that there are many men who are survivors of clergy (or church leader related) sexual abuse. This is the reality of those victimized decades prior in my church. The comments were received as friendly.

As I have read from related stories online, other state Baptist conventions have or are making similar steps.

Questions Remain

Though the vote in our state was clearly in approval of this recommendation, not all messengers were, or are certain this is needed. These conversations will continue to occur. Some fear that churches may be stepping too far into what has been termed "cancel culture" by presuming guilt rather than innocence. I do not see that as the intent of the recommendation at all. There are varied lists of "but what about..." that I have heard and continue to hear. Sorry, I don't have answers for all those potentials and while I do agree that in some cases this may be a Pandora's Box of issues, I believe that perpetually ignoring or pushing to the side the issues of such heinous sin is worse. 

I also do not believe the passing of our recommendation will fix all the issues that continue to be revealed in our churches and entities, but I do believe it is a good next step and clearly states that our intent is action, not just words. Of course that ultimately remains to be seen, but I seek to be an optimist.

Healing Fueled by Prayer

The Florida committee will include eight people. I am praying for our state convention president, my brother and friend Paul Purvis, Pastor of Mission Hill Church in Temple Terrace, as he compiles this team. I am praying for the committee as they seek to glorify God, listen well, seek truth, and do all they are enabled to do to ensure that if any steps need to be taken in our state entities, if any policies need to be updated, if any guidelines must be restated, and more, that their recommendations will be heeded.

I am praying for Tommy Green, the Executive Director-Treasurer of our Florida Baptist Convention as he continues to lead our state convention well. I thank him for spearheading this recommendation and leading our State Board to address it.

I am praying for the men, women, boys, and girls who live with emotional scars and deeply felt wounds that have impacted them in ways I cannot fathom. I am praying that they will know they are deeply loved with a pure, selfless, permanent, unconditional love and will experience the healing they so desperately need. 

Our focus must be less about fixing organizations, and more about ministering to those most vulnerable and carrying the hurt of a formerly trending story. Ultimately, this glorifies God.

I believe this was the correct next step for our state convention. It will not be the final step.


Halloween on a Sunday Leads Our Church to Make a Shift in Event-Centered Ministry

Do you know what almost NO ONE in your community is asking regarding the upcoming October 31 events? They are NOT asking whether they should participate in their neighborhood Trick or Treating. They are NOT debating whether or not they should purchase overpriced candy to give out at the doors to children dressed as superheroes, princesses, and Bluey. They are NOT asking which local church they never attend may be having an event they can attend (though many may be considering such if convenient.) Oh, and since October 31 is on Sunday this year, most of your neighbors are NOT feeling conflicted about Halloween being on the Lord's Day.

For years our church has hosted a "Trunk or Treat" event for the community that has drawn great crowds, tired many church members, and left us thinking "Well...that was very tiring, but good." Yet, this year we are doing things a bit differently.

After deciding to not host our "Trunk or Treat" event, our leadership team began asking what, if anything could or should be done on this second-most popular holiday in America. Of course there are all the "Should Christians Celebrate Halloween" articles and discussions that come up this time of year. To be honest, over the years, I have likely held every differing opinion on this. And since I do not desire to write an article on the subject of Halloween and Christians, I'll just link to Travis Allen's well crafted one here on the Grace To You site (click here) and move on.

As our team contemplated our calendared events, knowing there are some in our church who will be upset that we are no longer doing exactly what we have done in previous years (There will always be that group. I think we still have some members that are a bit frustrated we no longer have "Hanging of the Green" at Christmas. We stopped doing that in 1992, two years before I joined the staff here. I am grateful.) There are some who will likely like the fact we are not hosting a "Trunk or Treat." And...there are many who simply do not care either way.

That's how it is for most church-based events.

One of our values as a church is that we "love where we live." It's practical, aspirational to a degree, and needed. Yet, to love where we live means that often we must do the work of the minister not just at the church building (or in the church parking lot on Halloween) but in our own homes, neighborhoods, and communities. Therefore, we are attempting a shift this year. Perhaps this will be the year that we can begin to pry apart the philosophy that Christian activities must take place at the church buildings only. There's something about equipping the saints and commissioning believers to be on mission in their own communities, neighborhoods, apartment complexes, and cul-de-sacs.

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Seeking to discover how best to do this for Halloween, without compromising any theological beliefs or matters of conscience I found a sister church in our network that has produced a logical, point-by-point, step-by-step, how-to strategy for Halloween outreach for their members. Since stealing is a sin, our church will be gleaning (that's a good biblical, not sinful word) from Fruit Cove Baptist Church and present similar ideas and plans to our church family. Thank you to Fruit Cove and Pastor Tim Maynard and staff for this great idea. A portion of their plan is below.

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Just a portion of Fruit Cove Baptist Church's Halloween Outreach Plan. More at fruitcove.com/neighbor

I do not know how many of our church family will actually take this advice and do this, but I am optimistic.

Imagine hundreds of believers refusing to isolate themselves from the very people they have been commissioned to reach with the gospel. Imagine hundreds of Christians actually having fun and smiling as dozens of children (potentially) come to their doors asking for free candy (and by the way - give out good candy and don't give out tracts.) Imagine relationships beginning that could eventually lead to a gospel conversation. Imagine the church focusing on going where the crowd is rather than always trying to create a crowd.

Of course, if you just cannot move yourself to do anything on Halloween.  That's understandable. No guilt throwing here.

But even if that is your conviction, I encourage you to pray that somehow, in some way, God would use his grace-filled, redeemed children to live as missionaries and love where they live so much that others may hear and experience the gospel and that angels will rejoice.

As for me and my house...we will be eating all the Reese's before any kids start ringing our doorbell.

 

Here's a link to our webpage with ideas for our church members - click here.


With All That Is Happening In the Southern Baptist Convention, What Are We To Do?

"Oh no! What are we going to do? What's next?"

These are the words of desperate, fearful, overwhelmed, and despondent people. And sadly, over the years I have found myself saying these very things. 

Whether the questions revolve around national politics, global health issues, local community problems, natural disasters, denominational or religious issues, or even the very personal issues such as marital breakdown, prodigal children, grief over death, or even terminal diagnoses, we tend to all find ourselves at one point or another asking these very same or similar questions to anyone who would listen.

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There is a black hole of despondency that has a gravitational pull so very strong that it feels impossible to ignore. The circumstances of life, the interruptions of our personal peace and daily schedules, the frustrations brought upon us by actions or inactions of others...or sometimes just the random "bad news" that arrives in our stories can suck us into a place of fear and hopelessness.

I awakened this morning and after reading the Bible (working on that "read the Bible in a year" plan still) and praying, I checked the latest goings-on via Twitter. I understand that Twitter may not be the most accurate news source, but it is immediate and trending stories catch my eye. Through all the vital updates via the trending hashtag, such as Robert Pattinson's strange "Batman voice" in the teaser of the upcoming film, the latest on the MLB playoffs, and Prince William's declarations that billionaires should not focus on building rockets, I noticed the latest updates in the sub-culture of Southern Baptist (SBC) life.

There is much more to every recent SBC story than I could delineate clearly here, so I will leave that to the more accomplished wordsmiths who understand more fully the latest controversies, polity issues, and scandals that gain likes, responses, or fuel Twitter-wars.

Nevertheless, I do care very much about what is happening. I have strong opinions (as do many other SBC pastors and leaders) about decisions made recently and am praying for what is to come. I am not disinterested, nor am I disengaged. I believe we owe it to those who have been harmed, abused, and impacted in the past to do the right things now. I have shared about that prior as well as other issues, so will not go into depth in this posting again.

But ultimately, on this day, I find myself thinking on the nature of God. The sovereign God whom I serve (whom I seek to serve wholeheartedly,) and worship never has to check social media to see what is trending or to discover the latest dust up regarding SBC life, or any other pertinent issue.

The God who is never surprised, never shocked, never taken aback, never not knowing what to do, and never at a loss for words is who he always has been and always will be.

This gives me assurance. This gives me hope and strength. This is my fear melter.

I know these to be true. God knows results of votes before they're counted. He knows appointments to offices and positions and callings of ministers and pastors before anyone else does. He knows about resignations and retirements prior to it ever happening. He is never surprised by the details in an email or letter. He knows. And he is Lord of all the details.

This does not mean that we are simply to throw our hands up and disengage in areas of church and community life believing that nothing we do matters because "God knows" but this reality of God's nature gives us not just hope, but strength for the day and the days to come.

Encouragement to Pastors

In the little sub-culture that I live known as the SBC, God is not uninvolved and he is fully aware of all that is happening at the denominational level (yes, I know, by the strict definition the SBC is not a denomination...but you understand what I mean, I hope) as well as the upper level of our non-hierarchical convention known as the local church.

In light of our autonomy as local churches, I know no one can tell a local church and its pastor what to do and how to do it. Yet, to my pastor friends I implore you to not lose hope. I encourage you to spend your time where you uniquely most valuable, and in some cases irreplaceable. This begins in your family, but follows closely in the local church God has blessed you to serve and shepherd. When you preach this coming Lord's Day to the flock, follow the Spirit's lead, study well, pray deeply, and do not allow the distractions of denominational issues become the message of the day. As you stand behind that holy desk (whether it be a pulpit like Spurgeon's, a music stand, or something in between) open the Word of God boldly and declare the truths within clearly. 

I encourage you in this...basically because I need to remind myself to do this weekly. 

I'm reminded of an old pastor of mine when I was in high school who would simply say to me "Just keep the main thing the main thing." I know it wasn't an original phrase of his, but it resonated then with me and continues to.

"What are we going to do?" Well, I would say we do what we have been as pastors and Christians, or at least what we should have been doing all along.

I tweet a Bible verse daily (thanks to Hootsuite, I just set it up automatically.) A friend once called me to let me know that something was wrong with my Twitter account as it kept tweeting the same Bible verse. I told him that was intentional, as a daily reminder to me and maybe to anyone who actually follows me that the calling as a Christian is a high calling. Our mission is clear. The gospel is true and how we live, act, and talk (even online) matters. So...it's my reminder. I need it daily.

 

So, if you're a bit overwhelmed about...well...everything, take heart. God is still on his throne. He is sovereign. He never fails and he remains constant - yesterday, today, and forever. And despite all that is happening and will happen in our SBC sub-culture, God is not shaken. In fact, just in case you need reminding, God is not relying on the SBC. It should be the other way around.


Running Low On Hope That the SBC Will Right This Ship

Sometimes in the Southern Baptist (SBC) bubble that I grew up within, serve within, and often live within, I think that everyone is talking about SBC issues and concepts all the time. The truth is the majority of my deeply politically-conservative, tradition-laden, church-on-every-corner, southern town is not Southern Baptist. The vast majority are not Christians and many only hold to a "God and country" version of American Christianity rather than a biblically convictional version. In other words, just like every other pastor and Christian I know, I live in the heart of a mission field where lostness has more reign than I desire.

If I am not careful, I will get sidetracked from the actual mission. Since I am a Southern Baptist and have been my entire life (I was Southern Baptist, at least on Sunday School roll, prior to my new birth moment) I often think in "Baptistese" utilizing a lexicon that not even all our church members understand (i.e. messengers, autonomy, Cooperative Program, IMB, NAMB, State Board of Missions, Executive Committee, UUPG, Lottie, Annie, etc.)

Within our SBC bubble things happen.

Good things happen.

Conventions occur annually on the state and national level. Associations and networks come together to intentionally fulfill the mandates of the Great Commission and Great Commandment for the glory of God. Board meetings and entity gatherings take place where saints intentionally pray and plan for wisdom to extend the reach of the gospel. Missionaries are sent. Churches are planted. Seminarians are trained. These are all good things (and the list is not extensive.)

But...bad things happen, too.

Sometimes this is unintentional. Sometimes...sadly it seems to be systemic. Maybe this is a result of brand-protection, propagation of a long-held buddy system, latent Christian celebrity making, or idol worship.

Then...yesterday. A Southern Baptist event took place that quickly moved to the front burner for many active and engaged SBC pastors and church members. I heard the phrase "the world is watching" from many and maybe that is so, but even if the world wasn't watching, I was. And more importantly, our Sovereign God was...and is.

What occurred was a special called meeting of the SBC Executive Committee (the managing and functioning agency for Cooperative Program issues and denominational decisions throughout the year excluding the two days when the actual Southern Baptist Convention is in session.) The polity of this organizational structure may seem strange to those who are not Southern Baptist, but suffice to say this group is the SBC decision-making group when the annual meeting is not in session. Yet, there is a very clear and specific caveat for this group. They work at the behest of the SBC and our messengers (voting representatives at our annual meeting sent from local, autonomous churches in good standing.) In June 2021 the SBC Annual Meeting took place in Nashville, Tennessee. It was one of the largest attended in numerous years due to two things - 1) the 2020 meeting cancellation due to COVID and 2) the genned-up in-house squabbles between factions hoping to get their respective man elected president. It was fun. Kind of like riding a roller coaster that makes you throw up all over your shirt is fun.

Our Most Recent Mess

Nevertheless, during the Executive Committee's presentation at our annual meeting where the intent was to unveil and promote a new vision for the SBC (It was unveiled, but this was no home run. It was welcomed with a collective "amen" that sounded more like "meh") a motion was made from the floor (remember - this is just a big Baptist business meeting) by messenger and pastor Grant Gaines regarding the widely-known sexual abuse scandals in many local churches and the response requested from the Executive Committee. His motion is below:

I move that the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting June 15-16, 2021, in Nashville, TN, ask the newly elected president of the SBC to appoint a task force within 30 days of the date of this Convention that shall be comprised of members of Baptist churches cooperating with this Convention and experts in sexual abuse and the handling of sexual abuse-related dynamics. This task force shall either assume oversight of the third-party review announced previously by the Executive Committee or initiate a separate third-party review. Said task force shall ensure that the third-party review includes an investigation into any allegations of abuse, mishandling of abuse, mistreatment of victims, a pattern of intimidation of victims or advocates, and resistance to sexual abuse reform initiatives. The investigation shall include actions and decisions of staff and members of the Executive Committee from January 1, 2000 to June 14, 2021. This investigation should include an audit of the procedures and actions taken by the Credentials Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, which was formed at the Convention meeting in Birmingham, AL, June 11-12, 2019. The review shall be funded by allocations from the Cooperative Program.

We further move that the task force agree to the accepted best-standards and practices as recommended by the commissioned third-party, including but not limited to the Executive Committee staff and members waiving attorney client privilege in order to ensure full access to information and accuracy in the review. A written report on the factual findings of this review shall be presented to the task force 30 days prior to the SBC Annual meeting in 2022, and made public in full form within one week of the Task Force’s receipt of the report along with suggestions from the task force for actions to be taken by our convention.

