The Risk of Pastoring in a Culture Saturated With False Teachers

Over the past three weeks we have shown the documentary "American Gospel: Christ Alone" at our church.* This documentary gives a clear description of the gospel while contrasting it to the false prosperity gospel that has become so prevalent in our nation. False teachers and charlatans are selling a version of Jesus that is marketable, but ultimately evil as many who read their books, listen to their teachings, and attend their churches and gatherings are being sold a bill of goods that will leave them feeling good about themselves, but eternally bankrupt.

Lightstock_151606_medium_david_tarkington

Once we began advertising that we would be showing the film and promoted it via the sharing of trailers online and showing them at close of our weekend services, some church members came to me (actually a number of people) to tell me that it was risky what I was doing. Some even said "You're brave for doing this." 

At first I was taken aback. What was so brave about showing a film exposing falsehoods? What was so risky about sharing truth?

Those dear church members who shared this with me were not chastising me. They were not upset we were showing the film. They were just letting me know something that I hoped was not true.

Despite the weekly preaching of God's Word, despite the careful selection of hymns and spiritual songs we sing...some in the church have either not been made aware of the dangers of certain teachers or were unable to discern lies disguised as truth.

Apparently a number of regular attenders and members of the church have been watching those highlighted in the film, buying their books, and doing their best to "live their best lives" and seeking to "speak things" into existence, while smiling and declaring that all one needs was more faith (and a donation to the promoted ministry) in order to be right with God.

As we watched the film together, questions were asked by church members. I sought to give biblically sound answers, seeking to do so with much grace as it was clear some were conflicted. 

Many asked about individual pastors and teachers. At this point, I was put in the position of saying one of three things:

  • "Yes, he/she is a false teacher. Avoid his/her material."
  • "No, that teacher has proven to be sound and I recommend their teaching."
  • "I don't know much about that person. Let me check."

I was even asked if as a Baptist preacher I thought my role was to talk down and denigrate other Christian denominations and leaders. Whoops! I had to check myself when asked this. Because of my nature (human, sinful nature) I can easily find fault in others (and myself, too.) However, I had to clearly respond that in no way was my calling to declare that only Baptists are going to heaven. I even stated that I don't believe all Baptists are going to heaven. The calling out of false teachers was not about declaring a denominational pecking order, but about identifying, discerning, and declaring teaching claiming to be true that is actually false as heresy.

It is part of the pastor's calling to protect those under my lead. 

Paul made this clear to the elders in Ephesus...

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Acts 20:28-30 (ESV)

Discernment, Not Self-Righteousness

Some who claim the title as discerners write blogs and articles demeaning many other Christians. Eventually, these discernment bloggers present themselves as little more than modern-day Gnostics. They would be offended at being called such, but their negative attitudes and argumentative styles, absent of grace, paints them as the only ones with the full truth (or as the Gnostics believed, the "secret" knowledge.) To be biblically discerning is not to be self-righteous. It is so easy to become pharisaical while attempting to stand for truth. In fact, prior to his conversion, Paul was seeking to stand for God while attempting to destroy His church. I would say that sliding into this corner while attempting to fight for God as a discerner is easier than we think.

Nevertheless, we must be discerning. We must be protective of the church, especially young in the faith believers who are easily swayed and confused. That means as a pastor, calling out those who teach an incomplete gospel (a false gospel) as such.

The Risk

It is risky to tell people that their spiritual heroes are liars.

It is risky to reveal that even though a certain pastor or teacher has a huge church, has many books on The New York Times best-seller list,  produces music that is popular and even worshipful, the message being shared from that ministry is a sham. 

It is humbling to realize that while you may be the pastor of your church and believe yourself to be the pastor of those who have joined and are covenant members of the church, that some actually get their "spiritual" guidance and "Christian" teaching from others. In many cases, their spiritual leader is a celebrity pastor/teacher who never actually is in the physical space as those who follow them. Sadly, you discover that rather than being considered the pastor of your congregation, you may be thought of simply as the employee who just preaches sermons on the weekend and visits sick people during the week. I mean, the celebrity pastor isn't going to perform your church members' children's weddings. He likely won't preside over the funerals either. Someone has to do this, right?

It's risky.

To call out a liar as a liar is not often met with applause. 

There's a Greater Risk

The greater risk for the pastor of any church seeking to declare the gospel truthfully and clearly is to not do so. The congregation that has been entrusted to you as a pastor deserves the truth. The risk of tickling ears to ensure one's paycheck continues to arrive is daunting, and while temporal comfort may result, the eternal damage is too heavy to ignore. 

Ensure that you do not abandon the teaching and preaching of God's Word. The world may not celebrate you. You may never be considered a celebrity pastor. Your congregation may not rival the numbers of a Lakewood Church, but then, you have not been called to make much of yourself. Or your church. You have been called to make much of Christ. 

Preach on pastor. Use words. Care for your congregation. Love them enough to continue telling them the truth. The risk is worth it.

_____

*We purchased a copy of the film, divided it into three sections for time purposes, then paid the licensing fee to the distributors so we could legally show it. If you are showing the film publicly, please pay the fee. It is affordable and just the right thing to do.

If you are unfamiliar with these teachings, or the film exposing them, please watch the trailer below.

American Gospel - Trailer 2 - FBCOP from First Family on Vimeo.

 


I'm So Excited You're Planting a Church ... Wait. What? You're Planting Down the Street?

We are now at the point in American evangelicalism where church planting is commonplace. It seems that we have been doing this forever. While I know that "mission churches" have been launched for decades, especially in what was formerly known as the "Bible Belt," the fact remains that we haven't really been promoting and resourcing church planting strategically for very long.

New-Church-Launch
The Intersection - Newport, NC

When it comes to church planting, the facts are that the Exponential Conference has not always existed, Vision360 is now something in the annals of church history, Acts29 began in 1998, ARC began in 2000, and the North American Mission Board introduced it's Send initiative in 2011 at the SBC annual meeting. 

Believing In Church Planting

Like many other churches and church leaders, our church through much support behind our denomination's church planting focus. The church I pastor is almost 100 years old. Therefore, in our long history we have launched a few mission churches in the past. Yet, following the 2011 launch of the Send Network and the growth with other church planting strategies, it became clear that our church was not strategic regarding church planting and multiplication. 

It wasn't long before we were partnered with planters in places as far from our home as  Portland, Oregon and Toronto, Ontario. 

Over time, we have entered into some short-term partnerships and have taken the role of sending church with other planters throughout the continent. 

Believing in the multiplication strategies of reaching cities and our own community, I have served as an assessor for church planters through our network. I continue to meet with those called to serve. 

Our belief in planting has brought fruit as we have invested in planters and the missional strategies these men and their wives are espousing.

You're Planting Where?

While it is easier to justify sending money, people, and mission teams to help plant new works and sustain current ones in other cities, what happens when a planter wishes to launch his new church in your own neighborhood?

This has happened in our community numerous times over the years. The question many ask sound like "Why would you plant a church in a city where there is another just down the street?"

It's a legitimate question.

In some of these cases, we have prayed with these men, heard them clearly articulate their calling, and have chosen to help. For some, it meant the planter a key to our building so their launch team could meet in one of our rooms. In other cases, it meant providing volunteers to help with their projects. 

Not Every Person Will Get to Heaven Through Your Local Church

I know there are many more non-believers in Christ in our community than believers. I know that not all in our community will visit our church. What if a newer church, with a different pastor, a different campus culture, yet with the very same gospel message could be used by God to help reach my community for Christ?

Therefore, even in my deeply southern, former Bible-belt, church-on-every-corner, Christianese speaking, big hair, hallelujahing and amening, everyone was in a youth group years ago, I want my kids to have a youth group like mine, my grandparents founded this church, give me Awana or I'm leaving, what program does the church offer me, church saturated community ... it is clear. The number of unsaved "Christians" is alarming. And that means, we need more gospel proclaiming churches. 

Yet, I am reminded by the Holy Spirit (and often my wife - she sounds like the Holy Spirit at times) that we are to be Kingdom focused. This means that other gospel-preaching, Bible-believing, God-honoring, Christ-proclaiming churches in my community are actually on my team (or should I say "I'm on their team?" Maybe just "We're on the same team.")

We truly are better together.

However, Not Every Church Plant Is Your Partner

In a perfect world, the gospel and the focus on God's kingdom should be enough to unite like-minded churches together. Yet, churches tend to be made up of people. They tend to be pastored by human beings. In case you haven't noticed, even well-intentioned people are not perfect. Therefore, not every new church plant or campus will be partners with other churches in the community. In some cases, it is due to sinful pride of established church leaders. In others, it lands squarely on the church planters or campus leaders. I'll write more about this soon, but some things that create tension and a lack of potential partnership are:

  • If everyone excited about the new church are disgruntled former members of other local churches
  • If the pastor/planter/minister refuses to befriend other pastors in the community
  • If the selling point of the new work is "We're not like the other churches in town"
  • If winning the community is not about winning the lost, but about being the biggest and most talked about church in town
  • If the church planter is really a church poacher

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! - Psalm 133:1 (ESV)

 


Girl...Christianity Is Not What You're Making It

One of the most popular sections in Christian bookstores (whether brick and mortar or online) today remains the women's Christian living section. There seems to be new books filling the shelves daily. Many are written by authors with sound theology and practical points about living as a disciple of Jesus Christ in the hectic, Americanized version of church we have today.

Intermingled with the good books are some that slide into the best-sellers list due to the intriguing, self-actualized messages promoted. All of these books sit side-by-side on the shelves begging for customers to purchase them. 

As has been the case for generations, some readers have taken issue with the messages promoted by certain authors. In today's world, a category of Christians known as discernment bloggers have taken it upon themselves to read, review, and provide insight into the growing number of books. In some cases, the discerning reviewers are helpful. In other cases, the discerners slide into a legalistic narrowness (not to be equated with biblical fidelity) that leaves no author as "approved." Eventually there will be discernment blogs written about discernment blogs (there probably already are, actually.)

Nevertheless, discernment is something that many well-intentioned and God-loving Christians seem to lack. This is not something I believe intentionally is sought, but in a culture featuring many voices and an over-abundance of books, videos, and websites, not to mention the saturation of information, many struggle to see where some "Christian" teachings fall short of biblical truth. 

As I wrote previously (READ MORE HERE), many in our church are now taking a second or third look at the books they read that would be classified as "Christian." When asked by church members regarding the viability of a certain book or author, my answer is that rather than lean fully into any human teacher of biblical truth, it would be wise to begin and center one's study on the Scriptures. Other books, commentaries, devotionals, etc. are helpful, but should not be primary. 

With the Bible as the primary source of study, other teachings that contradict will stand out. 

Rachel Hollis

One author who continues to grow in popularity and has increased book sales is Rachel Hollis. Her books are located on the "Women's Christian Living" shelf at the book stores. She is a 2018  New York Times best-selling author, motivational speaker, television personality, podcast host, and more. Her books have taken off, as has her lifestyle podcasts and other teachings.

Rachel seems to be a fun, hilarious, down-to-earth person that anyone would love to have as a neighbor. Her most popular book is Girl, Wash Your Face: Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are So You Can Become Who You Were Meant to Be and she has just announced the soon-to-be-released Girl, Stop Apologizing: A Shame-Free Plan for Embracing and Achieving Your Goals.

Hollis
Hollis Co./Rachel Hollis

Many women in the church are buying, reading, and sharing quotes online from Hollis. Initially, it seems harmless, but I have discovered that some of the women in our church family (and my family members personally) have read some of her writings and have noticed some things that just don't set well.

I am not the target market for the book. Therefore, I have found others who have read and reviewed Rachel Hollis's works well. These women were taken aback by some of the messages promoted in this "Christian" best-seller. These discerning women are not the legalistic modern-day Pharisees who often speak loudest from their discernment blogs, but are Christian women standing firm on biblical truth, writing with grace and love.

Thoughts about Hollis's series of "Girl..." books and teachings.

Jen Oshman - a wife and mom to four daughters. She has served as a missionary for almost two decades on three continents. She currently resides in Colorado, where she and her husband serve with Pioneers International, and she encourages her church-planting husband at Redemption Parker. Her passion is leading women into a deeper faith and fostering a biblical worldview. She writes about that at www.jenoshman.com. Her first book, Enough About Me: Find Lasting Joy in the Age of Self, is forthcoming with Crossway

Oshman wrote an article for The Gospel Coalition about Hollis's newest book (full article here). Some of the points Jen made are...

For Hollis, salvation is found in ourselves:

The real you is destined for something more . . . your version of more. This is who you were made to be, and the first step to making that vision a reality is to stop apologizing for having the dream in the first place. Like Lady Gaga says, baby, you were born this way . . . it’s time to become who you were made to be. (209)

To get there, Hollis says: “First learn to love yourself well and give yourself credit; then reach for more” (62) She encourages readers to pick 10 goals, write them out every day, and meditate on the future vision we have of ourselves in order to get our subconscious involved. An example of one of her goals is, “I only fly first class” (101).

On staying home with her kids, Hollis says:

It’s not my spiritual gifting. It’s not in my wheelhouse. You know what is in my wheelhouse? Building a successful business, managing a team, writing books, giving keynote speeches, crushing it on social media, strategizing, branding, PR, and planning live events where a thousand women fly in from all over the world to be inspired. (80)

Lest you think I’m passing judgment on Hollis for being a working mom, I assure you that I’m not. I’ve been a working mom for all of my children’s days. But taking up your cross, sacrificially serving others, and staying home with hard, messy, needy children who don’t say thank you isn’t in anyone’s wheelhouse. I fear Hollis’s instructions will be happily heeded and lead to the emboldened absence of wives, moms, daughters, sisters, and friends who enjoy pursuing their dreams more than loving the least of these.

It is absolutely possible to be a passionate and hard-working Christian businesswoman who pursues her dreams without losing her soul. I have witnessed many myself. I’ve seen them daily confess their need for their Maker and Savior. I’ve marveled at their hard work on behalf of the kingdom, and praised God for their acknowledgment that all they have and do is by and for Jesus (Col. 1:16). It is indeed possible to build a business, a career, maybe even a global empire in a way that loves God and neighbor.

But the methods taught in Girl, Stop Apologizing aren’t the way to do it.

In following her, you are instructed to follow only yourself. Hollis says, in fact, you should follow yourself so wholeheartedly that, if you sense any guilt, you will label it as

holy crap. No, seriously. [Guilt is] a load of crap wrapped up and pretending to be holy. I don’t care what religion you were raised in. You weren’t taught guilt and shame by your creator. You were taught guilt and shame by people. (49)

Follow yourself. No apologies.

Lastly, Oshman urges readers to turn from the self-focused religious teachings propagated in these books. She states...

Girl, let’s start with an apology. Let’s turn from a self-focused way of life to a Jesus-focused way of life—and therein find true life. For it’s in him, not in ourselves, that we find the path of life, the fullness of joy, and pleasures forevermore (Ps. 16:11).

Alisa Childers - A lifelong church-goer, follower of Jesus, and former CCM recording artist with the group ZOEgirl. Childers has an incredible story of personal doubt, crises of belief, and finding answers to the questions that come from being raised in a Christian sub-culture. She is currently an artist in residence at Whitewater Crossing Christian Church in Cleves, Ohio, and when not there, attends Station Hill Church in Spring Hill, TN with her family. 

Childers also has been asked by many women in the church about the writings of Hollis. Her full article and review is found here. Here are some of the points she highlights...

It's no shocker that Hollis connects deeply with her audience. Having survived a difficult childhood and the suicide of her brother when she was still in her early teens, the advice she gives has not come cheap or easy.  

There was that time her boyfriend continually treated her poorly. After dumping her and smashing her heart into pieces, he called to see how she was doing. When she calmly said, "Hey. I am done with this. I am done with you. Don't ever call me again," and shut off her phone, I was sending high-fives and a hearty, "You go girl!" Sadly, she didn't attribute this wisdom to knowing who she is in Christ. She credits self-love.

​You see, someone can hold to false premises and still land on truth from time to time. Should we take care of our bodies and our hearts? Should we set goals and work hard to accomplish them? Of course. But as Christians, the why and the how are crucial. I find that Hollis has bought into five common lies that seem to be the starting point for all her advice.

Make no mistake, sisters. This book is all about YOU. In chapter one, she writes, "You are meant to be the hero of your own story,” and “You, and only you are ultimately responsible for who you become and how happy you are.” She plainly states, "You should be the very first of your priorities." The book is littered with references to "self-love" and "self-care." In fact, this theme is so pervasive that it forms the infrastructure for how she responds to everything from hardship to trauma to parenting to working out.

Your happiness, your success, your everything— it's all up to you, ladies. I don't know about you, but I don't think that's very good news. Jesus offers us true joy and peace, but only after we realize that we are not the center of our own lives and we are no longer in charge.  He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)

Assuming you have a big dream to not give up on, Hollis spills quite a bit of ink trying to convince you that no matter what it is. . .you should never let it go. 

​What is Rachel Hollis' dream? I felt actual sadness when I read it: 

I’m a big fan of displaying visuals inside my closet door to remind me every single day of what my aim is. Currently taped to my door: the cover of Forbes featuring self-made female CEOs, a vacation house in Hawaii . . . and a picture of Beyoncé, obvi.

Religious Pluralism is basically the idea that all roads lead to God. There is no right way or wrong way to think about God, and my religion is no better or more "right" than yours. This is a message Hollis shouts from the proverbial rooftops. The only problem? It's a worldview. It's an actual religious belief about God that claims to trump all others.

What do I mean? If you claim that all religions are equally valid and true, then you are excluding all religions that don't affirm that.

Hollis writes,

... Just because you believe it doesn't mean it's true for everyone ... Faith is one of the most abused instance of this. We decide that our religion is right; therefore, every other religion must be wrong.

Logically, this sentiment can't be true – because all religions contradict each other at some point. And Christianity is, by nature, exclusive. Jesus said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by me." (John 14:6)

Religious pluralism is a dogmatic belief – and it contradicts Christianity.

Just Because Something Is Packaged as Christian Does Not Make It Biblical

To be clear, if something is not biblical, it is not truly Christian. This is where discernment is needed. The counterfeit teachings that sell well, are promoted professionally online and on social media, and tend to make people (men and women alike) feel as if they're the center of their own story are nothing more than a false gospels, repackaged and reworked for a new audience.

When it comes to the works of Rachel Hollis, I will leave you with the wise words from a young woman in our church.

Ashley O'Brien - She grew up in church. Married a worship leader. She reads much. She owns a husky. She writes well and blogs on her Facebook and Instagram under the by-line of "Ball Caps and Husky Ears." Oh, and she's my daughter. Smart woman - takes after her mother.

Girl, you can wash your face all you want. You can read every boss-girl, girl-power, hustle, self-help book you want. You can take all the credit, be that women who does it all and does it with as much grace as possible. But without Christ at the center, without the truth of His words, what is it worth? Clean your soul! Read the books about everyday struggles but get the "how to" of how to get through it and conquer it from Christ and His words, not from the words of someone writing about how the world can do it, because that will eventually fail.

Then you’ll wonder, "Why didn't it work?"

Leaning too much on yourself or any human (because we are all flawed) is going to fail. Yes girl, wash your face, brush your hair, and put that go get 'em smile and face on, but don’t get wrapped up in the thoughts that you can do this alone, or even with your girl power community. Without Christ, it means nothing.

 

Is This a Good Book?

Every Wednesday morning at our church we host a mid-week preaching/teaching time. A good number of retirees and those who do not work during the day outside the home attend. Over the years we have studied numerous books of the Bible and most recently finished a series on historical heresies that developed over the centuries and still wreak havoc in many churches. 

Today we changed our format just a bit. Rather than a time of preaching or teaching from me, we began a public showing (after purchasing the license to do so legally) of the new documentary "American Gospel: Christ Alone" (available for purchase to stream here.) The film is 2 hours and 19 minutes long, so we are showing it in three parts over the next three weeks. Attendance was great as many were interested in what the film had to say regarding the gospel. The film reveals how many in America have been fooled over the years with a false prosperity and "me-first" gospel.

Following the showing, I opened the floor up for questions. 

One question had to do with books. She was pulling out of her purse a small sample of a large book that is sold on Christian websites and in almost all bookstores. It is a book about heaven. She had read her Bible, but found this book and was sheepishly asking me, in front of the crowd, "How do you know a book categorized as a Christian book is good or right?" She referenced the book she had seen, while holding the sample version in her hand. I began to answer, but first said, after recognizing the book she was referencing, that I believed her book was good and valuable. She was so relieved.

Yet, the question was clear and needed.

For any pastor who sees their church members tweeting and posting articles and segments from books that claim to be Christian, but are opposed to the true gospel and the doctrines preached and taught weekly, it can be overwhelming. 

Can I get an "amen" from every pastor who exhales loudly and sadly drops his head every time a church member shares something from Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Norman Vincent Peale, or any other of the host of false teachers propagating a teaching that morphs Scripture to say what it does not? 

Variation-of-books-in-library-1
Photo on VisualHunt.com

How do you know if a book is good? How do you know if it's worth purchasing, checking out of the library, reading, and recommending?

The question is one of discernment. I had mentioned prior to starting our film that we live in an age of information overload. There is more information available to us today, especially in our culture, than in any era in history. What we lack is not information, but discernment.

This is especially true when determining if a Bible teacher, preacher, pastor, or one of the various titles used such as prophet, prophetess, apostle, etc. are valid.

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. - 1 John 4:1 (ESV)

Our time was coming to a close, but I shared some things I check to determine if a book is worth reading for spiritual health or growth. This is not a comprehensive or complete list, but things that I have done for years and continue to do.

Things I Check

  1. THE AUTHOR'S CREDENTIALS

    Not every author of a Christian book needs to be a pastor. However, many are. For those who are not, there should be some things revealed in their biography related to their faith, place of service, home church, doctrinal beliefs, etc. If the author has a title like "Dr." I want to know if it was earned or honorary. It may be a pet peeve, but I struggle when a pastor or Christian leader uses the title Doctor when it was not precipitated by study at a respectable, and in most cases, accredited school, university, or seminary. Diploma mill doctorates reek of falsehoods. Don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to a person receiving an honorary degree for their work and influence in the church or society, but the use of the title that is not earned causes me to question. I like to know what church they serve or attend. Churches have doctrines and ordinances they hold to as biblical. The writer will line up with his/her church's teachings (well, at least they should.) If they have schooling, I also look at where they received their degrees. In some cases, it may have nothing to do with their theology. For instance, I know of one pastor who leads a solid, evangelical church, but he graduated from an LDS university. He attended there to play football and does not now hold to the theological teachings of the school.
  2. THE FOREWORD OR INTRODUCTION

    In many cases, I am unfamiliar with the author. Publishers know when an author does not have a large platform or wide base of familiarity. Therefore, many will have a known author/pastor/teacher write the foreword or introduction to the book. In these cases, this person's name is often listed on the cover as well. The renown of these individuals in the Christian world regarding teachings, writings, church life, etc. will help to discern viability of the book as well. I then ask the same questions regarding these people as I do the authors I listed in number 1.
  3. THE PUBLISHER

    In most cases, unless the author has self-published his/her book, the publisher will be widely known regarding the types of material produced under its name. In some cases, the publisher used will lead me to put the book aside and not read it. In others, the publisher will help me discern if this new author is one to consider. Some Christian publishers are just subsidiaries of larger non-religious publishing houses. In these cases, the doctrinal beliefs are very wide. Therefore, one book published by X publisher may not be solid while another may. In other cases, the publisher may be owned by a church or denomination. In those cases, the doctrines published will line up with said denomination's teachings. Some publishers are known more for academic religious books while others are more popular as producers of devotions or what could be called "light reading" in the religious genre. Neither category discredits my recommending a book. However, if a publisher is known to primarily promote and produce heresies and false gospel ideology, I will not read or recommend their books.
  4. REVIEWS

    I check reviews online regarding the book in question as well. In addition to Amazon, Christian Book Distributors, and Goodreads, there are reviews often offered by Christian leaders and Christian websites. I will check to see if pastors, Christian leaders, or Christian websites have any reviews listed. I'll check Tim Challies, Albert Mohler, The Gospel Coalition, Christianity Today, Crosswalk.com, and more.

