Connecting With Offline & Non-Internet Connected Church Members During a Pandemic

Each week I join a Zoom meeting (like many, I have become accustomed to numerous online meetings and gatherings and have had more meetings using the app Zoom than ever before) with other pastors in our region. The purpose is to pray for one another, share concerns, and learn from each other new ways of ministering to and with our congregations during this time of social distancing and the inability of meeting together in large groups.

Most of us are finding this new way of coming together as a church to be challenging. I think each week a few pastors lament the lack of face-to-face gatherings while being thankful that we have more options now than ever for online streaming and internet-based meetings.

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The lamentable growth of social media and all the negativity that comes with it (e.g. Twitter debates, Instagram envy, Facebook venting, etc.) has been moved aside as churches and ministries seek to redeem the online tools for the day. We have shifted everything we can to streaming and online groups. It is good, but not best and we long for the day when the church can come together face-to-face once again. We pray this is soon.

Not Everyone Is Online

As our church leadership has worked through our membership rolls, calling individuals to see if they have any needs and how they are doing personally, we have discovered a few things.

First, we discovered that many more church members have disabled their landlines in their homes and never informed the church. Therefore, we have incorrect information in our membership database for quite a few people.

Second, we found that we were talking to some church members who have not been to the church for years and actually either forgot they were members or have joined elsewhere and...never let us know. That's not their fault, but reveals how many times we as a church have let others "fall through the cracks." 

Third, we discovered that the least used app on our smartphones actually works. I'm referring to the "phone" app that on most phones is an icon of an old landline headset and when clicked actually dials a number so that another phone rings and an actual conversation can happen. I say this in jest, but in the day of text messaging and email, we (well...I) just don't make as many actual phone calls as I used to.

Fourth, we found that some in our church membership do not have smartphones, a computer in the house, or internet capability. In fact, some of these dear saints have no desire to have any of these things and will not be getting them.

Connecting with Offline Members

This last revelation is not actually surprising. In most of these cases, the individuals are senior adults. They did not grow up using personal computers. Many of them retired prior to their companies moving to be fully-computerized. In some cases, the computers they have used were not WYSIWYG icon-driven point-and-click devices connected to the internet, but old-school, C-prompt green text on black screen devices and dumb-head terminals. If those terms to not mean anything to you, don't worry. It may just mean you're young enough to have never used such. 

When social media took off many seniors eventually jumped on board at the insistence of their children and family members living in other states and regions. All the sudden the media platform designed only for college students (Facebook) became predominantly used by older adults. 

Still, not everyone jumped on board for various reasons.

The challenge for us today was in how to keep connected with these church members who cannot join a Zoom meeting online, watch a service on YouTube, or even comment on a Facebook post?

Since these online options are the primary ones we're using, we discovered that we must find a way in addition to regular phone calls, to keep these dear saints connected.

As all of us know personally, these dear saints were saddened they could not be with their friends and church family members weekly. They also shared that they missed hearing our Sunday services. While they were watching some very good pastors preach on television each week, they stated that it just was not the same and that the church they watched was not their church family.

I thought about mailing (snail mail) a copy of my sermon transcript weekly to these members. I may still do that as needed, but even then, I knew I would miss some. I needed another alternative.

Dial-A-Sermon

When I was a child I remember our little church getting a large phone bill one month. My mother was the church secretary, so that's how I heard about this. This increase baffled the pastor and office staff until it was discovered that the pastor's son had been using the church phone to call "Dial-a-Joke" numerous times. This phone line was a pay-per-call line and the young man didn't know it was going to charge the church. The bill racked up...and to be honest, the jokes weren't that funny.

I only remembered that story when I saw a church in the UK post that they had developed a "Dial-A-Sermon" option for their church members. At first, I thought "That's a waste." It sounded so old-school and dated and then I read more. It seems that this was a fix for the issue facing our church. By setting up this "Dial-A-Sermon" option, church members could call a number, hear a recorded voice state that they had reached the church's sermon line and then shortly, the audio from the previous Sunday's sermon would play. It's not ideal, but it works. A person can listen to a full sermon on their telephone (I would recommend a speaker phone for this.) 

This is much better than Dial-A-Joke!

For a very nominal fee (about $1 a month) this was done.

I went to the website linked and in about thirty minutes had signed up for the app (Twilio,) chosen a number in our area code (one actually assigned to my town) recorded a welcome note and linked the previous Sunday's audio file to the app. So far the number has been called at least twenty times. I know that because I have called it twenty times throughout the week just to see if it still works.

I called the senior ladies in our church who had told me they had no way to watch or hear our sermons and gave them the number. They were so happy. It was as if they had been reconnected at least in one small way to their church in this age of stay-at-home distancing. 

Since then, I have shared the information with numerous churches. I have seen a few begin their own "Dial-A-Sermon" option. 

Maybe it is something that can help you and your church as well. 

Rather than type up a step-by-step order of how to do this, I will just link the page where I found my instructions. It's on the Switched On Network site. Click here.

This is just one more way to connect with church members (By the way - personal phone calls remain the best.) If you have discovered others, please leave comments below. I would love to hear them.

If you're interested in hearing how it sounds, our Dial-A-Sermon number is 904-298-6417 (regular rates apply if you're calling long distance from a landline.)


To the Pastors Not Trending In the News: Well Done!

You have likely seen the headlines...

"Louisiana Pastor Defies Coronavirus Order, Draws Over 1,000 People to Services" (NBC News)
"Florida Pastor Arrested After Defying Virus Orders" (NY Times)
"Churches Hold Crowded Services In Defiance of Government Coronavirus Guidance (Fox News)
"'Demonic Spirit:' Miami Pastor Rejects Coronavirus Warning" (Miami Herald)

These are the stories that trend and make headlines. These are the pastors and religious leaders that pop up on Twitter feeds and trending news reports today. Yet, these are not the norm. These are not representative of the thousands of pastors seeking to glorify God, lead well, shepherd their flocks, and love their neighbors.

These are trying days, and pastors of local churches are not immune to the pressures of being isolated and social distancing. 

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Photo credit: Peggy2012CREATIVELENZ on Visualhunt / CC BY

The handful of attention-grabbing stories seem to be little more than attempts by some to elevate themselves and their particular churches or ministries while claiming the right to do so under the banner of religious freedom.

The challenges before churches and other religious groups today are very real. While some may view mandates as conspiratorial and  little more than government leaders seeking ways to permanently close down churches (NYC Mayor di Blasio's recent press conference notwithstanding) the facts seem to show otherwise. 

The Non-Trending Pastors 

For the past few weeks, there have been hundreds of online meetings of pastors and Christian leaders held. Everyone's timeline has been flooded with screenshots of online meetings with pastors, staff, church leaders, and church members doing what they can to stay connected while social distancing. The jokes about everyone's meetings looking like "Hollywood Squares" or "The Brady Bunch" abound.