The motion was discussed and voted upon. (Full disclosure - I voted to affirm the motion.) An overwhelming majority of messengers affirmed this and we left the annual meeting with the understanding that since the messengers had spoken, the things within the motion would be accomplished.

That is how it is supposed to be.

The Executive Committee is comprised of faithful Southern Baptists throughout our convention churches (pastors, church staff members, church members, men, women, young, median age, and older.)

A task force focusing on the sex-abuse issues of the SBC was put together and gave wise, strongly worded, step-by-step recommendations to the Executive Committee. The Executive Committee met recently and found themselves at an impasse regarding the motion. Delays were made and amendments to press on were defeated. The sticking point was the waiving of attorney-client privilege.

A special called meeting was held yesterday (September 28, 2021) via Zoom. The meeting was streamed live online and many, like me, did watch. Was it the "watching world?" Perhaps. There were certainly many Baptists watching. 

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Zoom meetings are the norm for many now. We use them in our church for committees and small group Bible studies. We use Zoom for local and state meetings. Yet, for this subject and with this much at stake for our convention, it became clear last night that a virtual meeting via Zoom was a poor choice. Despite the frustrating fact many apparently could not figure out how to mute/unmute, turn their cameras on/off, or vote electronically, there were bigger problems. The presentation showed a lack of professionalism, lack of decorum at times, inability to effectively count votes, and a revealed lack of respect for the SBC messengers by some, not all, on the committee. The recommendations from the sex abuse task force was disregarded. It was like watching a slow car wreck occur and those tuning in knew it would not turn out well.

The Enemy must love this stuff.

Sure enough, it did not turn out well. 

The fact that a vote on an amendment within the meeting had to take place by the committee members regarding whether or not they would do what they had been instructed to do by the messengers of the SBC causes me great concern. And I know some will say "But you just don't understand," or "You're not a lawyer," or "The messengers aren't privy to all the things this committee is privy to and they're just trying to protect the SBC," and other such things.

Those statements may be accurate.

Nevertheless, I am a Southern Baptist. And as a Southern Baptist I know our polity reveals that we are not a top-down, hierarchical denomination. We are a network of cooperating churches coming together for the sake of the gospel, to grow God's kingdom globally through evangelism, discipleship, and missions with doctrine and practices that conform to our confession of faith. It just seems to me that somewhere over the years a new system overtook the original programming. It's like a computer virus. It is a system that elevates brand over Bible. It's a system that says that people matter and that we care for the down-and-out, the hungry, the lonely, the abused, and the forgotten...but acts like it's more important to not be embarrassed publicly while doing more to promote programs, denominational efforts, and temporal issues that create celebrity pastors which harm greatly the church.

I have experienced much in SBC life over the years. I have heard angry preachers and angry Baptists attack one another at times.  Today I fear this moment may be the one that leaves more destruction, collateral damage, and unaddressed problems than we realize. 

Some are working to #DefundTheEC. There are cries by some to leave the SBC. A few are seeking to consider how to send funds to denominational entities of choice while eliminating the ones (in this case the Executive Committee) that anger them. A number of church planters are vocally wondering if they should remain in the Send Network and the SBC. 

Maybe it's just frustrated talk.

I doubt it.

I like to think that I mostly an optimist. Sometimes I doubt that I am an optimist. That makes me a pessimistic optimist. So, in my pessimistic optimism I believe that it is not too late. I want to believe that all those years and stories of sexual abuse survivors fighting for recognition, help, and justice will not continued to be ignored. I want to believe that when the majority of SBC messengers affirm a motion to do the right thing that those SBC agencies, entities, and committees given such assignments will stop hiding behind preference and legalese and do what they have been elected and appointed to do.

This is a watershed moment for the SBC. 

It is not too late to right the ship (I hope.) 

This means change must take place. That is most likely a change in leadership first, followed by a change in function and maybe structure. 

And maybe...please...can we stop having Zoom meetings like we just had so that our collective public embarrassment can be centered around issues and important topics rather than our inability to effectively utilize technology and behave like adults?


"When the New Wears Off" - A Reality of Church Planting

I have the great privilege of working with church planters in our city and throughout our state. I call these men front-line servants as many have stepped out in faith to launch and lead a local church that only previously existed in the mind of God. The endeavor requires faith. It calls for risk (though some do not like to use that word.) It is not easy. It is not supposed to be easy. Yet, it is right.

Welcoming new churches in a community, especially one as fast-growing as ours, is a bit of a challenge for many legacy churches and established pastors. Try as we might, there is this sense of competition that often rears its head. As a long-time pastor of a one-hundred year old church (no I'm not the planter who started this church) it requires constant focus to remember that kingdom work is something I have been invited into, and the kingdom is not mine. Thus, newer churches in our community where the number of residents continues to increase should not be considered a bad thing. This is why I intentionally work with planters, seek to help them find sending churches if that is missing, and coach them through our local association of churches and our Send Network. If I simply ignore the need for these new works, I know what I will do. I know me. I will drift into a small kingdom mindset that focuses solely on the "success" and vitality of the local church where I serve. Now, I should be focused on these things, but tunnel vision will develop and I will cease to see how God is at work in our community. I do not naturally drift toward Kingdom-mindedness. I must intentionally move there.

Thus, I get to spend quite a bit of time with pastors launching new churches. Some are further along than others. Some struggle with common realities. Whether it is the gathering of the right people for the right roles in launch team or securing a facility to gather, stressors exist. 

I believe there may be more resources now than at any time in recent church history. The movement of church planting and the similar movement of church revitalization have led to the development of many helps for the fledgling pastor.

I will meet with a cohort of planters this week. It will be the final meeting of our group. These men are planting churches throughout the state of Florida and due to the great diversity of our state, each church looks different from the others. Each church's community is unique and context is varied.

The church planting factory is running 24/7 now and experts abound. Yet, once you get beyond the practical helps, the templates, the "you have to do it this way" instructions, and all that comes after being labeled a church planter, the long, tedious, hard work remains.

And eventually...the shine wears off the new toy.

It is in these moments when the church planter looks around realizing that no one wants to set up chairs any longer. The volunteers who loaded and unloaded the equipment are tired. The smiles are forced on many faces. The hours of preparation to preach the Word seem never ending. The post-sermon self-grading is horrendous because as much as you want to be Barnabas for others, you aren't for yourself.

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I love church planters.

I hate seeing them struggle.

I love church planters.

I hate when godly men who are not qualified nor called think their church planters.

I love church planters and their families.

I hate when their families suffer and the home life is not joyous.

Eventually, the shiny newness of the plant will dull. What then? There is this moment in all organizations when the question of "Are we going to keep doing this or is it time to quit?" has to be asked. Rarely is quitting the right thing. It is sometimes, but I lament when the towel is thrown in too early.

This is why sending churches and church plants must be truly connected. There must be a true relationship and not just a money funneling relationship. I fear that even some sending churches find themselves "collecting" plants for the purpose of sharing how "missional" they are, but are not truly engaging the new works well.

I have failed in far more ways as a sending church pastor than I care to share here. Yet, I know that we (our church particularly and all sending churches) must do better. 

And it is not all on the sending church. Church planters need to give permission to others (mentors, friends, fellow pastors, etc.) to speak into their lives in honest ways. The church planter needs to remember that he is not God's answer to the lost and dying world. He must remember that God is not in heaven saying "Whew! I am so glad this guy became a church planter. He can finally fix all that the other churches throughout history have done wrong." (I'm being facetious, but it is a good reminder.)

When the new wears off...if the church is God's intention, if the planter is qualified and called, he must press on (not out of guilt, but through the strength of the Spirit.) He must persevere and remember he cannot do it alone. The same is true for the sending or legacy church pastor. It is not like the older guys are not guilty of workaholism and believing everything must go through them. 

We need each other. It is God's intention that we do not do life alone. Even Paul had partners in ministry throughout his missionary journeys. Throughout history, there have always been "one anothers" in the gospel stories.

The "new" will wear off. There will be days when ministry is not fun. We know this, but when we experience them, we often wonder if it is worth the effort to press on.

It is.

Oh, and you can take a day or two (or more) off. I hope my wife doesn't read this because I'm not good at doing this, but I know it is right. And if you have brothers in your city whom you trust, that pastor nearby, who love you dearly...you will have someone who can "fill the pulpit" for you every so often. 

 


Facing the Reality That Your Church Has Changed

"Your church is perfectly positioned and staffed to reach a people who no longer exist."

I first heard a Christian leader make that statement about fifteen years ago. His point was that often churches of a certain age find themselves overwhelmed by decades of programmatic, event-driven, historically successful strategies that were not and are not necessarily sinful, but over time become ineffective. Thus, your church may still be filling its calendar with elements designed to reach...people who are no longer in the community or attending the church.

Change Leads to Pastoral Frustration

I have discovered that I often do not think the way other pastors of churches think. This is not because I have some secret knowledge others do not or some insight that others have yet to gain. It is because I am weird. Yep, that's it. I tend to ask questions that others never consider and I just do not know better than to ask. Sometimes, I am like that four-year-old who responds to everything his parents say with "Why?" or the even deeper question of "But...why?"

It can be frustrating and I'm sure my frustration frustrates those who are part of the church I serve.

Yet, I still ask the questions. 

I still wonder why we do things we do. I wonder why things are the way they are. So I ask.

I do my best to look toward a place that is truly impossible to see - the future - to hopefully get a handle on trends and cultural shifts so that we as a church can be positioned well to present the never-changing, life-redeeming message of the gospel to the yet unreached.

"This is Not Your Father's Oldsmobile"

Now this dates me and those who are not at least fifty-years-old likely have no idea what I'm referencing. Yet, I'll attempt to explain.

Back in ancient history the company known as General Motors produced a line of vehicles under the brand name "Oldsmobile." Oldsmobile was positioned in the auto industry to reach a specific target market. 

At one point, Oldsmobile was focused toward an older demographic. Eventually, the market-share shrunk and GM was basically competing with itself (since Buick and Cadillac also targeted the same group.) Thus, in the mid-1980s Oldsmobile began running an ad campaign under the by-line "Not your father's Oldsmobile." The commercials featured actors who had starred in older television shows or movies along with their adult children. I remember ones featuring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy of "Star Trek." They were in the cars with their respective children and the adult children were shocked at how sporty the new Olds were. Thus..."This is not your father's Oldsmobile" was then stated and plastered on the screen.

It was catchy and creative. Apparently, not enough though as the Olds brand was soon discontinued. Yet, that phrase stuck with me and in church life where the retirement of long-dead programs and outdated emphases remains, the marketability of "This is not your father's church" seems to resonate.

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Of course, when I speak of this type of branding and marketing of the local church, I am not speaking of the abandonment of timeless truths, the value of the Lord's Day, the doctrines that define us, or the inerrancy of God's Word. Those and other vital elements of who we are as Christians and our message are timeless and never change and should never be tampered.

Yet, as most of us who grew up in church know, there are elements that were used by God for a season, but the season ended. In these cases, change has to happen. Otherwise, the church ceases to to be faithful to the calling God has given and ends up existing in a form that exists solely for itself.

Some struggle with this reality, but it does not make it any less true.

Many of our Baptist churches in need of revitalization or replanting now have faithful remnants of brothers and sisters in Christ serving and seeking to survive in their communities. Yet, even by their own admission, walking into the church is like stepping back in time. Back in time not to a moment of biblical focus and holiness, but just back a few decades to a time when said church was reaching its community and had more people in the gathering.

And Then...The Pandemic

There has been much written for many years regarding contextualization and the changing landscape of church planting, sustaining, and community engagement. Then COVID-19 hit and suddenly what smart people said would happen within the coming decade occurred within a span of weeks. 

Churches who refused or never thought seriously about online streaming, online giving, or online anything were reevaluating their strategies. Pot-luck meals went the way of the buffet restaurants. BST (Baptist Standard Time) for all meetings, services, Sunday schools, etc. was erased. A year's worth of events and programming disappeared. And...many pastors and ministry leaders whose job description and in some cases personal identities were defined by what they do (or did) rather than in who they are began to struggle. All the "Ministers of..." and "Associate Pastors to..." that were tasked a certain age group, ministry element, or program found themselves wondering what to do since their gatherings and programs were gone. Of course, this is an over-simplification as pastors and ministers truly focus on people, but it is easy for one to slide into busyness and tasks. It happens to all of us at some point, I guess.

Suddenly, discovering how to connect and reconnect became paramount. How to "do church" when how we "did church" was unavailable. The longing for "getting back to normal" began to be shared. And now, despite the delta variant, many churches are back to meeting in person. Programs are rebooted and structures are being reset. But...in many cases, the church has changed. In some cases it has been dramatic.

A great crowd for many on a Sunday gathering is very much smaller than pre-pandemic. A shift has happened. Now, we must adjust.

This is not your father's church...and it's not even the church you attended pre-pandemic in some cases.

When I arrived at our church to begin serving in pastoral ministry our community was much different. It was 1994. The population was smaller. The number of homes within a drivable distance was much less. Average incomes of those living near our church was significantly higher than now. There were fewer schools, fewer churches, and much history to preserve.

It is now 2021 and as I stated to our congregation a few Sundays ago - we cannot pretend that we are the church we were when we were the only conservative Baptist (or evangelical) show in town. Our mission field has changed and in some cases, we have pretended nothing has happened. A new coat of paint on a wall does not fix long-deferred maintenance. 

There is no going back, but there is a way forward.

We cannot simply ignore the mission field that exists in the present, pretending we are who we were in the past (with the numbers in the room we had at that time and the budget we had then) and be faithful to be who God has us here to be right now.

Reality Checks Are Good

So, let's just be honest. People ask me how many members we have at our church. I normally answer "I have no idea" but I do know on the books we have about four times as many "members" as we do who attend and participate in ministry. This has been the case for decades yet has been exacerbated due to our pandemic-infused online only era of church gatherings. Thus, we have bogus numbers. And our church is not alone. 

Numbers are our friends, but only if they're accurate.

Can the brand of our church survive a dose of reality? What if we begin to admit our church is not as big as it used to be, or as big as the church down the street? What if we actually look in the mirror and see who we are, then look out the window to see who really lives nearby. If we continue to seek to reach people who do not exist we will ultimately be successful in reaching nobody. 

Change is a pain. I don't like it, but it can be helpful.

Ignoring reality is a sign of pending death. I am thankful for who we really are (and for who really is in the room - or online) and believe the never-changing God has kept us here for his glory and ultimately for our good and our community's good. Rear view mirrors are great, but there's a reason they're smaller than the front windshield. 

Maybe you needed that reminder as well. God is sovereign and maybe he has been shrinking our imagined crowds of self-defined "Gideon's army"  to those who are truly disciples and will be used for the work ahead.