I know there are more things to check...many more, but this is a start. I would encourage Christians to run questionable books by their pastors for help in knowing how to discern best. While any number of books may have a sentence or two that sounds good and helpful, if the gospel message that is promoted within the remainder of the writings are outside the biblical worldview, these writings should be avoided.

One Other Thing...

A friend told me years ago that he would not buy a Christian book that had the author on the cover, unless it was a biography. I laughed, but then I checked the book rack at some local stores and while this is not 100 percent true, there may be something there. At least ask your pastor what he thinks.

Happy reading.

___________________

*I do read books by authors with whom I disagree. I even read books that are not Christian in nature and are not written by believers in Christ. This post, however, is focused on those books that would be categorized as "Christian books" and purport to be written by Christians.


"It's All Your Fault" and the Host of Lies the Parent of the Prodigal Believes

The story of the prodigal son in Scripture (Luke 15) has been told over and over again for thousands of years. It is one of the most popular stories and is an incredible illustration of God's steadfast love and his patience. It is one in a listing of parables and stories about lost items being found. Therefore, it should be read along with the other stories (the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin.) 

The story is wonderful in so many ways.

Yet, when you find that your personal story begins to parallel this biblical account in some aspects, you (well...I) tend to read it differently. I have to be careful here because I don't want to say that "I see myself in this story" because that's not the point of this or any biblical narrative. It's not about finding the character that most matches you or me. It is a story about and by God. He is the primary character, as he is throughout Scripture.

Nevertheless, human nature being what it is, I cannot help but do as many others have regarding the story of the prodigal.

4833953949_9faae3839b_b
Photo credit: Philerooski on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

In the church subculture that many of us have grown up within, a child is viewed as a blessing. This is a biblically-based construct and is true. Children are blessings. 

Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Psalm 127:3 (ESV)

Therefore, as Christians, when we first discover we are going to be parents, we seek to do our very best to live morally and faithfully, not just for ourselves, but for the little ones God has entrusted us to raise. This is not wrong. This is a holy calling and a right desire. In fact, this is one of the reasons our church is so focused on our family-equipping discipleship strategy. This is also the reason that churches historically have created Sunday schools, youth ministries, children's programming, etc. 

Wouldn't it be nice if we were guaranteed that our children would grow up to love the Lord, surrender to his calling, become faithful followers of his and be grand examples of a legacy of faith?

We do not get that promise as parents. We are afforded this proverb, and it should not be ignored or taken lightly. 

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.Proverbs 22:6 (ESV)

The problem is that often as Christians we read that verse as a promise, rather than a proverb.

Then...if a prodigal story becomes a reality, a crisis of faith often results.

Perhaps the Most Difficult Part of the Prodigal Story

I know that many of you have read this story over and over. Yet, just a few days ago a portion of the story struck me as profound. I began to think about the father in the story and that moment which may have been most difficult for him.

Perhaps the most difficult portion is located somewhere between verses 13 and 14.

13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. Luke 15:13-14 (ESV)

It is in that moment when the son squandered everything given to him by his father, yet is not at the point of return.

At this point, the son has asked for his inheritance (i.e. his college tuition, the savings account created by his parents when he was a child, the car given to him at age 16, his own cell phone, wireless plan, clothes, and anything else that was agreed to be his) from dad and has left home. The story states that he took a journey into a far country. There's no need for more details than this in that we all know this means his new home is as far away from his original home as he could get. This is freedom, right?

While experiencing his newfound freedom, he squanders everything given to him by his father. He lives recklessly. He isn't going home yet, however. This may be due to pride or a continued desire to "be his own man." Things became even more harsh for the son. 

What About the Dad?

What is the father doing? Apparently, he is still living in the same house. He is waiting and watching, it seems, for his son to return. However, it appears that it was quite some time before the son came to the place where he would even consider a return. Spoiler alert: he does return. Read about it in Luke 15:11-32.

Now, I know this isn't part of the narrative, so please bear with me. 

For every parent of a prodigal, it is the waiting that proves to be so very difficult. The fear of what the child is doing can be debilitating. In the biblical world prior to social media, it was simply the imagination that created these possible stories. Nowadays, these fears are often affirmed due to postings and photographs that reveal what the Bible would categorize as debauchery. This pains the parent deeply, knowing that the present fun will not end well if the child continues down this path. 

In my own experience, as well as in conversations with many others who have gone through and are going through similar situations, there are some common thoughts that seem to pop up.

  • "It's all my fault." For the Christian parent with a wayward child, the blaming is immense. Questions such as "What did I do wrong?" scream loudly in the mind. Thoughts like - "Surely, I messed up somewhere." "I should've made him go to youth camp." "We spent too much time traveling for sports on the weekend. This is our punishment." And many more. Every little misstep or "I should have..." comes to mind and many parents hold onto these (fair or not) to try to figure out where they messed up. There is this innate feeling that someone is to blame and it often starts with self.
  • "Everyone is talking about my failure as a parent." Yes, this is often heard as well. I'm not going to pretend that good church-going people don't talk about others. It happens all too often. As posted earlier this week, stories such as this become "prayer request" fodder. I wonder if the father of the prodigal in the story had others in his community talking about how much of a failure he was because he lost this child to the world? Perhaps. Yet, they probably weren't praising him for his godly fathering prior to the exit of the prodigal or even the presumed faithfulness of the other brother. Nevertheless, whether someone is talking about the parent's failure or not is irrelevant. So often the Christian parent feels like they are. Why? Maybe because in the past they unwittingly blamed other parents for other wayward children. "Well, it's no wonder that kid ended up that way. Look at their parents." Statements like that said about others come back to haunt. 
  • "What is he/she doing?" The desire to know is not based on a need to see every detail in the child's life, but on the fear of discovering what is actually happening. The father in the Luke account did not know exactly what was happening with his son, we presume. I have determined that likely is a good thing. Why? I don't know. Maybe because if he did, he would seek to rescue the son in his own strength. It wouldn't end well had he tried. So, from what we know the father just stayed home, faithfully working, living, raising his other son, and praying for the prodigal to return. He waited. He did not obsess.
  • "Where is God in all this?" Even the most learned Christian comes to crisis of faith. For some the question leads to growing doubt, wondering if the promises of Scripture really are true. The valley moments are real and depressing and while we know that "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. - Psalm 23:4 (ESV)" it just feels so lonely. At these moments, it feels that no amount of assurance from well-meaning Christians reminding us that this is just a "storm" and "God is faithful" and "God will see you through" and "He will bring your child home," etc. regardless how true is enough. Why? Because that blessing from God that was gifted to you years earlier, as an answer to prayer, who brought joy to your life and a smile to your face cannot come to mind at this juncture without your eyes filling up with tears and your doubts of a future skewed. It is not really hopeless, but it certainly feels that way.
  • "I just can't." Can't what? Can't function? Can't talk to others? Can't bear seeing other parents with their children living out their happy lives? Can't look at pictures on social media where parents are bragging about how great their children are or celebrating their accomplishments? Yep. All that and more. The Enemy knows where the hurt is most severe. This may leave the parents, who prior may have been engaged in the community of faith, feeling as if they can no longer engage. It would be humiliating, painful, hurtful, and lead to more anger and frustration.

There are more thoughts that come up. Believe me, my wife and I have experienced these and more. I wonder if the father in the prodigal story did as well. Of course, I understand that this is a parable likely that does not reflect the story of an actual family. The father is representative of our heavenly Father. There is a teaching here regarding lostness and being found. I understand that. Yet, when you find yourself in a similar story, you cannot help but think this way.

In our church, over the past six years, my wife and I have had the pleasure (can you call it that?) of talking with and counseling many other parents who have also experienced a prodigal experience. For some, their story continues. They are older than us. Their children are closer to our age than the parents. It's encouraging to hear how they have persevered. At the same time, it is a bit discouraging to think that we may be closer to the beginning of our story than the resolution. Many others have come seeking advice, prayer, community. 

If I dared to start a small group for "Parents with Wounded Hearts" I fear we may not have a room large enough to hold the group.

I could promote it as "A broken pastor and his broken wife leading broken Christians through broken stories of broken relationships with broken children seeking wholeness and healing." That may be too long a title, but you get the point.

The pain of not knowing is almost as great as the pain of knowing. Sometimes it's greater.

Thankfully, the story in Scripture does resolve. I have no idea if our story or the myriad of others in our church and community of believers will resolve like the one in Luke. I wish I did know. Well, I think I wish I knew.

I have come to know that while this part of my ministry is not the one I desired (the ministry to other parents of prodigals) it is the one He has given. I have come to realize that God loves my children more than I do. That sounds easy when everything is going well. It is more difficult when the bottom seems to be falling out. It is no less true regardless of circumstances.

I have also come to realize that even in the questions (as listed above), the crises of faith, and confirmation of calling, God has remained faithful. Again, easy to say when you're on top of the mountain. Much more difficult to acknowledge in the valley. Nevertheless, I believe it to be true.

Lastly, I have come to know that religious clichés, ministry programs, shame-based Bible studies, and guilt-laden preaching* are not of God and provide no help or healing. Yet, pure religion, biblical relationships, true worship in one-on-one settings and corporately, and gospel-centric preaching, Bible teaching, and study resonate with the holiness, godliness, grace, and goodness of God. 

With that, I watch and wait. 

Trusting God. 

Everyday.

I pray that you can do that as well.

_____________________

*When I say "shame-based" and "guilt-laden" I am not referring to the clear, convictional, Holy Spirit-inspired and anointed teaching and preaching of the Gospel. For that, I offer no apologies. As a text-driven, expositional preacher, I believe in the inerrant Word of God and know that the cross is offensive. I believe we must preach the gospel at all times, and for heaven's sake, we MUST use words. It is just that sometimes, a tendency to create a listing of "dos and don'ts" that are ultimately legalistic Pharisaical add-ons to Scripture based on personal preferences and prejudices than God's Word have been propagated in the church, leaving the sincere, blood-bought, forgiven, God-honoring followers of Christ thinking that they must do more works to be loved and accepted by God. This is empty religion and is a false works-based gospel as dangerous as the prosperity gospel and others that masquerade as truth. 


Confessions from a Gossip

They say confession is good for the soul. 

That's what "they" say.

It's true. Confession is good. It is right. It is holy. It is needed.

It is most difficult.

Why? Because it is revealing, embarrassing, and requires transparency and humility.

The Prayer Request In Disguise

I have often, in public, in sermons, and in private conversations chastised those who use "prayer requests" as little more than a time to share a bit of juicy gossip. Anyone who has been part of a local church understands how easy this occurs. The Sunday School (Life Group, Small Group, Bible Study Group, etc.) leader stands before the class and asks "Does anyone have any prayer requests today?"

3139505596_27100ac858_b
Photo credit: chris_wilson on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

It's an innocent and good question, but sometimes the answers are not really prayer requests. Beyond the listing of those loved ones and friends who are ill, in the hospital, facing difficulties, inevitably there will be a "prayer request" that sounds like a caring announcement, but may just be a bit of gossip in disguise.

It is actually pretty easy to fall into this trap of "sharing" something that is not verified, unfounded, or may cause harm...as a pseudo-prayer request for the group.

The Sinfulness of Gossip

Paul addresses the sin of lawlessness that characterizes the natural man. In his listing of examples and identifiers, the gossiper is mentioned.

They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. - Romans 1:29-31 (ESV)

The context is harsh, speaking of God's wrath on the unrighteous. As a Christian, however, the falling back into actions and thoughts far from godliness remain. The seriousness of all sin must be contended with, even that of gossip. I say "even that" because often we wrongly grade sin on a sliding scale and gossip is at times placed in the "not that serious of a sin" category.

This being said, I must confess.

My Sin

I will not use names and will actually attempt to be very general in certain descriptions here so as not to bring shame or undue focus on others when the sin in question is mine. Hopefully, I will do this justice.

A number of weeks ago I was contacted by a Christian friend who heard from another that I had shared a "prayer request" that really wasn't. The conversation in question had occurred over a year prior so I had to work to remember it clearly (this comes with age I guess.) The individual who had shared my comments formerly worked for me and our church. As I recall, I had shared a bit of information that I had not verified about this other friend. I was concerned. I had heard "through the grapevine" about the instance in question and shared with this leader as a point of prayer, but also in a moment of frustration.

Here's the problem.

I never actually confirmed with the party in question regarding the issue at hand. This friend lived outside my town, did not attend my church, was not someone I kept up with regularly, but was (is) someone I call a sibling in Christ and love. 

However, my sharing of the story was not in love. It was nothing more than gossip disguised as a "prayer request." I know that now. I actually knew it then. But...well, no buts about it. I sinned.

The Needed Confrontation

When I was confronted about this from the friend in question, my heartbeat sped up. I began to feel a rush of frustration, guilt, and even for about a half second thought how I could spin this as acceptable. Seriously - about a half second. Thankfully, I did not go there. In my response, I did what I knew I must, but was actually a bit uncertain, maybe even a bit afraid of what would come. I confessed. This exchange was via message (though face-to-face is always better, in this case it allowed me to say clearly what must be said.) These messages do not disappear, so here are the words I responded with (with names and specifics deleted):

Thank you for the message. I haven’t talked with ____ in almost a year other than [one unrelated occasion.] As for [the story in question] I did hear of stories from ________. As for what was shared, I should have kept that rumor (which it is) to myself and left it alone. Actually should have just forgotten or ignored it. I apologize for sharing what I had heard with ____. While I don’t remember the exact conversation, I am not denying it. Wrong to talk with ____ about such. I am sorry. Disappointing for certain. Likely nothing can rectify that.

There was more in this conversation. It is embarrassing and humiliating. You know, I'm a pastor. Pastors are supposed to lead by example, right? Some would say "Well, this is not that big of a deal." To that I say, "It is HUGE and unacceptable." 

My Imperfections Revealed

This posting is not a practice of self-flagellation. I fear that others who have confided in me in counseling sessions may think their stories are now fodder for "prayer request" time. Rest assured they are not. We as a pastoral staff do share prayer requests, real ones. We do talk through how best to minister to those in need. Yet, the confidences shared with us that are not in the category of "Legally Required to Report to Authorities" remain confident.

And...I know some are saying "How can I believe that when you have confessed to gossiping in this case?" I don't know. I just pray that you do.

Why Tell This?

Earlier today I received a message from another Christian friend. This is not unheard of, and was encouraging. Yet, in the message was a question that stated "I have heard from others that you said ______ about _______."

Oh man. I thought this was done.

It wasn't. I had omitted a biblical command that if left undone would actually allow bitterness, anger, and maybe even hatred to develop. The more who heard of my sin, the more who would be so greatly saddened and angry, and justified in not only disliking me more, but to a greater extent God's church and those whom dare go by the title "Pastor."

So, I confess today...

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. - James 5:16 (ESV)

I confess to you, my "one anothers." Some would say that I should address this to the church I pastor alone. I understand that, but those "players" in this story are not members of our church. They're members of God's universal church and serve elsewhere. Therefore, this becomes a public confession - for the glory of God and the good of his church.

I responded to today's message quickly and stated what I have shared in this post. I stated that I confessed and repented to this other Christian. I stated that the other Christian responded with "I accept and you are forgiven." 

Thankfully, today's messenger affirmed this and received it as well. 

It was a timely message that was sent to ensure no bitter root would grow regarding me. For that I am extremely grateful.

When this message arrived today, it became clear that this story is being shared. Not the forgiveness part, but the gossip part. It may be that others are gossiping about gossip? I don't know.

What I do know is that I have sinned. I have confessed to my Lord and repented. I have asked forgiveness from my fellow Christian. 

To ignore or just "let it be" sounds good, but in truth would allow the sin to grow, bitterness to swell, and relationships between brothers and sisters in Christ to suffer. 

And, God would not be glorified. He cannot be when his children fall back to exhibit the sins that defined them prior to salvation.

Forgiveness Is Freeing

When this fellow Christian forgave me, it was as if a weight had been removed from my shoulders. I had caused harm. I did not deserve forgiveness. I had even sinned by disguising it as spiritual, Christian even.

I know biblical forgiveness is transactional. It is not automatic. It is something offered freely when payback or restitution is not an option. This was offered. I was freed from this.

What a great picture and reminder of the ultimate forgiveness offered through Christ! I know the story of the gospel. You likely do as well, but at times, we need a clear reminder of how much we do not deserve God's forgiveness. That's grace. 

To offer forgiveness to those who have caused you harm is not natural. Only God can enable that. 

To received forgiveness when you know it is not deserved is humbling, and a beautiful moment. 

I ask that you will forgive me as well. 

P.S. I really hate airing my dirty laundry, but they say "confession is good for the soul." I think it's more that righteousness and grace overwhelm the sin that exists. To others, learn from my mistake (sin) and don't spread "prayer requests."


Believe the Victims!

The Houston Chronicle article published on Sunday, February 10 has become the focus of conversations among pastors, denominational leaders, and church members. It should be. A severe sadness comes over me as I read through the article. To be honest, anger swells up as the stories unfold, especially in the video testimonies linked in the story. I am angry that those who were victimized are often portrayed as "asking for it" with "it" obviously being inappropriate touching or the sexual acts performed on the victim. In many of the cases revealed in the story, the victims are children and teenagers. Yes, this makes me even more angry. Righteous anger? I hope so. I believe so.

Eyes to See and Ears to Hear

I am not a victim of sexual abuse. Therefore, I do not view the stories or hear the testimonies as one who has experienced the attacks first-hand. As a child I was approached by a relative who attempted to harm me sexually, but apparently my screams out in the backyard and my subsequent telling of the approach to my parents squelched any further attempts. For this I am deeply grateful. Looking back, it was a closer call than I knew as an eight-year-old. Yet, the clarity of that moment of fear remains in my mind these forty plus years later.

15114315379_bb89e6a188_c
Photo credit: Nick Fuentes on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA

I am not comparing my brief experience to the very real sexual abuse suffered by others. What these victims of abuse have experienced is so horrendous and sinful. I will not attempt to say "I understand" because to do so would insult those who have walked in this shadowy valley.

Not being able to relate directly to abuse in this way does not give me or any other pastor or Christian a pass. In an article I posted early on Sunday morning highlighting some practical steps that may help churches protect their congregants and avoid becoming an easy target for sexual predators I included two sentences intended to be helpful, but actually were harmful.

I originally included these sentences (regrettably):

Unfortunately, some will be lying just to gain attention. That always seems to happen with stories such as this. Yet, most will be telling true stories.

My intent was to focus on the reality that the vast majority of those who are victimized and share that with leaders and those in authority are telling the truth. Yet, as was shared with me in a very kind and instructive way by a woman who had been victimized in the past, this statement when read by someone who has been abused actually sounds like the exact opposite of my intention. 

Please understand that I am not excusing what I wrote and stating that "Well, you didn't understand." I am actually lamenting and repenting of adding those two sentences. Regardless my intent, the wording was wrong and hurtful.

This dear sister shared the insight clearly this way:

I think your intent might have been to suggest these are the exceptions.  But the fact that you feel the need to put this caveat in, speaks loudly to victims that they might be accused of lying.  This is one of the reasons why victims don’t tell.  They are terrified they will be considered one of the “some.”   In truth, estimates of false accusations of abuse/sexual assault sit at between 2-8%.  Studies don’t normally take into account what is called “unfounded accusations” where there is some evidence of inappropriate behavior that does not rise to the level of criminal.  When you consider the fact that that many more cases of abuse and assault occur which are NEVER reported – some say as many as an additional 40% -  I believe the % of actual incidents where women lie about it hovers around 2%.  This is very small.  Not insignificant, yet small.  And not worth even mentioning in response to the Houston Chronicle article.  I think when you go to the trouble to point out that some lie, it quickly silences women who might have a story to tell.  A story that you need to hear.  Some of those women are in your own congregation.

She is right and I am so thankful for this correction. I have since deleted the two sentences I highlighted above for these reasons.

Sadly, There Is More To Come

The Houston Chronicle article from Sunday was just Part One. Part Two was published today. The third part is coming soon. I cannot say I am looking forward to reading them, but I must. To ignore the reality of these sinful actions is to discount the harm done to the victims.

As more and more stories come to the surface, accusations will come from victims. Some will share their stories that occurred decades prior. Time heals all wounds they say, but we know that is not true. Only God can heal these wounds. The tragedy is that some in the church will discount the viability of these accusations. This must not happen. This will actually keep many victims from seeking help, healing, and restoration. The church must not fail in this.

Consequences Remain

I just watched a video clip from the Houston Chronicle where a senior adult man in prison shares his version of the sexual account that landed him in jail. His victim was a preschool-aged child. He was her "church man" and according to the video testimony of the child, touched her in inappropriate ways numerous times. The most appalling moment in the clip was when the man, Mr. Livingston, says "I feel like the victim." Fortunately, the television we were watching this on as a church staff is new, so I didn't throw anything at it, but the feelings of anger and frustration at this statement boiled within me. 

Is God's grace enough for these criminals?

Yes, I do believe the perpetrators who have committed these heinous crimes are redeemable through the grace of God. I know that the blood of Jesus covers all sins. Yet, I differentiate between the terms "consequences" and "condemnation." In the cases where the Christian criminal confesses his/her (it seems to mostly be men in these cases, however) God's Word rings true.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9 (ESV)

I believe this.

I also believe this...

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Romans 8:1 (ESV)

Throughout my ministry I have discovered that many apparently believe the words "condemnation" and "consequences" are synonyms. They are not. The crimes revealed in these stories are not minimal. They are not things to be taken care of simply in the church through counseling or church disciplinary processes. The consequences of such crimes require outside investigators to be involved. The allegations must be taken seriously. When criminal activity is discovered and verified, the consequences are jail time or whatever the courts decide. This cannot be swept under the rug, dealt with in a church committee, and handled as has been the case far too often. <TWEET THIS>

The church who simply fires an abuser, knowing he/she will simply join another church, possibly serve in leadership again, likely to do similar things is not only complicit but culpable.