Offices have become laptops on desks in back bedrooms. Many pastors understand first-hand what the BBC reporter was facing when his report from South Korea a while back when viral. Do you remember this?

Certainly, things have changed. 

Pastors have agonized with decisions related to weekly gatherings. Pressures to cancel have been weighed against pressures to continue meeting. For the most part, the churches in our community and the pastors I know personally have complied with the social distancing requests. By doing so, they don't make the news. And...that is good.

What is worth noting is that these local churches are not meeting in groups larger than ten. The vast majority have shifted to online preaching and connecting via telephone, emails, texts, and online meetings. Some pastors and churches have taken leaps forward to utilize technology they previously did not use. This has caused quite a bit of stress as well. Yet, it is so encouraging to hear how some who have fast-tracked their learning curve of such things, not to be trendy or cool, but to be effective in staying connected with their church members and community. 

I'm hearing daily from my pastor friends about creative (and recommended guideline-compliant) things being done in their church to minister well during these days. 

The church prevails and God's pastors ARE leading well. In fact, most of the pastors I know are working longer hours and doing more during this time of isolation than in prior weeks simply to minister best to their church members and community.

Press On 

To the pastors out there who will never be a headline on the news, congratulations! You're doing this right. 

Press on. Pastor well. Stay socially distanced, but not socially disconnected. God has placed you where he has and equipped you for the work he called you to do. Even in isolation, you know it's true, but you may need to be reminded - YOU ARE NOT ALONE.


The Loneliness Solution - A Review of Jack Eason's New Book

"Loneliness is killing us, and we don't even realize it." (p. 6) 

This opening line in chapter one of Jack Eason's forthcoming book The Loneliness Solution not only draws in the reader but makes a bold declaration. Loneliness is a very real problem in the world. This seems strange since the living generations today are the most interconnected (and perhaps over-connected) generations in history. In an era where the word "friend" has become a verb to describe the act of confirming a connection on social media rather than simply a noun to describe another person whom is invited into a person's life in a close way, loneliness rages.

Loneliness

A few weeks ago, Jack sent me a pre-published copy of the book to read. I was honored to receive this from him and share a bit here of what he covers and why I recommend you get a copy.

Eason shares a story in the initial chapter of a fifty-four-year-old man was found dead in his home four months after his passing. Eventually, the smell from the apartment grew so pungent as the weather shifted from cool to warm, that neighbors starting taking notice. This man's remains were removed and a company was called in that specializes in cleaning the homes of those who are categorized as "lonely deaths." The fact that such a business segment exists startled me.

The research information that Eason provides is staggering, especially when it is revealed that younger adults (those categorized as Generation Z) are the loneliest generation alive. The loneliest generation is also the most interconnected generation in history.

It is true that one can be lonely in a crowd. Even if the crowd is virtual or only on social media.

Not Just "Them"

As the book unfolds, the categorizations of people groups merge when loneliness is clearly not something only young people, or senior adults face. It is a human issue and the heart of man and woman is susceptible to this great attack by the enemy of God. The enemy has attacked the image-bearers of God with subtle and strategic ways that cause many to believe they are okay and have many close friends. Yet, when the layers are peeled back, many of these same individuals find themselves in dark places socially and mentally as their concepts of friendship wane.

Loneliness is therefore, not just something "those people" face. All are potentially affected by the loneliness problem. There are many circumstances and situations that feed into this. Jack Eason delves into the depths of these issues well.

The Problem Has a Solution

As the book states in the title, and clearly lays out in the early chapters, loneliness is a problem. God stated as much in the story of creation.

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Genesis 2:18 (ESV)

It is not good for man, or woman, to be alone. In the Genesis account, God provided a solution. Throughout scripture, he provides a solution to the loneliness problem. Even today, he provides the solution.

Jack Eason exposes why the most interconnected and over-connected generations in history self-identify as the most lonely. He doesn't leave it as simply a description of a state of being, but reveals God's solution. With engaging and relatable stories, Eason expresses God's desire that man or woman not be alone, and provides practical, biblical steps to remedy the issue. Each chapter concludes with a list of recommended action steps. This is more than a theoretical treatise, but a call to action in the community, and as revealed in the final chapters, even within the church.

I strongly recommend this book, especially during this season of isolation. I was sent the pre-release copy of the book (to be published by Revell in October 2020) and have completed the read, with many highlights and underlines. During this time of self-quarantine due to COVID-19 it was a welcome read. What I previously considered a normal, busy schedule has been shifted and slowed. This is true for all. It is during these days that many are, as the country song stated, "finding out who their friends are." The church must, and is proving to, rise up to reconnect with those who were perhaps over-connected, but not really connected. 

Loneliness is a problem. It is a deadly problem. Nevertheless, God has a solution. Be sure to order your copy of The Loneliness Solution today when it is published in October. In the meantime click here to be notified and to receive a FREE downloadable chapter from the book.


Confessions (and Repentance) of An Unintentional Plagiarist

A number of years ago I began writing this blog. I wasn’t sure what blogging was and while blogging likely peaked in popularity on personal sites like mine a few years ago, I continue to post thoughts and insights, and sometimes frustrations, in forms of short articles here.

I continue to read quite a few from pastors and Christian leaders every week (even more during a pandemic, it seems.) While I seek not to live in an echo chamber, I do read from quite a few pastors and ministry leaders who have similar views as me on the state of the western church. I often have a notepad handy and as I read, I jot down points and thoughts that if I had heard shared in person would elicit an “Amen” from me or at least an “Uh-huh!”

I have often then written my own posts with similar themes and my take on the same issues. I tend to have a much smaller readership, so in many ways my posts are for my own sorting out of thoughts and ultimately become the weekly e-mailed newsletter articles we send to our church membership.

My Unoriginal Thoughts

Last Monday I shared a post on how the pandemic reveals much of what we think about church in America and west today. I used illustrations of church growth and expansion we have seen in our culture and my community over the past few decades under the banner of “church growth.” I had written about this prior as have many. I even wrote of the danger of becoming a “Lone Ranger” Christian as many of us have preached against. I felt the need to explain who the Lone Ranger was since the only recent depiction was poorly done in a movie starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer. Nevertheless, the isolationism of Christianity and elevation of consumerism were the foci.

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Photo credit: Maik Meid on Visual hunt / CC BY-SA

Seeing many online postings about the growing boredom during the pandemic concerns me, so I also wrote about the “Bored Believers” whom we are seeking to lead as pastors.

The problem wasn’t the focus of the article.

The problem was that minutes after posting, I received a message from a Christian leader whom I respect and whose articles and books I read asking why I had basically copied his most recent article posted it as my own. I was shocked. First, that someone actually read my blog. Second, that this brother read my blog. (The original article is by Jared C. Wilson and is posted here.)

I was shocked. Then, shook.