The "Constructive Criticism" Offered to Worship Leaders Is Often Just Criticism

Most often after a church calls a senior pastor, the next leadership position to be filled, if they are able to pay more than one staff person, is a worship leader (or Minister of Music/Worship Pastor.) 

There is no biblical office of "worship leader" in the church. That does not mean the position is unnecessary or anti-biblical. Some churches hire worship leaders while others call worship pastors. There is a distinction. Any pastor or elder in a local body is bound by the calling and qualifications as defined in Scripture. A worship leader may or may not be considered a pastoral role. That is dependent on the local church.

The Worship Leader

On a Q & A posting from gotquestions.org, the following explanation is given in part as to the role of a worship leader:

Because worship leader is not a biblical office for the church, his role is somewhat indistinct. Most worship leaders are musicians of some kind, whether vocal or instrumental, and their primary role is to lead the other musicians/singers that are involved in the service. It is the responsibility of the worship leader to ensure that it is not the music, nor the instruments, nor the presentation, nor the voices which are the focus of the worship service. Worship is bowing humbly before God and exalting Jesus Christ as King of kings and Lord of lords. The responsibility of the worship leader is to become less, that Jesus Christ can become more. And when all of this is done, when hearts are humble before Him, His people are ready to receive, and be changed by, the focal point of the worship service—His glorious and living Word.

Beyond the requirements a church may have for paid worship leaders and the clear biblical requirements of one who also serves as an associate pastor/elder in the church, the reason I believe this position may be one of the most challenging in the church is due to the constant pressure placed upon him from church members and congregants.

This posting is not about the biblical, theological, or personal issues regarding a worship leader at a local church (though those must be high on the list for anyone standing before the church body in any position of leadership,) but rather about the pressures placed on those who work weekly in planning and preparing the gathered church's worship on the Lord's Day.

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In a conversation with our worship pastor earlier this week he stated "This has been the most difficult year in ministry for me regarding worship on the Lord's Day." I presumed he was speaking of the pressures related to COVID and the institution of online services, socially distanced gatherings, masks/no masks, a consolidation of campuses, and all that we faced together as a church. While those certainly added to the strain, he declared that never in his decades of pastoral ministry has he faced such a continual barrage of constructive criticism on how to do his job better. 

He was not whining. He is up to the task, but I asked and he was honest and shared things I did not know. I am confident he is not alone and thus, I hope to help all of us be more aware as we move forward as local leaders and churches.

I have always believed the role of leading worship in churches must be one of the most challenging. Since many churches have for years borrowed marketing strategies from Madison Avenue and shifted with themes, music styles, and scheduling, an unintentional result has been that they (we) often unwittingly create a sales/customer mindset on Sunday mornings.

The mantra for customer service in the business world has often been "The customer is always right." Recently this has led to the birth of the "Karen meme" (sorry to all the nice Karens out there) that features an image of an angry, entitled woman with a particular hairstyle demanding to talk to a "manager" for any number of reasons.

I don't really believe the entitlement attitude is overwhelming among members of  local churches like ours, but the idea that as we sit in rows on Sunday mornings that all that is to come is designed for our enjoyment is very real. Thus, as we lament the growth of consumer Christianity, we must admit this is the monster we created.

Sometimes We "Hear" What Is Not Being Said Aloud

Over the past few months as churches have gathered for worship and leaders have sought to honor God and lead well, comments have offered to worship leaders that have been intended to be encouraging and constructive. In most cases they are, but there are times when what is said verbally is drowned out by what is not said, but perceived.

I imagine what worship leaders hear is similar to what pastors hear at times. For instance when a well-intentioned church member encourages me to listen to another pastor's sermon because it was "soooo good" I know that is likely meant to encourage. Yet, I often hear, "If you only preached like this guy...you'd be worth listening to." I know it is not fair, but I am just being honest. And yes, I know that is all on me as my personal insecurity leads me to often hear what is not being said.

So, in that vein, here is what worship leaders hear and what they really hear based on what I have been told:

  • "I like it when the choir leads" (which sounds like "I hate when the praise band leads.")
  • "I like it when the praise band leads" (which sounds like "I hate when the choir leads.")
  • "I love it when you sing the old hymns" (which sounds like "I hate when you sing newer choruses.")
  • "I love the new choruses" (which sounds like "I hate the boring old hymns.")
  • "When is so-and-so going to sing a solo again" (which may mean simply that "I love hearing that person sing" but often misses that "that person" only shows up for solos, does not do anything else with the church or worship ministry, is good at karaoke only, has disqualified himself/herself from standing on the stage due to other issues in life, or may not actually be someone who can sing well and will never get a solo again.)
  • "You did really well today in leading us in worship" (which sounds like "Every other week is mediocre at best.")
  • "Oh, I didn't hear the music today because I didn't get into the worship center until after the music was over." (which sounds like - "The music is optional, like watching trailers before the movie, so often I just skip that part.")
  • "The drums are too loud!" (which means either "I hate the drums" or "The drums are too loud.")
  • "When are we going to do ______ again?" - fill in the blank with whatever musical presentation, choir special, solo, production, etc. that was done years prior. (which often means - "I only like that one thing we did years ago and until we do that again, I'm not going to be happy.")
  • "When are the kids or teenagers singing on Sunday again?" (which is often perceived as being a question not related to worship, but related to viewing the Lord's Day worship as a recital or a school chorus event. Sadly, some only attend when their progeny are on the stage. This unknowingly teaches a generation that church is a platform for performance, not a family gathered weekly for the glory of God.)
  • "I love it when so-and-so leads worship." (which often sounds like "Anyone but you is better.")
  • "The livestream audio is not good" (which often means...well, that the livestream audio mix is not good, but seriously the worship leader does not need to hear this ALL THE TIME because he likely knows and is working on it. And...to state the obvious in the comments on the livestream is not helpful.)

Just about every church I know is doing their very best to honor God well through all they do together throughout the week and on the Lord's Day. This includes solid, biblical preaching and worship through music that honors God and has good, biblically-sound lyrics to songs. So, let's give the worship leaders some grace (meaning..."Give him a break people!") and remember that we are not customers, we don't need to speak to a manager, and music on Sunday mornings is not a Spotify station designed simply for our tastes and pleasure.

Also...it's probably the Senior Pastor's fault anyway, not the worship leader.

Keep Encouraging - It's Like Fuel to Our Soul

The good news is that the vast majority of the people I call my church family are truly encouraging - like Barnabas - and truly seek to worship well and live by the theme "It's not about me." May their tribe increase throughout all our churches.

As for our Worship Pastor here at our church...he is a called, licensed, and ordained man of God intent on glorifying God as a pastor/shepherd and focused on leading God's flock to the throne of grace each time we come together. I have often said that of all those I know (and I am biased) he is first a pastor and secondly a worship leader. For that I am very thankful. I pray that his next year (and those after) will not be categorized as "the worst in his ministry" but the best.


The 2021 Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting Is Over...So Now What?

I knew the questions would come once I returned home from Nashville. 

These are legitimate and right questions. 

Members of the church I pastor want to know what happened in Nashville at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) annual meeting. They have seen the news reports, the tweets, the blog posts, and one said "I've read from so many different places about the SBC. I think I am more confused about what is going on now than I was a week ago."

I have also discovered that not only do many members of local Southern Baptist churches not fully understand the polity of our convention and annual meeting (most of us never take time to explain it,) there are also a number of local church leaders who are confused about it and a good number of the 15,000+ who gathered in the room that still are trying to put the pieces together.

Unlike other denominations (and the SBC is not truly considered a denomination due to the autonomous nature of member churches) we do not have a top-down hierarchy. Yet, we do have polity. We do have cooperative agreements. We do have a statement of faith that gives us clarity regarding our doctrinal beliefs and structure. 

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Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting 2021


When the SBC meets annually for our meeting, it truly is a convention. In fact, the two days of our meeting between the opening and closing gavel hits, the SBC exists. Outside those two days, there really is no convention. This is eye-opening for many. Not unlike the Republican National Convention, the Democratic National Convention, the National Pipefitters Convention, the DAV National Convention, or even ComicCon (Comic Book & Sci-fi Convention) for example, the SBC is simply... a convention. There is allotted meeting space. There are groups that gather for meals. There are seminary alumni gatherings. There is an exhibit hall, complete with booths representing many ministries and groups (complete with freebies and bowls of candy.) 

For the remaining 363 days each year, the SBC Executive Committee acts as the SBC ad interim, or between annual meetings. (More here on the EC.)

During the convention meeting, which is simply a huge business meeting of Southern Baptists, decisions are made, resolutions are proposed, reports are given, speeches (and sermons) are offered, and votes are taken.

The SBC does not have delegates. Churches do not send representatives. Churches who cooperate within SBC associations and state conventions send "messengers." 

Here's a brief synopsis of who can send messengers:

The SBC Bylaws state that a church must have indicated it is in “friendly cooperation with the Convention and sympathetic with its purposes and work” and have made financial contributions to Convention work in the fiscal year preceding the annual meeting in June in order to seat messengers. The fiscal year ends on September 30 each year.

Each qualifying church automatically receives two messengers and can qualify for up to ten additional messengers based on the level of financial support the church has given to Convention causes (see SBC Constitution, Article III, for greater detail.)

If a church is recognized by a cooperating state or regional Baptist convention as a cooperating church and makes CP contributions through the state convention, the church’s name is forwarded to the SBC through the state’s Annual Church Profile report as a church in friendly cooperation with the Convention. (SBC.net)

At this year's meeting our worship pastor and I served as messengers from First Baptist Church of Orange Park.

This year's meeting was different than in year's past. The attendance was more than double from recent years. There were significant issues brought to the messengers to be addressed. On the heels of resolutions related to Critical Race Theory & Intersectionality (CRT/I) and the sex abuse scandal revealed in the Houston Chronicle article of February 2019, it is sufficient to say that not every messenger was walking in unity with others as our convention began.

Is the SBC Drifting?

Depending on which news reports you read, which videos you watch, and if you're on Twitter, which Baptists you follow, the messages regarding theological drift are varied.

There is a group that has come together decrying the liberal drift of the SBC. They have formed a network within the SBC called the Conservative Baptist Network (CBN.) It seemingly launched as a grassroots effort a year ago with the purpose of "righting the ship" of the SBC and the perceived liberal drift that is occurring. 

The steering council of the team represents (for the most part) conservative SBC pastors and leaders. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee is an interesting choice for the council. Though he previously served as an SBC pastor in Arkansas, he is apparently attending a non-denominational, egalitarian church now. I do not know most of the others on the council, but those I do know have been faithful Southern Baptists for years. While I disagree with them, they believe the CBN is needed.

I Don't Believe We Need To Fix What Isn't Broken

I do not believe the CBN is needed. In fact, I do not believe we need a Conservative Baptist Network because I believe the SBC is the network of conservative Baptists. That statement will likely get me some eye rolls and perhaps some social media arguments. Nevertheless, I do believe it is the case and I do not desire to debate regarding it.

SBC Presidential Election

Some have asked me if position of SBC President is simply symbolic with no real power. While "power" may not be the term I would use, the role is more than symbolic.

My friend, Pastor Jon Beck of First Baptist Church Avon Park, Florida, wrote this for his church members who were wondering about such as his church's messengers prepared to attend the annual meeting:

The Election for SBC President

Why is this important?

  • President appoints the Committee on Committees
  • C on C nominates the Nominations Committee (voted on by messengers)
  • Nominating Committee Nominates Trustees (voted on my messengers)
  • Trustees lead and oversee the Entities

SBC Entities

The Southern Baptist Convention conducts its work throughout the year through eleven ministry entities, the SBC Executive Committee (which serves as “the fiduciary, the fiscal, and executive entity of the Convention”), and an auxiliary called Woman’s Missionary Union.

  • SBC Executive Committee
  • Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC)
  • GuideStone Financial Resources
  • International Mission Board (IMB)
  • Lifeway Christian Resources
  • North American Mission Board (NAMB)
  • Theological Seminaries
    • Gateway Seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention 
    • Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (MBTS)
    • New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary(NOBTS)
    • Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS)
    • The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS)
    • Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS)
  • Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU)

Pastor Beck's full posting is here.

There were four men nominated this year to serve the one-year term of SBC President. One is a state convention leader. One is a seminary president. Two are local pastors. Opinions on these men were varied, as was evidenced by the pre-annual meeting social media blasts and campaign videos.

I hate that our election of SBC President left me with some of the same "icky feelings" that our national elections elicit. Baptists are not immune to name-calling (though it is often couched in Christianese...meaning some just add the word "Brother" before the diatribe calling out another.) 

Ultimately, each of these men is my brother. Each has be redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ. They each have a story to tell of when they were lost, when the Spirit of God drew them to the Father, and when they each surrendered their lives to Christ as Lord. 

In other words...each of these men will spend eternity in heaven. To God alone be the glory!

Yet, only one would be elected president of the SBC in 2021. 

After a run-off election (since no candidate had over 50 percent of the vote the first go-round) Pastor Ed Litton was elected President of the SBC. 

Despite what some have declared, Litton is not an egalitarian. He is not a liberal. He is not a moderate. 

Ed Litton has served his church well and has been an asset to Southern Baptists for years. He and his wife have supported and served pastors and pastors' wives, especially church planters, well for years. 

Regardless who won the election, I knew some would cry foul. Everyone knew this. And now, some are crying foul. 

Ed Litton needs our prayers. The SBC may very well be at a crossroads and future annual meetings may be just as challenging. Yet, I believe God is not worried about that. Perhaps this our "for such a time as this" moment.

The SBC Remains Faithful to Biblical Truth

The warnings against liberal theological drift should always be addressed. Left alone, without a rudder, any ship will drift. Mainline Protestant denominations in America have for the most part not only drifted, but have gone full speed ahead into liberal theological worldviews. This began many decades ago and if not for the conservative resurgence within the SBC in the 1970s and 1980s, our Convention would have been lost. Yet, holding to the anchor of biblical inerrancy led to a turn toward biblical fidelity and conservative theology. I believe this was necessary and am thankful for those who fought the good fight for the sake of doctrine, for the glory of God and the good of our churches.

While some do believe we are now going that very same way, I disagree. Our statement of faith (Baptist Faith & Message 2000) remains intact. We took no steps to reword it, amend it, or change it this year. There was no need to do so. Our confessional statement is solid and allows for autonomous Baptist churches to cooperate together with like-minded Baptists within a larger story.