We Must Believe the Victims

It seems that victims are often not initially believed. They are shamed for daring to accuse a man of God or church leader of such actions. 

These victims need to be believed. They need to be loved (with appropriate showings of biblical, godly love.) The enemy is at work and as one of our ministers on staff said a few weeks ago, "The Enemy seeks to destroy God's church and God's people. He doesn't do it from the outside. He often joins the church and does so from the inside."

To minimize the voice of the victim is to ignore the fullness of the gospel. Christ stated...

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4:18-19 (ESV)

"To set at liberty those who are oppressed" means much, but do not discount this message of healing and freedom of those who are enslaved to sin, even the sin of others. The good news of the gospel is that Christ hears, cares, and redeems. He can set free those who have been victimized by others claiming to represent God. He can heal.

Speaker and author Beth Moore has been very transparent about her past and has shared things online and through social media that speaks of the shaming and fear of sharing from a victim's perspective. She is just one voice, but one that is heard by many. Her words are wise and should be heeded in this case. 

God's Voice to the Sexually Assaulted

Dr. Katie McCoy writes a wonderful article on Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary's Biblical Women site. Click here for the full article. She states this so clearly...

And consent is the key factor here. When we hear from women (and men) who have been assaulted or abused, many share how they froze when it happened. They didn’t know what to do. They were shocked. They couldn’t move. They couldn’t even scream. And they couldn’t understand why. In the aftermath of trauma, so many survivors wonder if they did something wrong.

God’s Law comes to their defense and expels this false shame. The issue was not how she expressed her lack of consent. The issue is that she did not consent. And therefore, God declared she was innocent.

There’s one more thing about this law we need to see: The woman was believed on the basis of her testimony. Biblical law sides with the woman and defends her innocence, despite the lack of witnesses. The woman’s testimony was enough to charge her assailant with the crime. This law not only found her blameless, but also permitted no inference that she was at fault for the attack. In other words, the problem was not that she had done something to be assaulted; the problem was that a man assaulted her.

The woman was believed on the basis of her testimony! Yes, this is key and must be remembered. Whether women, men, or children, the testimony must be heard with intent to believe and discern. Sometimes, this is lacking.

We Must Do The Right Thing

The fear of some is that the Southern Baptist Convention and member churches will overreact due to these stories and set in motion things that are not best. Others fear a lack of response. I have heard both and my response is that an overreaction is better than ignoring reality and not reacting at all. 

Twitter responses of what everyone "needs" to do are everywhere. Those in the SBC leadership are tasked with responding properly. Local pastors must face the reality that regardless what is done at the upper levels (an improper term, I know, due to our Baptist polity, but referencing things done at Executive Committee, state convention, and national convention levels) proper steps must be taken in the local church to protect the flock. The emphasis must be heavily on the safety and protection of the most vulnerable rather than on simply protecting the name of the local church and its leaders and volunteers. It truly is a "both-and" scenario, but this must be clearly understood.

If the church simply implements procedures and processes to protect itself as an organization (or its leaders only) the victims of abuse will continue to be marginalized and deemed less important or not-believable. The shame will continue. Procedures will be in place, but healing and help and proper responses will not occur.

The church exists for the glory of God. We must do that which he leads us to do in this case and in all others. To do the right thing is to do the holy thing. To do the holy thing is to do the biblical thing. To live biblically and holy will bring glory to God. His glory is for our good, as individuals and as his church.

God has not been glorified by the ignoring of offenses. He has not been glorified by the shaming of victims. He has not been glorified by the excusing of sinful actions. He never has been. He never will be.

May God be glorified through his church today. Doing the right thing requires being in right relationship with God through Jesus Christ. 


The Church Must Do More To Protect Its Most Vulnerable

I was made aware a few weeks back that a series of articles would soon be printed at The Houston Chronicle related to sexual abuse within Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) churches. That article was released today online and in print. It is now being shared and soon will appear in the "trending" column of numerous social media sites and apps. Not unlike the clergy sex scandal that impacted the Roman Catholic Church in years past (and does still) and the December 2018 exposé of sexual abuse in various Independent Fundamental Baptist churches printed by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, this series of stories reveals a dark side in the American church.

Human-children-girl-talk-entertainment-road-away

I just completed reading part 1 of the story (parts 2 and 3 will likely come out later this week) and like other SBC pastors and church members, my response is grief and sadness for the victims and frustration for those who were never brought to justice. Yet, I also understand that while calls for a response and a denominational fix have been given for years, the nature of church autonomy (as addressed briefly in the article) puts the SBC in a unique position as compared to other denominations. Nevertheless, denominational polity is not something that will concern most readers of the story. For those who are victims of such abuse, it shouldn't. 

Past SBC officers and leaders, as well as local church pastors, ministers, and volunteers are quoted and featured in the article. I so appreciate J.D. Greear, our current SBC President and Lead Pastor of The Summit Church in North Carolina for his clearly articulated responses and steps taken to address these issues. His tweet on Saturday affirms this.

 

I do not have a role in denominational leadership regarding policies and responses, but I believe that current leadership needs not only our prayers, but support as they seek to respond well, within the bounds of their authority. We must do all we can to help churches and denominational entities better respond to victims and survivors of past atrocities, protect current members and attendees of our churches, educate and implement safety guidelines for leaders, all while not abandoning our calling and commission to glorify God and make disciples of Jesus Christ. (These are not mutually exclusive, by the way.)

As a local church pastor, I have the responsibility to ensure we are doing everything we can to keep our most vulnerable members and attendees safe. When I came to serve at my current church as a youth pastor in the 1990s, I was made aware of a dark chapter in our congregation's history related to sexual misconduct by former leaders in a prior decade. That history was not given to me during the interview process and was only discovered months after moving into my new role at this church. Once I heard, it helped me understand a number of the rules in place for leaders as well as some of the side-eyes I received in public when introducing myself as the youth pastor at the church. In our case, I am glad to say the church responded well. They did not simply sweep the issues under the rug, or allow the victimizer to simply go to another church. These were dark days at the church, and while prosecution and jail time for the convicted occurred, the victims remained (and remain) scarred.

As the Houston Chronicle story unfolds and spreads, many will likely come forward throughout the nation with stories of abuse, victimization, and harm. While some who hear will respond "Why now, after all those years?" the facts remain that wrong was committed. Despite the many years of silence (most victims likely do not want to talk about anything such as this) healing for the victimized and proper responses from the churches are still needed.

Evil Does Not Get a Pass

Tweets are popping up related to this news story quickly from pastors, leaders, church members, as well as those opposed to the church. Dr. Malcolm Yarnell of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is strongly stating that we must not ignore these issues. He tweets "Evil does not get a pass" and he is correct. 

We must be quick to address sin. We often are when it impacts others and when the sinners are not in our camp. It is much more difficult to do so when the sin is revealed and it is clear that a friend, brother or sister in Christ, or fellow denominational or church member is involved. Yet, not unlike Nathan when he was called to address David's sin, we must speak up as well.

Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. (2 Samuel 12:7 ESV)

Steps have been made at SBC denominational levels to seek to address the issues. While these steps may not seem to be much, they are more than we have had in the past and our denominational servants need our prayers for wisdom and clarity as they move forward. The reality of local church autonomy remains and should remain. Yet, autonomy does not mean that each church has the right to be associated with local associations, state conventions, or even the full SBC. 

While our denominational servants will continue to work to address this reality, it is the local church body that must not ignore the issues of sexual misconduct and protection of members and attenders.

What the Local Church Must Do

A short list of steps will fall short, but for many of our churches, a list such as this is a good starting point for protecting the most vulnerable in the church as well as the leaders and volunteers of the church. Ultimately, these wise steps are needed so that God's church will not be marred by ignored sin.

  1. BACKGROUND CHECKS - You would think this would be a no-brainer, but for many of our smaller and older congregations a background check is a new concept. For decades, many churches have sought to find volunteers to serve with preschoolers, children, and youth. In most churches these are the most difficult positions to fill and therefore, whomever volunteers gets the job. This cannot be. It does not matter that Mrs. So-And-So has been a member for years and loves the kids. If the church does not have completed background checks (up-to-date, not one and done forever) on file for all adults who work with minors in any capacity, the church will be liable. While there is a financial cost to having these done, the fact is this cannot be ignored. The cost is much higher to NOT have these done. I'm not speaking only of financial costs here. Of course, background checks only reveal those who have already been caught doing things wrong, so this cannot be the only step.
  2. NO CLOSED-DOOR COUNSELING - Pastors and church leaders are called upon to counsel church members for various reasons. I actually had the door to my office removed and replaced when I was called to be the Lead Pastor. The original door had no window. Therefore, if I was in my office with someone else, there was no way for one of our secretaries or other church leaders to walk by and glance inside to ensure everything was okay. Counseling sessions should not be done alone in the church or elsewhere without opportunity to be viewed by others. Remove the potential for question by ensuring others can see you meeting. The meeting contents can remain confidential (unless abuse or self-harm is revealed and then it must be reported to the authorities) but the meeting must be known by others. If a counselee refuses to meet because there are windows in the door or because others can see that they met with you, that meeting does not need to happen. That sounds harsh, but the risk is greater than the help you may provide. In some cases, another needs to be in the counseling session as well. This could be your spouse or another staff member.
  3. NO ADULT LEADERS ALONE WITH CHILDREN - This is the "rule of two" or better yet "rule of three." An adult leader (male or female) alone with children provides no protection against allegations. This protects the leader against possible false allegations. When adults are not left alone with children and vulnerable young people, they are less likely to do something questionable or in worst-case scenarios, sinful and criminal.
  4. NO MARRIED COUPLES ALONE IN CHILDREN'S LEADERSHIP - This is a challenging one. For years, churches have found it easier to get Mr. and Mrs. John Doe to serve together in a preschool class. However, legal counsel has informed me that this is not viable. Since spouses cannot be forced to testify against each other, the church opens itself up to accusations and problems unless there is another adult in the room with the couple who lead. This becomes a huge challenge in that churches must now find three viable adults to serve in one class, rather than just two. Still, the cost is worth the effort. 
  5. NO ADULTS SHARING HOTEL ROOMS WITH MINORS ON MISSION TRIPS OR CAMPS - Years ago, this was not considered an issue, but it should have been. No adult should ever share a hotel room/cabin/tent with a minor in your church on a trip. The only exception is if the minor is the child of the adult. 
  6. NO DOUBLING UP STUDENTS IN HOTEL ROOM BEDS - In the past, to keep costs down on trips that required hotel stays, youth pastors would do the "four to a room" cost that would put two teenagers in a bed each in a hotel room. While some would say this is no big deal, we have shifted from allowing it. It means our trips cost more, but then again, the cost of an accusation or an issue is greater.
  7. CHURCH-WIDE TRAINING - If ensuring that our children and teenagers are protected is important, it is vital that all volunteers, leaders, and church members are aware of policies and practices to ensure safety. Programs such as MinistrySafe and others provide such training.
  8. POLICIES MUST BE MADE AND FOLLOWED - The church should have written policies regarding what must and must not be done regarding background checks, training, expectations, etc. The policies do not have to be super detailed -  but should cover reporting procedures when abuse is suspected. When an accusation of crime occurs, law enforcement must be involved. The fear of bad PR must not keep the church from reporting potential crimes. Not every accusation is criminal (i.e. He looked at me funny, etc.) but those that involve potential inappropriate touching, texting, emails, etc. or threatening actions must not be ignored.

You may not agree with all these, but I would ask you to consider the alternative of being overly safe. We actually have more things in place, things that many other churches are doing as well, such as computerized check-in and check-out with photos of children in our weekly small groups. This is to help ensure that only authorized individuals may pick up children and check them out of our preschool and children's groups. We have also developed an ERT (Emergency Response Team) that serves at our weekend services to provide medical help and safety for those on campus if a need arises. The benefits far outweigh the costs.

What About Small Churches, Church Plants or Replants?

The larger the church, the more resources are available to implement such protections. However, church plants and smaller churches need these elements in place as well, if not more so. For those who are predators, the smaller church with little or no safety measures in place become prime targets for victimization. Church planters are often seeking to get started and stay viable and new leaders are sought, but even in the planting stage, short-cuts must not be taken. For the church plant and replant, the sending or sponsoring church can (or should) help in the background checks (these are not free) and safety protocols and procedure implementation.

For the replant or revitalization church with a sponsor church, the replant pastor can rely on the sponsor church pastor to be the strong voice and implementer of such policies. Why? Because in many of these churches no children's worker has ever had to have a background check. This can create problems for the campus or replant pastor if he seeks to make the 75-year-old nursery worker who has served for 55 years take a background check to continue serving. The sponsor church pastor can be the "bad guy" (or the voice of reason) for those who must now do things differently.

For the church planter, rely on your sending church. If you don't have a sending church...get one.

Oh, and lead pastors, what you require of others, you must do as well. You cannot be above the policies or requirements regardless of your tenure, degrees, or status in the church or denominational community. You don't need "Nathan" coming to visit.

A Good Resource

There are many good resources out there for churches, and more will be released in the coming months, I'm sure. One book that would be a worthy addition to your library and helpful in creating policies is Deepak Reju's On Guard: Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse at Church.


The Politicization of Abortion

I wrote on January 25 of the changes to law in New York regarding abortion (Read Here). My contention is that the taking of infant lives (whether inside the womb or outside) is sinful and abhorrent. When the Supreme Court presented their landmark decision on Roe v. Wade in 1973, the dividing lines between pro-life and pro-abortion citizens grew wider and more distinct.

4919392339_a44a0e7030_b
Photo credit: Scott Smith (SRisonS) on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

The Supreme Court in 1973 was led by Chief Justice Warren Burger. The final tally was 7-2 in favor of allowing women to have legal abortions under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. Since everything is politicized (even the supposed non-partisan courts) many may be surprised to note that of the nine justices ruling on this case, six were nominated for the seat by Republican Presidents, and three by Democratic Presidents. The two dissenting votes were from Byron White, nominated by President John F. Kennedy, and William Rehnquist, nominated by Richard Nixon. 

While I hold to my statement in the previous post that abortion is not a political matter, but ultimately an issue of morality and a matter of the heart, it is undoubtedly true that abortion has become a political tool for decades. Therefore, a candidate's belief regarding legalized abortion has become a make or break for many voters.

The Latest on Politicized Abortion Talk

As many of you likely know by now, a bill was proposed by Delegate Kathy Tran (D) in Virginia earlier this week. Suddenly, a delegate not known nationally was thrust on the national stage when the video of the Virginia House began to trend. In the clip, she is questioned about her bill that would change the state requirements regarding third trimester abortions. She has since stated that she misspoke regarding some of her answers, but is not backtracking on her desire to see abortion rights expanded in the state. I've posted the video below:

 

The video of Delegate Tran was viewed online and on various media venues many times. The divide in the nation was clear regarding responses to the clip. To be clear, many responses (on both sides of the Pro-Life issue) were hateful, rude, and very personal regarding either Delegate Tran, or others who disagree with one's viewpoint. 

As a follower of Christ, I vehemently disagree with Delegate Tran's bill and the language used. I disagree with her because I disagree with the concept that abortion is simply a reproductive rights issue. I disagree because I believe that life begins at conception. I believe the Word of God speaks to that. I believe that human beings are image-bearers of God. That being said, I also believe that Delegate Tran is an image-bearer of God. I do not know her. I do not know if she believes in God at all. Nevertheless, she bears His image, as do all human beings. Yet, I disagree with her. Strongly. But I cannot and will not stoop to degrading her through hateful speech. That is not God-honoring.

The Story Continues

Once Delegate Tran's video started trending, the Governor of Virginia was asked his opinion. Governor Ralph Northam (D) served our nation in the US Army as a doctor. Following his time in the military and prior to seeking public office, he was a pediatric neurologist. The question posed to him on a radio show regarding third trimester abortions and Delegate Tran's proposed bill seems to have taken the Virginia story to a higher level of viral status. The interview was an "Ask the Governor" piece on WTOP Radio that lasted almost an hour. Questions were on numerous issues throughout the show that did not trend or were not deemed interesting by most viewers outside of Virginia. However, when questioned about Delegate Tran's bill, the trending began. Here's is the full interview, with a starting link at the question on abortion:

Now, with politics being what it is, there are various "re-clarifications" being made, statements regarding viability, choice, number of physicians affirming an action, women's rights, disenfranchisement, and the like. This is not surprising. It happens all the time. It happens with just about every political issue, especially in America's greatly divided political culture where politicians often seem more like reality show stars (some were, I know) and everyone watching is just waiting to see who wins immunity, who gets voted off, who earns head or household, or other such analogy.

When it comes to life, as Christians we must be careful not to allow the politics of the day to sway our understanding of biblical truth. It is the Word of God that is our authority. For the pro-life Christian, it must not be simply an agenda item for the next election, but a heart-felt stance, founded on God's Word and Truth, that sees all human life (from conception until death of a long-lived senior adult) as valuable and worth speaking up and standing up for. The culture of death that permeates our nation is expanding. We are suffering for this. We will continue to do so. 

Since we are swimming in the political pool right now on this issue (that is more than a political one,) I will share a clip from Senator Ben Sasse (R) of Nebraska regarding these recent issues. I believe Senator Sasse is correct in his assessment, not because he's a Republican man, but because his statements actually align with a biblical worldview that treasures life.

Life matters. All human life. At all stages. 

For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. Psalm 139:13-16 (ESV)

 

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ps 139:13–16). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.


Maps Not Menus - The Discipleship Shift Our Church Must Make

For years I have lamented the overly full, consumer church member appeasing, busyness creating church calendar at our church. For other pastors out there of established churches, you understand exactly what I mean.

In fact, I wrote about this a few years ago and, of course, nothing much has changed. We still have a large white-board calendar on the wall of our conference room. We keep the company that makes Expo Dry-Erase Markers in business. We are doing much...but not doing well.

I was talking to a friend earlier this week who lives in the panhandle of Florida. As many of you know, our panhandle was hit severely by a hurricane in the fall of 2018. The panhandle may not be in the news cycle any longer, but our friends will continue to clean up, rebuild, and recover from this devastating storm for months, if not years.

My friend is an associate pastor at a church in the panhandle and he shared that one of the silver-linings of storm recovery is that his church had to totally erase their ministry calendar, scale down, and begin again with a clean slate. The energy and focus of the pastors on staff has been rejuvenated as well as those who are members of the church. They've begun to refocus their efforts to not simply fill the calendar again to get back to "normal" but to only do that which is needed and right for the health and growth of the church and members.

A hurricane or natural disaster can and does cause this, but we shouldn't have to wait for such dire circumstances to force us to do that which is needed and right.

I was listening to a podcast from September 2018 featuring Pastor Robby Gallaty of Long Hollow Baptist Church in the Nashville area. Robby is known for his solid preaching and teaching and mostly for his focus on disciple-making. His discipleship pathway has been implemented at Long Hollow, and subsequently copied by numerous other churches. He affirms this in that there truly are no new ideas. Even Robby's, as he revealed, has roots in the ministry of historic pastors and church leaders, not to mention the Scripture primarily.

Nevertheless, at our staff meeting last Tuesday, I frustratingly shared with our leadership team my concerns about our church's effectiveness in fulfilling the Great Commission and Great Commandment.

We do many good things. We're engaged well in our community. We are actually, for the most part, embodying the missional strategies spoken of years ago. Yet, in our efforts to effectively make disciples...we are falling short.

Sadly, most church members do not recognize this.

Cheesecake-factory

Gallaty used a reference in the podcast that clarified some things for me. It's not new news, but something I needed to hear again. He used the illustration of the Cheesecake Factory menu. We have a Cheesecake Factory in Jacksonville and my wife and I have eaten there on occasion. The food is good, the cheesecakes are great, but the menu...is overwhelming. According to the website there are over 250 items on the menu available. When you are handed the menu, you notice the waiters and waitresses have to wear those back-braces like employees at The Home Depot due to the weight of the book. It would take about three days to read the entire menu, so it's best to preview it online before arriving at the restaurant. Okay, the book isn't that large, but there are over 250 items on it. It does take a while to make your choice. They have almost everything on it.

Just like our church. 

We have a menu of ministries and in this era of consumer Christianity, we find it easier to add more ministries in an attempt to keep people from leaving the church to join the new one down the street, or the one with greatest new promo pieces and ministry options for the kids or other family members. When trying to reach the unchurched, even more ministries are added. We're not alone - others do this too. Just take a look at the churches in your community. Look at their websites, social media pages, promo videos, and images of their smiling members sharing how great the church is. It's all good, but church shopping looks more like Amazon.com than it should. 

And, we're guilty as well.

It's not that these ministry options are not good. Some of them are needed and helpful in helping create and grow disciples of Jesus Christ.

It's just that we, like many churches, do not clearly provide the needed map for disciple-making. We provide a menu. Telling a Christian to just pick a few good items off the ministry menu is not enough to make a disciple. When the discipleship pathway is not intentional, the pathway is broken, not used, or viewed as little more than a theme for a series, but not a strategy for life. 

So...here's the challenge before us - we need to get rid of the menu and provide a map. And, like any good GPS, continue to upgrade the map so that we are wise in our strategies of Christian health. Otherwise, we will end up where we are today with a busy calendar, a menu of ministries, a competitive nature regarding other churches, and feeling fulfilled that we have made church members...while not making disciples.

We're a work in progress. I'm sure you and your church is as well. So, let's pray together for this. May we make the shift, be strategic about it, fulfill the Great Commission, and be the church that brings glory fo God alone.


Forgive Us Father For Pretending That Abortion Is a Political Issue

There is no subject more divisive in America than that of abortion. The issue of abortion is more divisive than immigration laws, the potential building of a wall, social justice issues, and on a much lesser note, whether the Saints were robbed in their NFC Championship game (they were, by the way.)

As you know, in 1973 a landmark Supreme Court case made abortion legal in all fifty states. The Roe v. Wade case stated that any state law that banned abortion (except in the case of the health of the mother) was unconstitutional. This decision was seen as a huge victory for those who had been at various times called pro-abortion, pro-choice, or pro-reproductive rights. Regardless the nomenclature, the court decision resulted in a major shift in American politics and created an even more-defined line between people regarding abortion.

Pregnant-woman-standing-at-seaside-at-sunset
Photo on <a href="https://visualhunt.com/photos/beach/">VisualHunt.com</a>

Since that time politicians and political parties have taken sides. Party platforms were developed and affirmed that delineated where said party stood on such issues. In a very simplistic way of looking at this, the Republican party became the pro-life party while the Democratic party became the pro-choice (a politically correct term used rather than pro-abortion) party. Yet, it should be noted that just because a party platform states one thing or the other, not all members of such party adhere to or agree with all elements. In other words, there are pro-choice Republicans and pro-life Democrats. As former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill is remembered as saying "All politics is local." 