My first reaction was “No way. I didn’t copy his article.”

I immediately clicked onto his article he had linked in the message.

I began reading his article and about halfway through, I began to feel a knot in my stomach as I realized that while I did not intentionally copy his article, it was so very similar (similar titles, three subheadings the same, similar concepts other than personal illustrations and an additional subheading with content) that if it had been submitted to a university or seminary it would not have passed the plagiarism smell test.

This brother’s article was one of many I had read over the weekend and while I thought initially, I was just sharing some challenging thoughts to my church and readership, I saw immediately that three of my four points were not my thoughts. They could not be. My title was basically the same relating to the concept of church and the pandemic.

(I have reread the previous paragraph and my response is “How can one accidentally copy someone else?” And…other than lazy note-taking and irresponsibility related to not linking original articles, which I often do when I share thoughts on my blog from others, there’s no good answer. No excuse.)

I contacted the brother through direct message and apologized. I am doing so again here publicly. I am thankful for the grace he has shown. I confess I tend to apologize over and over after being forgiven. I’m sorry for that, too.

Unintentional or Intentional, Sin Is Sin

Over the past few days since this exchange, I have been wrestling over even writing this. This article today may end up under the category “Too many apologies” and be viewed as weak by many. Yet, here it is. So, these are my thoughts.

Whether I intended to copy another’s intellectual property or not is not the issue. Whether a person intends to sin or not is not the issue. The point is that once a wrongdoing is exposed and revealed, we (well, in this case I) have a responsibility to respond. The response can be deflection, justification of acts, ignoring the hurt, pretending it’s no big deal, initiating some form of weak damage control, or by admitting wrongdoing and repenting.

Once I looked back at the original article and realized that I had read it earlier over the weekend, and compared it to the text of my article, I immediate deleted mine. It’s gone now. Two clicks on the mouse and there isn’t even a copy left in draft mode anywhere. I then shared the original article online.

Did My Actions and Words Fix Things?

Well, not for me. Not completely. Why? Well, because what's done was done. Ultimately because the issue of stealing intellectual property IS a big deal today. It bothers me when ideas are “borrowed” without credit. It is sinful to make money (or gain clicks online) from something that is claimed as original when it is clearly culmination of other’s thoughts. It bothers me because it is stealing. It is sin.

We all know the preacher joke that has been told for years:

  • The first time a story is used in a sermon the preacher says, “So-and-so once said…”
  • The next time that same story is used, the preacher says, “Someone once said…”
  • The next time, the preacher says, “It’s been said for years…”
  • Finally, the preacher says, “As I always say…”

It’s funny (I guess,) but it reveals that sometimes, even in preaching the gospel, in sharing good news, we can be guilty of intentionally or unintentionally gleaning (or just call it what it is – stealing) thoughts and illustrations from others. Now, most would say “That’s no big deal because the end result is what matters.” That is little more than the “end justifies the means” and that argument falls apart in an ethics analysis quickly.

Be Mindful

As many of my brothers will be now be preaching online this weekend and the weekends to come, I would say to go ahead and use illustrations others have used, quote commentaries you have studied, reference sermons from others that you have found helpful, but don’t claim originality. There really is nothing new under the sun, but we must be careful not to claim stories and examples that are not ours. Once integrity is lost, the potentially listening lost will walk away, wondering if the truth you share about Christ is true, or just another borrowed story.

Oh, and be careful if you are broadcasting your services online. Be sure you have the right, legal CCLI permissions to do so. It’s the right thing to do.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

I would say I have learned something this week, but I did not learn something new. I was simply and strongly reminded of something I have already learned. Something I learned in high school, in college, in seminary, and most recently in writing my doctoral project. Something that is inexcusable to not do.

Give credit where credit is due. There's a reason Kate Turabian is still a popular writer and continuing to update her book, even thirty plus years after her death. Credit matters, and while you may not be graded on the accuracy of the format of your footnotes in your own personal blog or articles, at least share where the original content was found, even if it isn't word-for-word. Unintentional plagiarism is still plagiarism.

Giving proper credit is the only right thing to do and will allow you to continue sharing honestly as a man or woman of integrity that which is most important.


Encouraging Words and Insight for Pastors During This Pandemic

Like you, I fight the information overload that occurs in our culture. With 24-hour news updates online and on television, multiple messages targeted to different groups regarding the same issues, and even conflicting information based on source, it can be overwhelming. 

I have even found that by reading and taking in so much information, it becomes difficult to process all of it. To my pastor friends reading this, you likely are facing the same thing, in addition to trying to manage the differing opinions and recommendations of those in your church, as well as the every day ministry needs of those under your care.

I am hearing some excellent and encouraging stories from fellow pastors and Christian leaders of how the church is stepping up to serve. Rather than delineate all that the church does wrong (which, I confess is much easier especially as I lean into being more critical than I should) I thought I would share some of these updates, ideas, and even transcripts of what some pastors and leaders have said to help their congregations. 

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A Devotional Thought on Fear

Dr. Paul David Tripp

Be afraid, but don’t give way to fear.

In this moment of global pandemic, don’t let your meditation be dominated by fear so that you become God-forgetful. Don’t ignore the reality of the situation, don’t be embarrassed by your instinctual ability to respond rapidly when needed, and make wise plans out of appropriate concern.

Most of all, never stop fearing God.

Full devotion transcript at his website here - https://www.paultripp.com/wednesdays-word/posts/its-okay-to-fear-coronavirus

Video of this devotion here - https://www.facebook.com/pdtripp/videos/213273036688067/

A Prescription for Anxiety

Dr. Tim Maynard, Fruit Cove Baptist Church, St Johns, Florida

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. "Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matthew‬ ‭6:25-34‬ ‭ESV)‬‬

  1. Read twice daily, slowly: Once in the morning and once in the evening.
  2. Read it to your children. Daily.
  3. If you choose to watch the media, read before and after each broadcast.
  4. Believe what you read. This is God’s Word, and it never fails.
  5. ‘Nuff said.

(from Facebook)

What To Do In a Pandemic

Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Pastor, Christ Covenant Church, Matthews, North Carolina

Things Christians should not do in a pandemic:

  1. Tell everyone it's too late!
  2. Tell everyone it's not a big deal!
  3. Act like experts.
  4. Make everything about politics.

Things Christians can do:

  1. Pray.
  2. Trust God.
  3. Show compassion.
  4. Give thanks in all circumstances. (from Twitter)

An Explanation for Your Church Explaining Why You're Going Online Only for Now

Dr. Todd Fisher, Immanuel Baptist Church, Shawnee, Oklahoma

I have consulted with many of the doctors and health care officials in our church. In summary, they have stressed two critical things.

First, this virus is very contagious. It is extremely serious for senior adults or those with compromised immune systems. Most people who get the COVID-19 virus will have only a mild illness. But, as Christians, our calling is to live selfless lives. So, our response is not to avoid becoming sick ourselves, but to protect the highest risk people among us.