Questions regarding CRT/I may not have been answered to some's liking, but the resolution approved by messengers on Tuesday, June 15 "On the Sufficiency of Scripture for Race and Racial Reconciliation" was worded well and sufficient in my opinion. I do not believe that Southern Baptists (as a whole, as churches, or as entities) use CRT/I as their measuring line for understanding racial issues from a biblical perspective. I do believe it is wise for Christians to at least understand the concepts of this belief system to understand where others may be coming from regarding race relations and racial issues. To some, that statement will never be enough. To others, it is likely too much. Nevertheless, I hold that when any teaching is elevated over the inerrant Word of God, the one holding that teaching has failed. God's Word alone has the final say. 

Yet, to discount the reality of what has been deemed systemic racism and to ignore the hurt and suffering those of minority races have experienced would be sinful as well. 

Where Do I Stand?

I am an inerrantist. I believe the Bible is true from beginning to end, without error. I am a complementarian. I affirm the Baptist Faith and Message (2000.) I am a pastor and my primary calling, after my family, is to the membership of First Baptist Church of Orange Park. I am called to shepherd, teach, preach, pray, and protect. 

If at any point I believed the SBC was heading toward an unbiblical, liberally theological, man-centered belief system, I would oppose the SBC as best I could and if that did not lead to change, I would lead our church to disfellowship with the SBC and other member churches. But...I do not believe that is happening now. So I remain and am pleased to be a Southern Baptist (though I think Great Commission Baptist is the better name.)

Some of my friends and pastors of sister churches will disagree with me. They have in the past. That's okay. I disagree with them, too. (Just not on Twitter.) Yet, I pray that our love for the Lord and for one another will sustain us. 

The SBC annual meeting is truly a great family reunion. Some often reference the "crazy relatives" who attend. (If you cannot name the "crazy relative" then you may be who they're talking about.) Regardless, I love these men and women in our SBC family. I am praying for better days ahead. I am no SBC apologist, but I am not ready to abandon this ship.

The 2021 annual meeting is over. The fields remain ready for harvest. There's work to be done.


Southern Baptists Will Have To Decide If We Truly Are "Great Commission Baptists"

Every year when our Southern Baptist Convention gathers, banners and logos are pasted upon the host city's convention center. There are often placards throughout the city, near the hotels and where SBC messengers will be walking. It is no different than any other convention with a theme.

Each year's theme is presented by the current president of the SBC. J.D. Greear has been our president for three years thanks to the pandemic (the terms are for one-year only, and traditionally presidents will run for two concurrent terms.) In 2019, Greear announced the theme for the Birmingham meeting would be "Gospel Above All." In 2020, the announced theme for the since canceled Orlando meeting was "GSPL: Above All. Always." Apparently, 2020 was to be the year we avoided vowels (just kidding J.D.) I actually thought our 2021 theme would just be the 2020 one carried over, but when the Nashville theme was announced a change was clear. The 2021 theme for our meeting next week is "We Are Great Commission Baptists." 

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I'm anticipating (well hoping) a responsive reading at each session that will hearken back to cheer from the film "We Are Marshall!" Maybe Greear can just go to the platform and say "WE ARE..." and the messengers can respond "GREAT COMMISSION BAPTISTS!" But, alas, I doubt that will happen. Not because Baptists are against responsive readings or even gleaned university football cheers. It will not happen because even the theme likely would cause controversy. I'm sure it already has. 

Statements like "I thought we were SOUTHERN Baptists!" would resound. I can anticipate a question brought to the messengers and leaders from a well-meaning messenger who just cannot understand why we would avoid using the word "Southern." Then, of course, a messenger representing a church in Michigan, Oregon, Toronto or some other locale north of the Mason-Dixon line or west of Texas would stand at another microphone with a response akin to "We're not all in the south." And then...someone else would reference our collective history which includes slaveholders seeking to be missionaries, avoidance of civil rights issues, Martin Luther King, Jr., and maybe even the historical value or racial implications of the Confederate flag. 

It is clear that I have attended more than a few of our annual meetings.

Nevertheless, my Southern Baptist Convention has more issues this year than determining the theme for the annual meeting. It is just that as I plan my journey to Nashville, sign up for the pre-SBC Send Conference, gather my tickets to alumni luncheons and other meetings, I keep seeing "We Are Great Commission Baptists" everywhere.

I like the theme.

I really do.

I just wonder if it is true.

Is "Great Commission Baptists" declarative for who we are or is it aspirational for who we desire to be?

I know no Southern Baptist who would deny the value or commands that are included in the Great Commission (mostly looking at the Matthew 28:19-20 reference.) I know no one in my own church that would say it is unimportant. Yet, I also know that even in my own life, I do not always live and serve in such a way that keeps the "Gospel Above All" and as a Christ-commissioned disciple.

What must a Great Commission Baptist be? That's the question. Clearly it should not be presumed that every Southern Baptist knows what this means. It also should not be presumed that when verbal affirmation of the Great Commission is given that practical, lived-out actions automatically follow.

While we joke that Baptists love a good controversy and fight, it is actually evidence of our sin nature and our loss of focus upon the gospel.

I read an article by a former Southern Baptist, Erick Erickson regarding the current SBC issues. While you may or may not like Erickson's writings, statements, or beliefs in other areas, in this statement I fear he is sadly correct. Erickson stated:

A group within the SBC has decided to organize politically in response to some perceived liberalism creeping in. I have a lot of friends in the group and some who are on the outside and share the concerns. But, from my vantage point, it seems they’ve decided every fight is a matter of orthodoxy and anyone who stands in their way can be smeared — it’s just politics after all.

Another group within the SBC seems to have responded almost in kind and are increasingly vocal about racial reconciliation and a host of other social justice issues. In countering those pushing hard against critical theory and perceived liberalism, they seem to have gone off to other extremes.

Both sides share something in common — defining themselves in opposition to the other instead of defining themselves in support of the gospel. The actually have something else in common too — they treat the others as if they are political enemies, not just opponents and neither has shame for doing so, just rationale and justification. (The SBC: I Have Some Thoughts)

I'm Really Concerned This Year!

I have received text messages and have heard from other Southern Baptist pastors on all sides of various controversies in recent weeks. The common theme has been "I'm really concerned this year." I hear this and agree.

I too am concerned. Yet, I'm less concerned that the "wrong" person wins a denominational election. I am more concerned that we may gather, have meetings in the big room and secret meetings in the hallways and smaller rooms. I am concerned that the real issues that must be addressed will not be. I am concerned that the things tabled in the past will never come up again. I am concerned that the Great Commission will be little more than a theme on a banner to be removed the evening following the final gavel and messengers will travel back to their respective homes reporting little more than political posturing, angry speeches, hurt feelings, with the few highlights being the restaurants in the city and the reconnections with old friends (those are not to be missed, by the way.)

But are we really going to be "Great Commission Baptists" who believe the "Gospel is Above All" in how we live, love, and serve our Lord?

I am just one pastor of a suburban church. We are not a mega-church. Our influence is small compared to others. I have a great church full of imperfect children of God who just want to see friends, neighbors, coworkers, and family members saved. We want to see disciples made. We want to be equipped to serve well, engage lostness intentionally, and see God's kingdom expand. 

That's what Great Commission Baptists should want. Right?

The Great Commission is clear. 

Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20 CSB)

Great Commission Baptists who believe the gospel is above all will not allow:

  • Protecting a church's or denomination's brand by ignoring sin.
  • Nationalism over the gospel.
  • Abandonment of biblical fidelity (and inerrancy) in order to line up with the latest push from the moral revolution.
  • Political posturing disguised as theology (within the church, denomination, and the community.)
  • Abuse and victimization of others or protection of abusers. (Yes, we need a database of abusers.)
  • Idolatry of celebrity Christians (even in our own denomination.)
  • Legalism disguised as doctrinal gatekeeping. (And to be clear, I affirm strongly doctrinal fidelity as expressed in the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, so I'm not affirming weakening such. I just believe Pharisaical posturing is so very easy and often ignored.)
  • Racism.
  • Classism.
  • Local church autonomy to be diminished, but also will not use autonomy as a false barrier to dealing with very real issues of sin.
  • And numerous other items that conflict with "teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you"

This is what I believe.

I am not running for anything. I am just one messenger attending my Southern Baptist annual gathering. I look forward to connecting with friends, reconnecting with old ones, and making new ones. While others are working to get their designee elected, their agenda moved forward, and their battles won (all valiant desires,) I will be praying that our agenda will be usurped by the Holy Spirit early in our gathering. 

May we see change take place this year in Nashville. And may it be a change precipitated by repentance. I am praying we collectively experience a brokenness next week due to the realization that for far too long we have allowed our own agendas and posturing to take center stage.

WE ARE...

GREAT COMMISSION BAPTISTS!

(I hope.)


Getting the Church "Back to Normal" Is The Wrong Next Step

Our church like many others, has been slowly moving to what we hope may soon be categorized as the "post-pandemic era." We have gone through a series of steps, not unlike others, which has included social distancing, face masks, taped off seats, hand sanitizing stations, and numerous other things that have been recommended by the CDC and others. While some churches in our community have moved back to pre-pandemic schedules and events in full, others never shut down at all, and still others are yet to meet in person. 

These are trying days for church leaders seeking to know what to do next.

Online church services became the norm for many and while personally I like in-person services best, God has used our streaming services to keep us connected to church members as well as expand our reach to others. The streaming numbers are deceiving, unless you delve into what they mean. So, while I know we are not really reaching thousands through Facebook Live (since they count a 3-second view as someone scrolls by as a view) we have seen God use the online portal for his glory. In fact, we will be baptizing a brother in the coming weeks who first found our church online, watched us online for a few weeks, responded to the gospel through the "virtual invitation," and now is attending our church in person and will be a member of our church following his baptism.

"Getting Back to Normal" Is Not the Way Forward

The phrase "getting back to normal" has been stated by many. I have heard it from church members and others in our community. It is clear that the phrase has been a cry from those frustrated by all the pandemic has brought and it is totally understandable and right in many cases.

However, for our church, "getting back to normal" would be a huge step backward and if fully implemented could actually do great harm to our church. This has nothing to do with doctrinal foundations, biblical fidelity, or ministry callings. This would be a backward step for us as it would result in repopulating our calendar with the very same events and activities that existed prior to March 2020. This would also mean simply focusing on getting groups back to meeting in person in their same rooms, with the same structure, intent on gathering as they have for years. 

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In some cases, this may not be a huge issue, but in our case, it is clear that our practice of groups ministry slid into what was easiest and least disruptive in years past while our philosophy of groups ministry became little more than an aspirational concept.

In other words, we know that groups must multiply in order to be healthy. We know group leaders must have continually updated resources, relevant insights, doctrinal guardrails, and groups coaching to ensure that our philosophy of "leaders are learners" remains in place. But, this has not happened. Thankfully, we do have some great group leaders who love the Lord, study well on their own, and love their groups deeply. But, overall, we have not provided for them as we must.

Another aspect of philosophy not driving practice has been our very overt and clear statements regarding family equipping discipleship and the need for strategic and intentional intergenerational ministry within the church. I have written about this for years and the fact that ministry silos are so normative in our American evangelical world makes it difficult, if not impossible for church leaders to make the shift away from the programmatic structure during "normal" times.

But...we had a pandemic.

One thing the pandemic offered was the opportunity to pause every busy ministry and event-driven programmatic offering the church has been expected to do by the Christian consumers in our sub-culture.

Groups and intergenerational ministries are just two examples. These are very real examples in our church. Other churches may have other things that have been done for years that need to be retired. Some programs never need to return, as the era for their effectiveness no longer exists.

Be Careful...It's Easier To Do the Same Old, Same Old

But now, the calendar is being repopulated and it is frightening.

It is frightening because as days, weeks, and months move by, we find ourselves closer to a full reopening and our default and easiest next steps would be to do exactly what we were doing before the pandemic.

But we must not.

We cannot.

If we do, we not only will be stepping backward, but eliminating one of the greatest opportunities to right the ship in regards to biblically-centered philosophy of discipleship and ministry.

Our leadership team met earlier this week and I discovered after the meeting that we were doing exactly what I am warning we must not (and I was leading the way.) After thinking and praying through this since our meeting, I communicated with our staff that I know God has some great things in store for our church and to simply put back on the calendar all that we did prior (even if church members expect those programs and events to return) without praying through the steps, ensuring biblical fidelity, and seeing how they line up with our clear philosophy of ministry, mission, and vision we will be guilty of wasting the moment. 

Now What?

Now is the time.

It is not the time to "get back to normal."

It is not the time to go backward.

It is time to step into a ministry season that simultaneously remains the same and changes. We must remain centered on the gospel without compromise. That is not negotiable.

Yet, we must also be more intentional regarding intergenerational ministry, equipping the family (the entire church family,) fulfilling our commission to make disciples, and strategically seek ways to reach the people who actually exist near our church's address (and the expansive audience through social media and online connections.)

I am thankful for the men, women, boys, and girls who make up my church family. Once we take these steps forward, I look forward to seeing how God uses each one of these brothers and sisters for his glory as his church.


Christians, Pride Month, and the "Wrong Side of History"

The beginning of June used to signify the onset of summer, the end (or close to the end) of the school year, weddings, vacations, Vacation Bible Schools, summer camps, and other such events. Now, as you likely are aware simply because almost every major corporation has changed its social media logo, sports teams are selling specialized caps and t-shirts, and events, parades, and rainbow-themed gatherings abound, it is "PRIDE MONTH." It is a celebration of the self and it is global. 

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Photo credit: wuestenigel on VisualHunt.com

"Summer of Love is Love"

The trajectory has been short comparatively. Perhaps 2021 marks the moment where Pride Month is now perpetually considered mainstream in the culture. No longer is the emphasis something an advocacy group celebrates on the sidelines of mainstream culture. Now, those who do not celebrate, affirm, and love the month of pride are pushed to the margins of culture. To speak against such events results in an online bashing where being canceled is the norm.

The often used phrase "Don't be caught on the wrong side of history" is bandied about and some actually believe it to be valid.

And the moral revolution continues forward...leaving Christians who seek to live holy lives, who view life from a biblical worldview, who dare to call sin what it is, while truly attempting to love people without affirming ungodliness labeled as outliers, haters, those whom righteous people should ignore.

All because they're on the wrong side of history.

Our current moral revolution includes much more than a celebration of LGBTQ+ lifestyles. Elements such as no-fault easy divorce, abortion on demand, a shifting of weddings from a religious service to a destination event complete with Bridezillas, the redefinition of family, acceptance of polygamous marriages, and the growth of polyamorous relationships (the word "throuple" now exists,) are just some of the players in this hyper-fast revolution that is changing everything. Even the English language apparently no longer has rules as plural pronouns are to be accepted as singular based on the desires and whims of an individual. Not that long ago the word "trans" was mostly not understood by many people. Now it has moved to the forefront of the alphabet soup owned by the LGBTQ+ community.