My View on Abortion

My belief on abortion is that it is wrong. It is not God's desire. I believe the child exists at conception. I believe that every human being is made in the image of God. I'm not the first to declare this and I'm sure those who are opposed to my beliefs are prepared with pushback. 

Regarding Abortion As an Option to Save the Life of the Mother

It was former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, MD who said in 1980:

Protection of the life of the mother as an excuse for an abortion is a smoke screen. In my 36 years in pediatric surgery I have never known of one instance where the child had to be aborted to save the mother’s life. . . . If, toward the end of the pregnancy complications arise that threaten the mother’s health, he will take the child by inducing labor or performing a Caesarean section. His intention is still to save the life of both the mother and the baby. The baby will be premature and perhaps immature depending on the length of gestation. Because it has suddenly been taken out of the protective womb, it may encounter threats to its survival. The baby is never willfully destroyed because the mother’s life is in danger.1

The goal of any doctor, seeking to fulfill his/her Hippocratic Oath, is to "first, do no harm." 

However, if the argument is that the child is not really a child prior to birth (or at least in the first trimester) then no harm is being done if the fetus (child) is aborted.

There's a good article on this issue at the St. Joseph PRC's website here.

There are other issues for women related to rape, incest, and criminal behavior resulting in an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. While the intent of this article is not to delve into every instance, it is the church's responsibility to help women who find themselves in such horrendous situations, not only when there is a pregnancy involved, but at all times. 

Abortion As Politics

The political lines were drawn when Roe vs. Wade was decided. The challenge has been due to the fact that our judicial system actually created a federal law by defining state laws related to abortion unconstitutional.

Prior to the 1970s, abortion was not the political divider that it has been since. When Ronald Reagan ran for President against Jimmy Carter, abortion became a talking point. The Washington Post ran an article in April 1980 titled "Reagan Is Favored By Anti-Abortionists." It was true and since then, the Republican party has sought to wear the pro-life tag for political purposes.

A few years ago I had a conversation with a family member who differs from me on just about every political, religious, and moral issue. After stating his preferred political views on a number of issues touted by current candidates, I asked "What about abortion?"

The answer was short, but clear, "There are more issues than abortion."

The conversation ended. 

Yet, it is true. There are more issues than just the abortion one. That is what makes politics even more muddy nowadays than ever. The current political climate is resulting in a greater divide within the church and the Christian community, as well as throughout the nation. 

Yet, the question remains, "What about abortion? What about the lives of unborn boys and girls? What about the lives of women with unplanned and unwanted pregnancies? What about the value of God's image-bearers at all ages?" 

The question of abortion cannot be side-stepped. It cannot be ignored. It cannot be hidden under the banner of the latest terminology that seeks to make it sound simply like a viable health option (i.e. reproductive rights.)

Sometimes, in the divided world we live in, to state one's support for the lives of unborn babies gets one categorized as anti-woman, or anti-health, or something else like that. It is a challenge to be sure.

For Christians, for pastors especially, silence on abortion is not really an option.

By the way, if we claim to be pro-life, we had best be pro-life at all stages, not just at the beginning point. The care for the elderly and the ill is not to be ignored. The church cannot simply be pro-baby and not be pro-adoption, pro-foster care, and pro-everything else that has to do with healthy, biblical families. Pro-life is for new life and sustained life.

The Evil of the New York Law

The word "evil" is often overused today. Politicians use it to describe other nations or corrupt dictators in order to gain attention or make a strong point. I use the term sparingly, but here to describe something that is so perverse, so anti-God, so anti-holy, the embodiment of all that is godless and wrong. The term is properly used when describing the new law in New York.

The new law in New York, called the Reproductive Health Act, signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday, January 22, 2019, seeks to safeguard rights enacted by the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. This law is little than a reaction or response to the now right-leaning U.S. Supreme Court and the fear that this court may overturn the 46 year old decision. 

Prior to January 22, the law which had been on the books in New York, only permitted abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy if the mother's life was at risk. This new law shifts the section of state law regarding abortion from the penal code to health statues. It also expands who is legal to perform abortions. 

This update to the law had been pushed by abortion-rights activists for years.

What the law does beyond what has already been explained, is significantly expand abortion rights and removes protections for women and children. Since abortion is no longer covered by the criminal code, the legal term "homicide" can no longer be used. Prior, under Section 125.00 of the penal law "homicide" was defined as "conduct which causes the death of a person or an unborn child with which a female has been pregnant for more than twenty-four weeks." This language has been removed when related to unborn children.

Most notably, this law allows for late-term abortions. The law now allows for licensed health-care practitioners to perform abortions as they see fit, using their "reasonable and good faith professional judgment based on the facts of the patient's case" within twenty-four weeks from commencement of pregnancy.2

The impact of this law is dire. It grieves me.

What Is the Church to Do?

Well, I guess we could get angry and do interviews on news channels, write articles and maybe blog about it. But, that's been done (and I'm doing that now) but that's not the answer. 

Prayer is absolutely our first response. Prayer for the women with unplanned pregnancies. Prayer for the babies in the womb. Prayer for the babies who are born but cannot stay with their mothers. Prayer for Christians to advocate for and become foster-parents and adoptive parents. Prayer (and support) for the crisis pregnancy centers throughout our communities. Prayer is something we have done and must continue.

Practically, we have to continue, if not more clearly now than in the past, to declare the biblical worldview regarding life. This means that we must somehow remove the lenses that view life and our American experience in other ways. 

We Must Confess Our Sin

The church (and I'm speaking of the definitively pro-life Christians and church attenders) must continue to speak for life. However, sometimes we fall into a trap believing that the answer to the abortion issue in the United States is solely dependent on elected officials, political parties, and court decisions. Those all matter, to be certain. They all are important. They're just not the most important.

That is our sin - putting our trust in politicians, government, and policy-makers rather than God.

Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God. Psalm 20:7 (ESV)

Yet, we know and affirm the biblical mandate to submit to governing leaders.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Romans 13:1 (ESV)

We must acknowledge that no political or governmental leader is in place other than by God's desire. That is a very difficult concept to hold, especially when certain leaders, by their words, actions, or inactions, are clearly, vehemently opposed to God and biblical truth (and I'm speaking of those from both major parties.)

Yet, that does not change the reality of God's sovereignty.

The privilege of living in our democratic republic is that we have the freedom to state our opposition to certain laws, practices, and declarations without fear, as is the case elsewhere around the world. 

In this case, opposition to the recently passed law in New York does not eliminate or weaken our understanding of Romans 13:1. It also allows us to live by conviction as Christians, holding to the trust in God alone.

Church, we cannot remain silent on this and other issues. As long as Christians stand on the sideline waiting for others to speak up, the bystander effect will continue to reign. This is the effect that occurs when a situation is played out in front of a crowd and though many in the crowd desire to do something, no one does...just waiting for another to step up.

We must step up and speak up otherwise, we perpetuate what Edmund Burke is noted as saying:

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

__________

1C. Everett Koop, M.D., as told to Dick Bohrer, in Moody Monthly, May, 1980. Reprinted in Bohrer’s book here: http://dickbohrerbooks.com/DownloadFiles/Opinion-8.pdf

2Joe Carter. Explainer: New York Removes Barriers to Abortion, ERLC, January 25, 2019. https://erlc.com/resource-library/articles/explainer-new-york-removes-barriers-to-abortion


Crises Will Come to Your Community. How Do You and Your Church Respond?

There are some things that God has brought to mind in our church over the past week. These are things not tied to programming or ministry events, but out of a response to a community crisis.

6250578408_fe2282f350_b
Photo credit: neil cummings on VisualHunt / CC BY-SA

You see, last week a story ran on our local news stations regarding a crime committed in the Mayport area of our city (Jacksonville, Florida.) A young man robbed an internet cafe, then escaped from the facility with police in pursuit. He ended up in a neighboring community where he was running through yards, jumping fences, and eventually found a back door open (the screen door was closed due to the nice weather) at a home where he entered, kidnapped the elderly man who lived there, then stole the resident's vehicle. A high-speed police chase developed with the suspect in the driver's seat and the elderly man in the backseat. At a speed in excess of 100 miles per hour, the driver ran over two police officers, leaving them in critical condition and after a PIT maneuver by a pursuing officer, the vehicle crashed, leaving the driver and the kidnapped victim gravely injured.

This is an amazingly terrible story and when I saw it on the news that day, I was shocked.

Later than afternoon I received a phone call from our campus minister at Oak Harbor Baptist Church (OHBC), Brian Hoffman. OHBC is a revitalization we are leading at a small, fifty-year-old church in the Mayport community. We have been working and partnering with this congregation for almost three years. Brian asked if I had seen the news and then told me that the gentleman who was kidnapped was Louis Reese, one of our deacons at the church who has been key to our ministry and revitalization efforts.

I was shocked and a flood of emotions came over me. I know that whenever a story like this hits the news that it represents real people in very real circumstances. However, like most people who read trending news stories or who actually watch local broadcasts, there are always other stories presented and the impact of the initial one often fades as commercials and others are shared.

In this case, it was clear that this story would not fade away for me. It would not disappear, at least from the minds of the OHBC church members, the neighbors and friends of Louis in his subdivision, or the officers and family members impacted. The family of the suspect would be viewing this news story closely as well.

Since last Wednesday when this occurred, we have held a prayer meeting, under the guidance of our campus minister, Brian. We have given interviews with numerous media outlets to get the word out regarding the prayer and the online giving option available where we are collecting funds for our church member and the two officers who were injured. Many in the community have joined us in this journey. We have sought to keep those informed of the latest updates as we asked for prayer for Louis and all involved.

Sadly, on Tuesday of this week (January 8) our brother and deacon Louis Reese died. His body was badly injured and after valiant work being done by the doctors and nurses of Memorial Hospital in Jacksonville, God brought Louis home. We are deeply grieved and yet, so very hopeful. We know where Louis is. He is in no pain. These are not simply religious sounding "funeral words" to help the living cope. These are truths based on the goodness and grace of God and of Louis's surrender to Christ as his Lord and Savior. It was Louis who stated his desire to see many in the Mayport community come to know the Lord as he himself had through the ministry of God's church at Oak Harbor Baptist. Though he never dreamed that these circumstances would possibly lead to that, we are confident that God's message of hope and salvation is being proclaimed through the life and legacy of Louis Reese.

As we now plan a funeral service for our loved one, we are reminded of his desire that Christ alone be honored. What a legacy! What a lesson for his church (OHBC) and His church throughout the world. 

What To Remember When Crisis Hits 

  • Don't Waste Your Crisis - Years ago John Piper wrote a book titled Don't Waste Your Cancer. This was written as he was undergoing treatment for the disease and has been a helpful resource for many who have faced similar trials. In our case, we know that the tragic, evil, and seemingly random events of last week have impacted many in our city. Through these difficult times, God provides peace, hope, and help. To ignore this reality is to ignore an opportunity to live out one's faith and to let others see the hope we have in Christ. This is not easy and this is not an opportunity for the church to grandstand or take advantage of circumstances. It is, however, a time "such as this" when the church must firmly and clearly, even through grief, present the fullness of the gospel. 
  • Your Church's Address Is Not An Accident - It was just a few years ago that OHBC was at a point of crisis regarding survival. After months of prayer and meetings with other churches and associational leaders, hard decisions were to be made. This is not uncommon among many of our smaller churches in America. The glory days of ministry are often gone and the realization of next steps often leads to either a revitalization or replanting effort, or sadly in some cases, the dissolution of the church and sale of property. OHBC is located in an area with great need. There are two large schools next door (an elementary and a middle school.) There are two large trailer parks nearby. There are numerous subdivisions of homes and a large number of duplexes and multi-housing facilities as well. The Navy base is just a few miles away. There is a large military and civil service population nearby. While there are other churches in the region, there is no church on the road where OHBC is within such close proximity to all these people. It is no accident that OHBC is located where it is - in the middle of a "field" where the "harvest is ready." Sometimes, we long for the people who used to live near us and in so doing, program and do ministry for a people group that no longer exists. OHBC is positioned to minister to many who now are living in fear due to the criminal activity that made the news, struggling to know what to do next, and have many questions related to faith, among other things. This is true for every church plant (even those who didn't get into the property they initially desired) and established church (even those who are placed in a community that has changed dramatically.) We must remember that we are where God has planted us, for his glory and the good of his church and the community surrounding it.
  • Crises Will Come, Be Prepared to Respond - No one looks for a crisis moment. You shouldn't. Yet, they happen. In small towns, rural areas, and big cities there are moments when things occur that thrust the community out of its "regularly scheduled programming." This may be a storm, a tornado, a hurricane, or some other natural disaster. It may be a closing of a factory or a base leaving many fearful for their economic future and stability. It could be a crime, such as we have experienced. The fact is we live in a broken world. Sin has infected all of creation from the moment of Adam and Eve's betrayal to God and his commands. Yet, we do not live as those without hope. We do not believe God to be good only when everything in our lives is going according to our preferences and plans. We do not worship a God who performs for us. We lives surrendered to a God we do not deserve to know personally, but can through Jesus Christ. In the crises, we hold tight to this faith, showing and sharing with others that all else falls apart when the world is falling apart. Christ alone, our hope in crises. Our hope and salvation. The crises will test your theology. You can pass the test. That's God's desire.
  • Have a Public Voice, But Be Clear and Hopeful - There are many religious people who have found the microphones over the years during moments of crisis. Some seek to bring attention to themselves. Here are my recommendations when giving interviews and speaking to the public at these times:
    • Have One Voice - Whether it is the Lead Pastor of your church or another designated spokesperson, have one person speak to the media from the church. This allows for clarity and a solid, concise message.
    • Share Hope - Crises are difficult, thus the name. There's a flood of responses and emotions that come from fear, anger, worry, etc. Don't minimize these. Address them. Share that you have them as well, but always be clear that hope is available and it is found in Christ. You don't have to preach a sermon, but a clear, focused, quick message of hope that comes from Christ is needed. Don't forget that.
    • Provide a Press Release - If possible, and the crisis is something where many are seeking an interview or a statement, provide a written press release that can be emailed or faxed (yes those still exist) to the news media and reporters. This allows the words to be thought through, clear, spelled correctly, with information on follow-up if need be. There is an acceptable format for such and it would be wise to use that. Click here for a good template and example (don't forget the hashtags at the bottom - that's protocol, not decoration.)
    • Stay On Target - When interviewing, especially with various outlets about a story, you need to realize that you will be talking to people who are doing their job and also competing with the others doing the same job in order to get the story, a different take on the story, or a unique perspective. Be careful to stay on target with the information you provide. If there are medical issues, don't respond to those questions. If there are legal issues, don't respond to those questions. If there are questions about the person's past or relatives, don't go there. These questions are common and will come. Be wise. Stay on the story of the moment. In our case, it was about praying for the health and recovery of our loved one and the officers injured. Remember, whatever is said will be aired, printed, and posted online. In most cases, you're speaking for the church, not the family, neighbors, etc. This is vital to remember. 
    • Don't Overstep - As stated in the above point, you are speaking for the church. Unless the family has designated you or your church's representative as their mouthpiece, do not speak for them. Don't post updates or events related to the crisis online (especially if it is related to a person, not a natural disaster, etc.) without approval of family members or those impacted. No one wants to learn the latest family update from an online post rather than from a family member.

We are continuing to journey through this crisis as a church family. We are hopeful and confident in Louis's eternal home and the legacy he leaves. Please join us in praying for his family as well as others who have been so greatly impacted by these events. May we be viewed by our Heavenly Father as a church that responded well, brought Him glory, and provided good to our world.


We Must Pray for Other Churches in Our Community

Do you love your community?*

For some, the fact you live where you do was decided by someone other than you. Perhaps your employer moved you to the place you live? Maybe you relocated to help family members in need? Some of you were born where you currently live, but upon conception, you were not consulted regarding where home would be.

For others, you strategically chose to live where you currently do. You may have no family nearby, but love the area and through a series of circumstances, you relocated to your current place of residence.

Every community has things to love about it as well as things that would never make it on the Chamber of Commerce's website or promotional brochures. Yet, as a Christian, there is wisdom in seeing one's current home as something God has intentionally orchestrated for his glory and our good.

The church-saturated community

Living in the Jacksonville, Florida area, I am fully aware that what we deem as normal here is not for most of the nation and world. Jacksonville is known for many things - the Jaguars, the Navy, the railroad, beaches, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and for having more churches than stray dogs. There are some noted legacy churches in our city. There are also a number of newer, quickly-growing non-denominational megachurches. Somewhere between the handful of large established and large new churches are dozens and dozens of churches with varied histories, legacies, community presence, and health. For instance, there are just over 200 Southern Baptist churches in our city. Add to that the churches of other denominations and those with no affiliation and you can understand what I mean.

With this many churches it is no wonder that comparisons and competitiveness develop among church bodies and pastors. The sin nature remains.

As the new year begins, I am seeking to change the perspective of competition and fear of other good churches that often creeps into our church body and even among staff (me included.)

If we truly love our community, we (the Christians) must be more strategic and focused on what truly matters. Could it be that God has placed all these churches, of various sizes and contextual makeup, throughout the city for something bigger than just the growth of any one church body? Could it be that this growing city has been strategically marked by God with his children and his church for his glory? I know there are many organizations that are church in name only. I understand that not every group that has "church" on its sign preaches the gospel and affirms biblical doctrine. I get that not all "churches" have the same goal in mind.

But what about those churches who do? 

It may be too much to call all the pastors together for some large city-wide project. I have been to those meetings in the past and to be honest, I don't like them. They often end up with too many men and women in a room trying to determine the pecking order of importance while the project or event for the city becomes the primary focus, rather than the movement of God that was initially declared to be the focus. 

I believe pastors and church leaders should intentionally, strategically, and declaratively pray for the other churches in their community. 

Lightstock_116247_medium_david_tarkington

We should pray for other churches because...

  1. We serve one God. This is pretty simple isn't it? We're on the same team. For those holding to biblical fidelity, focused on the gospel, and intent on making disciples, we must realize the incredible blessing of not having to reach our city or community alone. When one church grows, the church grows. Your church is not your church. It's God's.
  2. Our community makes no distinction between churches. This is a broad statement and I know that those in your community likely do know the difference between the large church with money and many ministries for kids and teenagers and the small one that does not have the same resources. Yet, more than likely, most in your community do not know, or care to know, that each local body is autonomous and unique. For your community, if one church fails, it's as if all of them fail. If one church has a moral issue, all the churches are stained. Therefore, it is not good to see the pastor at the church down the street fail. You may not agree with him. You may not like his personality, but if he fails, you fail. When one hurts, the entire body (and that extends outside the walls of your local church family) hurts. When your church is known for not liking the others in town, you perpetuate the already believed lie that Christians hate others, even their own.
  3. Our jealous hearts need healing. The jealous, comparative, and competitive nature that develops between churches and church leaders is deadly (Song of Solomon 8:6, 1 Corinthians 13:4, Philippians 2:3, James 3:14-16, Proverbs 14:30.) One of the best ways to melt away the jealousy and competitiveness that rises when other churches seemingly are doing better is to first, repent and second, pray for the other churches and their leaders to thrive.
  4. This helps our community. So you love your community? Sure you do. Then, realize that having a variety of healthy churches throughout the community is good. What if the church-saturated community becomes a gospel-saturated one? This can happen when the church serves well together, for God's glory. The fringe benefit of honoring and glorifying God through obedient worship and service is that the community is blessed.
  5. This glorifies God. Paul instructed Timothy and the church as a whole to pray for others, especially those in leadership positions (1 Timothy 2:1).  We even see in the book of Acts where one local church collects funds for another in need. This love for other fellowships should not be just historical, but common today. God is honored when his children are united in him.

So, as the new year begins, make it part of your weekly worship services to pray for other churches in the community (and throughout the world.) I would recommend praying for one church by name each week. Pray for the pastor by name. Many in your congregation may know the church and pastor. Some are likely former members of said church. 

If other churches do the same, then be comforted in knowing you and your local body of believers are being prayed for as well.

Just imagine a new year where the biblically-centered, gospel-focused, doctrinally-sound churches in your community and city stand together for more than the growth of their individual kingdoms. 

_____________________

*I am writing from a western, American evangelical perspective and realize that there are many people throughout the world who have no choice but to live where they do and have no options for relocating. I also understand that the "church on every corner" that is a reality for many American towns and cities is not the norm. Therefore, the call to pray for other local churches expands to praying for the global church for all.

 


The Difficulty of Being a Single Adult in the Church

About fifteen years ago, prior to being called as the Lead Pastor at our church, I had the honor of serving as our Single & Young Married Adult Pastor at our church. This was following my initial stint as Student Pastor. During that time, I learned much. Mostly, I learned how much I did not know regarding ministry to and with those who were categorized as single adults in our church.

For many current evangelical churches in America, the single adult ministry often is forgotten or deemed unimportant. While that may not be stated aloud, the lack of focused ministry to and with those who are unmarried proves otherwise. Even if not intended, this appears to be what is experienced by the unmarried believers in the church family.

Lightstock_63004_small_david_tarkington

Recently, I was leading our deacon ordination council interviews with prospective deacons. One young man is newly married (within the past two years) and I asked him point blank "How difficult was it for you to serve faithfully in the church as a single man?" The question had nothing to do with the ordination interview. That was complete. It was simply a question that had been on my mind recently. His response was not unexpected, nor shocking. He stated, "Very difficult." 

His response was centered around the fact that many, if not most church programs and activities tend to be promoted with "family" or for those who are married.

Years ago one of our senior adult men (married for decades and wife still alive) asked me why we even had a single adult ministry. His question seemed odd, if not a bit offensive at first, but as I discovered, came from a sincere desire to understand. The last time he could have been categorized as a single adult was right after high school. He remains happily married and did not know why those who were unmarried would not feel comfortable in a couples' class.

The truth is some do feel comfortable with others, regardless of the marital status of others. Yet, the fact remains that not all do.

While our church is intent on ministering to and with families, leading parents to be lead disciple-makers in their homes, the reality is that while unintended, some who are not married feel left out. Some have expressed that it is like being the friend of the high school student with a boyfriend and being invited to go to the theme park with them. It can be enjoyable, but you end up sitting behind the happy couple on the roller coaster, or even worse, in the "Tunnel of Love."

Why is it this way in the church?

Writing as a man who has been married to the same woman since I was twenty years old, some may view my responses and analysis here as uninformed or disconnected. Yet, as a pastor called to lead a congregation into the fullness of God's teachings and minister to those who have been segmented into ministries based on age, gender, and marital status over the years, I hold a heavy responsibility to do my best for all who are part of our church family. 

Without doing an extensive survey, but simply talking to people who are single, and having served in pastoral ministry for almost thirty years, here are some things that seem to be making it so difficult to be an engaged (not engaged to be married, but engaged strategically in ministry), faithful single adult believer in the local church. Of course, there are exceptions and varied other things that could be listed as well. Feel free to add to the list in the comments.