Second, this virus has the potential of overrunning our current capacities for healthcare. The percentage of those who are most adversely affected by this virus has a high hospitalization rate. If we don't all cooperatively work to help reduce the speed at which this virus spreads, we could exceed our community's healthcare capacity.

Some may say this is an overreaction. However, there is a big difference between panic and appropriate response. We're not panicking or responding in fear, but simply seeking to understand the burden this disease can cause.

Dr. Fisher's full video is on Facebook here.

Keep Preaching the Word, Even if Not In Person

Dr. Jared C. Wilson, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

Obviously, conscience and conviction may dictate whether you want to preach via the internet, but it’s still important to put the gospel in front of your people as many ways as you can. If that means broadcasting a full sermon each Sunday, do it. It may also mean publishing podcasts, vodcasts, blog posts, tweets, or Facebook updates involving devotional thoughts. Right now, your people are taking in all kinds of messages—some helpful, some not, some simply distracting. Don’t let other voices tempt them in their loneliness or anxiety to tempt their eyes away from Jesus. Figure out the ways that work best for your convictions and your context to “show them Jesus.” This is your prime directive.

From "Tending the Lambs You Can't Touch" on The Gospel Coalition site here.

Steward Well

Dr. Mark Dever, Pastor, Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington, DC

God knows when will be the next sermon each one of us will hear in person. Let us steward the last one God gave us. (from Twitter)

Click here for the link to a very helpful 9Marks podcast featuring Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman titled "On When the Church Can't Gather."

Sing Praises

Matt Merker, Director of Creative Resources and Training for Getty Music

As the globe responds to the pandemic of coronavirus and COVID-19, Christ invites his people, as always, to approach the throne of God with confidence to find help in our time of need (Heb 4:16). The hymns of the faith, both ancient and modern, offer us a vocabulary for expressing our fears, anxieties, and questions to the One who hears.

Many churches have decided to cancel their gatherings out of concern for those most vulnerable to the virus. These are exceptional times. There’s no substitute for meeting with God’s people in the local church and letting the Word dwell in us richly as we sing (Col 3:16). Yet, though many believers may be temporarily separated, this isn’t a time to stay silent. Now, as ever, the Christian sings.

Click here for a list and description of "25 Hymns to Sing in Troubled Times" published on the 9Marks site.

Give Like Never Before

Johnny Hunt, Senior VP of Evangelism and Leadership, North American Mission Board

I want to love the Lord and others well. He has said that to whom much has been given, much is required. I know that speaks to more than just our finances, but it does speak of our finances, too. Let's love the Lord and others well and give like never before. Let's lead the way in meeting needs in this crisis.

From Facebook video dated March 16, 2020.

Draw Close to God

Dr. Willy Rice, Calvary Church, Clearwater, Florida

No need to practice distancing from God and there is no quarantine on the Holy Spirit. (from Twitter)

Perspective

James Ross, Pastor, First Baptist Church on Bayshore, Niceville, Florida

Gates of Hell > COVID-19.

Jesus' Church > Gates of Hell.

Therefore... Jesus' Church > COVID-19. (from Twitter)

Revival Awaiting

Paul Purvis, Pastor, Mission Hill Church, Temple Terrace, Florida

Bars and nightclubs closing down! The last time our nation experienced this we called it Great Awakening! What if? May God simplify and strengthen His church. May we experience personal and corporate revival. May we rise up and “be the church.” Wherever you are, do whatever it takes, to shine with the light and love of Jesus like a city on a hill. (from Twitter)

A Heavier Workload For A Great Moment

JimBo Stewart, Pastor, Redemption Church, Jacksonville, Florida

Pastor, if you think your “workload” has decreased because your church isn’t gathering on Sunday, you are missing a great pastoral moment in the life of your church. I am praying for you as we all try to shepherd well in this unique season. (from Twitter)

I have corresponded with a number of pastors over the past four days. For you who pastor a church, know that you are not alone. I mean, we all know that God has promised to never leave us nor forsake us and we trust that word which is true. God has also provided other pastors in your city, region, and throughout the world who are going through the very same thing (or very similar things) you are working through now. Through easy access online and via phones, we can text, email, and talk with others in ways that our ancestors never dreamed. So, be encouraged. God is doing something incredible even through this pandemic. Stay the course. Lead well. Trust Him.

 

How Today's Crisis Can Lead the Church To Go Viral Again

When we speak of things going viral, most often it is simply a term used to describe a trending news story or tweet. In fact, for the past few years, to get a story to go viral has been the goal of many.

Yet, now we think of viral in a more traditional way and. . . it's not comforting at all. It is especially not something we desire.

With all that is coming out (and changing daily, if not multiple times a day) regarding COVID-19, there is no one in our community unaffected. 

As I write this, the White House has just recommended no groups of more than ten to gather in public places. While this will negatively impact restaurants, grocery stores, and other businesses, the question are facing primarily is how this impacts the gathering of the church.

Virus

Bigger Is Not Necessarily Better

The church growth movement and the subsequent megachurch phenomenon has created a "bigger is always better" mindset among many American Christians. Don't get me wrong, there are some wonderful megachurches with thousands gathering weekly for worship. While the big crowds are perfect for promotional pieces and much energy is created in the worship gatherings, it is easier for an individual to attend and hide in the crowd, simply consuming the presented product rather than truly engaging as a covenant member of the body.

Most, if not all, large churches know that connection is vital and strategically create and promote small groups and community groups for members so that hopefully no one is lost in the crowd. Yet, it still happens. It happens in small churches as well.

Getting Smaller

Years ago during the growth of Rick Warren's Purpose-Driven Church model, he would say that the church must grow larger (because it is a living organism) while simultaneously grow smaller. The emphasis was on the inter-connectedness in smaller groups that provide healthy relationships. 

Now, our church, like many others, have decided to cancel large group gatherings such as worship and even Life Groups (i.e. Sunday school) in order to provide healthy "social distancing" until the coronavirus has run its course.

While some balk at the idea of doing so as simply not trusting God and being fearful (I'll write about this later) others are thankful for their pastors taking the lead and doing so. It's viewed as a practical way to "love one's neighbor." 

Online Fills the Gap

We are offering our services online each Sunday. Next week I will be preaching to an empty worship center with only our worship team and our production team in the building. To be honest, it's not easy preaching to a camera. Yet, this is best at this time and I am thankful for the technology that allows this to happen.

Streaming Is Not Just for Large Churches

While online church is not the best option, it is better than not gathering at all...by a long shot. This is why we offer this. The good news is that regardless your church's size, if you have a facility to film in, even if it's the pastor's living room, with a smart phone, a Facebook or YouTube account, and someone to hit "start" on the phone, anyone can stream live. This isn't just for large churches.