Condemnation to Celebration

Dr. Theo Hobson is a liberal Anglican theologian. He authored a book titled God Created Humanism: The Christian Basis of Secular Values. While I am not recommending the book and there is no doubt that Dr. Hobson and I would disagree on most topics, his concise definition of what must happen in order to institute a moral revolution is spot on. He states...

  1. That which was condemned in the past must now be celebrated.
  2. That which was celebrated in the past must now be condemned.
  3. Those who once condemned that which is now celebrated must now be condemned as well.

That sums up what is happening in our culture today. Some have asked me "How did we end up like this." I point to Hobson's three-step analysis as to the journey of shift. Ultimately, those who condemn that which now is celebrated (in the case of Pride month, that would be the LGBTQ+ agenda) must now be condemned. Thus...cancel culture.

Christians and Churches Will Not Get a Pass

It has been said by many in recent years, most notably by Dr. Albert Mohler of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary that an answer on where an individual or church stands on the topic of homosexuality and the full gamut of LGBTQ+ relationships will no longer be avoidable, couched in grey, or ignored. Mohler stated in a 2014 article responding to a now former Southern Baptist church in California that affirmed LGBTQ+ lifestyles by declaring a "third way" that this reality is upon us.

The issue is now inescapable for every congregation, every denomination, every seminary, and every Christian organization. The question will be asked and some answer will be given. When the question is asked, any answer that is not completely consistent with the church's historical understanding of sexual morality and the full affirmation of biblical authority will mean a full embrace of same-sex behaviors and same-sex relationships. There is no third way, and there never was. (albertmohler.com)

Dr. Mohler is not the only one speaking on this subject from a biblical worldview. He is one of the few who does so with strong, conservative, biblical convictions that are not married to a nationalistic or anger-based viewpoint. Despite how some respond to him, his words do not spew hate, but clarity and espouse the grace and love God offers.

Sex and Bad Christians

Perhaps one of the most frustrating and debilitating realities among evangelicals (especially Baptists) in America today when it comes to holding firm on the biblical teaching of sexuality is that while the Bible clearly (I know some dispute the clarity, but I still hold that the teachings are clear) speaks in both the Old and New Testaments of God's design for his image-bearers and the value and purpose of God-designed sex and sexual relations, there are far too many evangelicals with platforms who heinously live double-lives. Whether it is the real and often unacknowledged sexual abuse that has taken place in evangelical and Baptist churches for decades by pastors and leaders or the very public sexual and perverted failings of celebrity Christians, pastors, university presidents, and Christian camp employees the public call to live moral, biblically holy lives, especially in regards to sexual ethics fall on deaf ears. Messengers who declare a message they personally ignore removes any power in the message for many. In just a matter of decades pastors and Christian leaders have fallen from listings of most admired and respected to the opposite. In many cases it is rightly deserved

What a fun era to serve in pastoral leadership.

Nevertheless, the call to live holy lives remains. This is not a call to live on a pedestal, looking down on others, declaring their sin worse than ours.  Yet, it is a call to fulfill the Great Commission and Great Commandment. To love God dearly and love others as he does, to not be silent when it comes to the gospel, to not forget that apart from the grace of God and salvation through Jesus Christ, regardless of one's sexual bent, lostness is everyone's lot.

Over the past few years, I have received more emails and phone calls than I can count from others who with family members who have come out of the closet, who celebrate Pride Month as their favorite time of the year, who in some cases have abandoned the faith of their childhood. Why do I get these calls? It's pretty obvious. Our family is in the story as well.

Some ask how they can love their family member without affirming their lifestyle. Some seek information on what to do to change their child or loved one. Many are broken and grieving and wondering what they have done wrong.

Each story is unique. Each is different because people are different and circumstances are different. Yet, in all the individuality in our world, here is what I know. God loves our loved ones more than we do. The answer is not a change in sexual orientation or beliefs about sexual identity. To change one's sexual urges (if they even can) but to remain separated from God results in an eternity separated from God. Thus, the answer is only Jesus Christ. Behavior modification never leads to heart transformation. Lifestyle changes do not lead to salvation. Christ alone is the key. He changes everything.

So pray and believe.

Those of us living on the wrong side of history know that "love is love" is little more than a declaration of self. It is a prideful statement and up until a few years ago the concept of "pride" was considered to be sinful (as it is, just read Proverbs 16.)

Now pride is something to celebrate.

Interesting.

It seems that Hobson was right.

No Avoidance of a Stance

Churches and denominations have been wrestling with their stances on sexual morality for decades. It has created division among many. Sadly, it seems that the United Methodist Church is next to face schism as the only think united about the United Methodist Church as a whole is the name and the trademark. It is a sad reality, but it is coming and the divide will land on the church's understanding and definition of biblical morality as it relates to LGBTQ+ lifestyles.

As individual Christians, a decision will have to be made regarding this as well. Oh, most have already made their decision, but there will soon come a day when it will have to be shared publicly. And even if you're not scared of homosexuality (i.e. not homophobic) you will likely be categorized as such if you do not publicly affirm the new chapter in the moral revolution. Unless of course, you try to toe the line to remain "relevant."

This will likely get me canceled by many, but toeing the line in order to be relevant by ignoring what the Bible declares to be true, just so you can keep your job, have dinner with your in-laws, be considered cutting edge, or not have your social media accounts censored or deleted will result in you perhaps being on the "right side of history" but on the wrong side of God's truth.

As challenging as it is here in the United States for evangelicals regarding the moral revolution, it is more so in other nations where speaking biblically as it relates to sexuality is considered hate speech.

So, if you just keep getting angry at all the rainbow logos that corporations are pushing, just remember that for the most part that is little more than pandering for the sake of financial gain. Business...as they say...is business. I don't like it, but those postings are often little more than attempts to appear progressive while living behind meaningless hashtags. 

In some cases it is more (as with Blue's Clues and the Pride Parade sing-along) but that is why we must we wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 

What Is a Christian To Do?

It is so simple that it seems like it is not enough. Love God with your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love him with every ounce of such. Love him so much in these ways that your own personal behaviors and actions change because of him and how you live your life reflects that great love. In other words, be holy.

Love others as yourself. Love straight people, gay people. lesbian people, bisexual people, non-binary people, transgender people, whatever falls under the + people...all people. But remember, love does not mean affirm. That may be our biggest challenge. Love with an agape love - an undeserved, grace-filled, self-sacrificing, selfless, unconditional, non-behavior motivated love. 

Love them enough to show them Jesus Christ (the true Jesus Christ, not the Christ coopted by those who make him a political player who looks more like a cowboy than a shepherd.)

And believe God is sovereign, not shaken and will do what only he can do - rescue the perishing. Just as he did with you.

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 ESV)


High School Graduate Recognition in a Family Equipping Church

It is spring in an almost post-pandemic year and high school graduation in our county is tomorrow. We have received graduation notifications in the mail, invitations to family-hosted celebrations, and some neighbors have the now common-place signs in their yards stating that a graduate is in the house. Social media feeds are full of memory photos including many reenactments of those "first day of school" pics from kindergarten with the now adult-looking child holding a sign that says "last day of school." In our county, public graduation ceremonies are back on, without masks even. It is almost like it used to be prior to COVID-19.

Churches are having their annual high school graduate recognition time. For some churches this involves having the students march down to the stage in their respective caps and gowns. A brief introduction will be made to the congregation stating who the student is, from which local school he/she is a graduate, and sometimes future plans are shared as well. It is a nice stroll down memory lane for those in the church who actually know the students. 

What To Do For Graduates At Church?

Most often the church will acknowledge the achievement of graduating high school. Then a gift is given to the students. Many times the gift is a book that, to be honest, we know will never be read.  Many students will just pack the gift in the box with the rest of their "high school memories." There was a season when our church would give a compilation cassette tape or CD (FYI - cassette tapes were small plastic reels of magnetic tape containing recordings of music. CDs were round, reflective discs that could hold music, videos, and data. These were played in the dashboard audio systems of Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs or on the Gateway personal computer in the home - if said computer had a CD-ROM drive. For information on Oldsmobile, Pontiac, or Gateway, search the items on Google.) of Christian music to graduates. 

It is a special day for the students. It is likely more monumental and special for the parents of the students.

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Pastors and church leaders often struggle with what to do for high school graduates, especially with the understanding that the Lord's Day worship gathering is to be just that, a focus on the Lord. Holidays and special events (Mother's Day, Father's Day, Memorial Day Weekend, Independence Day, Arbor Day, etc.) often create great confusion, and anger groups of church members when what is expected on a particular Sunday morning is seemingly ignored or not prioritized. 

So, what do you do with high school graduates on the Lord's Day?

If you take the entire service honoring graduates is that not a problem for a church commanded to honor God alone?

If the focus is on the accomplishments of the seventeen and eighteen-year-olds in your fellowship, is that wrong?

If you totally ignore the fact that some in your fellowship have just graduated from high school is that ignoring the context of your culture?

What about those students who really never come to church, but their parents or grandparents do? So, on high school graduate recognition Sunday there is a teenager standing before the congregation who is not only not a part of the fellowship, but is unknown to most but those who are related to him? Does that graduate get the "free gift" too?

What about students who joined the church and attended worship, but never attended any student ministry activities, events, or trips? It is often the student pastor leading the recognition. It is awkward, but does that student count? Or...should that student count more because she was part of the church and not just part of the student ministry?

Over The Years, I Have Learned...

After thirty-plus years in full-time pastoral ministry here is what I have discovered and recommend regarding high school graduation and church:

  • If you recognize graduates on Sunday morning, some will love this. Others will be angry.
  • If you do not recognize graduates on Sunday morning, some will love this. Others will be angry.
  • I don't believe it is wrong to recognize high school graduates. You may disagree, but I'm writing this blog and that is my opinion.
  • Graduates are not excited about the gift the church gives them (for the most part.)
  • Just because most graduates may not read the gift book you give them does not mean you should stop giving books. Books last. Books are good. Good books are great. If you give them a book, don't waste money on a "Promises for the Graduate" book, but give them one that speaks of identity in Christ, life in Christ, proper doctrine, and truth. Self-help books (even Christianized ones) are not worth it. They may not read it...but they may and it is best to offer a timeless work than a pop-Christian-psychology-you-have-what-it-takes manual. Oh, and even if they have a Bible, a new Bible still a good gift. I actually still have the Bible my church gave me in 1986 when I stood in front of our congregation as a graduating senior. Thanks Davis Boulevard Baptist Church (now CrossMark Church.)
  • No graduate should be given the microphone and asked "What do you plan to do for the rest of your life now that you are an adult?" Don't do this to a student even if they have thirty honor ribbons and everyone knows they've been accepted to the most prestigious university around. Why? Because there are likely students standing next to them who are just really glad they have graduated high school and are unsure of their next steps. It is a recognition for all graduates, not just the valedictorian-level students. The school's awards ceremony is the place for acknowledging those academic accomplishments.
  • You will have students show up for graduate recognition that you cannot ever remember seeing before. So, if you have a gift for others...have one for them. This "who gets recognized" issue is no hill to die on.
  • Don't make participation in youth ministry activities and events the litmus test for being recognized on Sunday.
  • Regarding the sermon - preach the gospel. This should be understood, but Sunday's sermon should not sound like the secular "Believe in yourself" or "Follow your heart" drivel offered at many commencements. In fact, if you are preaching through a series, stay in the series. It is a clear reminder that while you are acknowledging the accomplishments of your now young adults, the church gathered is focusing on God's teaching from God's Word for the day (just as you do every Lord's Day.)
  • If you are recognizing graduates do so as a church, not as a student ministry. 
  • Consider a post-service or pre-service fellowship with graduates and their families. Or, do as we did for years, have a drop-in graduate recognition party for all your graduates. This will provide space and fellowship for all your graduates and that way when families are calling the church to reserve the fellowship hall for their graduate's party, you can say "We do this for all our graduates on ______ day. You're welcome to participate." It will keep church members from trying to hit every party in town and will provide a celebration for those students whose parents may not schedule such an event. And...for families who want their own...they will do it anyway.

The Big Shift for Graduates & Parents - The Family Blessing

Moving to a family equipping ministry as a church has been challenging, yet fulfilling. I have written about this philosophy of ministry prior. You can read about it here.

Since the church is helping parents, grandparents, and guardians of children and teenagers to be the point of the spear when it comes to discipleship, we believe it is imperative that our recognition of graduates moves beyond the traditional presentation of students and a gift from the church during a worship service.

The family blessing is a milestone that cannot be replaced by a church event. The words of a loving parent (or guardian) spoken publicly to a young man or woman will be remembered much longer than any words spoken by whomever was chosen to give a speech at the high school graduation. The blessing is biblical. It is intentional. It is public. It is spoken. It is right and holy.

And...for many parents, it is frightening.

It is most frightening for those who fear standing in front of or speaking in front of a crowd. We understand that. In those cases, we stand with the parents, we provide mentors, we even will read the blessing of the parents upon their child for them if needed.

We will see this play out on Sunday here at our church.

We have just a few graduating seniors this year, but they will be recognized. During the early part of our worship service, these students will be brought to the front of the congregation (wearing their respective graduation regalia.) They will be introduced to the congregation. Words of encouragement and challenge will be offered by the pastor or student pastor. Then, their parents (or guardians/mentors) will come stand with them. The microphone will be given to the parent and he/she will speak a blessing upon their now young adult child before the fellowship of believers.

This is a milestone.

Some may call it a rite of passage, but it is more than that. It is the loving parent's words of blessing upon a child who is stepping into a new chapter of life.

It will not be easy for all. Some parents may struggle with finding the words. In some cases, the wounds between parent and child make this even more difficult. Yet, even then, we believe there is power in the biblical blessing within the fellowship of the redeemed. Since we are intent on equipping parents, we help them with this. We make this step doable. We are equipping parents to bless their child even if they have never experienced this in their own lives.

And with this...an added on recognition to a worship service becomes a time of redemption, calling, blessing, challenge, and will shift from being solely about the graduate and more about God and all that he desires for the future of this person. 

To God be the glory, may we do this well.

And...congratulations graduates!


Our Church Turns One-Hundred Years Old

First Baptist Church of Orange Park (where I have the honor of serving as pastor) was founded on May 1, 1921. The church was initially started after Mrs. Carrie Clarke began leading a children's Bible study on her front porch (that house is located across the street from our church facility in the Town of Orange Park's "Clarke House Park.") We have had a few buildings in our history and actually were located in the older part of town for decades until land was purchased and the church was relocated "on the other side of the tracks." This was a strategic and significant move.