1. There's a post-high school and college gap in the church.

If your church has a vibrant, strong student ministry - that is wonderful! Some churches even have a strong collegiate ministry. But, what about when a person makes it through those ministries that include events, mission trips, camps, conferences, Bible studies, and more? If your church is like most, many have couples classes and small groups for adults. These are good. But...what about the adult who did not get married in college or even has a significant other at this point? This gap is real and what many have discovered is that these ministries for youth and students tend to have designated pastors or ministers leading them. The youth pastor is the go-to person for teenagers. There may even be a collegiate pastor. Yet, the lack of designated leadership for the single adult ministry post-high school and college often leaves a large demographic with no where to land. 

Even if the church is not large and there are no designated pastors or ministers, the gap is still felt. Some single adults who desire to be married find in the smaller church that they stand alone in what well-intentioned, but wrong friends and parents claim a "small pond" and thus, the single adult is encouraged to go elsewhere to find a prospect for marriage.

This concept of "finding a prospect" leads well into the next point.

2. Singleness is often viewed as a stage of life to survive.

It may not be intentional, but whether from parents, grandparents, other family members, or those in the church, offhanded comments like "When are you going to get married?" often come across negatively. 

Rather than viewing singleness as a stage to survive and get through until you find that perfect someone, could it be the church should elevate those who are living faithfully to the Lord as single adults. Perhaps even honoring their faithfulness as Paul alluded to in his letter to the church at Corinth.

So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better. 1 Corinthians 7:38 (ESV)

This is not a shot at the married, but should be viewed as it is intended, as an affirmation for the single believer.

Often in the church, this affirmation is absent. One pastor of a neighboring church told me years ago when referencing his single adult ministry that "There are some who are single for a season and others who are single for a reason." While that statement could be taken well, if intended to affirm the "reason" as being for the calling of God, this pastor actually was speaking in a demeaning manner of those who apparently just couldn't get it together and find a spouse. That is wrong and in the age of the easily offended, that statement should offend.

In an article featured in Relevant Magazine, Preston Sprinkle states the following truths regarding the subtle and not-so-subtle anti-singleness message in the church:

Much of this anti-singleness message saturates the air of our churches, sometimes with words, other times with actions. The message is usually it is subtle and unintended. But single people hear it loud and clear: You’re incomplete until you get married and have at least two kids. (But if you have more than four, then people think you’re weird again.)

Just ask any post-college single person at your church how they feel. Ask them if they feel like they are valued, honored, respected, loved and invited into the lives and homes of other families of the church. Ask them if they are ever made to feel incomplete by off-handed comments (“Why aren’t you married yet?”) or sermon illustrations that always draw from parenting. Ask them how they felt on the weekend that the church was away at Family Camp.

The fact is, marriage is a small blip in our existence. We’re all born single and called to steward our singleness for the first 20-30 years of our life. Many people will be called out of singleness and into marriage and then called to steward their marriage to the glory of God. But us married folks will be single again, in this life, whether through divorce or death of our spouse. And then we’ll spend eternity with God as single persons once again. (Full article here.)

3. Marriage has become an idol

This is a difficult topic. Marriage between a man and woman is ordained by God. It is good and is even used as an illustration of Christ's relationship with his church. It is honorable. It is holy. Yet, as with all good and godly things, there is the potential for marriage to become one's idol. The family unit has also become this for many in the American church.

It's difficult because the church actually, unintentionally, propagates this opportunity for false worship.

One woman declared:

What truly should be addressed in church is the idolatry of marriage. So many singles (well, for women) feel as if they can’t be on mission until they get married. (from article here)

When thriving as a Christian is equated to being married and having children, these great and godly elements of life are elevated to places they do not belong. 

This does not mean the church should avoid ministry to the married. In fact, with the divorce rate so high and marital issues between believers continually present, ministry to and with pre-married and married couples must continue. The godly marriage takes effort. No one drifts toward that reality.

Yet, alongside a strong ministry for those who are married, a vibrant, intentional, gospel-focused ministry with single adults must happen as well. Otherwise, the multi-faceted church intent on "being all things to all people" for the sake of reaching some, ignores a large demographic in the community.

4. We join ministries, not the church

The American church has been impactful for generations, but throughout the twentieth century an industrial model of business entered into the church. The programmatic structure became expected and helpful. It was beneficial for many as children's, student, age-graded, and gender-based ministries developed. The development of single adult ministry emerged as it was discovered the gap existed.

Even now, we understand that programmatic division, while helpful with age-based learning stages, often leaves many on the outside looking in when they cannot find where they fit.

The church's focus should not be built on a demographic study or gender focus, but solely on the Word of God. This may seem contradictory to the premise that single adults should be ministered to and with, but while I do believe a focused ministry for the unmarried (with or without children, never married, divorced, or widowed) is vital, I strongly believe that single adults should not be relegated to a satellite ministry that seems to orbit the church. I believe the same for student ministry and others. God ordained the church. We are called to unite together as his church locally for his glory and our good. If a person simply joins a ministry (regardless the demographic attached) they and the church find themselves disobedient to God's call. How many teenagers in our churches really were never called to unite with the church and fall under the shepherding leadership of the lead pastor, but simply joined a youth group and hung out with a youth pastor? Yeah - that hit a nerve, right? It's the same for any ministry.

5. The return on investment is not high enough

Oops. That's hitting too close to home, right? 

This is a sinful reality among many churches, but let's call it what it is. If a church seeks to grow, increase membership, and along the way increase its budget, the best option is to focus intently on family units. Create a ministry for mom and dad and the kids. It's a higher return. 

The single adult will have one income. It may be lower (not always the case) than the married adult. The activity in ministry is going to be limited to just the one person, rather than an increase in children's, youth, men's, and women's ministry. When it's all about numbers, the one becomes less valuable than the ninety-nine. So much so that often the one is left to fend for himself and ultimately will disappear from the fellowship.

What is the answer?

The answers will be varied, but it begins with the realization that all these issues and more are not only present, but prevalent in many of our churches. To ignore a large portion of the population is to simply say, either overtly or covertly "You don't belong." 

The answer likely has nothing to do with hiring a single adult pastor. It likely isn't to elevate a programmatic ministry model as the answer either. Yet, it begins with a passion to see all people come to Christ and thrive as part of the local church.  

Not every adult is called to be married. Yet, every Christian, married or single, is called to God and equipped for service within his church. 

As a pastor, I must be conscious of this reality and ensure that not every sermon illustration is about marriage or parenting - though many are from my own story, so I won't ignore them. I must ensure that when seeking those to lead in ministries, we are not only looking from a pool of married persons. I must lead biblically in all areas, focusing on the value we have as children of God to be bestowed by God alone and not elevated by whether an individual is married, single, divorced, widowed, or "it's complicated."


When Your Church Hires the Wrong Pastor

I heard from a church a few states away last week whose pastor is leaving. He's moving on to another place of service. No issues there. However, in this case, the tenure of this pastor was challenging, to put it nicely. I won't get into the details, but one church member stated in a conversation "How did we miss so badly in calling him?"

To be clear, in many cases after a new pastor is called to serve in an established church there comes a time when some, hopefully not many, in the church start to question leadership style, direction, personality, etc. In some cases, the pastor is the needed person, called by God for that church. In other words, in these cases, God brings his man into his church to reclaim the church for God's glory. This requires a man with a clear calling, a missional outlook, a loving spirit, a mix of patience and urgency, the heart of a shepherd, thick skin, and a wife who can handle criticism, and children who are strong enough to weather the harsh things said about their father.

5533558309_66227ddfbe_b
Photo credit: Chris Yarzab on Foter.com / CC BY

In these instances a long tenure is needed and decades later, the historic review of the church's health is often keyed to the moment the church called this man as pastor.

But what about the bad hire?

It's true. There are times when it becomes clear that the person hired as pastor or as a member of your church's pastoral/ministerial staff is not a good fit. In fact, to be clear, there are times when it was wrong.

There are various reasons for such a hire and more than can be covered in this post. But, in my experience, here are some of the reasons a bad hire happens.

1. The pastor/minister was never truly called by God for the position.

I have talked to numerous men who have felt the calling to preach. I have asked how they have discerned such and at times, the clarity of the call is overwhelming. At other times, it simply seems that the individual is frustrated in his current job, not feeling fulfilled, and sits in the congregation watching the pastor or other ministry leader and thinks "I could do that." While that may be an impetus used by God to draw a man into pastoral ministry, it often is little more than a desire for personal fulfillment partnered with frustration of current status in life. 

Charles Spurgeon spoke much on the calling to pastoral ministry, holding it high and of value. One of his most famous statements about the call is as follows:

If any student in this room could be content to be a newspaper editor or a grocer or a farmer or a doctor or a lawyer or a senator or a king, in the name of heaven and earth, let him go his way; he is not the man in whom dwells the Spirit of God in its fullness, for a man so filled with God would utterly weary of any pursuit but that for which his inmost soul pants.1

While it is clear that many pastors would have and have done well in what has been classified as "secular" work by some, Spurgeon's quote goes to the heart of the calling. If a man could live content and fulfilled as a Christian, evangelizing the lost, discipling others, and doing so in the marketplace, then do so. However, if the calling of God is to shepherd the church, serve him in the capacity of an overseer, pastor, or elder, then by all means, that man is to do so.

The sad reality is that some men see the pastorate as nothing more than just another job. It is not. It cannot be. 

2. The pastor/minister is simply seeking a religious job and platform.

This reality is more and more prominent in the age of the celebrity preacher. Churches fall prey to this when seeking to call/hire a man to lead them. The danger is in lumping the good, qualified, popular pastors with the ones who are little more than attention seekers selling themselves with just enough Jesus added on to be dangerous (if not heretical.) 

In the recent 9 Marks podcast "Pastors' Talk" episode 69: On Pastoral Calling featuring Mark Dever, Brad Wheeler, and Jonathan Leeman, the men candidly discuss the concept of calling. You can listen to the full podcast here.

Dever is questioned by the others regarding some who seek to serve and why some should be rejected. He states:

The guy who keeps telling me he’s called to preach but isn’t making any opportunities to share the gospel likely isn’t called. He’s just waiting for someone to give him a platform. He likely just wants a religious job.

I know this guy. He has appeared in my ministry at different times. Unfortunately, in my immaturity, I have often given opportunities that should have never been given.

We have dealt with these as well in our network's church planting assessment weekends. A discerning heart often picks up on statements and desires that lean more toward this version of self-promotion than to biblical pastoral ministry.

While the church calling a man may be enamored by the potential celebrity status intent on competing with the church down the street, the result is often an unhealthy ministry led by an uncalled minister who does more harm than good. And ultimately, God is not glorified.

3. The wife is not called.

What? Isn't it just important that the man surrender to the pastoral call and go?

Uh...no.

Here's a little nugget from the Pastors' Talk podcast that speaks clearly to this. Let's say the man feels called and is sharing this with his wife. Dever asks about the very real questions that couples in ministry deal with. In this example, it is the man speaking to his wife. In other examples, the godly wife knows her husband is called to more, but he resists. We all know those as well. But in this case, 

  • How does the husband convince his wife that it is okay to be poorer than they would be otherwise? It may mean resigning from a high paying job and moving out of the nice, gated community in an intentional down-sizing to serve. 
  • How does the husband convince his wife that it is okay to be the object of more criticism than she would be normally? I know some who have greatly struggled and even slowed or stopped a move to full-time ministry simply due to an aversion to this role of "pastor's wife."
  • How does the husband convince his wife that it is okay to live more publicly with all the kids than she would have to normally?

The calling of a pastor (and since I'm a complementarian, I am speaking of a man in this role) is not divorced from the calling of his wife. Maybe I shouldn't use the word divorce - that brings up an entirely other, needed discussion. 

Simply put, I agree with Brad Wheeler in the podcast:

If the Lord has called the man, he has called his wife.

Conversely, if the Lord has not called the wife, he has not called the husband.

Yes, it's a package deal.

4. The Lead Pastor is overly enamored by having men called from his ministry.

Ouch. This one hurts, but it is true and reveals a bit of idolatry. 

It is a great thing to have men and women surrender to ministry in the church. It is honorable and celebratory to have them do so under your leadership as pastor. However, there is this reality that all too often occurs in churches. The lead pastor is loved. He has faithfully preached, taught, and shepherded the church. God has used him well and many are coming forward to surrender to ministry.

Yet, some of those who come are not called.

They want to be on staff. 

They want a title.

They want to live the preacher life (or at least the version they see from the congregation), but they are not qualified. They are not called. They have been given another role.

It's not a downgrade. In these cases, the individual is called to evangelize and disciple, as all Christians are. They are in the marketplace, in the schools, in the workforce. They are on the frontlines. They are called, but not biblically qualified to pastor or serve as an overseer. Yet, they are given a position. They are given a title. Why? Because the lead pastor is excited that someone would come forward under his ministry to do so. 

Yet, it's a disservice to the individual and as will always be revealed, to the church.

The danger is when that unqualified individual is given a position to which he has not been called, the ramifications are serious. Ultimately, he will likely either quit, fold under the pressure, or have to be dismissed. At any rate, that family is hurt (he, his wife and children) and the church. Shame sets in. Embarrassment occurs. Even anger results. 

In some cases, the person is done with church, because it is very hard to go from being listed on the website and bulletin as a minister to just sitting in the congregation again. Sometimes, the person just goes to the church down the street or in the next community over. Either way - the rift is real. 

And it always comes back to harm the church and the lead pastor.

There are numerous other reasons why the wrong person is in a pastoral position.

The question is, "How does the church survive this?"

Sadly, some do not. If the church has a man in pastoral leadership who has done more than just preach poorly, become arrogant, or hurt people's feelings, the harm may be lasting. In some cases, sexual sin, affairs, and even abuse occurs. Our church dealt with this long before I joined the pastoral staff in 1994. The senior pastor at the time led the church to hire me as student pastor. It was about a month after arriving I was told by him and others in the church that three youth pastors prior, a sexual crime had been committed by the man with the title. The senior pastor at the time apparently resigned later for his own indiscretion. 

It's been over thirty years now and while most in our community have no idea of those days (and I'm thankful for the senior pastor who called me to his staff and the immediate previous youth pastor who was able to serve with distinction before moving to another church) the scars of past sins in our church remain.

While these were the most heinous offenders, others over the years have come and gone. Good guys, but wrong hires.

Not all. Believe me, God has blessed us currently and in the past with godly, called men and women to serve in ministerial leadership positions. 

At times, I'm certain some in our church have wondered if I was a poor hire. Most of those are now members at sister churches in the community. 

God's church survives these moments not by forming another committee to go "find the right guy this time" but by grounding itself in the gospel and in prayer. God loves his church and he always calls his man to serve as he desires. The church must be prayed up (that's a church phrase we use, right?) and discerning, knowing that God never leads to the wrong man.

As for the pastors/ministers/directors of ministry serving at your church now - pray for them and their families. Be their defense in prayer. Even the right ones can be tempted and are. 

If (when) there is a vacancy in the position, depending on your church polity, prayerfully consider the points above before putting another in the role. 

I believe and have been affirmed that I have been called by God to pastor. Yet, even in my affirmed calling, my old nature sometimes (all too often) rises up and leads me to say and do things that are not God's desire. In other words, I'm not the perfect pastor for this church, but I am the called one, by God, equipped and strengthened by the Holy Spirit for this task. As are the other godly men I know serving faithfully for the sake of the call.

__________

1Charles H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing, 2017), 47.


What Do You Know About That New Church Down the Street?

I was asked the question again recently. It was an honest question from a father whose daughter began dating a young man who attends  a newer church in our city. The church has grown quickly and has made it into the Outreach Magazine "Fastest Growing Churches" list. The name is unique and represents a departure from denominational ties. This is not unheard of and not a cause for concern necessarily. The growth has expanded to multi-site campuses with campus pastors in addition to video feeds from the main campus. The church's presence online and on social media is strong. Yet, we all understand the marketing model of the American church and thus, the question was asked.

"Pastor, what do you know about this new church in town?"

I've heard this over and over for many new and revitalized churches in town. Church members and neighbors are curious. In truth, the questions are often asked with a hint of skepticism. While a generation or two ago, the questions may have been about the non-denominational tag or the music style. Nowadays, those elements do not garner the concern. 

8657839406_e810387de3_b
Photo credit: yourfaithchurch on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

The questions now are about doctrinal integrity. Oh, the people may not use that term in their question, but ultimately they want to know if the new church is legit. 

"Is this church okay?" is what they're asking.

Of course, as the pastor of the church where I serve, the members seek my advice in these areas. I don't doubt other pastors have been asked the same questions about me, our church, and our campuses. Nevertheless, I have a responsibility to gracefully and truthfully answer the question.

In some cases, the answer is "I don't know." 

That is because I do not know. Go figure. I haven't attended a worship service there. I haven't met the pastor. I haven't been at any meetings with the pastor. I don't know them, and therefore, do not have enough information to give an answer.

However, in some cases, even without knowing the church or pastor personally, there is enough information online through sermons, doctrinal statements, theological beliefs, and social media postings to discern the primary teachings of the church, from the church.

As for music style or whether the church has stage lighting, a band, a choir, a wooden pulpit, a table, etc., I really don't care. I do care about what is (or is not) being taught regarding Christ, the Word, and the church.

Doctrine matters. 

It always has.

To be clear, I have a number of friends who are not Christians. I have friends who are Christian, but not Baptist. I have friends who are Baptist, but not Southern Baptist. I have friends who Southern Baptist, but not missionally focused. In other words, I actually do have friends and acquaintances who differ with me on issues of importance. I have even more that differ with me on issues that aren't that important.

Regarding these questions of validity when it comes to churches and those who claim to be called to preach, these are important. These are also things that will divide. Rightly so. 

In January of 2019, I will begin a doctrine series on Wednesday nights at our First Baptist Church of Orange Park campus. I will be dissecting some of the heretical doctrines of Christ that have existed for hundreds of years and how some of these have actually infiltrated the modern American (and non-American) church. 

Then, at a date to be determined, we will show the new documentary titled "American Gospel." This film is strong, clear, and needed. 

We have secured the license to show this legally and will be presenting it at our different campuses and in some of our home groups. Below are a couple of the trailers for the film.

 

American Gospel - Trailer 1 from Transition Studios on Vimeo.

 

AMERICAN GOSPEL from Transition Studios on Vimeo.

So, what about that new church? Well, in this case, the church in question is solid. Their pastor preaches the gospel of Christ unapologetically. Their doctrine is biblical. Their mission and church planting focus is spot on. I'm glad to know they're in our city as we serve and work together to glorify God. This is for His glory and the good of our city.

As for some of the other churches in our city? Well, some are good. Others feature little more than spiritualized snake-oil salesmen selling a false gospel of prosperity and me-ism that takes advantage of those who are less discerning and hoping for God to perform for them. They fit into the categories exposed in this film and should be avoided.

"Would it be better for my friend or family member not to go to church anywhere rather than go to one of those churches? They are really positive and the music is great?"

That's a great question and my answer would be YES. It is better they not go anywhere than sit under someone teaching lies. Though, I would pray that they would follow the drawing of God's Spirit and come to Him and unite with a legitimate church that preaches the gospel, lives it out, and seeks to serve the Lord fully.

These are challenging times. In a city where there are almost as many churches as pharmacies, chicken restaurants, and gas stations, the wise person will test the teaching and seek God's lead regarding where to attend and serve.


Garth Brooks, Notre Dame, and Your Christmas Service at Church

Last night while the big game for the NFL was broadcast on NBC and Hallmark was showing yet another Christmas movie, a country music superstar came out of self-imposed semi-retirement. The Garth Brooks Stadium Tour has begun and the concert recorded in the rain at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana in October aired on CBS last night. The production quality of Brooks' concert was incredible. He has been known for his live shows since breaking onto the scene over two decades ago. While other country singers would stand behind a microphone in their starched Wranglers while playing guitar and belting out hits (George Strait, Alan Jackson, et. al.) Brooks would wear the wrap-around microphone that he must have either borrowed from Madonna or the Drive-Thru worker at Chick-fil-A, run around the stage or at times, pull a Bon Jovi and fly above the crowd. Brooks is an entertainer for certain.

Whether you like his music or not, there's no denying he has appeal for many. The stadium was packed. It was raining. It was cold. And while I know that post-production can do some pretty amazing things, based on tweets and reports online from those who were in attendance, plus what was seen on television, the crowd LOVED the show.

Photo credit: tncountryfan on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC

So, what does this have to do with anything related to church, Christianity, worship, or anything else spiritual?

While watching last night, I said to my wife "Brooks has the crowd in his hand. He's no evangelist, but he's evangelizing and the crowd is 'amening" their approval." I followed up with "If he asked people to come down front to make a decision, they'd come in droves." This was not a condemnation on crusades or the traditional "come down the aisle" moment in many churches. I was just noting that what we were observing in this very well produced event was something that we have seen in religious settings as well (albeit with fewer people in the crowd.)

My friend and pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Dean Inserra tweeted as the concert was completing:

 

Dean hit the nail on the head in this comparison.

Some of you reading will be upset that I, a Baptist preacher, may seem to be condoning the message or lifestyle promoted in Brooks' songs. Well, I'm not. However, I do know the words of many of the hits he played. I like some more than others. Yet, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who actually has a radio in their vehicle, an iTunes or Amazon Music account or who has been alive for the past twenty years or so who does not know at least some of the words to "Friends in Low Places." 

Christmas at Church

No I do not recommend singing "Callin' Baton Rouge" at your Christmas Eve service. Yet, I do find some insight from this event that was on television last night. Spurred on by Dean Inserra's tweet, I recommend the following to pastors who are trying to find ways to connect with their communities during this Christmas season.

  1. Plan Well. Every community is different, so know yours. If you don't...you have more issues than Chris Gaines. Presuming you know the people in your community, plan a service that will connect with them and allow them to not only feel welcomed, but encouraged that there is a God who loves them deeply. If your service is planned for church people, you will only connect with church people (yours and those who are members of other churches.) It's easy to plan a church service for church people. Don't.
  2. Preach Clearly. Christmas sermons are sometimes the most difficult for pastors, because we (pastors) all too often try to be really creative and end up missing the point. Jesus is the point. He always is. He always must be. The "birth of Jesus" story is known by many, but don't presume it is rightly known by the crowd in your building. Some view the story of the nativity as little more than than a holiday fairy tale or myth on par with the Rudolph, Frosty, and Grinch stories. (BTW - I like all those stories and even the Charlie Brown one.) BTW - just because it's Christmas, don't leave Jesus as a baby in a manger. Get to the cross. Preach the resurrection. A little Easter at Christmas is needed by all.
  3. Provide the Familiar. Sing songs that people have heard. Is it a sin to sing "Jingle Bells"? I say no. However, sing the carols that glorify the Christ. Don't skip or ignore those. People have heard them. Many know the words. They may just sing along. The words point to Christ. Christ is the point, remember? Sing about him. Worship him with these classics. It's possible. And, as we saw with Brooks' incredible show, you don't even have to have the very best singer in town on the stage leading. You do need to be able to lead people to sing, however. In the age of performance worship and having to present the latest pop-song worship chorus, many in the room are left watching and missing the opportunity to worship with song. Vicarious worship is not the goal. The best worship leaders are the leaders who worship.
  4. Present the Decision. Don't forget to draw the net (that's an evangelism term that refers to giving people the opportunity to respond) and express to all who have attended your special Christmas Eve or seasonal service that God loves them. He sent his son. He wants to know them personally and they can receive something more than a temporal gift wrapped in paper. Life is available. Whether you allow people to respond by calling them down front, offering them a moment to meet with you following the service, giving them a link on your app to click, or a number to text does not matter. There are numerous ways to give people the opportunity to respond. Just don't leave it left undone. Otherwise, you will once again evaluate your service with your staff and say "We had a good crowd, but we're not sure if anyone made a decision and therefore, have no way to follow up." Yep - we've done this way too often.