Other Considerations - A Silver Lining

As our church staff met today, we are brainstorming some other ideas for the weeks ahead. These may be things you and your church could consider. Again, these are just ideas. We have not fleshed them all out just yet:

  • Recording preschool and children's teachers teaching Sunday School then posting on the website and social media so families with children at home can "take them to their class" too.
  • Providing PDF pages and links to videos for parents to lead children through during the week.
  • Offering some interactive games and learning options for what we could call in Sunday School lingo as "closed groups" using Zoom. This video conference software works on Android, Apple, and computers and allows for interactivity. The free account allows for up to 100 to join for forty minutes. 
  • We are looking at some large group (Sunday School ling0 = "open groups") teaching for different age groups via Facebook Live. This could be done on YouTube streaming as well.
  • We are trying to find ways to connect with our church family who are in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. This can be through phone calls, cards, and even FaceTime if staff can help. One wife of a man who is in a rehab center says he has a room with a window, so she's going to sit outside his window and call him. This is good for daytime and I would let staff know - otherwise "Peeping Tom Church" will trend and that's not what we want.
  • We have even thought of those in our church who do not have the technological acumen or devices to stream our services. What if a couple of family took their smartphone over to a fellow member without access and watched the service together? This would be a great intergenerational opportunity. Of course, still washing hands and ensuring all are as safely distanced as possible.

The church will prevail, but the calendar will change. We've been trying to clear our calendar for years and now, for the next few weeks, it's blank. This is a great opportunity.

What if God is using this to lead his church to rise up and see the value of the individual even more than before. The "one anothers" really mean more now when one is somewhat isolated from others. Let's not fear. Let's not react. Let's respond well and serve our community in the name of Jesus Christ. While the world fears, we have the answer. 

For generations Christian leaders have rightly told church members that they were not saved to sit. Now, we have a few weeks to sit, but sitting and staying in our homes does not mean we have permission to be unegaged and ignore the mandate of the gospel.

Just because we are not in the same physical room together, we must remember that we, the church ARE together.

I'm praying that our ministry and efforts to fulfill the Great Commission and Great Commandment will go viral in our communities again as we ask the question "How do we do church...or better yet, how can we be His church best during these days?"


Live In Such A Way Other Christians Don't Have To Apologize For You

The respectful Christian is an obedient Christian. 

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Romans 12:14-18 (ESV)

As I read this passage of Scripture today I am reminded of the context in which it was written. Persecution of Christians at this time was not simply an emotional stressor. Lives were at stake. Prison stays and beatings were not only a possibility, but a likelihood. To be a Christian in the first century who could truly bless one's persecutors would be impossible apart from God's love and his indwelling Spirit.

The same is true today.

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The passage in Romans does not affirm a milquetoast, watered-down life of faith. Boldness of faith and blessing of persecutors are not at odds.

Though Christians today likely will "amen" these and other Bible passages, the challenge, especially in the twenty-first century west, is to understand what blessing others truly means. Blessing, honoring, and respecting others seem mostly synonymous in these commands.

Showing respect to those with differing opinions, lifestyles, cultural backgrounds, and even political leanings appears to not only be rare, but perhaps a lost art for many claiming the name of Christ. 

This is not a practice of calling evil good or good evil (see Isaiah 5:20.) This is about being obedient to show respect and honor to others, despite our differences. Respect and honor of people are not synonymous of agreeing with unbiblical beliefs. It is more about acknowledgement of people being God's image-bearers and the value of respect.

Elliot Clark writes in his excellent book Evangelism as Exiles...

Clearly this is not how we typically treat our opponents. Yet this is the kind of gentle respect and dignity we should display to all rulers and authorities, all races and religions, all classes and persuasions, showing due honor to fellow image-bearers. And this shouldn't be that hard. For if we struggle now to do this with a transgender neighbor or a coworker from Saudi Arabia, how are we going to be gracious and bless those who overtly persecute us one day?1

Christian pastors, theologians, and leaders acknowledge the growing secularity in America and the west. Cultural norms have shifted dramatically in a very short time. 

Now, more than ever, we must live as "salt and light" in the communities and areas God has placed us. 

Clark continues in his book with this insight related to how the church is viewed in the west...

Our secular society is increasingly suspicious of religion. Christians are no longer part of the solution; we're the problem. Pastors aren't trustworthy. Churches are suspect. Bible-believers are bigots. Thus the days of attractional evangelism are waning. The times of relying on the gravitational pull of our social standing to bring people into church, a Christian camp, or a revival meeting are all but gone. The time is coming, and is here now, when the world won't listen to our gospel simply because they respect us.

However, they might listen if we respect them.2

As we seek to engage our neighbors, our friends, our coworkers, and even our enemies with the message of the gospel, perhaps if we take to heart Paul's Holy Spirit-inspired words to bless those who persecute us (and even before they persecute us) we will discover that God is honored most of all.

Apologizing For and Excusing Other Believers

It gets tiring having to apologize for Christian brothers and sisters who spend more time ranting about those who offend them, bother them, live lives categorized as "beneath" them, and complain about those who vote differently than they do (these rants are most often seen on social media in a strange attempt to sway other's behaviors through negativity) to my friends and those I seek to bless and ultimately share the gospel. 

It is even more challenging to excuse evangelicals holding a temporary celebrity status when they appear on the news or at public venues seemingly speaking for all Christians in America. Yet, we press on. We have to take the time to state clearly that while it seems to some that the gospel is little more than a political platform statement, it is not. So we explain this to our friends, neighbors, and potential brothers and sisters. Why? Because the message of the gospel is too vital to ignore. The life-saving gospel is too valuable to exchange it for a temporal affirmations from an echo chamber.

It is not that I or any other believer must apologize for the broad spectrum of things said and done throughout the ages by those who claim to be Christians, but truly are not. It is more of stating something such as “I’m sorry that is how you have been presented Christ. Please let me show you in his Word who he is and what the gospel truly is.” These types of conversations do not often happen in one-shot moments, but over a period of conversations with other image-bearers who believe differently. Blessing, honor, and respect is not found in shouting at others, leaving tracts instead of money as your tips at restaurants, simply putting a chrome fish on the back of your car, or perhaps a sticker that let's others know you love Jesus so much you get angry if people do not say "Merry Christmas."

I don't claim to be "above" these brothers and sisters. I am certain others have had to apologize for statements I have made and actions I have done. This is to my shame. Though imperfect, I seek to not bring shame to the gospel and to my fellow believers. I desire for God to approve of my thoughts and actions and to live a life on the narrowness of God's truth in such a way that his love shines through. If I have to be excused, then I pray it is because I come across as loving and caring while simultaneously narrow-minded (meaning that I will always hold to the biblical teaching that Christ is the only way to salvation.)