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The first paid pastor of our church was a student at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida. Today it takes about an hour and a half to get from DeLand to Orange Park. Back then there were no interstates or highway systems as we have now, not to mention the many bridges over the rivers. The pastor would drive up on weekends to preach at First Baptist two Sundays each month and would drive to First Baptist Church of Jacksonville Beach for the other two Sundays. 

We have had a rich history here at First Baptist Church. Numerous men have served as pastor. I was informed about a year ago that I was the longest tenured pastor First Baptist has ever had. That just didn't seem right. Surely I hadn't been in the lead pastor role that long. I did some research and discovered it is true. I have served as senior pastor since August 2005. Prior to that, I served from 1994-2005 as Student Pastor and Single Adult Pastor. 

I know we have some great men who have served as pastor here at First Baptist. I had the honor of knowing Pastor Carroll Kendrick. He served here about forty years ago. He may have been one of the smartest men I have ever met. He was always very kind, gracious, and encouraging to me.

When the church called me to serve on staff, Dr. Allen Harrod was serving as pastor. He served for over fourteen years (making him the second-longest tenured pastor.) For me, coming right out of seminary, moving to this great unknown area of ministry in a state I had never even visited was a bit daunting. Yet, Dr. Harrod and his wife Joyce were so welcoming to my wife Tracy and me. We knew this was where God had called us. As the years go by, I am more and more thankful for the faithfulness of Dr. Harrod. Under his leadership our church healed from some very challenging times. We also made the very needed steps to affirm the inerrancy of God's Word in our teaching and preaching. The greatest systematic growth of FBCOP occurred under Dr. Harrod's leadership as he led us to build our current worship center, music suite, educational wing, gymnasium, and office complex. Integrity is always needed in the position of pastor and Dr. Harrod proved to be a consistent man of integrity, always seeking to lead the church as he felt God was leading him, in accordance to God's Word.

As I read through more of our church's history, there are some exciting and amazing moments that show how God was blessing and using FBCOP for his glory. Men and women surrendered to ministry and were sent out from our church to the field. Some served in pastoral roles. Others as missionaries. A number of churches were launched and new church plants supported over the years. There are many victories in our story where God alone gets the glory and credit.

Sadly, there are also stories where some in leadership positions abandoned God's lead and actually caused great harm to the cause of Christ and to his children. While these instances occurred many decades in the past and long before I ever visited Florida or was even out of high school, the facts are these very dark chapters exist. We know many were hurt and for that we are so very sorry. In fact, on occasion I encounter some who are actually facing PTSD in their own lives due to trauma from the past that came from our church. I have sought to minister to these now adults and express my very real and great concern and love for them. In many cases, it is clear that God has healed them (though the scars remain) and in others, the healing is still needed. While those moments of sinful disgust and mistreatment (BTW - the violators have been dealt with through legal processes) are certainly part of our story (and cannot be ignored) they thankfully do not define the work of God in Orange Park through First Baptist Church at large. The enemy would love for FBC to have folded in those days, but for the grace of God and those seeking to follow his lead, we remain.

This is not a moment to congratulate ourselves for surviving to our one-hundredth anniversary, but a time to thank God for his goodness, his grace, his mercy, and for having his hand upon us all these years. 

I am very thankful to be serving the people of First Baptist as God's servant. I know I will not be the last pastor this great church has, but for this moment he has seen fit to allow me this role. So, as we look back over our one-hundred year history, I cannot help but be thankful while simultaneously asking God "What's next?"

The days ahead are exciting. I pray that we continue to look up and look ahead to glorify God well as First Baptist Church of Orange Park and prepare the way for the next generation and the ones to come after that.


Cancer, Christians, and What the Church Can Do

In our local church we have had what seems to be our fair share (if not an overabundance) of members who have been diagnosed with cancer over the years. The "prayer list" seems to always have names of men, women, and even boys and girls at times, who have been diagnosed with the dreaded "C" word.

Even though I have not personally been diagnosed with the disease, I have had family members placed under that cloud. I imagine everyone reading this knows someone who has had, or currently is, fighting cancer. 

As I write this, there are four women in our church who are front and center in my mind as they are on their own journeys of treatment for their cancer. Their loved ones have sought prayer. Their children are worried. They are super strong women, but even their strength is sometimes tested to the breaking point as they work through their chemotherapy and other treatments. 

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Photo by Olga Kononenko on Unsplash

The men in our church have faced their share of cancers as well. Each story is unique and yet as they go through their own personal journeys, a fraternity of sorts develops of those who have been down the road before. 

Thankfully, we are in an age where many cancers are treatable. Many have great success with recovery. One of our dear sisters shared with me last week that for the first time in many years, she has been declared "cancer free" as the doctor said her cancer is in a state of dormancy. This is nothing less than miraculous as even the doctors did not expect this in her journey. She was smiling from ear to ear giving God praise for the day, and every day to come. Certainly the disease and treatments over the years have taken their toll on her body, but her spirit is strong and I was reminded of God's goodness and grace at that moment. 

Not everyone gets such a report, but God remains faithful. 

While that may not sound encouraging, it truly is. 

The Fear That Follows the Shock

The initial shock of being diagnosed with cancer must seem overwhelming. I imagine that following the shock, there is often a wave of fear tinged with anger that hits. At least that is what I have been told. In a church culture that often reminds believers that they should not fear but have faith, even the strongest of Christians wonders how that is possible when the diagnosis is given.

Leslie Schmucker, a cancer survivor and believer, wrote a guest column about her journey with cancer for Desiring God. In her article (full article here), she states...

Just because we feel some measure of fear does not mean we have no faith; it just means that our faith isn’t perfect yet. Our temporal flesh is broken and weak, and God knows that. That’s why he “gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). As we look to God in faith, his Spirit gives us strength to act from an eternal perspective and to resist cowering in our temporal frailty.

These are good words for those fearing the road ahead and then fearing that that fear is nothing more than lack of faith and therefore, sin. Fear and faith are not necessarily polar opposites. Fear leads to the opportunities to faithfully receive strength that cannot be mustered within oneself.

Don't Waste This Moment

Desiring God is the ministry of John Piper. Piper's transparency through his own battle with cancer has helped him minister well to other believers going through their own cancer journey. Of his most poignant writings on the subject is titled "Ten Ways Not To Waste Your Cancer." If this were written by someone like me who has never faced cancer first-hand, it would sound idealistic and even offensive, but coming from one who was diagnosed and faced the very daunting reality of cancer, it gives clarity. It is truthful and hopeful.

I'll just list the ten points here, but encourage you to click here for the full article by Piper with insight from David Powlison (who also faced his own cancer.) 

  1. You will waste your cancer if you do not believe God designed it for you.
  2. You will waste your cancer if you believe it is a curse and not a gift.
  3. You will waste your cancer if you seek comfort from your odds rather than from God.
  4. You will waste your cancer if you refuse to think about death.
  5. You will waste your cancer if you think that "beating" cancer means staying alive rather than cherishing Christ.
  6. You will waste your cancer if you spend too much time reading about cancer and not enough time reading about God.
  7. You will waste your cancer if you let it drive you into solitude instead of deepen your relationships with manifest affection.
  8. You will waste your cancer if you grieve as those who have no hope.
  9. You will waste your cancer if you treat sin as casually as before.
  10. You will waste your cancer if you fail to use it as a means to the truth and glory of Christ.

Piper's pamphlet, as well as audio recordings, of Don't Waste Your Cancer are available on Amazon here.

If you find Piper's insight encouraging, or just challenging, take the time to listen to him here as he speaks of the truths he faced when the diagnosis was given:

What's a Church To Do?

When the church is viewed as little more than a club for the community to join so that good deeds may be done in the neighborhood, the concept of "church family" will never be experienced. If that is the case, then when crises or challenges such as cancer hit, the one battling the disease will not view their church as a place of respite, hope, and strength.

Since a church family is comprised of the redeemed, we are much more than a team. We are more than a club. We are more than a community group. We are family. In fact, as the redeemed, we are closer than blood relatives. We are united in the Spirit as one. We will hurt when one family member hurts. We will grieve when even one grieves. We will celebrate as one when victory is experienced.

Sadly, many never truly see their church family this way and some never will have such an experience of oneness. Perhaps this is due to the heightened individuality partnered with the desire not to go too deep with others that many of us have? Maybe it is just our sin nature at work? Whatever it is, much is lost to the individual Christian when there is no faith family to come alongside in times of trouble.

There is the tendency in many churches to share all the needs, issues, and illnesses with others as part of the "fill out the prayer list" time in groups, but to do little with the list once it is created. FYI - just because it is called a "prayer list" does not mean people are actually praying. That is not a shot. It's a confession.

We have our commission. There is no denying that we must make disciples as we go. We know we are to be on mission here, there, and throughout the world. We must. We also understand the very real calling to evangelize those who are far from God. These are not debatable. These are commands. When it comes to the greatest commandment, there is no argument that loving God is essential and that loving people is commanded. Yet, we may at times be guilty of loving those we have yet to meet more than those in our own church family.

To face outward only as a church may be called evangelistic and mission-minded by some, but leaves care for those within the fellowship undone.

To face inward only as a church may be called discipleship by some, but leaves the command to go ignored.

Therefore, when a brother or sister in our family is diagnosed with this horrendous "C" word, the church must respond. Maybe it will be the creation of a "Meal-train" online or a "GoFundMe" account to help cover financial hardships. Serving our loved ones in very practical ways are helpful - whether it be mowing their lawn, taking care of their kids, sending ready-to-eat meals to the home, or any other very such thing. And...if you say "Call me if you need anything" just realize they likely will not call. So, seek to find the need and fill it without waiting for the call. There are very real and tangible things that can and should be done. They are good and right to do.

However, the coming together as loving family members to pray must be paramount. Prayer is not our last resort. It must be our first response. Our intercession for the health of our loved ones is key.

We Must Pray

Pray for healing? Certainly.

What if healing does not come? Don't stop praying.

Our prayers will lead us to a healthy and strong understanding of the sovereignty of God. The God who loves deeply, is never wrong, heals fully, and provides completely desires the prayer of his children on behalf of his other children.

The humbling aspect of prayer is not only what our brothers and sisters facing cancer need, but what we all need. Every Christian in the family of God–every member in the local body–should know what the carpet in their room smells like due to being on their faces in prayer before the Lord.

Cancer has hit in the past.

Cancer has just been revealed in someone's present.

Cancer will be diagnosed in the present.

Treatments will be coordinated and handed out and those seeing to the treatments and applications of such should be lauded, appreciated, and prayed over. 

Those who are walking the cancer journey must be loved deeply by their church family. They must know this.

They need to be more than a name on a "prayer list." Love them well. Serve them honorably. Walk with them along the journey. And, get to know the smell of your carpet as you intercede for them. I will be.


"Gospel-Driven Ministry" by Jared C. Wilson - Book Review

There are a few authors who are on my "buy the book as soon as it is available" list. Jared C. Wilson is one such author. His books focusing on the gospel and specifically on church and ministry leadership are golden. Most recently, he has released a book titled Gospel-Driven Ministry: An Introduction to the Calling and Work of a Pastor. At first, I thought this may be a restructured or rereleased version of his book The Gospel-Driven Church. It is not. This book is focused more on the qualifications of the pastorate and the focus on gospel-centrality in ministry. (BTW - The Gospel-Driven Church is a must read as well.)

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I mentioned recently to some peers that Wilson's latest book is one I wish I had been able to read decades prior. The insight into the joys and challenges of pastoral ministry is so valuable. However, to be honest, even if this book was available a few decades prior, and even if I had been given it by a trusted pastor, and even if I had read it...I likely would not have been able to digest the depths of truth offered in needed and beneficial ways. The arrogance of my youth would have left me with a book full of highlighted phrases and healthy insight, but most likely not as impactful in my life and ministry as needed.

Nevertheless, I now have a stack of these books in my office. I have the honor of working with many church planters and new pastors in my city. Often over coffee or when meeting with one of these young men I give them a copy of Jared's book along with instructions to read, highlight, and think deeply on the insight offered. I am believing these men are more mature in their walk and less arrogant than I was at their age. I also have come to grips with the reality that I have shifted into the role of "older pastor" whom others believe may have some wisdom to offer. I may not have wisdom...but I do have a listening ear...and a free book by Jared C. Wilson.

What I love about Jared's writing is his clarity and boldness in declaring truth while also inviting the reader into his own stories of victory, pain, and pastoral calling. Jared writes about authentic situations and not just about ideal circumstances. He has a way of explaining the very true, challenging, fulfilling, and at times painful realities of serving as a pastor of a church while also seeking to be a godly husband, father, and friend. He reminds the pastor reading that church life is messy at times, but so very worth it as God is glorified when the gospel is central. I find myself reading through the book and pausing to say "Yep, that's true." It may not be new news, but it is comforting to know that the issues I face are not special, but are similar to what all pastors face (though certainly the context and circumstances may be unique.)

This book is a good read for all Christians, but a must-read for pastors and ministry leaders. The practical insight offered through easily understood story-telling, with real-life illustrations and stories remind the pastor/shepherd that ministry faithfulness is less on doing everything, but trusting that Christ has already done everything.

Being driven by and centered on the gospel is freeing and Wilson's writing is a breath of fresh air in an age of church-centered stress.

Here are just a sampling of quotes that I highlighted as I read Gospel-Driven Ministry. They're "tweetable" but ultimately are worth more than likes on a social media post. The wise will take these to heart:

  • "A call to pastoral ministry is the inclination to conform one's desires and direction to the aspiration of shepherding a church. it must not simply be a desire to preach." (p. 17)
  • "The pastorate is not a right or an entitlement. The pastorate is a sacred stewardship reserved only for the qualified, called, and commissioned men." (p. 24)
  • "If we do not preach Christ from the text, we are not preaching a Christian sermon." (p. 37)
  • "Ask yourself this: Could this sermon be preached in a synagogue? A Mormon temple? A Jehovah's Witness kingdom hall? Each of these religions affirms the moral uplift of the Scriptures. Each of them uses the Bible to make inspirational, spiritual points about doing god to others and honoring God. But the one thing that we have that they do not is the gospel. It is the gospel that chiefly distinguishes Christian preaching from unchristian preaching." (p. 65)
  • "Do not preach an illustration in search of a text." (p. 95)
  • "The heart of ministry is a heart that doesn't see people as the interruption to your ministry, but sees the interruptions as the ministry." (p. 121)
  • "Worse than an unfeeling, uncaring pastor is a sullen, whiny, sad-sack pastor." (p. 145)
  • "Be transparent. Be honest. Don't just share the what; explain the why." (p. 160)
  • "It may sound noble and godly to keep convenience store hours, but it's a fast track to physical exhaustion and gradual resentment of the flock." (p. 201)
  • "I used to think pastoral ministry was about helping people live. Then, I learned it was actually about helping people die." (p. 217)
  • "You are not ready to shepherd until you have been spiritual discombobulated by the gospel and essentially reconstituted by the gospel." (p. 226)
  • "Christian ministry is the overflow of the mystery of God in Christ coming to bear on your soul and, through yours, on the souls of others." (p. 227)

Certainly, it is clear by now. I highly recommend this book. Buy it. Read it. Highlight it. Thank God for the insight. Then, give a copy to another pastor or ministry leader. They will thank you for it.