What you don't need to have an effective Christmas service is the production budget of Garth. Don't be who you're not and don't fret that you don't have unlimited resources for smoke machines, lighting, or other effects. If you have those things, that's fine, but those are not the point when the true focus is clear.

So this Baptist preacher learned something from a country singer with hits about drinking, cheating, dancing, and a false narrative about prayer while performing on stage with a man dressed as a leprechaun at a Catholic university. 

Weird.

________________

Photo credit: tncountryfan on Visualhunt /CC BY-NC


What Is Holy Sexuality? - A Review of Christopher Yuan's Latest Book

Years ago I met Dr. Christopher Yuan for the first time. I was at a denominational convention where he and his mother had a booth set up to promote their ministry and book Out of a Far Country: A Gay Son's Journey to God. At the time, I was intrigued by the brief introduction to them and their story. Little did I know that my wife and I would be experiencing similar circumstances when our son expressed to us that he identified as gay. It was during this time I contacted Christopher and invited him to speak at our church. All in our family were encouraged by his message of hope. Christopher shared his personal story along with his parents during our morning worship service. That evening he led two seminars related to Christianity, the church, and LGBTQ+ individuals. It was during his presentations that I first heard Christopher use the term "holy sexuality." He used the term in his first book as well. This term is more than just another evangelical buzzword. As Rosaria Butterfield has said, this term is "a concept that changed the paradigm of what it means to live out God's best for us."

Yuan book

Just a few weeks ago, I received an advanced readers copy (ARC) of Christopher's newly released book Holy Sexuality and the Gospel: Sex, Desire, and Relationships Shaped by God's Grand Story. I began reading and found myself highlighting phrases and paragraphs on almost every page. Dr. Yuan unpacks so much related to sexuality. While he addresses LGBTQ+ identifiers, his book is not focused solely on these. Sexual sin, whether homosexual or heterosexual is sin. Yuan states...

We cannot properly understand human sexuality unless we begin with theological anthropology. Anthropology, in general terms, is the study of humanity. Essentially, it's the human search to answer the important question Who am I?

All our thoughts and actions are influenced at some level by how we answer the question Who am I? This suggests a closer relationship between essence and ethics than many realize. The two inform each other. Who we are (essence) determines how we live (ethics), and how we live determines who we are.1

Dr. Yuan's solid emphasis on the gospel and identity as bestowed by God presents a firm foundation for the book. As an HIV+ man who had for years lived sexually promiscuous as a gay man, was a self-described partier and drug user, and eventually went to prison for dealing drugs, Yuan does not speak as one who views sin as superficial or overly-simplified. He writes and speaks as one who has been in the pit, experienced an undeserved rescue, and continues to live amazed at the grace and mercy offered from God. The main character in Dr. Yuan's story is not himself, but God. 

Some have declared Yuan's perspective on anthropology or ontology to be flawed. I have read declarations that he misuses data and scientific proof. Others who identify as LGBTQ+ see Dr. Yuan as a sell-out or a betrayer. The negative reviews of his books mostly feign to be intellectual analyses, but often reveal a personal vitriol against Dr. Yuan based on his current message and lifestyle.

Yet, for those who have actually read Yuan's writings (not just the two books here, but also his second book Giving a Voice to the Voiceless: A Qualitative Study of Reducing Marginalization of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Same-Sex Attracted Students at Christian Colleges and Universities) or heard him speak, it is clear that Dr. Yuan is not playing fast and loose with science, research, or historical aspects of biblical Christianity and sexual ethics. His revealed research and intelligent insight debunks any theory that he simply bases his beliefs on conservative, biblical talking points or Twitter-size hot-button phrasing. Does Dr. Yuan have a personal agenda? Absolutely. Every author does. Every Christian does. Dr. Yuan's agenda is not to harm others at all. His agenda is revealed in his writings clearly. It is simply to declare the message of the gospel well, unapologetically, without compromise, and fully in love. 

On a practical level, Dr. Yuan's latest book on holy sexuality should be read by any evangelical pastor seeking to minister well to those in the church or community desiring to better understand their LGBTQ+ friends and relatives without abandoning biblical fidelity. He addresses the reality of loving without affirming. For those who do not believe their friends or church families are impacted by this reality of culture, it is time to wake up. Many pastors would rather just not address these issues. Some who have done so end up doing more harm than good, that is certain. For pastors seeking to ignore the very real questions being asked by those self-identifying as gender fluid or any one of the many letters being expressed by the common LGBTQ+ identifier (or their loved ones) the fact is clear - you cannot remain silent. Your silence speaks loudly. 

Dr. Yuan's book is not only informational related to the biblical understanding of sexuality, but relatable, insightful, and practical. The included study guide provides real-life questions that can be addressed in small group studies. These all point to biblical answers and are firmly rooted in the gospel and a biblical worldview.

I agree with Rosaria Butterfield who stated in her review that this book is the "most important humanly composed book about biblical sexuality and godly living for our times."

I encourage every Christian with a loved one identifying as LGBTQ+ to read this book. I encourage every single adult Christian (heterosexual or same-sex attracted) to read this book to better understand the very real concept of holy singleness and holy sexuality. In addition to Dr. Yuan's clear and correct take on holy sexuality, his focus on the value and role of those whom God has called to singleness within the body of Christ is powerful and needed. He addresses head-on the idolatry that has overtaken some within the Christian church regarding the false elevation of marriage as essential for spiritual maturity.

Read This Book

There's more to unpack here, but for sake of space, I will end with "Read this book! It is needed and valuable."

The book is available at these sites and more: Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  CBD.

_________

1Christopher Yuan, Holy Sexuality and the Gospel, (New York: Multnomah, 2018), 9.


When A Christian Author Apologizes for His Best-Seller

The evangelical church world of the 1990s was transitional and unique. This was the era of huge youth groups which were used as draws for suburban families and the growth of ministries with expansive buildings, events, conferences, and matching t-shirts.

In the era of youth ministry defined by Super Summer, See You at the Pole, Night of Joy, EdgeTV, DiscipleNow Weekends, Fifth Quarters, and True Love Waits rallies came a best-selling book on relationships written by a twenty-one-year-old son of a national home-schooling leader. The book immediately became a best-seller. People like Elisabeth Elliot and Dr. James Dobson endorsed it. Churches were purchasing copies and providing them to students in their youth ministries. All the sudden even the concept of dating someone was considered sinful.

Harris
Joshua Harris' book I Kissed Dating Goodbye was everywhere. Well, at least everywhere in the conservative, evangelical Christian subculture that exists in our nation. I actually have a copy of the book in my office. I have had it since 1997 when serving as Student Pastor at the church here. 

Harris, in retrospect, shares in a TEDx talk...

I was twenty-one. I knew a lot, okay? I should probably mention at this point that I had been home-schooled my whole life and I had only been in one serious relationship at this point.

He goes on to say that there were things in the book that he still believes to be true. It's clear that some were benefited by what he had written. Yet, about two years ago, he discovered that a growing number of commenters on social media and in other areas within the bubble of his church-world expressed not that they were helped, but that they were harmed. 

That's a broad-stroke, but nevertheless, the reality exists.

Harris, a former pastor at an east coast megachurch resigned a few years ago to pursue seminary training. You can Google this to see more of that story, but by his own admission, as a forty-year old pastor, he realized that which had disdained and declared unnecessary (quality seminary training) was something he needed and was being led to pursue. But, that's another story.

The Book Has Been Discontinued

The best-selling book has been in publication since the original release in 1997. However, just over a month ago, Harris declared that he has requested his publisher stop printing the book. The publisher has agreed. 

It's a bold move and has caused a bit of question among those content on living in the subculture. Harris states:

In light of the flaws I now see in I Kissed Dating Goodbye, I think it's best to discontinue its publication, as well other supplemental resources tied to it (this includes the two books I wrote after it whose content is similar.) My publisher, whose encouragement in this process has been deeply meaningful to me, supports this decision and will not reprint the books after the current copies in their inventory are sold.

The Author Apologizes

So, what is wrong with the book? Why has Harris publicly apologized? For what is he apologizing?

He states it best here:

While I stand by my book’s call to sincerely love others, my thinking has changed significantly in the past twenty years. I no longer agree with its central idea that dating should be avoided. I now think dating can be a healthy part of a person developing relationally and learning the qualities that matter most in a partner. I recommend books like Boundaries in Dating by Dr. Henry Cloud and True Love Dates by Debra Fileta, which encourage healthy dating.

There are other weaknesses too: in an effort to set a high standard, the book emphasized practices (not dating, not kissing before marriage) and concepts (giving your heart away) that are not in the Bible. In trying to warn people of the potential pitfalls of dating, it instilled fear for some—fear of making mistakes or having their heart broken. The book also gave some the impression that a certain methodology of relationships would deliver a happy ever-after ending—a great marriage, a great sex life—even though this is not promised by scripture.

Harris' complete statement is found here.

Pendulum Swings

Most people understand the concept of the pendulum swings regarding popular opinion and cultural norms. In one era something becomes popular and people rally around it. In the next, the opposite is true. This occurs politically, culturally, and sociologically.

But should it occur theologically? It has. The liberalism spurred by the age of enlightenment rightly caused great concern. Some responded by swinging far to the other side, past a conservative and literal reading of Scripture to a legalistic base.

The fear now is that some (maybe the children of the legalists) are swinging too far to the other side and embracing a form of tolerance that ignores Scripture and absolute truth. It's always a fear, but then fear is always the motivator for the growth of liberalism and legalism. Maybe these two extremes are not that dissimilar.

Some fear the reaction to Harris' apology will be an increase in unbiblical sexual relationships and a tolerance for ungodly acts. I think those with this fear give more credit to Harris' influence that deserved. It's definitely more than he would claim.

Yet, there is something here in Harris' statement that deserves acknowledgment and kudos. 

The book emphasized practices (not dating, not kissing before marriage) and concepts (giving your heart away) that are not in the Bible. In trying to warn people of the potential pitfalls of dating, it instilled fear for some—fear of making mistakes or having their heart broken.

That statement is the key. When unbiblical models are declared biblical, sin occurs. Fear was the result. A generation of church kids were given good ideas that were not necessarily God ideas, yet were not provided the wisdom of proper discipleship to discern the difference.

Serial dating is not condoned as godly either, so be wise here. Yet, the reality that holy matrimony, though God's plan for many does not eliminate the reality of holy singleness. For some in the church subculture, the message has been clear - if you're not married, there's something wrong with you. Maybe some have held too tightly to Harris' book while abandoning the one that should be read which speaks truth unapologetically and without error (uh...I'm talking about the Bible.) 

I appreciate Harris' candor and honesty. His apology is well received and the journey he has taken to get to this point is worth study. 

For more info and to watch Joshua Harris' documentary click here.

 

 


Somebody's Feelings Will Be Hurt

For those from a certain generation, the term "Growing Pains" brings to mind a 1980s sitcom starring Kirk Cameron and Tracey Gold. The term originally referred to the aches and pains associated with the transition from childhood to adulthood brought on by the onset of puberty. These aches are most often in the legs and while uncomfortable are known to just be the normal process of physical maturation for healthy young people.

When it comes to spiritual maturity, there are growing pains associated with this part of the journey as well. For the past couple of months I have been preaching through Paul's letter to the church at Philippi. Chapters 3 and 4 speak clearly on the expectation that Christians are to mature in their faith. While a child-like faith is to be lauded, a childish faith is to be condemned. It seems that even in the first century, Christians were content on beginning the journey of faith, but as the days, months, and years went by, they found themselves no more mature than at that moment of spiritual rebirth. Paul uses his own experiences as encouragement for others to grow and move forward in faith. This is not an affirmation of what has been deemed "works theology" but the proper expectation of a growing Christian.

I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained. Philippians 3:14-16 (ESV)

In chapter 4 of the letter, Paul calls out two women in the church. We don't know much about these women other than their names, Euodia and Syntyche. What we do know is that these women used to be friends. They're both Christians. They are both members of the same church. They actually served together along with Clement, with Paul on mission. The tragedy is that these women are now at odds. They are divided and apparently their division is so severe that Paul has heard about it over in Rome while in prison. 

8301123458_192fa702ee_h
Photo credit: lundgrenphotography on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

While we do not know what they are fighting over, we do know that whatever it is is so ridiculous that it holds nothing positive regarding eternity, Christianity, or the growth of the church. Their inability to reconcile has apparently placed the church in a dangerous position. People are likely taking sides. Those who used to worship together cannot even sit together now. Disruption and division now is known as the characteristics of this church, especially from those outside the church.

Here's what I believe happened. One of these ladies had her feelings hurt by the other, either intentionally or accidentally.

In this case, the division is between two women, but this type of argument and fight is not gender specific. 

A Promise You Can Bank On

As a longtime member of Baptist churches, I can promise you this - if you actually attend and participate in your local church, you WILL get your feelings hurt. Sometimes your feelings are hurt by those on staff. Sometimes they're hurt by other church members. Sometimes they're hurt because someone did something. At other times, it's become someone did not do something.

In the case of the first century, where churches are designated by cities, hurt feelings leading to fights in the church are even more severe than today in America. 

In most areas in the our nation today, there are other options. You know, other churches. I know there are some rural areas where this is not the case, but in our community there are almost as many churches as coffee shops and pharmacies. In the almost twenty-five years here in our community, I have seen hurt feelings dealt with in various ways, but one common way is to just leave church A and go join church B (or C, D, E, etc.) We have seen this revolving door in action for decades. The sad reality is that some church leaders actually view this as growth. Yet, these members soon get their feelings hurt again and end up at the next church promising creative worship experiences, relevant teaching, and incredible children's and youth ministries. In a culture of the easily offended, hurt feelings are more common than afternoon rain showers in Florida.

Yet in the first-century church, there were no spin-offs, splits, new works, or church plants to join down the street. So, what would happen? Well, the same thing that sometimes happens to the "losers" in church fights today. They just would stop attending. They would become names on a roll where a few months later someone would ask "Hey, whatever happened to so-and-so?"

That still occurs and when it does, God is not pleased, the kingdom is not moved forward, the great commandment and commission are forsaken, and immaturity becomes the norm.

Sometimes, the growing pains of being a Christian include learning how to trust God when your feelings get hurt. 

No one wants their feelings hurt. No one wants to feel disenfranchised. No one wants to be ignored, left out, voted down, or deemed a loser in an argument. Yet, these things happen. All the time. It is through these difficult times that God will bring us to a point of reconciliation and hopefully restoration. These are growing pains.

Sometimes we ache because of immature or poor decisions on our part. Sometimes the pain comes from another's decisions or actions. Christ understands that.

So be thankful for growing pains. Take Paul's advice on how to respond and move forward. Paul believed that Euodia and Syntyche would reconcile and that the church would step up to facilitate this. So, there's hope for you as well.

Here's God's antidote for these growing pains.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 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. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Philippians 4:4-8 (ESV)


"I Came To Get Things Ready for What Was Yet to Come" - Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

Twenty-five years ago (1993) the trustees of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in Louisville, Kentucky unanimously voted to hire Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. to serve as the ninth president of the institution. I was finishing up my Master of Arts degree from what was at the time the largest seminary in the world, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) in Fort Worth, Texas. I remember during that final spring semester hearing of the hiring of Dr. Mohler at Southern.

At that time, I had not heard of Dr. Mohler. He was known in Southern Baptist circles certainly, but I was a young student who surrendered to full-time ministry while in my small Texas church. What was happening in Kentucky never crossed my mind. What I did know was that SBTS was not the seminary to attend if I desired to be led by biblical inerrantists who were conservative in their theological understanding. I learned this while in junior high school in Fairborn, Ohio (my father was in the Air Force, thus the moves from Ohio to Texas.) Our pastor in Ohio had just retired from the Air Force and was going to continue his studies in seminary. The closest seminary was SBTS, but he made it clear that he would not be attending the seminary in Louisville. I overheard our pastor explaining why this was, and while I was not really focused on biblical inerrancy as an eighth grader, I knew that to attend a school where the Bible was taught as true, from beginning to end, was important. At least that's how I viewed it as a junior higher.

Nevertheless, as God continued to clarify his calling upon my life, I eventually found myself enrolled at SWBTS. I have fond memories of the time and while SWBTS was dealing with leadership issues as well, it was nothing compared to what was happening at Southern.

SBTS had just hired a 33-year-old man to serve as president. The conservative resurgence was in full effect and while many SBC universities and colleges were not reclaimed, the seminaries would be, and SBTS was perhaps the biggest challenge.

Dr. Mohler stepped into the leadership role and immediately was faced with opposition.

His steadfastness to biblical fidelity and theological truth is to be admired and lauded. In fact, in 1995 it appeared that his tenure as president could go down as one of the shortest in SBC history. Yet, he prevailed. The trustees affirmed his leadership. Following the loss of millions of dollars of endowments and having over 60 percent of the faculty leave (either willingly or through termination), the days at SBTS did not seem sunny. 

For those who remember, we understand how close we came to losing our first seminary to the throes of theological liberalism. 

Yet, Dr. Mohler persevered. God has since blessed SBTS in so many ways. 

Mohler

Dr. Mohler continues to lead the seminary well. Enrollment is up. The work being done through SBTS continues to impact the world for the sake of the Gospel. 

Dr. Mohler is not perfect. He would attest to that truth. Nevertheless, from my perspective, Dr. Mohler was God's man at SBTS twenty-five years ago. He is the right man for the role now. For all that he has done at SBTS, I am thankful.

I have just completed my Doctor of Educational Ministry at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Come December, I will have the privilege of shaking Dr. Mohler's hand on the stage in Alumni Chapel and then will be honored to wear not only the title of Doctor, but of SBTS alumnus. 

Many younger students at Boyce College (the undergraduate college of SBTS) and Southern likely do not know all that took place during those years in the mid-1990s. Even many older Southern Baptists may not have been aware. Yet, as we thank God for all he has done, and honor Dr. and Mrs. Mohler for their service to SBTS and all Southern Baptists, it is wise to look back and remember from where we have come, while looking ahead to a bright future.

Throughout this week, trustees, faculty, students, and alumni have celebrated Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr.'s twenty-five years of service as president of The Southern Baptist Seminary. I am thankful as well. Please take the time to view the video highlighting this occasion.

 

Thank you Dr. Mohler.


You're Not Special and God Does Not Need You

The title of this article may sound like one of the harshest statements to make to someone and could be considered mean-spirited, but before you ignore the rest of this posting, read through it and think about what this title means.

Back in 2012, English teacher David McCullough, Jr. became a trending name online and was even featured on numerous television shows related to the commencement speech he gave at Wellesley High School. It's a very good speech and if you have not heard it, it's worth the click to view here. McCullough's address was to a crowd of soon to be high school graduates. My address is hopefully wider.

We live in the era of self. Of course, there has never been an era not focused on self, but it seems that more and more, things are being said, written, sung, and declared that seem to elevate the individual higher and higher. Just look at the self-help books and resources available in bookstores (online and storefront) and libraries. There are so many things focused on self-esteem, self-worth, self-awareness, etc. that it is easy to see how marketers can take advantage of the era to make money. Apparently, many people struggle with so many "self" issues, that if you could just come up with an answer to one, you can bankroll your future and maybe keep your kids out of having to get student loans. 

Interior-of-railway-station-1

To declare that you're not special sounds insulting. Even among Christians. The Christianized version of all the self-focused resources out there end up filling shelves in church libraries (some churches still have those) and even sit on the bedside table of Christians seeking to have better and healthier life experiences here on earth.

But, there's a problem.

You're Not Special

Regardless what your mom told you.

You're not.

Oh, you are unique. Yes, God formed you in your mother's womb. Just like he formed Jeremiah in his mother's womb...which means you're not the first to have been formed uniquely in the womb. So, I would say that means you're not special. Right?

You have unique fingerprints, DNA, life experiences, right? Sure. You're the only you there every has been. (I can almost hear Mr. Rogers say it.) You're like a snowflake (just an example, not meant to be an insult here.) 

But you're not special.

In Heath Thomas and J.D. Greear's commentary on 1 & 2 Samuel, they state:

Contemporary North American society would have us all be Sauls instead of Davids. And for the most part, the church repeats these lies in Christianized forms. Thus we teach people that they are special, unique, like a snowflake. In a [more] profound sense, none of us is all that special. Yes, we are fearfully and wonderfully made in God's image, but we do the Bible a great disservice when we try to show how these truths lead to self-esteem boosting and puffing up our egos. Even the prophet Elijah, the greatest prophet in the Old Testament, was - according to James - "a man with a nature like ours" (James 5:17).1

One more thing...

God Doesn't Need You

That flies in the face of what many Christians have been taught overtly, or at least subtly. This normally occurs in church when a dearth of leaders and volunteers occurs (based on our last leadership team meeting, this only happens on days that end in "y".) Sometimes, it is expressed when there is a budget shortfall or a need for funds (again, all the time in our church and others I know.)

The call to service sounds like "God needs you." You know, if you don't do something right now, all that God had desired and planned and expected will fall apart. It's as if God is up in heaven wringing his hands just hoping you'll join the team. And if you are a Christian, he's really hoping you'll decide to serve in the church, in the ministry of need, or give a bit more in the offering. Come on! He's counting on you!

As for God needing us, it's a flawed perspective. It's an unbiblical treatise. God does not need. He is not needy. He is not lacking. We do not fill a "human-shaped void in his heart" to turn a common sermon illustration upside down.

God does not lack for personnel.

God does not lack funding.

God does not have to deal with a deficit. 

Perhaps this doesn't help you feel special, but the truth is that the gospel is not focused on making us feel special.

God Is Special

There it is. The special One is God alone. We are like those people in the Bible. You know, Abraham, Moses, Joseph, David, Peter, Ruth, Hannah, Nicanor (look him up), and more. They're heroes of the faith. They did some pretty amazing things. Yet, before they became really amazing, it was very clear ... they were all so very ordinary.

or·di·nar·y
ˈôrdnˌerē/
adjective
  1. with no special or distinctive features; normal.
    "he sets out to depict ordinary people"

This is hard to come to grips with for many. Let me encourage you to ignore the false "amazingness" that is often depicted on Instagram and Snapchat from your friends and others you follow. Those stories do little more than puff up the already puffed up and depress the ordinary people just trying to live faithfully. It's a pretty amazing tactic of destruction our enemy uses. 