"To honor others is to have a genuine care and concern for them. So this is what we must do–even for those who have no concern for us." - Elliot Clark

____________

        1Elliot Clark, Evangelism As Exiles: Life On Mission As Strangers In Our Own Land. (The Gospel Coalition, 2019), 80.

         2Clark, 81.

 


Churches Must Love Their Cities As Much As the "Bold City Brigade" Loves Jacksonville & the Jaguars

In our city and region, sports teams are powerful influencers. While I am sure those sports fans from historic Title Towns like Green Bay, Chicago, New York, and Boston would claim that the energy here regarding sports pales in comparison to theirs, the fact remains that our city loves sports. 

A Sports Loving City

It has been a tough run for our one major professional sports team. Our minor league teams (Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp and Jacksonville Icemen) have fared well and have great fan-bases. However, with more games each year, smaller venues, and cheaper tickets it is not really fair to comparing the numbers for our minor league baseball and hockey teams to MLB and NHL cities is an apples to oranges comparison. Yet, to be clear, both of these minor league franchises have done exceptionally well in connecting with the city, advertisers, regional groups, and fans of all ages. The entertainment value is high.

Enter: The Jaguars

Twenty-five years ago Jacksonville made national and international news when the NFL awarded our city a new franchise. I have made this region my home since that time and like many others here have gone all in as a fan of the teal and black Jaguars. Initially, our team sold out the rebuilt Gator Bowl stadium (later named Alltel Stadium, Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, EverBank Field, and now TIAA Bank Field.) During the era of Coach Tom Coughlin and players such as Mark Brunell, Tony Boselli, Jimmy Smith, Keenan McCardell, and Fred Taylor, our team saw early success and narrowly missed an early visit to the Super Bowl. Those were great days and the fans throughout our city donned the teal and proudly declared their love for the Jaguars.

Yet, we're a small market. Other than Green Bay, Wisconsin, I believe Jacksonville may be the smallest in the NFL. When the team began its far-too-long journey through a valley punctuated with losing seasons, poor draft picks, tarps over seats, and less than stellar play on the field, the rumors began to circulate that the NFL would love for the team to relocate to a larger market.

There were rumors of the Los Angeles Jaguars, the Las Vegas Jaguars, the St. Louis Jaguars, and more recently, the London Jaguars. The rumors died down some once the team began to show signs of a turnaround. The 2017 Jaguars season was exciting and the team made it once more to the AFC Championship only to lose to the New England Patriots because someone could not acknowledge that "Myles Jack wasn't down." I'm not bitter. I'm just speaking truth here.

The fan base increased. Ticket sales were up. It was a great season. Things were looking up for 2018. The dreaded word in sports - "potential" was being used much.

Then, the wheels fell off. The Jags had another struggling season in 2018. The 2019 season was not much better. There were trades, firings, and statements from team management to the fans. Yet, even in our small market, there remained great passion for our team.

Another London Game?

Earlier this week the Jaguars announced that in addition to the annual home game played in London, they would be playing two back-to-back home games at Wembley Stadium. This leaves only six regular season home games for Jaguars fans in Jacksonville. While I understand the reasoning given regarding revenue for the team, it is clear that the fan-base with access to social media and call-in radio shows were quick to voice their displeasure.

Sure enough, rumors began once more related to a potential relocation of our team.

The team owner and management have repeatedly stated that is not the goal, but fans are wary. They fear that what occurred in Baltimore, St. Louis, San Diego, and Oakland will one day happen here.

As a fan of the team, I certainly hope this is not the case. As a pastor with ministry partners in London, I have been able to see games there as well. London is definitely a huge money-maker for the team and a packed out Wembley Stadium is impressive. Still, I do not want to see the team leave. For selfish reasons, it is because I enjoy watching and cheering for the Jaguars. In addition to that, and definitely a higher priority is what I see the team does for our city and northeast Florida region. 

Passion in the City

Jacksonville has always been a sports town. For decades it has been the strong college football fanbase that has driven the city. The number of Florida Gators, Georgia Bulldogs, Florida State Seminoles, and other college fans is clear throughout the year. When our own universities (University of North Florida and Jacksonville University) in the city excelled in basketball, the city and nation took notice.

The Jaguars have been able in the past to bring the city together at times. Yeah, I know there are many transplants from elsewhere who will never been all in with the Jaguars, but remembering the story of how this city gained a team, how the fans filled the old Gator Bowl years prior to entice the NFL to arrive, and how the teal and black covered the city during the moments of victory reveal the uniting power of a winning team.

Passion for the City

When the Jaguars made their most recent London announcement, a number of fan groups united to share their displeasure. One group, the Bold City Brigade, has released a statement and continues to push fans to share their desire for team ownership to reconsider the London option. While the two-games-in-London scenario is likely not going to change for 2020, the passion for our city has been clearly shared.

Just look at the statement from the Bold City Brigade here - 

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CLICK FOR LARGER VIEW OR GO TO http://www.boldcitybrigade.com/

Whether you care about football or not, or even acknowledge the Jaguars as a team you would watch, this passionate statement reveals the love for a team and for a city by a large number of citizens.

My point is not about the Jaguars. It is not about Mr. Khan's desire to have his team play two games in London. It is not even about the NFL which tends to divide people about as much as a State of the Union address.

As a fan, I cheer for the team, but that is not the point.

As I have watched this scenario play out this week, I have thought about the makeup of our city. Our city is one of the most divided and regionalized around. While the land that makes up Jacksonville is large, the unique areas are still here. There are the west side, the south side, downtown, the beaches, the north side, San Marco, Avondale, and more. These do not even consider the non Duval County regions that are some of the fastest growing areas in the state that are also considered part of the "First Coast."

These names make sense to residents. If I meet a person in another part of the country I tell them I am from Jacksonville. If they say "Oh I used to live there," then I say "Well, I am actually from Orange Park." Why? Because one from here knows that there are many different communities that comprise our area and that each has a distinctive identity.

We Must Love Our City

When the Bold City Brigade made their statement, partnered with the many posts on blogs and social media, it was clear that a collective nerve had been hit. In the midst of the stated frustration, anger, confusion, and even worry was a uniting factor. These people (my people) love their football, but also their city.

It is home. 

This is a reminder that our churches and we, as individual believers, must love our people and our city as well. 

I pastor a church that is strategic and intentional when it comes to missions and church planting. We know that we must support and send pastors to the far reaches of the world. We understand and do not apologize for our work in cities as far away as Toronto and Portland. Yet, as we serve and go there, we understand that our church in Orange Park was placed there by God years ago for a reason. Our community needed a gospel witness. There was a need for a church like ours to be placed in a town that would grow and change tremendously over the decades. Throughout these changes, the gospel preached and taught in our church has remained constant.

Our neighborhood is older. The houses are decades old now. The income status of our community has changed. So, too has the racial and cultural diversity. And we love it! 

We love our community. 

We love our city.