And...in case you, like me, are now one of the "seasoned pastors" in your community. Read the book. Put it on your shelf. Then, in about a year, take it off the shelf and reread it. You will thank Jared for this.


Teenagers Need More Than the Coolest Youth Group In Town

A few weeks ago I was asked to lead one of our local junior high school's Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) huddle. 

What I love about these young people is that once they determined that being an athlete on a school-sponsored team was not required for attending the huddle, they began inviting fellow students and have played around with an alternate name for the club. While still officially a Fellowship of Christian Athletes huddle (and approved by FCA as an official group) these students will say that the "A" can mean athlete, academician, artist, or just anybody. To be honest, I like the name "Fellowship of Christian Anybodies."

I asked them to list some of the issues their fellow students were facing. We focused on the "other students at school" in that it is often easier for the students to share their own struggles when it is seemingly focused on what others may be facing. Believe me, everyone in the room knew exactly what we were talking about.

Every generation of teenagers has had their issues, their struggles, and their challenges. Just being a twelve to fourteen-year-old in a public school brings overwhelming challenges. Yet, this group shared things that were on such lists years prior.

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As the students began to share, the list grew longer and sadder. Here are just a few of the items I wrote upon the whiteboard as they shared.

  • Pressure to vape
  • Pressure to drink and do drugs
  • Pressure to have a "significant other"
  • Family issues
  • Struggles with being adopted
  • Parents divorcing
  • Bullying
  • Grades
  • Pressure from parents (to play sports, be in band, be on a travel team, keep good grades, get into the college of choice, get a boyfriend/girlfriend, etc.)
  • Gender confusion and identity (LGBTQ+)
  • Sexual pressure
  • Etc.

Many of these items have been issues for decades, but some are moving up the list to be more prominent now. Others, like vaping, were not issues in years past because they did not exist. The stress of performance partnered with parental pressure and peer bullying is huge, and not only in-person, but also, if not more so, online and through social media platforms and oft-used apps by students.

I then asked the students what the answer was to all these issues and in typical fashion, from students who state they are Christians, "Jesus" was the answer given.

He is. He always has been.

Then I asked, "But do Christian students–those who have surrendered to Christ as Savior and have been transformed by the Holy Spirit–deal with these issues, too?"

Their eyes opened wider and it was an "a-ha" moment for many of them. They knew the answer was Jesus because in Sunday School, at youth group, at camp, and in most every evangelical youth gathering in our churches today they are taught he is. It is not that the answer is more than Jesus. It is not, but the realization that even being a Christian does not make them immune to such pressures seemed like a revelation to them. 

The bell rang. We prayed. They then went to begin their school day.

More Than Lock-Ins and Pizza Parties

As I was driving to the office following this meeting, I began to think about the youth ministry God blessed me to lead for many years here at our church. We filled the room weekly for our Wednesday worship. We would load the buses for trips to the beach, the theme parks, youth camps, and special concerts and events. We held DiscipleNow Weekends in homes where over one-hundred students paid to go "deep" in Bible study with guest leaders over a weekend. We held lock-ins (the absolute worst event ever devised for youth groups–designed to eradicate all sane adult volunteers in student ministry, IMHO) and concerts, game nights, competitions, movie nights, work days, matching T-shirts mission trips, and every other thing created by youth pastors in what I see now as the "golden age of big group youth ministry."

I planned these events. I enjoyed them. We saw thousands of teenagers over the years attend and many make life-changing, eternal decisions for Christ. 

These were good days.

But...there was always something missing. I could not put my finger on it at the time, but I knew we were just a degree or two off in our mission and our focus.

Perhaps it was the trickle-down effect of the church growth movement?

Perhaps it was the pressure to create the best youth experience in the city?

Perhaps it was always feeling the need to out-do the church down the street, or even worse, the youth event we held the previous month?

Hindsight is 20/20

I know young adults (and not as young as they think adults) now whom I was blessed to serve as youth pastor, who are walking with the Lord. They are serving him and his church. They are leading their own children well. Some are even serving in full-time ministry. There are many whom are considered co-laborers for the sake of the gospel.

Yet, there are many others who walked out of the church building after receiving the free book (they never read) and the "ConGRADulations" CD of Christian music when we recognized them as high school graduates. They seemingly left the version of faith they claimed to be true, impactful, life-changing, and important, back in the youth room, or in that dusty box of high school memories in their parents' attic.

I heard the very real issues and concerns shared by the group of teenagers I had the honor of meeting with last week. I think about the immensity of what they face. In many cases, their parents or guardians are feeling similar pressures. I know this is true because of the emails, texts, and direct messages I receive almost weekly from parents or guardians hoping I can give them practical, step-by-step answers for some of the most grueling issues their teenagers are facing. 

The answer is still Jesus. He always will be, but as these parents are recognizing, the very real and important need for growing as a disciple is not something that can be outsourced to a youth minister or a Sunday school teacher.

When I served as a youth pastor, I was satisfied living in my silo of youth ministry. I talked with and resourced parents as best I could, but ultimately, I was engaged with reaching teenagers. I would say that my intent was to reach them for Christ (and it was) but sometimes, it seems I was focused on reaching them for my youth ministry. Ultimately, we had hundreds of teenagers who joined a youth group, but never joined the church or God's family. Lost teenagers wearing Christian t-shirts was common.

This is changing as our church has moved to a model of student ministry (as well as preschool and children's) called Family Equipping (read more here.) The focus is less on the young person and more on equipping parents and guardians to be lead disciple-makers in their homes. Those who understand the value are praising this shift.

Others who simply long for their teenagers to be part of a large youth group so they can make great memories and do all the things their parents did a couple of decades earlier do not like this. Some have left our church. They have found other churches who provide the very same type of ministry that was so prevalent in the golden age. These are not bad churches. They are wonderful and God is using those ministries for his glory. It is just that they are functioning under a different model. I pray for them and their impact for the kingdom.

Since hindsight is 20/20, I now know that when our church functioned under such a model, we did a disservice to families and students. We settled for good, when God was calling us to better.

The bottom line is that teenagers who are struggling with their sexuality, their gender identity, the pressures to perform, the temptations to vape and other things, the stresses of family breakdowns, and the host of other things that end up on a whiteboard at a junior high school do not simply need the world's greatest pizza party, a sub-par event with dumbed-down inspirational "talks," matching t-shirts, or just someone to sit by in the church service.

They certainly need Jesus, but they also need a roadmap for next steps in their journey of life. Not only that, they need a guide to help them take those steps. Ideally, those guides are their parents. In some cases, they must be another (such as Paul became for Timothy.) 

It is essential that we equip believers well, for this generation and the ones to come.

May we never be guilty of outsourcing discipleship that is commissioned to us.

Oh, and by the way, I am not opposed to pizza parties, youth camps, mission trips, and DiscipleNow Weekends. I think these are all valid, good, and helpful. As for lock-ins though...they are of the devil, so no love for them.


What In The World Is Going On In The SBC?

Our denomination is unique from other groups that fall under that designation. In fact, Southern Baptists are not actually a denomination by the full definition of the term. This is due to the autonomy of Baptist churches and the organization our cooperative network of churches that includes an annual convention, state conventions, and associations. This is much different from mainline denominations with boards, presbyteries, bishops, and hierarchical organizations. Click here for a bit more detail on the organizational structure of the SBC.

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While Southern Baptists have long been known as people of the Word, mostly conservative in theology, and focused on missions and evangelism and creators of the wonderful concept known as the Cooperative Program, it remains true that there are chapters in our collective history that are not ones we like to revisit. This is not unlike our own local church, and every church older than a decade within our convention. In fact, even the founding of the SBC was not a high point of our work, being that it was ultimately due to the desire to send missionaries who were slave-holders to the field, excusing the sin of slavery. Yet, God has redeemed that and Southern Baptists have since repented for such actions (though continual and ongoing work on loving our brothers and sisters well is needed.) I won't rehash the history here, but it is worth reading. I recommend the books Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention by Dr. Jarvis Williams and Dr. Kevin Jones and The SBC and the 21st Century by Dr. Jason Allen, President of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

It was back in the late 1970s and early 1980s that a concerted effort to turn the tide of liberal theology was put in place within our denomination. This has been called "The Conservative Resurgence" by those who prevailed. I am thankful for this movement to affirm the inerrancy of Scripture and the effective shift of repositioning our seminaries toward biblical fidelity.

Over the years, some in our SBC family have become frustrated at "the way things are going." This is true for all organizations, so we are not immune. There are blogs and sites set up that hash out all these issues. Some have legitimate concerns. Others, it seems, are sadly positioned to continually stir the pot.

Recently I received an email from one of our church members with honest, concerned questions about our SBC. Based on reports of creeping liberalism, racial division, doctrinal issues, and more, he was asking some specifics and wanting to know what was happening and if we are about to disband or become defunct.

I answered his questions as honestly, clearly, and specifically as I could. I certainly am concerned about the future of our convention, but I do not believe we are headed to a place of heresy under current leadership as claimed by some. However, I do believe we are at a place now defined by disunity and anger.

Perhaps this is nothing more than a great distraction?

Some state it is a moment of reckoning. They are focused on calling out brothers and sisters in Christ (claiming it is in love, but sadly not showing such.) Some have created a sub-network within our convention as a movement of reform or correction. I will not be leading our church to join group for I do not believe it to be necessary, needed, or helpful.

We now find ourselves in a place (well, it is similar to a place previous Baptist leaders and church members have been in the past - just change the issues and names) where if you claim to be friends...or worse yet, aligned with Pastor A, you cannot be friends with Pastor B. 

It's ridiculous. 

I actually have friends within our denominational family who would be considered to be in different camps (or networks.) No, I don't agree with all of them and they likely do not agree with me on all things, but I do know this...each desires to see the lost come to Christ, the church to be faithful, and God to be glorified. You know what? That could be unifying, if we would let it.

There are stories that seemingly come out weekly regarding the latest problems with Southern Baptists. Some are verifiable. Others are as accurate as the latest shopping center tabloids (do they still print those?) Yes...it is a mess. Certainly, we have issues. Absolutely, biblical fidelity and conservative, faithful, doctrine matters. Our statement of faith, the Baptist Faith & Message (2000) is good. We affirm it. It is not inerrant as only Scripture is, but it reveals what we as Southern Baptists (or Great Commission Baptists) hold to be true from Scripture.

So, my answer to my brother and member of my church is...

"We have not abandoned our doctrinal beliefs. We hold to the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture. We believe the Great Commission...though we are not seemingly making disciples as we should. We believe the Great Commandment...though we are apparently not loving others very well. I believe repentance is needed. I believe unity is the desire, but not unity for unity's sake. We must be unified in the calling to proclaim the gospel clearly, to live holy, to be the ambassadors for Christ he has called us to be. Unity in other items simply leads us off-course and keeps us off-course."

With all the confusion, frustration, name-calling, positioning, sub-networking, etc. that has recently occurred, knowing that a growing tidal wave about to hit the beach (apparently, our beach is in Nashville and the wave is scheduled to hit in June at our annual meeting) I am so thankful for my brother-in-Christ and our SBC President, Pastor J.D. Greear and the message he brought this week to the SBC Executive Committee. Not every Southern Baptist approves of the work J.D. Greear has done as our president. I do approve and I believe he has been placed in this unique position for such a time as this. Rather than simply reinterpret what God led Greear to preach, I encourage you to take the time to watch his message yourself. The link is below. (The video below is Greear's message edited from the full plenary session found at the SBC website. The full plenary session is almost three hours long and the original video is found here. I only edited to pull Greear's message from this for quicker viewing.)

Friends, our convention is not perfect. Yet, I believe we have been blessed beyond what we deserve. God has redeemed us for a greater story. Be encouraged. If we can avoid the distractions that pull us from our calling, we will be known as Great Commission Baptists not because we chose a new alternate title for our denomination, but because we are focused, united, together for the sake of the gospel. 

Better days lie ahead. Let's press on.


The Ravi Zacharias Scandal & the Danger of Creating Celebrity Christians

I will often get questions from church members, even those on staff, regarding the feasibility of using a curriculum item or teaching series by certain teachers. This has seemingly multiplied as more and more pastors and teachers have shifted from the "Good to listen to" list to the "We won't use that material." In some cases it is due to doctrinal errors. Yet, some are due to overt, revealed, moral failure.

The most recent, and perhaps the most frustrating among evangelical leaders, has been the revealed sinful actions of Ravi Zacharias. For years, Zacharias had been celebrated as an accomplished apologist in the church. His gatherings at public universities where he would debate atheists and take questions from students have been viewed by millions. His soft-spoken demeanor and intelligent way of engaging in these venues with what appeared to be true care and love was unique. I enjoyed his teachings and viewed numerous clips such as these. I have also read his writings and books.

Ravi2
Photo credit: lausannemovement on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

A couple of years ago I had a meeting with the general manager of a local Christian radio station. This station has faithfully presented great preaching and teaching over the airwaves in our community for decades. We had hosted a fiftieth anniversary celebration for them a few years back and we were discussing another community gathering sponsored by the station. One of the potential speakers they were talking with was Ravi Zacharias. At this point, I mentioned that there were some stories circulating about Ravi and they may wish to look into those before booking. The stories were floating around on the internet and being shared on social media, but by and large, they were not known (or were being ignored) by most Christians.

The stories were concerning, but they had been refuted by Ravi and most people just believed the man whom they saw as a purveyor of truth and therefore viewed the accusers as just seeking money or notoriety. 

Grieving the Death of Ravi

Ravi Zacharias had been ill for a while and in May 2020 he died. There were many who mourned his death and postings asking for prayer for his family members were flooding the internet. This was a time of grief and I, as well as many others, were sad that he had died, was praying for his family, and wondering what the next phase of his ministry (RZIM) would be.

Grieving More Deeply at What Has Been Revealed

It has been almost a full year and more and more stories of Ravi have come to the surface. The ministry had called in an independent investigating team to see what these stories held. The truth of the one who built a ministry declaring the truth has become known.

Years of sexual sin has been admitted by the ministry after reviewing the evidence. There are many stories now covering the issues. Here are some...

His ministry (RZIM) posted a well-written and clear open letter. Click here to read.