Also, be careful. It's easy to become a "me-monster" when talking to others. It's our nature to one-up others just to espouse our "specialness." 

If I'm Not Special and God Doesn't Need Me....?

Then what? Right? This is a huge shift from what the culture (and parents and grandparents and coaches and teachers, etc.) tell us. In a world where everyone gets a trophy and everyone is special and unique, this harshly stated reality check is needed. But, be careful or you will miss the greatest thing related to this revelation. 

In our "not so special" world of being very ordinary, the very real and special God actually desires to know you and rescue you from the sin that infects you (and yes, we're all infected with this.) This solely special God loves you so very much and by grace, he invites you to know him and join him. And this invitation can take the ordinary and make it extraordinary, but not of ourselves, but by and through Him alone.

As stated by Thomas and Greear, "Christianity is a large collection of nobodies worshiping a great big Somebody."

Even those who have surrendered and have been redeemed need reminding of this...daily.

You are dearly loved, and you don't deserve it.

You're not special. God is.

God doesn't need you. God wants you.

_____

1Heath Thomas and J.D. Greear, Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary: Exalting Jesus in 1 & 2 Samuel (Nashville, B&H Publishing), 122-3.

 


The Real Results of the Kavanaugh Hearing

Some of you remember Robert Bork. I was a sophomore in college when President Ronald Reagan nominated Judge Bork to fill the vacated US Supreme Court seat of retiring justice Lewis Powell. I remember reading about Judge Bork and observing the process of his nomination and subsequent denial by the Senate as part of a US Government class I was taking that semester. I was intrigued that this man was being opposed in such a strong way by the senators of the opposition party to the President. It was a clear that a political wrestling match was occurring before the American people. Ultimately, Judge Bork was rejected and his name became a verb. From that moment, regardless which US President was serving, when a Supreme Court nominee faced challenging questions and opposition from those on the judiciary committee, the threat of being "Borked" has come up.

Now, another name may become a verb. Judge Brett Kavanaugh has gone from being well known in a small area of the legal and political world to being the lead story on all American news networks in addition to many international ones. His name has been trending on social media for over a week. 

Kavanaugh's Nomination

When US Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement earlier this summer, speculation began regarding whom President Trump would nominate. This is the second court seat to be filled in the Trump presidency and while there was clearly opposition to Justice Neal Gorsuch when nominated, he was approved and began serving on the court in April 2017.

Supreme-court-building-usa-washington-front

Justice Anthony Kennedy has long been considered the swing vote on the Supreme Court. President Ronald Reagan nominated Justice Kennedy after Robert Bork was "Borked" and when Reagan's second choice, Douglas Ginsburg withdrew his name when it was discovered he has smoked marijuana (boy - how times have changed.)

Kavanaugh's Accusers

For the first few weeks after Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh the nation was presented with images of the judge and his family with stories of their meeting, public service, and family stories centered around their daughters and sports.

Then an accusation of sexual misconduct and attempted rape appeared. At first, it seemed like an old-fashioned "whisper campaign." The accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a professor of psychology at Palo Alto University and research psychologist at the Stanford School of Medicine, claimed that while in high school she attended a party with other students from the area. At that party, one of the students, Brett Kavanaugh, attempted to sexually violate her. 

Once her story was made public, it spread like wildfire. It became the political weapon for the opposition to Brett Kavanaugh's nomination. 

If We Could Get Beyond the Politics

I won't go through all the machinations that have taken place over the past week regarding Dr. Ford's accusations and Judge Kavanaugh's denials. Those stories are provided in depth in various places.

Yet, on Thursday of last week both Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh were given time to present their respective cases and answer questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee. Since this is 2018, the events were televised and livestreamed so that all who wished to be in the room, could be. 

I watched the spectacle on Thursday as did many Americans. I read the trending tweets and updates throughout the day and it became clear that many were not to be swayed in their opinions of either Dr. Ford or Judge Kavanaugh. In fact, some were clearly stating that regardless what may or may not have come from the questioning, their minds were made up.

Interesting. But, that's politics in a divided nation.

These two professionals were placed before the nation to discuss incidents that allegedly had occurred over 35 years ago. The events in question are terrible, traumatic, and not to be ignored nor taken lightly. Suddenly the mystery accuser was more than a blurry two-dimensional image copied from a social media page. At the same time, the smiling father and husband was presented as an accused man trying to clear his name. 

While these two individuals and their families were basically on trial for the nation, political posturing, preparation for future elections, and attempts to win in the "sound-bite" wars by the Senators at the dais. It was nasty. It was disturbing. It was embarrassing.

Who was credible?

Regarding Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh, I agree with Dr. Albert Mohler's take on this from Friday's "The Briefing" podcast:

There are objective criteria, but the judgments that we make about whom we consider to be credible, that turns out to be very subjective. It's subjective when we think about buying a car from an individual. it's subjective when we think about calling someone as pastor of a church. It's subjective when we think about the entire process of courtship and marriage. There are objective realities, but sometimes the most fundamental disposition of the heart is nothing that can be stipulated or measured in objective terms.

That doesn't mean, however, that it is not important that we face these kinds of questions, even running the risk of that kind of subjective interpretation.

Now, what was the interpretation made by the American people? It's going to be virtually impossible to come to know that except in general terms. But even in the immediate aftermath of the hearings, it became very clear that to most keen observers looking fairly at the process, both of these individuals came across as credible.

As I have talked with others, and from the mouths of Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh themselves, I believe that Dr. Ford did face a sexual attack that has scarred her since age 15. I have no idea if it was Brett Kavanaugh. He denies that vehemently. I believe that, under oath, each of these individuals have sought to tell the truth. I only believe that because they do come across as credible and because of the severity of punishment if found to be lying under oath. 

Can There Be Two Truths?

In the postmodern era of truthiness, we often hear of "your truth" and "my truth" and there is an acceptance of this. Yet, there is no such thing as individual truths that contradict. You cannot have your truth where 2+2=4 and then I have my truth where 2+2=8 and both be true. One will be true. The other will not. Or, in many cases, both will be untrue.

So, in the case of the high school party in question, there are two accounts where each individual affirms with 100% accuracy that their version is true. It cannot be. 

Does that mean someone is lying? Well, that's always a possibility. People lie all the time. It's part of the sin nature of humanity and has been documented since the days of Adam (Genesis 3). It could mean that someone is mistaken, unintentionally. Maybe that's my offering of the "benefit of the doubt?"

The Real Results of This Hearing

Regardless how this Supreme Court appointment plays out, I could not help but think of how this spectacle has played out and what this means for people in our communities, our families, and our churches. 

  • The #MeToo movement is real. We've seen the takedown of such notables in society as movie producers, actors, religious leaders, and politicians. This is actually good and has needed to occur. Based on how Dr. Ford has been utilized in this story by political power players, my concern is that women who have been attacked, molested, and traumatized will hear a message that unintentionally come across. That message is that their accounts are not valid and are best kept quiet. Sure, there are cases where women (and men) make up stories to draw attention to themselves. I'm not saying Dr. Ford has done so. Her testimony was credible. There's no reason to think that she had not experienced such an attack. 
  • An accusation is all it takes to take out someone. This is an unfortunate result of the fast-growing #MeToo movement. In this moment, an accusation of misconduct can and has resulted in men (mostly, but women as well) being judged in the court of public opinion, regardless of verifiable proof of wrong actions. In some cases, jobs have been lost, positions of influence abandoned, and a public trust forsaken.
  • Politics is dirty. It always has been, but these hearings have presented a posturing for future power along with a "civil" debate from false friends who are at times more concerned with holding onto their positions of influence rather than seeking what is best for the nation (regardless how many times they state that they are doing what they're doing for the good of the nation.) Though this is a generalized statement and it is easy to pick on politicians at times, there were and are some on the dais and serving in our state and nation who rise above the rest. The discerning eye and ear can find the outliers.
  • There is no condemnation for those in Christ (Romans 8:1) but there are consequences. If you were to have watched the hearings and could possibly set aside the sexual misconduct accusations (you cannot, but for the sake of this point, work with me here) you see a man who has had a thriving and successful career. For over 30 years in public life, he has been lauded and affirmed. He has received many accolades and awards. By all accounts, he has been a model husband, father, and citizen. But, then his teenage self is presented. His yearbook photo is presented for all to see with a paragraph of personal account next to it. This is in his own words, printed in his high school yearbook. There are inside jokes, likely innuendo, and references to what many would say are "typical American high school antics" from the 1980s. He testified that he drank beer as a teenager and that he and his friends would attend parties. He used language back in high school that would be inappropriate to put on this blog post (by his own admission) and was defending his honor while his 18-year-old self stared back at him in a blown up photo from his yearbook. I could not help but think how each of the Senators questioning him were praying that no one dug up their old yearbooks or brought stories to the forefront of things they had done decades prior. Yet, that's not the point. The point is that the sins of the past remain sins of the past. While forgiveness is complete in Christ and there is no condemnation for us in Christ Jesus, there is still this reality that consequences this side of heaven remain. As an 18-year-old I didn't get that. In fact, I likely didn't care. As a 50-year-old, now sounding like the old guy imparting words of wisdom to the younger generation, now more than ever the message is to live holy. The culture celebrates youth and hands out permission to misbehave and "sow one's wild oats" or whatever the modern term may be, but sin remains sin and there are always consequences. So, whether or not Kavanaugh did what Dr. Ford has accused him of in this case does not eliminate the reality that he is now defending the acts of his 18-year-old self in areas that likely are indefensible (maybe personally excusable or justifiable, but that's different.)
  • The collateral damage is severe. In each individual's case (Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh) there are others who are hurt due to the alleged actions and the subsequent televised accounts. I'm not speaking of the public in general, but of family members, dear friends, and even children. 
  • Half the nation will be happy. The other half will be angry. Whether Judge Kavanaugh becomes Justice Kavanaugh or not, there will be no unity in our nation. We really didn't expect there to be anyway, but this story will remain in the annals of our nation for decades to come. If we're still talking about Robert Bork and Justice Clarence Thomas based on their appointment hearings, rest assured that people will be talking about Kavanaugh for years to come.

The Church in the #MeToo Era

The church cannot remain silent on issues of sexual misconduct and morality. In an age where Catholic bishops have become the sick punchlines for inappropriate jokes regarding sexual abuse of children, the world sees all churches and Christians in the same vein. This is not unlike in the past, but regarding sexual misconduct (i.e. rape, sexual abuse, ignoring "no", adultery, etc.) the church often remains on the sideline refusing to enter the fray. Perhaps this is due to the inability to talk biblically on subjects without devolving into political banter? Maybe it is fear-based, knowing that stories within the local church that have been ignored will come to light? Regardless, to ignore this darkness in our world is to essentially refuse to shine light where it's needed. <TWEET THIS>

Regarding Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh - these people need God's people praying for them. The church must remove the robe of political partisanship and pray for these two image-bearers of Christ. Pray for them individually and for their families. In the meantime, trust God that ultimately, truth will set us all free.


Nothing's Going As Planned...That's Normal

I began preaching through Paul's letter to the church at Philippi in September. The overarching theme of this incredible, God-breathed book is joy. I knew this. I have read the book prior (a few times) and it should come as no surprise that the theme of the book is the same it always has been. In case you didn't know, there is no revision to the book - it's always been about joy. Nevertheless, as I read through this book now, studying it for personal edification in addition to seeking God's lead in preaching through it, I am struck by the fact that joy sometimes seems so elusive in my life.

Lightstock_190452_medium_david_tarkington

Now, you may have no problem with your joy quotient. You may be that person who always sees the glass half-full. Maybe your glass is overflowing (sounds like Psalm 23) and you have this holy perspective that is right and wonderful. I envy you. Wait...that's probably a sin. Hmmm...I'm excited for you and want to be like that. There, that's better.

God is so very good and gracious, and as just since beginning this series, I am awestruck at how joy remains my choice.

Yep - it's on me.

Joy is not something that just happens. It's not what we drift toward. Joy is intentional. It's a choice. It's a response, not to circumstances, but to God. And joy is not defined as a giddy happiness that pretends everything is okay. That's more of a Pollyanna perspective. Joy is a contentedness that keeps us focused on the one who is truly in control.

Paul, while writing this letter to a church that he dearly loved should have been on their prayer list (he probably was) but he makes it known that they are on his prayer list. He's praying for them, for his friends, his brothers and sisters in Christ, this new church that he helped launch and was instrumental in growing and leading...all while he is in prison. It's likely a prison in Rome. Some have declared that it may have been more like house arrest, as if that lessens the severity of what he is experiencing. Paul is chained to a guard. He is imprisoned. His freedoms are gone. His rights...well, what rights? This was the first century, not America so rights are not highly regarded.

This morning as I was reading from Paul David Tripp's excellent devotional book New Morning Mercies, I could not help but see how God was once more getting my attention on a subject that apparently I need constant reminding of.

Some thoughts from Tripp...

What captures your mind controls your thoughts and dominates the desires of your heart.

That which dominates your meditation shapes the way you view yourself, life, and God, and your view of those things shapes the choices you make and the actions you take.

It is not biblical faith to try to convince yourself that things are better than they actually are. It is not biblical faith to work to make yourself feel good about what is not good. Biblical faith looks reality in the face and does not flinch.

On the other hand, there is a crucial difference between facing hard realities and allowing those realities to dominate the meditation of your heart (see God's counsel to Joshua, Josh 1:1-9). Here's what biblical faith does: it examines reality, but it makes the Lord its meditation. It is only when you look at life through the window of the glory of the One who has been the source of your meditation that you see reality accurately. The more you meditate on your problems, the bigger and more insurmountable they seem to be. Meditating on God in the midst of your trouble reminds you once again that the God to whom grace has connected you is magnificent in his grandeur and glory. He is infinitely greater than any problem you could ever experience. Then your responses are shaped by his glory and not by the seeming size of your problems.1

Have you ever read a Scripture passage or devotional and thought "Wow! It's like that was written just for me." Yeah, me too. That's what this was like and as I continue to pray and study the book of Philippians I am reminded that my joy is not contingent on my circumstances. This is because so often things do not go as planned (by me.) Paul (the Bible guy, not Tripp in this case) didn't plan to go to prison, I am sure. He didn't plan to be shipwrecked, run out of town, stoned, or even have that "thorn in the flesh" but he did. And despite all that, he had a a faith, a biblical faith as Tripp calls it, that gave him proper perspective. 

That's the Christian life. That's normal.

It doesn't necessarily fill up stadiums or sell books, but it does allow for a joy that is indescribable and a lasting faith.

So choose joy today (and tomorrow and the next day). It's your choice. 

______________

        1Paul David Tripp, New Morning Mercies: A Daily Gospel Devotional (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2014). September 25.

 


The Blessing of Qualified Deacons Who Serve

It is the time of year once more in our church where the members will prayerfully nominate biblically qualified, faithful men to serve in the office of deacon. We recognize two offices within the church - pastors (elders) and deacons. 

It is at this time of the year I sometimes feel like Bill Murray in the movie "Groundhog Day." We have been nominating deacons to serve in our church for decades. This is something that has occurred every single year that I have been here (the past 25 years) and for many years prior. Yet, every year the same questions come up regarding qualifications, expectations, and responsibilities of the men who serve.

Each year, the answers remain the same. At least the core answers do, for those are based on the only passage in Scripture where qualifications of deacons is given (1 Timothy 3.)

So, as we prepare for this time once more, we must go back to Scripture to ensure we understand what is required for men who answer this high calling for the lowly position.

Lightstock_63004_small_david_tarkington

Often when looking at the qualifications for deacons, we begin reading in verse 8 of chapter 3 while ignoring the qualifications for pastors (elders) listed in the first portion of the chapter. While these are two distinct offices, there is a connecting phrase in verse 8 that leads the reader to see that which is required of pastors is true for deacons as well. That phrase is "Deacons likewise must be..."

While the offices of pastor/elder and deacon have been affirmed in the modern church, the roles of the offices have often been misunderstood, if not fully modified. Based on the New Testament, the pastor/elders are the primary spiritual leaders of the local church. Pastors are to teach or preach the Word and shepherd the souls of those under their care (Eph. 4:11; 1 Tim. 3:2; 5:17; Titus 1:9; Heb. 13:17).

Deacons are to serve. The church needs deacons to offer practical, logistical support and service to the pastors and the church body so that the pastors may focus on the study of the Word of God and prayer. 

The Similarities of Offices

It is clear as one reads through the passage that character counts. Men who serve as pastors and men who serve as deacons are held to high standards of character. They are to be proven, Christian men who are dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy, holding to sound faith and doctrine, and blameless. They are expected to lead their families well and, if married, to have wives who are above reproach as well. Clearly, if a moral character qualification is listed for elders, it is expected of deacons as well. 

The Differences of Offices

The character qualifications are similar, but the roles and expectations of the offices do differ in some significant ways. The most distinguishing difference in the passage is found in 1 Timothy 3:2 where pastors are required to be "apt to teach." 

This has caused confusion for some in that some churches have required their deacons to be serving in a teaching capacity in the church. What deacons are called to do is "hold" to the faith (1 Tim. 3:9).  The office requirement is clear on holding strongly to the doctrines and mysteries of the faith. The passage clearly suggest that deacons do not have an official teaching role in the church.

Nevertheless, while a deacon may not actually be leading a small group or Bible study in the church, he must have the capacity to answer questions regarding biblical truth and doctrine. He must be able to share this truth with others. He should also be willing to serve where needed in the local church...and that may be in a teaching capacity (for various age groups.) 

Character & Doctrine Matters

The deacon is an office of necessity so that the members of the church are served well. The pastor ensures they are taught well. God has positioned these offices in his church for his glory and the good of the church. 

So, as the questions come, the answers remain consistent. There are interpretative variances on some of the qualifications. For example, while "husband of one wife" literally means "a one-woman man" some churches have read this to mean that a divorced man is not qualified for the office (this is our church's understanding.) Other churches have held this to mean a man should be married to only one woman at a time, which was an issue in the day it was written and will likely be again as marriage laws and redefinitions of acceptable relations continue to occur. Some hold that if a man became a believer after a remarriage, he qualifies. 

Our church also has chosen to refrain from the drinking of alcoholic beverages for all pastors and deacons. While we concur that drinking alcoholic beverages is not a sin, we acknowledge that in our culture the command to ensure we not be stumbling blocks to newer believers has led to the continuation of this guideline. 

While the "Groundhog Day" feeling continues, there are things that come up during this season of "deacon nomination" that causes me to reevaluate our guidelines, processes, and roles in our church.

Things We Need To Reconsider

  • GET RID OF THE TERM LIMIT - We have "inactive deacons" and I keep looking in Scripture to see where that is validated. Our practice, as with many legacy churches, is to call a man to serve for a "term" as a deacon. In our case, it's for three years.  It seems to me the concept of "inactive" is wrong. Now, there are cases where a man should step down from service. Obviously, the abandonment of solid doctrine, immorality, divisiveness, or opposition to pastors (who are leading biblically) would be reasons for a removal from office. However, a year off after three years on seems to be nothing more than a passive way to remove men from office without having to address personality conflicts or more importantly, issues such as those listed above.
  • STOP NOMINATING THE UNQUALIFIED - The process of nomination is challenging. Yet, there are men nominated by well-meaning church members each year who are not qualified for the office. 
  • STOP TRYING TO FILL A QUOTA - We have abandoned this, but many churches still are focused on having the right number of men as deacons a required by their by-laws. The church is better off having the right men, even if it's a smaller number, than a large group of men who do not qualify.
  • SELECT QUALIFIED DEACONS WHO ALREADY SERVE IN THE CHURCH - Calling a man who does nothing in the church with the hopes he will once he is called as a deacon is akin to giving a person who never attends small group a teaching position in hopes that he/she will start attending regularly. It's futile. It's wrong. It lowers the bar. 
  • CALL TO REPENTANCE THOSE THOSE WHO HAVE SERVED, BUT WON'T NOW - There are some who do not serve actively due to health or serious familial reasons. Then there are the men who refuse to serve for reasons that are less than godly. A deacon who has served in the past but won't currently due to differences with pastoral leadership, anger, laziness, or simply a desire to not serve within the church, must be called to repentance. Why? Because this is sin. If the man has disqualified himself from the office, that too must be addressed. However, it seems that at times, certain men are begged by other church members to serve again as they did prior to their refusal to be "active" once more, but to do so without calling them to repentance is to affirm the sin keeping them out of the office. 

The Bible charges pastors with the tasks of teaching and leading the church. The deacons role is more service-oriented. By handling such issues within the church, the pastors are freed up to focus on shepherding the spiritual needs of the church. Deacons are a blessing. They honor God through their service to him and his church.


When Everything Offends

We are now living in an era of offense. It seems that everyone is just one tweet or Facebook post from being totally offended at … well, everything. This age of offense seems to be leaving us with an inability to have discourse. It’s not that humanity had ever mastered this in the past, but the immediacy of posts with responses typed in anger and frustration now has seemingly become the norm.

Last week it was In-N-Out Burger that offended some, so a boycott was called (then quickly recounted when it became clear that not eating an “Animal Style” In-N-Out Burger when you have the opportunity (I live in Florida, so I only get these when I travel) was not worth boycotting. The boycott was called by the head of the California Democratic Party through a tweet because the restaurant chain had made donations to the state’s Republican party. However, it was soon disclosed that that the restaurant chain had also donated to the state’s Democratic party. Dakota Smith and Melissa Etehad wrote in their Los Angeles Times article [Read Here] about the politicization of hamburgers. They shared the quote from In-N-Out Executive Vice President Arnie Wensinger.

“For years, In-N-Out Burger has supported lawmakers who, regardless of political affiliation, promote policies that strengthen California and allow us to continue operating with the values of providing strong pay and great benefits for our associates.”

So much for just being able to enjoy a burger.

Calls for boycotts are not new. They’ve been going on for generations. These, in my opinion, were needed and valuable.

  • Back in 1769 Philadelphia merchants began boycotting Great Britain over a little thing known as “taxation without representation.” You may have heard of that.
  • In 1933 the American Jewish Congress boycotted Nazi Germany for what should be obvious reasons.
  • Throughout the 1950s and 1960s black Americans launched and participated in various boycotts due to the racial segregation issues in the United States. African-Americans were not the only ones participating, but definitely were prominent in turning a boycott of Montgomery busses into a movement.
  • In South Africa a boycott of South African universities was launched in the 1950s and lasted until the 1990s.

There are many others. Some were connected to sporting events such as the 1980 Olympic games when the US boycotted the Moscow games. Payback came in 1984 when the Soviet Union stayed away from the Los Angeles Games.

The list of historical and current boycotts is long. Just Google it or check out the Wikipedia page.