We love our people. When I say "our people" I am not talking about members of our church only. I am talking about our neighbors, the children and teachers in our local schools, the first responders who serve, the ones who do not attend church, do not claim to be Christians, and perhaps have stated that they do not like us too much. 

This is not compromising on the gospel. It is not the ignoring of sin. It is loving others as Christ loved us. It is loving people without affirming sin. It is agape. It is needed and we must remember that love is a choice. So we love.

We must. 

We must love with the love God has given us. We must love enough to keep from hiding in our buildings. We must declare the gospel clearly. We must love enough to confront when needed, comfort when required, and clarify when asked.

The Bold City Brigade loves their city. They love their team. 

Do we love our city this much? We must. 

Apart from love, the message will not be shared. The message of the gospel is not a win or lose message. It is a live or die message.

 

By the way - I really don't want the Jaguars to relocate. Ever. DUUUVAL!!!!! 


Why We Continue to Plant Churches & Partner with Church Planters

I am not a church planter. 

Most of you probably know that. 

I pastor what has been called by various entities an "established church," a "legacy church," an "historic church," and other things. Basically, I pastor an older church. Our church was founded in 1921. I guess it was planted then, but no one was really using that term back in the 1920s. 

After decades of systematic growth featuring steps forward as well as steps backward, celebrations and crises, transitions and traditions, and all that a church of almost one-hundred years would face, we are a church that not only believes in church planting, but has taken steps to resource new pastors and church planters and help them find footing in the region they are planting. 

We don't really have to do this. I have discovered that many churches our age just do not bother with the church planting process that has been popular in western Christianity for the past decade or so. It is not that these other churches see no value in church planting (I hope) but that they just have never done so, never felt God's lead to emphasize it, have many other things requiring funding and decisions, etc. so that church planting is just not on their radar.

I'm not faulting the churches my brothers pastor, because I get it. 

It Seems Like a Trend

Church planting seems like a trend. Trends come and go. For some it seems like the latest "church growth strategy" that is just the next phase in a long history of starts and stops and programmatic church events, emphases, and functions.

Yet, for me, for our church and network of churches, something happened a number of years ago that helped us realize that church planting and supporting new work cannot be optional for a healthy church (and I am talking about a healthy established, legacy, or historic church like ours.)

You see, my natural tendency is to be self-focused, to look inward, and when deciding whether or not to do something, or to invest in something, I ask "How does this affect me?"

The local church is like that as well. Church planting is touted by many as right, needed, and necessary (I have said that) but for most churches, it is very difficult to come to grips with the reality that to support a church planter means initial loss. There's really no way around this.

Let's just say you are the pastor or a leader at a healthy, established church. You aren't perfect. Your church isn't either, but it's a good church.

A man in your church, perhaps a small group leader, elder, or deacon comes to you and shares with the church family that he and his wife feel God's leading to leave the fellowship and plant a new church. In this scenario, let's say that the new church is in the same region, maybe in the same community.

It is clear to you that this brother is not seeking to leave your church because he is upset. He is humble. He is godly. He does not have a negative or unbiblical agenda. He is not telling others (or even thinking) "I can do better than our pastor." He is not speaking badly about the style of worship, the translation of the Bible used, or the dress code expected at your church. In other words, he is sincerely seeking to follow God's lead and believes God desires him to plant a new church in the region. He comes to you for your blessing. You give it.

When he leaves, the practical losses will begin to add up. Likely, some who attend and tithe to the church you pastor will leave with him to support him, either for a short time or for the long haul. If your church decides to support and send him, you will be giving church members the "go ahead" to leave with him and you will likely send financial support as well, at least initially.

Not only has your church lost people who normally worship with you and serve at the church, you will be losing some money that previously was earmarked for other things. 

And...you have to find a new small group leader and perhaps others to step in to the roles he and his wife filled previously.

No wonder some churches push pause when being encouraged to plant churches and support planters.

And, I'm giving an example of a great experience.

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When our church began to seek God's will regarding church planting, we did not know exactly what that would entail. Our mission board was shifting to send people to key urban areas in North America. I connected with a few leaders in such cities and began to see that there was much work to be done for the Kingdom in our nation. The concept of the Bible Belt was a façade and I knew it, but these connections affirmed it.

Then, one of our deacons and his wife (who served on our church staff) shared that God was leading them to go serve in one of these cities as support for church planters. We had talked about it earlier and I knew this was potentially something God was doing in their lives. Sure enough, a few years back they relocated to Toronto where they serve Toronto Church Planting and a network of planters in the North American Mission Board. While we haven't had anyone else uproot to move there with them, we do have a number of church members who have visited and give regularly, in addition to budgeted funds, in support. 

This began a more intentional story for our church. Now, in addition to Toronto, we now support (we're not the only supporters and we can only do little for some) planters in Portland, Oregon, Washington, DC, Orlando, Florida, Leesburg, Florida, and soon in New York City. 

It costs. It costs time, resources, and people.

We Cannot Afford to Plant Churches

Though we have been immensely blessed by God, and as of December 31, 2019 we are debt-free for the first time in over forty years, the facts are that we cannot afford to plant churches. We have a pastoral staff to pay. We have administrative support and maintenance and custodial staff to pay. We have a facility requiring thousands of dollars of decades of deferred maintenance. We have unexpected expenses. We live in Florida, so a storm, flooding, trees down, etc. are often an annual possibility. We've been fortunate and blessed thus far.

We have ministry expenses and some things that church members see as expected that still cost money. We have a revitalization church we are supporting and two campuses that have expenses, rent, and other costs.

On paper...we really cannot afford to plant churches and support church planters.

We Cannot Afford NOT to Plant Churches

But here it is. While on paper it seems a big stretch to be all in on church planting and revitalization, the fact is we must do this. We know that all churches have a shelf-life. Ours is almost one-hundred years old and while I desire that it remains for centuries in the future, I have no guarantee of that. I do know we can leave a legacy for God's kingdom that will last when we are gone.

Years ago Dr. Jeff Farmer wrote his dissertation on church planting and the impact it has on the sending church. He compared seventy-five churches who were planting other churches with seventy-five who were not. The churches were of all sizes so the clear distinction was simply the planting aspect. His research found that churches that plant are healthier than those who do not. (Read "5 Reasons Established Churches Should Plant Churches" by Ed Stetzer)

I believe it is because planting forces the sending to church to look outside the walls more. When the focus is less about growing "my church" and about seeing God's church and his kingdom grow, it just makes sense to plant. 

I believe that new churches reach more people quickly.

I believe the gospel needs to go where the people are.

I believe that church plants churches and new pastors are called, commissioned, and ordained by the local church for God's glory.

I believe denominational agencies and mission boards can help fund and resource church planters, but I do not believe they are the primary resources. Churches plant churches.

I believe multiplication is better than addition.