The Crushing of Idols

Ravi was gifted a platform and he used that well, when it comes to his teaching. Yet, it seems he also used that well when it came to victimizing others. Ravi Zacharias was a celebrity evangelist. He was...dare I say "idolized" by many. This truth even comes out in some of the stories revealing that dark side. Idolatry is a terrible, abhorrent thing.

I have heard many sermons on the sin of having idols.

I have not heard many on the dangers of becoming an idol.

In this case, the celebrity (even posthumously) has fallen. The idol that many held has been crushed. Even more tragic are the responses I read and hear from Christian brothers and sisters. 

"There but for the grace of God, go I"

Well-meaning Christians brothers and sisters respond to the stories as they continue to be revealed, but often the responses are little more than salt in the wounds of the victims. Clearly, in this age of #MeToo and #ChurchToo and even #SBCToo, there are women (and men) who have been victimized sexually by those in authority (in religious authority) and to read and hear the tepid responses by so many causes some to relive their own pains of abuse.

Certainly, we are all susceptible to the sins of the flesh, but that does not minimize, must not cover up or sugar-coat, the years of intentional, strategic, well-thought out sexual abuse at that hands of this man. There are victims. That means Ravi was the victimizer.

"It's their words against his"

I read this in a comment online. In this case, it is much more than that. RZIM has confessed the accusations are true. They have stated after the investigation that they believe these accusations. Here, in the ministry leaders own open letter it states, "We believe not only the women who made their allegations public but also additional women who had not previously made public allegations against Ravi but whose identities and stories were uncovered during the investigation."

"It's not fair to accuse him after his death"

It is fair. Why? Because the ramifications of his acts remain. Victims are still alive.

"Even David sinned sexually and remained king"

Ravi Zacharias is not King David. The stories are both tragic. They are both evidence of the power of sexual sin and lustful desire, but it is not right, nor helpful to just lean into David every time we see a leader fall. David is not to be our model. Christ alone is.

"I just won't believe it"

This is the kicker. This comment was posted on the Baptist Press's Facebook page under their article on the subject. Responses to this person's comment were strong, and mostly in love. The "I just WON'T believe it" was emphasized. This is a statement of willfully ignoring the facts of sinful (and in this case criminal) acts simply because you do not wish the story to be true.

Perhaps this is the logical result of evangelicals declaring "Fake News" to everything in the mainstream media that is offensive, perceived to be skewed, and certainly written from a non-biblical worldview. Yet, just because a story says the opposite of what we wish does not make it false. 

"I just WON'T believe it" is akin to "I choose my own truth" and that, my friends, is not what Scripture teaches.

How Many More?

Ravi's failure has become just another in a long list of previously respected Bible teachers and leaders we will no longer affirm in our church.

It is disheartening at a minimum when reading of Ravi and others. It is also a clarion call to the church to ensure that we never elevate a man or woman whom we really, really like into a position that is reserved for Christ alone. 

Sadly, there remain many who are guilty of similar sexual abuse acts within the church. In most cases, they are not celebrity pastors. They are not heads of international ministries. They are not well-known outside a small community. They have abused and continue to do so. In some cases, they just shift to another small church where they begin again, leaving victims in their wake who wonder where God was, where he is, and why the church puts up with and seemingly excuses such.

In my denomination (Southern Baptist Convention) there has been a call for a database churches could access to discover such stories. Under the banner of autonomy, that has yet to be set up. Since I am simply a pastor of a local church, I am likely unaware of all the legal ramifications and issues that may make something like this untenable. Yet, I also pastor a church that has a tragic story in our history. In our case, the abuser was hired after doing the same at a previous church. I think it's time we figure out how to make such a clearinghouse work. Otherwise, we will have more Ravi stories, but sadly...more will remain unveiled and the hurt will continue.

"I just don't want to believe it...but it is true. God help us."


What Burdens You?

Last year a book titled Younique: Designing the Life that God Dreamed for You by Will Mancini, Dave Rhodes, and Cory Hartman was published. Mancini and his team are well-known among pastors and church leaders for their practical, easy to comprehend, and contextual works on church leadership, vision development, and contextual engagement. Books such as Church Unique and the recently published Future Church have proven and are proving to be very helpful to many pastors and ministry leaders.

Younique is a book focusing not on the organization or organism known as the local church, but on the individual Christ-follower seeking to live obediently and abundantly (that's how Christ defined our lives as Christians.) I do recommend the book as a whole, but in this post, I want to address one element that Mancini and team reveal.

The Passion Funnel

There is much presented in the book about personal giftedness, interests, and calling. I won't get into the details of each as Mancini's group - Future Church Company is available for consultations and will gladly provide such training for churches and leadership teams. 

Life funnelHowever, in reading about and working through a cohort with other leaders on this subject, the concept of the Passion Funnel continues to resonate with me. To best understand, picture a funnel (duh...thus, the name.) At the top, think of FIVE THINGS THAT INTEREST YOU. These are things that you enjoy doing. At first, you may try to overly spiritualize these things, but think more broadly (and yes, I know ultimately, everything is spiritual, but work with me here.)

You have your five interests. They could be things like: fishing, reading, watching sports, playing board games, collecting coins, etc. These are your hobbies, the things you enjoy doing in your free time.

Now, slide down the funnel a bit to the next level.

Think of THREE OR FOUR THINGS THAT EXCITE YOU. These would be things that give you energy. These are things you look forward to doing. 

The next level down are the TWO OR THREE THINGS THAT DRIVE YOU. What are the things you must do? These are those things that get you up in the morning. They energize you. They make the day seem shorter and feel productive.

Now, for the bottom of the funnel. This is the ONE THING THAT BURDENS YOU. This is not what gets you up in the morning, but what keeps you up at night. This is not something that creates unholy worry or anxiety, but that which God has placed within your unique design that others just may not have. Even other brothers and sisters in Christ may not resonate with that which burdens you. It often is a challenge or a quest. This burden is your holy discontent. It is the calling that reveals God's love for you, your love for him and others, and your answer to why you were born when you were, where you were, and why you have been placed by God where you are now.

This is the burden that keeps us from just existing and waiting out our days on this earth. It motivates us to live full and abundantly as Christians for God's glory and the impact for his Kingdom.

What burdens you? 

For me, the overwhelming lostness in our community and throughout the world keeps me up at night. This is expressed in my great concern for the families who are struggling, for the marriages that are failing, for the children who are questioning truth. 

Thankfully, God is not relying on me. I am relying on him. He has created us in his image for his glory and has called, commissioned, and placed us where we are.

As our church's leadership team discussed our unique individual designs this past week we realized (or more likely remembered) that God has not created us as clones, but as unique works of art with glorious differences all for his glory. This is not a reality simply for pastors or ministry leaders.

Imagine what God's church would do if every Christ-following image-bearer within the body lived fully from their uniquely created and redeemed heart, recognizing that which burdens them (and knowing that is part of God's design as well,) and prayerfully following God's calling within their own heart, family, community, and ultimately the world. 

Don't get stuck in the funnel. That opening at the bottom of the funnel is strategic, so that as you live in community, you do so in a healthy, God-glorifying, other-impacting way.

_____________

This concept and more are explained much better and in more detail in the book Younique: Designing the Life that God Dreamed for You by Will Mancini, Dave Rhodes, and Cory Hartman. I highly recommend it. Click the title of the book to secure your own copy. 


What If You Received a Letter From Your Church About Your Giving?

A few years ago I finally recognized that when young pastors are told to find mentors in the ministry who have served as pastors longer, who are older, presumably wiser, and have more grey hair (or... no hair) that I was now in the category of the older pastors rather than the younger ones.

I see questions posted online on forums or on other social media platforms from young pastors wondering if something they are dealing with is "normal." Sometimes, there are questions presented such as "Do you think it is wise to _________?" referencing things that may seem logical, right, not unbiblical, but may cause controversy.

Yesterday,  young pastor messaged me a question. He was referencing some of my online posts, sermon clips, blog posts, etc. I have known this young man for quite a while and he serves a church located in another state, but in the same denominational tribe as ours. His question (paraphrased) was "How is this thoroughly gospel-centered messaging playing in your church? I imagine your demographics are similar to ours but you do not seem to be pulling any punches. I’m curious as to the impact with your people." I was so thankful for this question.

I answered initially with one word - longevity.

I have been serving as pastor at my church since 2005. Prior to that, I served seven years here at the same church in an associate pastor role. In other words, I have been here a long time. That does not give me permission to just say or do anything. However, longevity does help build trust. When a pastor is trusted, even if not agreed with regarding certain decisions, the opportunities for caring speech, seasoned with grace, and leading with intention occur.

Of course, the grace of God's people is incredible as well and not to be minimized. These wonderful people I have the privilege to pastor love well, serve gladly, and have shown me much grace over the years. An outspoken pastor needs a gracious church.

That being said, speaking truth and leading well are not things to be pushed to the back burner. 

There are times when I'm preaching when I say things that were not actually typed in my notes. These off-the-cuff statements must not to be unbiblical, unloving, or outside the theme or focus of the sermon. Yet, sometimes when I say such things, I leave those in the congregation (and often others on our staff...as well as my wife) saying "Did he really just say that?"

What I Said About "The Letter" 

Two Sundays ago, in my sermon focusing on generous giving and the fact that healthy Christians should be generous Christians, I spoke of the work of the church and the funding for missions and ministry that gifts from covenant church members provide. I mentioned tithing, but even in that, did not speak of it as a dogmatic rule in that I understand the Old Testament requirement for such giving by the Jews and the New Testament calling to live generously (meaning...it's not measured by a ten-percent amount. In other words, God desires one-hundred percent of our lives, not just a portion.) Nevertheless, I did not denounce the tithe. I believe it is a great start for generous giving and in my life, it has always been considered a minimum, not a maximum.

Mail-newsletter-home-mailbox-hiring

I then mentioned that our church may send a letter to those covenant church members who previously were on record as systematic, regular givers to the ministry of our church, but have most recently not been giving.

I didn't stay on that subject. It was not in my notes, but I did say it. 

Maybe I needed an older pastor to get counsel before saying it?

Nevertheless, a few members asked "Are you really going to send out a letter?" 

Some believed that many members would leave our church if such a letter were sent.

Other stated that what they give to the church is private and therefore, no one should know what they give.

Still others were wondering that since I stated from the stage that I do not know how much any individual church member gives, how could I know who should receive such a letter.

What Such a Letter Would Say

Rather than stir up something unnecessarily, let's look at what such a letter may say.

Here is some background on this. Our leadership team was meeting and discussing upcoming sermons and the topic of generous giving and this sermon came up. One of our pastors recalled when he and his wife were in seminary and they received a letter from the church where they were members. As is often the case in seminary, funds were tight and they had not given recently (for a period of time) as they had initially and had covenanted with their church to do.

Here is what his letter (well actually an email) stated:

Hey there,
 
I hope you are doing well. I think you probably know this, but in case you don't—one of the ways we try to hold church members accountable to the church covenant is checking in with members who have no recorded giving for an extended period of time.
 
We don't have any recorded giving for you for some time, so I wanted to touch base.
 
If you have been faithful in this area of our church covenant but have chosen to give cash anonymously, please just let me know that. I don't need to know numbers or anything; just that you are fulfilling this area of the covenant.
 
If, however, this is not an area that you have been fulfilling, let me just encourage you to do so soon. Again, our covenant does not specify and amount, but only that we give "cheerfully, regularly, and generously."
 
If there is some hardship that would prevent you from doing so, or if you have some concerns about this commitment, I'd love to sit down and talk with you about it.
 
Grace and peace.
 
(P.S. - The latest report I have is from early May. If you have given since then, just let me know!)

As our associate pastor read this to our team, I was taken by the overwhelming sense of care and grace expressed in these words. This was not a letter from a church bent on padding its bank account. It was from a pastor at the church tasked with connecting and keeping up with church members.

The truth is that some would not like getting such a letter, for the reasons I mentioned above. So I asked our associate pastor how he and his wife responded. 

He said they greatly appreciated the letter and it opened the door for them to repent to God for not fulfilling that which they have covenanted to do, but also to share with the pastor the very real needs they were facing. 

This was not a "going to the principal's office" encounter, but a moment revealed by a "red flag" of no giving (after previously giving regularly) that showed the church and pastoral staff how to serve and minister to this family.

Answers to the Common Questions

Concerns raised are legitimate and here is how I responded to a church member when these were presented to me.

  • For the church member who may be offended and leave because they receive such a letter: The truth is they likely have mentally (if not physically already left.) This is sad, but the "offense" taken is not legitimately offensive. Now, if they leave the church angrily and join a sister church, then perhaps the new start will be great for them. Sadly, the sister church likely would need our prayer.
  • For the church member who states "My giving is private!": Certainly, that may be true if the church member gives his/her offering in cash or cashier's check, does not use envelopes with their name on it, or does not use online giving. It is not a sin to give anonymously. In fact, it is a good thing (remember the right hand-left hand teaching in Scripture?) However, if a record of contributions is needed each year for one's personal income tax returns, the fact is that someone knows that amount given. At a minimum, it is the financial secretary at the church. In many cases, it will be the person's accountant. Certainly, the IRS knows. Private? Not so much. Now, that does not give one permission or affirmation to brag about one's gifts to the church or to other charities. Boastful giving is prideful giving. Prideful giving is self-serving. Self-serving giving is sinful.
  • As for the pastor (me) not knowing what anyone gives, that is true. I choose to not know. I don't scour the giving records of church members. I don't look to see who may be giving regularly. I don't because I know me. I do not want to know. I said in the early service last week that I do not want to know because I do not want to give the stink-eye to certain members and elevate others. Giving generously is not the litmus test for faithfulness, but it is one of many indicators of a healthy Christian.

What If You Received Such a Letter?

How would you respond to such a letter or email. In our case, it would not come from me, because I do not know the giving record of our church members, but as I stated, our financial secretary does and those who work in that area of our leadership team do (or at least can find out.) 

Would you respond with "Who do they think they are?" or would you respond with relief and thankfulness?

There may be church members, part of your church family, who are struggling financially right now. This may be due to loss of job, cut wages, pandemic forced shutdowns, increased medical bills, or any number of things. We all know that many in our churches would be embarrassed that others know of their struggles. Yes, we know that we should be able to share truthfully and pray for one another, but alas, pride and potential embarrassment keep us from doing so at times.

So, look at it this way, if a faithful, covenant member of your church suddenly stops giving, serving, attending, etc. it may be a sign of a deeper struggle. We would be at fault for ignoring such signs. This must not be judgmental, but true familial Christian love and care.

Of course, letters, emails, and text messages are often received wrongly and read with the feelings of the reader, not the intent of the sender. So, perhaps a phone call or personal conversation would be best.