In Southern Baptist life, there have been boycotts. The most prominent one to come to mind was against the Walt Disney Company in 1997. The national news presented it as a mandated boycott, not understanding the autonomy of local churches and the role of resolutions. Eight years later the boycott was ended, but I’m not really certain of its effect. In fact, I don't believe it was effective at all. For SBC churches in Florida, we never really saw a decline in Disney annual passes or weekends at the park. Perhaps Universal Studios benefitted when Night of Joy (the Christian concert event at Disney) began losing attendees while Rock the Universe grew in popularity. Who knows?

Believe

Burning Nikes

Now we have another boycott happening. This one has to do with Nike and their recent decision to feature former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick as the face of their “Just Do It” campaign.

Boy, has this one blown up.

As I watch the vitriol flow online, I see a number of camps developing. These groups are dividing politically, racially, regionally, and in various other ways. Some are angry at  the NFL based on the league’s inability to address the anthem kneeling. Others are angry at Nike because they are paying Kaepernick. Some are stating the Nike promo is disrespectful (that’s the nicest way to put it) of those who have served our country in the military. Others are angry because of the disrespect from some to those who serve our communities in law enforcement. Still others are angry due to the accounts of police brutality that have occurred in our nation. Others are simply stating the reality of the dissolution of community and growing violence in our neighborhoods.

The lists of the angry are long, varied, and at some level are all valid.

Pastors are trying to find ways to address these issues. As varied as the responses above are the responses from pastors and spiritual leaders. Some are wrapping themselves in flags (figuratively.) Others are wearing their Nike shoes as a way to protest (or support.) Some are ignoring the issues. Others are ignoring the Scriptures (unfortunately, but not just due to the current newsfeeds.) Some sound more like political pundits for the party of choice than as proclaimers of the Word.

What are we to do?

The answer to that question is as varied as the personalities in our nation.

We can get angry and stay angry. That’s the easy thing to do.

We can ignore the problems in our society, hide in our church buildings, and talk (or post) about those “out there” who are the problems.

We can remain silent when wrongs occur, believing that it’s not our problem or our issue. However, here’s what happens when this is the response. When the church is silent, someone else will speak into the void. This is always the case and unfortunately, we (the church) have allowed this many times in the past.

Screenshot 2018-09-05 17.10.35

TWEET THIS

Maybe, these options would be better …  

We can pray for wisdom.

We can speak truth.

We can love our neighbors.

We can love our enemies.

We can engage the world for the sake of the Gospel.

We can be the church we must be.

Here’s the problem when we choose well – the world won’t like it. In fact, some in your church won’t like it. There will be pushback from all sides. Some will claim you’re being too political (even when you are seeking strongly to stand only on the truth of the gospel) while others will declare you’re not political enough. Some will call you a political conservative and align you with an agenda or person you did not choose. Others will state you are a political liberal and put you in a camp that you would not wish be in.

Outside of politics, you’ll be chastised for the shoes you wear or don’t wear, the games you watch or don’t watch, and perhaps even the fast-food restaurant you choose to eat at, or not.

Should Christians Boycott?

That’s a good question and rather than re-hash the subject, I recommend you click the link here and read Joe Carter’s post from a number of years ago on The Gospel Coalition’s website.

Does This Help?

Does this post fix everything? Does it fix anything? Well, probably not really.

Yet, it’s forcing me to have a conversation (at least a contemplation) about what we, as Christians must be doing, or at a minimum talking about. Consider this self-counsel.

At some point the concept of living missionally means we must actually be “in the world” while seeking to be not of it. Sadly, many seemingly have so strongly lamented being in the world that they have sought and accomplished the creating of  safe places that effectively leave them sequestered somewhere in a “Christian” version of everything while not being truly Christian in anything.

In the meantime, I would say that we as Christians, to change the Nike slogan just a bit, must truly believe in Someone (Jesus) who sacrificed everything so that we may have life. Then, we must live that life for the glory of God, knowing that will be for the good of His church and others.


If "PRAY" Is Simply a Trending Hashtag, We Are Doing This Wrong

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.

It is at times like this when community leaders, news agencies, and even those with no belief in God call for things to be done. The word “pray” becomes a hashtag that trends for a few days as many use social media to state we must #PrayForJacksonville. I believe that and am even sharing that statement, but the church of Jesus Christ must not fall into the trap of seeing prayer as a weak, viral response to tragedy. While city leaders and national politicians seek to piggyback on the tragedies of Friday’s shooting at the Raines-Lee high school football game and the terrible act of violence Sunday at The Jacksonville Landing, the call for the church is to do more than declare the world as dark and sin as bad.

Pray for jax

One Jacksonville city leader stated “We really need to talk about God. I’m asking the faith-based community to step up.” I cannot disagree with that, but the church must understand that to “step up” means we must first kneel before God together, seeking His face, His will, while confessing our sins of complacency and self-promotion.

This is not a political issue. These issues are not solely about safety and seemingly random acts of violence.  This is about sin. For some the sad reality is that sin affects not just the one committing it, but others (family, friends, and sometimes bystanders with no connection to the individual.)  

The Christian community should not be surprised when evil things occur. This is how it has always been. Yet, the church cannot remain sequestered in our buildings from the community we have been called to engage for the Gospel. Church, it is time to step up. It begins with prayer (real, repentant, convictional, worshipful prayer) and follows with stepping outside our buildings to engage, in love, the community we have been called and placed within to serve.

This is for the glory of God alone.

This is for the good of our city, our families, our friends. 

Pray for Jacksonville please. Pray. Step up. Kneel down. Step outside and be the light in the darkness.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." Matthew 5:14-16 (ESV)


Why I Quit Men's Ministry

About fifteen years ago I was reading one of the popular men’s books available and selling well in Christian bookstores at the time. I was challenged and encouraged and even traveled out west to attend a retreat hosted by the author. At that point in my life, I needed this message and God used it to affirm his calling upon my life.

Prior to that, like many Christian men, I read a few books about living as a godly man that had become popular.  This was during the growth of the men’s ministry movement that was grew due to ministries like Promise Keepers and other conference events. The focus on biblical manhood was needed then. It still is. Pastors like Robert Lewis and his Men’s Fraternity material proved very valuable. I began leading Men’s Fraternity groups at our church and launched a men’s ministry called “Battle Ready” through our church. This led to retreats, outings, conferences, and small group studies over the years.

Lightstock_70375_small_david_tarkington

One of the annual highlights for our men was Battle Ready Weekend. We would gather in Tennessee for three days of solid, no-holds-barred biblical teaching, personal reflection, along with some fun experiences like paintball, white water rafting, zip lines, and more.

The themes of the teachings were the same every year. In fact, most of the biblically-based books and resources for men’s ministry tend to be similar. There’s a focus on living out one’s identity in Christ, refusing to be passive, delving into spiritual wounds, being a godly husband, and leaving a legacy as a godly father.

I have fond memories of these days. The gospel was proclaimed. Biblical teaching on being the man God intends was offered. Wives started signing their husbands up stating the benefits to their marriages were clear. Children had conversations that previously had gone left unsaid.

We began inviting our sons to join us on these weekends. The shift was needed and those with sons were provided opportunity to speak into their lives in ways that they often desired, but were unable or unwilling to do so. In retrospect, the moments between fathers and sons proved to be powerful and impactful.

Then things began to shift.

Preparing for the weekend trips became an administrative headache. I was the keynote speaker, but also the schedule developer, the rooming reservationist, the event planner, and over every little detail of the weekend events. This was due to my own immaturity and weaknesses in leadership. I was “leading” but not leading well. I had created a retreat for me and ended up inviting other guys along. It was good. It was not best.

Then, I invited my son. This became the father-son weekend I desired. Those things I had challenged other fathers to do was now to be modeled by me – the pastor, the men’s ministry leader, the founder of Battle Ready.

My son was in elementary school. He would soon be in junior high and would attend with me annually until his senior year in high school.

We did have some good times. There were a couple of years when he and I would leave early and arrive at the campground a few days before the bus full of friends from church arrived. It was just the two of us. I tried to make it a memorable week. Maybe I was trying to create something that I felt was missing in our lives? Perhaps I was trying to connect with him before it was too late. Hindsight is 20/20, but it also leads me to over analyze in ways that are often not helpful. So there's that.

We came home and my wife asked “How was your time together?” I said “Okay. It was good.”

I meant it. Truly. But she was expecting something profound to happen. When I failed to reveal the “moment” that connected us well, she seemed disappointed. In truth, I was too.

There was a gap. It wasn’t my son’s fault at that time. I really don’t think it was mine either. I’m not sure what the problem was. Well, looking back, it was something I had created with my overly busy schedule likely (I’ve been told that numerous times) and was trying to make up for lost time.

Words from Robert Lewis would resonate with me. He would say “An involved dad is not a strategic dad.” Boom. That was me. I was definitely involved. I coached his team. Went to school events (I did miss that one story time in elementary school that leaves a scar in our story) sponsored him and traveled with him on school field trips, would adjust my schedule to his, and took him with me on occasion when I could. But…that wasn’t necessarily strategic.

Then something happened.

THE WORST MOMENT IN MY LIFE (SO FAR)

Up to this point, it would be categorized as the worst moment in my life. For my son, it wasn’t good either.

There was a divide between us. He was in high school.

He made choices that fell outside our (my wife and I) understanding of biblical fidelity. There were many things that we never saw coming. Our family was under spiritual attack. A trap was sprung. It was an incredibly effective one as well. We were in a battle and while it manifested as being between my son and I at times, the true battle was deeper, more sinister, and spiritual.

Many in our community and even some in our church didn’t (and do not) understand this. I’ve discovered there is a two-dimensional narrative that some believe to be true. Based on the portions of our story known by some, opinions were developed. Judgments were made. Depending on who you talk with, varying characters in this storyline were the wrong ones and the bad guys. That’s always the case. Since living through this journey I’ve been convicted of times when I have made the same false judgments on others based simply on one version of a story, or perhaps only what I have observed.

I have learned. I hope I now know better. Looking back, confirmation has been given by God regarding our rightness to stand firmly on his Word and truth. Sin does not live in grey areas and of that we have been affirmed. We also have this amazing ability to see how we could have responded better (not by affirming sin) at times. That remains a continual struggle, since as you may know our story continues (just as everyone reading this is living in a continual story.)

Our son eventually graduated from high school. He went to university and excelled. He continues in graduate studies and I have no doubt that he will continue to do well. He may actually be the most intelligent young man I have ever met. He is gifted and talented. He is also perhaps the best friend an individual could have.

Yet, the fellowship between father and son is absent. I don’t say those words lightly or with animosity. It’s just a reality. It’s not a finality, but today it remains.

MEN'S EVENTS

I continued to plan men’s weekends even after my son went away to school and was beyond wanting (or pretending to want) to attend. I remember the last one I planned. It was in eastern Tennessee at Doe River Gorge. This is a beautiful location with many amenities. The cabins are perfect. I stayed in an old train caboose that had been converted into a hotel-type room. I had other men teaching sessions so it was not all on me. We had a good group attend and it was not unlike previous gatherings.

But…something was wrong.

I was tired. I was no longer being renewed through these weekends. I was burning out. And I felt like a hypocrite.

I was teaching the Word and as our men know, was always pretty transparent in my sessions. I would share weaknesses and mistakes and where I saw my needs for grace. Yet, in this story as a father, I felt like a failure. I was seeking to model the “how to” of being a godly husband and father and lo and behold, there was this monkey wrench thrown into the machinery.

“Where’s your son?” was asked by a few of the men. It was asked by some whom I thought knew what had happening and the journey we were on. However, these are men. I’m guilty as well. Sometimes we just don’t catch the obvious or hear the details.

Battle Ready Weekend ended and I began my drive home. I didn’t ride the bus. I drove alone. I arrived early to Tennessee and spent three days alone in prayer and just trying to gather my thoughts or anything else that would help. I actually found myself ready to end my weekend and head home about a day before all the men arrived. NOTE – if you want to leave before everyone arrives, that’s not a good sign.

Overall the weekend went well.

But, I was done.

I just could not do it again.

That was 2015.

I am still way too busy it seems. While things aren’t exactly as I desire them to be, God has done a work upon and within me. I went back to school and am almost finished. I’m older and hopefully a bit wiser. The crisis of life pushed me even deeper into God’s Word. I still have some men’s ministry books. Actually I have a shelf full of them, but have found greater insight into living for Christ directly from the Bible rather than from books about the Bible. Go figure. As a pastor, you’d think this would be obvious.

I still read these books and others. I have read biographies of great men of the faith. I have discovered once more what I have already known. The doubts and fears I have faced, the inadequacies that seem to be more and more obvious, the spiritual attacks, and more are not unique to my story. The perfect pastor’s family does not exist. It’s a façade. There is only one who is perfect, and His perfection is my strength. His grace is my sufficiency.

BACK AT IT

I’m not hosting another men’s weekend. We may never do those again like we did in the past. In fact, most of the men who were key to making it happen have left the church or moved elsewhere. Some have clearly followed God’s lead elsewhere to serve. Others have just been taken out of the story through moral failure or the abandonment of biblical truth. For those I grieve.

While I’m not hosting, I have agreed to speak at a men’s weekend. A portion of our annual attendees lived in North Carolina and under the leadership of my friend Travis Bowman, Battle Ready NC was created. I am so excited for what he has been able to do through this ministry. This year I will be speaking at the opening session for the men attending. It takes time to get from Florida to North Carolina. I will once again take a long drive alone for prayer and reflection. Yet, this time I believe God is calling me to do this for His glory and for the good of the men in attendance. Maybe it’s for the good of my family as well. I hope so.

I quit men’s ministry. Maybe I don’t need “men’s ministry” but I know what I do need, and I know the men in our church and community need this too. I need to walk humbly with God as a man with a strong faith, a biblical worldview, with gospel-soundness and a graceful love of others.

It’s kind of funny, in a sick way. I was telling men to be “Battle Ready” and was blindsided by the enemy who proved I was not. Yet in my weakness He is strong and where I have no capacity to be battle ready, I know he is.

The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent. Exodus 14:14 (ESV) [1]

_______________

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ex 14:14). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.


The Private-Public Divide May Be Killing Your Church

In America, the debate has raged for decades over the separation of church and state. I know that phrase is not in the US Constitution and it has become a tool for divisiveness and used out of sorts in many ways. However, this post is not about the separation (or presumed separation) of the church and state. This is about the private-public divide within the church or better yet within individual Christians.

Public Life

Speaking of local church members specifically, each of us has a public life, a persona that is known by others in the community, at work, or school. This may be due to volunteering at the elementary school, coaching youth soccer, serving on the homeowner association, being in the Rotary, or numerous other options.

These roles are not bad. In fact, they're wonderful. Christians should be seen and known in these venues throughout the community. 

Private Life

This is where it gets really personal. This is the life within our family, hopefully our church, alongside our friends and loved ones, etc. This is where our faith resides, since it is a personal walk with Christ. This is where viewpoints, convictions, struggles, and even sins live. They're private.

25673852_d90651dfe5_b
Photo credit: pea. on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Encouragement vs. Enablement

Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, educated at Cambridge and commissioned for missionary service by the Church of Scotland in 1936 to India for the following four decades had written much about what is now termed missional living and church/community engagement. When he returned from India to England in 1974 he wrote numerous articles and books over the subsequent two decades. The focus of his writing dealt with the question of how an authentic encounter between the gospel and western culture could take place.

He surmised that one of the fundamental issues plaguing modern western culture was the separation of public and private domains of life. Corresponding with this was the separation of values.1 He argues that this concept is a holdover from the age of the Enlightenment and is rooted in classical Greek thought. I have read some of what he has asserted and it makes much sense. Yet, I won't get into that here.

This very western concept of segmented lives is cultural and common. In fact, it is considered normal. The problem is that this normal life often leads to Christians having a "church life" and a, well, "real life" for lack of a better term.

The problem in the church is that while church leaders and pastors continue to encourage church members to "be light in dark places" and engage their world with the message of the gospel (rightly so, by the way), our systems of ministry often enable the continued separation from the world, thus creating a private-public dichotomy.

While we encourage missional living, we often enable sequestered huddling.

There is no easy remedy to this. We are pushing not only against human nature, but also centuries of cultural norms. 

The private-public divide often leads to a Kingdom-church divide. While we desire to see God's Kingdom grow and we know the "fields are white unto harvest" sometimes the church practices ministry that reveals a desire to see God's Kingdom within the church walls, while ignoring the commission to go, or better yet to live missionally as we go. The relationship between the kingdom and church must be sorted. Otherwise, churches will continue practicing a church-centered Christianity that ultimately remains detrimental to the kingdom of God.2

Even Within the Church Privacy Is Expected

While the evangelistic, missional living aspect of the Christian life is often negatively affected by the prominence of the private-public dichotomy, an equally dangerous aspect is the fear that fuels superficiality among church family members.

Scripture references unity in the body of Christ numerous times. It is not just a western, cultural aspect that celebrates guarded living. Fear of trust and often a desire to not let others in keeps many relationships, even among brothers and sisters at places that not only ignores unity, but may fuel division.

Paul David Tripp stated this reality so well in his devotional book New Morning Mercies...

Your walk with God is designed by God to be a community project. Anonymous, consumerist, isolated, independent, self-sufficient, "Jesus and me" Christianity is a distant an distorted facsimile of the faith of the New Testament. You and I simply were not created (Gen 2:18) or re-created in Jesus Christ (1 Cor 2:14) to live all by ourselves. The biblical word pictures of temple (stones joined together to be a place where God dwells) and body (each member dependent on the function of the other) decimate any idea that healthy Christianity can live outside essential community.

Yet many, many believers live their lives with a huge separation between their public church personas and the details of their private existence. We are skilled at brief, nonpersonal conversations about the weather, sports, and politics. We are learned at giving nonanswers or spiritually platitudinous answers to people's questions. We live in long-term networks of terminally casual relationships. No one really knows us beneath the well-crafted public display, and because they don't know us, they cannot minister to us, because no one can minister to that which he does not know.3

While more programs, emphases, and challenges are developed to "get people out of the church building and into the field" we see that perhaps the first hurdle is a barrier we have erected, and continue to add bricks upon, that separates our private lives from our public ones (even within the church.) 

Once we remove these sinful barriers through repentance and dangerous openness, the church may grow healthy and recognize that its members who already are engaged in life outside the church structure can also remove the private-public barriers there as well. This may just result in the largest engaged mission force the church has ever experienced. Christians will realize they are validated by God to live holy and wholly for Him privately and publicly. 

In other words, as Christians continue coaching youth soccer (not creating a church version of it), serving on homeowners associations, volunteering at schools, spending time at Rotary meetings, etc., their Christianity is not practically shoved to the back burner. They are freed to live missionally, engaging their communities for the sake of the Gospel. 

Dangerous, perhaps, but worth it.

____________

1Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 14.

2Reggie McNeal, Kingdom Come: Why We Must Give Up Our Obsession with Fixing the Church – and What We Should Do Instead (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2015), 62.

3Paul David Tripp, New Morning Mercies (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), July 12 devotion.


Should You Tell Your Pastor When You're Leaving the Church?

The question in the title of this article came up in a lecture today by one of my professors at seminary. However, he just mentioned it in passing as he was speaking about churches and covenant membership. His point really had nothing to do with the need or responsibility of church members to communicate with their pastor regarding God's calling to move elsewhere, yet, it was mentioned. It caused me to think about this more deeply.

Any pastor who has stayed at one local church for any length of time (let's just say, five years or more) knows of the inevitable church member exodus that occurs at times (hopefully not all at once.) Members choose to leave the church for various reasons. Sometimes, these reasons are biblical, godly, and right. Sometimes...well, they fall in another category.

Does God Call Church Members to Leave?

The answer to the above question is "absolutely." God often calls his children to places of service in other churches. We have seen this in our church as individuals or families have moved to help launch new church plants, help revitalize dying churches, join a community church where they live and work, and even to join a church near their home following a work transfer or relocation.

Beautiful-campus-figure-woman-model-red-hair-sad-6

However, God sometimes gets blamed for church transitions that have little to do with his calling. This may be due to building frustration within the church body, personal embarrassment, disunity, disappointment regarding certain ministries, not feeling one's needs are met, not being fed spiritually, or just a desire for change for the sake of change.

When It's Right to Leave

Yes, there are times when leadership in the local church goes off course doctrinally and biblical fidelity has been forsaken. Sometimes leaders have been revealed as unrepentantly immoral. When there is no shifting or righting of these wrongs, I believe God does release his sheep at times to a new under shepherd (pastor) and flock (church.)

The reasons people leave the local church are as unique as the individuals who make up the local church. Sometimes, unrepentant, found sin becomes the catalyst for the pending good-bye. Paul's address to the Corinthian church addresses this, so it's not just a modern issue.

Things to Think Through Before Good-Bye

As I think through the process of seeing church members leave, much comes to mind. At this point, here are some things I've gleaned regarding this inevitable reality:

  • God calls His children to serve where He wants them, without seeking their vote for approval (this goes for pastors and church members.)
  • There is no perfect church. If you find it, don't join it. You'll ruin it's perfect record.
  • There is no perfect pastor. Believe me, they're as flawed as anyone and need much grace and mercy.
  • Your pastors are not omniscient. They do not know what you're feeling unless you tell them. Yet, the way you tell them may not be heard if done without grace.
  • Church is supposed to be family. It grieves me when new members never fully engage or become part of the family story. It also grieves me when family members seemingly disappear, or walk away angry.
  • Disunity is easy. In church. In family. In life.
  • Changing churches in search of the perfect youth ministry, children's ministry, men's ministry, women's ministry, missions ministry, coffee, music, etc. will leave you always on the move.
  • Abandonment of the gospel and ignoring biblical truth, doctrine, and orthodoxy by pastors and church leaders disqualifies them from leadership. If they refuse to repent, God will likely release you from that fellowship (unless he wishes to use you for a revival of biblical fidelity in that house.)
  • Seeking a church that matches your current political ideology will likely leave you with theological gaps in your life.
  • You may not be remembered for how you came into the church, but you will be remembered how you leave it, if done so with vitriol and anger. (from Carey Nieuwhof.)
  • "I'm not being fed" may be the most overused reason excuse given. Take my advice, don't say it. If it's true, it's perhaps the most non-constructive thing you can say. On the other hand, it may just reveal that you desire being spoon-fed biblical milk rather than served spiritual meat, complete with your own knife and fork. 

Everyone Eventually Leaves 

This is truth. There is no one who remains for eternity as a member of their local church. You will either leave your church because you have been relocated due to work, school, or circumstance, because you are called by God to serve Him elsewhere, because you just desire a new church for whatever reason, or because you have died. 

Thabiti Anyabwile wrote an article a number of years ago titled "5 Things to Do Before Leaving Your Church." The five things are:

  1. Share Your Thinking/Reasoning with the Leaders
  2. Resolve Any Outstanding Conflicts
  3. Express Your Appreciation for the Church's Ministry in Your Life
  4. Say "Goodbye" to Friends and Family
  5. Be Honest with Yourself about Your Own Efforts, Motives, and Failings

These are just the points. I recommend you read the entire article available at The Gospel Coalition here. Remember, the church is family ... and family life is not easy.

"Parting is such sweet sorrow." - William Shakespeare