I am convinced our church was planted here in 1921 to meet a clear need. There was no Baptist church in our community at the time, thus our name - First Baptist Church. The need was seen. The calling was clear. The work was done. I have a sneaky feeling that those who actually started First Baptist Church couldn't afford to do so either, but they did. For that I am so thankful.

For our church, church planting and revitalization has become our DNA. It is one way we make disciples and multiply them. It is one way we fulfill the Great Commission. The reach of the gospel is extended. While we continue to have focus in our own community, with various ministries, campuses, partnerships, and services, we also have been given by God the opportunity to reach the world strategically and intentionally.

We are not a perfect church. We are not a mega-church. We are not a rich (financially) church. 

We are a blessed church and we seek to see God's Kingdom expanded. Therefore, I believe by planting new churches and funding planters as best we can (even sacrificially) we are an obedient church.

While I won't be here a century from now, I pray that the legacy our church leaves will be impactful for generations to come. That is one reason we plant. That is why I encourage your church to do so as well. Be warned, it is costly. 

But it is worth it.


The Potential Church Member May Struggle with Your Membership Process

As a lifelong Baptist who grew up in a family that moved every few years due to my father's military service, I have been part of a number of Baptist churches. For the most part, during the 1970s and 1980s, the churches we joined were pretty much carbon copies of each other. Each used the same Sunday School curriculum, handed out identical bulletins, sung from the same version of the Baptist Hymnal, had the same schedule (Sunday School at 9:45am and Worship at 11am with Sunday evening and Wednesday evening events too,) and for many, the layout of the facilities were exactly the same. This was not unheard of in Southern Baptist life in that most of our material was published by LifeWay (née Baptist Sunday School Board) and the blueprints used for building were provided by the denomination. Finding sameness was comfortable and allowed for an ease of joining a new church upon relocation.

The membership process in each church was similar, too. This is from memory and I was a child for most of these moves, but it seems that joining a church was pretty simple. Here's the process as I remember it:

  1. You attend a service
  2. Walk down the aisle during the invitation hymn
  3. Tell the pastor you want to join the church
  4. The pastor would ask if you were a Christian and if you were a member of another Baptist church.
  5. If the answers were "yes" then the new church would contact the former and "send for your letter."
  6. If the potential new member was not yet a Christian or baptized, those very important discussions were held and membership was complete upon baptism.
  7. Then there was the moment when you and your family were brought up before the church  (normally about five minutes after you walked down the aisle)
  8. The pastor would present you to the congregation and a brief business meeting took place. It went something like this: "This family wants to unite with our church. We're so excited about this. All in favor say 'Amen!'"
  9. The congregation would say "Amen."
  10. The pastor would ask if anyone thought otherwise, but most often there were no "nay" votes.

It was that easy. Boom! You're a church member.

I am sure it was not like this everywhere, but in most of the smaller churches our family attended it seemed to work this way. It could be that the church was so excited to have a young family join that they just "amened" us in before risking losing us.

Easy Membership Leads to Difficulty

As I think back I wonder if anyone at these churches ever had doctrinal discussions with my parents prior to joining? I'm sure there were some conversations, but as I stated, I was a child so I was not in those meetings.

I know my parents listened to a few sermons to determine whether or not the pastor stayed true to Scripture. I am confident that some of the things that led to joining certain churches had to do with how welcoming the people were, the opportunities for personal growth, and whether or not the children's ministry was of good quality.

Not much has changed regarding families and potential church membership today.

However, in those cases where membership is rushed, conversations do not take place, testimonies are not shared, and the potential for creating members while sacrificing the call to make disciples occurs.

Membership Classes and Covenants

When our church first instituted new members classes, most people understood the reasoning. However, some were adamant that it was unnecessary, wrong, and even "un-Baptist." Once we explained the reasonings (doctrinal clarification, salvation assurance, ordinance explanations, and clarifying member expectations) for the class, many agreed that it was needed and helpful.

Some, however, still did not like it. 

The Concept of Covenant Membership

One of the biggest pushbacks was from those who refused to sign or agree to covenant with other members. Some had previously been members of churches that were...well, toxic. Those who had gone through difficulties at other churches (or our own in the past) struggled with trusting leaders and seeing the value of committing (or covenanting as we stated) with others in the church for fear of being hurt.

I understand that fear.

Regardless how others may have soiled the concept of covenant membership, the affirmations of being one in Christ and being responsible to one another resonate throughout the New Testament. Therefore, it is biblical to be in an honest, gospel-centric, covenant relationship with other brothers and sisters in Christ as a local church.

I do know some who struggle with this due to experiences that involve abuse of power, and in some cases, traumatic sinful actions made by those who used the "covenant" terminology in unbiblical and selfish ways. I am not speaking of such instances. I do not minimize those as they are very real and impactful. That is just a subject for another article.

For the purpose of this article, I am speaking of healthy churches, led by biblically-sound, godly leaders who submit to the lordship of Christ. Healthy churches include covenant members who are redeemed by Christ, accountable to the Lord and one another, and serve well together, selflessly for God's glory alone and their own good.

Opposition to Membership Classes

Over the years, I have heard numerous reasons why potential members balk at the concept of required new members' classes.

The most common is:

I have been a member of many Baptist churches and never had to take a class before. I should not have to do so here.

Other opposition tends to fall from this train of thought. This response and similar ones come from those who have been members of other Baptist churches for years. In their mind the "send for my letter" model described above is all that should be required. A class seems like legalism to them. I heard one state that it seemed "cultish." That was a shock to me.

Truth be told, the process could become legalistic. I am sure it has at certain places.  I am not for creating extra-biblical hoops for people to jump through to become part of the body

I do value the one-on-one conversations with brothers and sisters who seek to become members. In most cases, the personal connections are needed and helpful. They are helpful for the potential members to understand who we are as a local church, how we seek to fulfill God's great commission, and how they can join in this journey of faith with us.

It is beneficial when it is determined that a person wants to join the church but has never joined God's family. Just because a person has a long tenure as a church member elsewhere does not mean that they are born again children of God. If this church attender is not a believer we gain a clear opportunity to present the gospel, answer questions, and follow the Holy Spirit's lead.

That's not legalism. That's loving.

Membership Interviews

We are now at the point of adding membership interviews into our new member process. Again, this is not to create another hoop, but to help brothers and sisters unite with our church well. These interviews will be led by pastors and ministry leaders on our staff during membership classes. They are individual conversations that may take place in a large room during a time of sharing a meal together. 

What will happen in the interviews?

We will share who we are a a church and describe doctrinal distinctions of our fellowship. This will be a time of clarifying what we believe about the ordinances of the church, structure of our church, the vision and mission of our church and expanded ministries, and answer questions regarding such. The potential member will have the opportunity to share his/her personal story of how he/she came to know Christ as Lord. This personal testimony time is a key moment in that many believers are never challenged to share. During this time, key elements of one's personal story will be given to help them focus on the gracious love of God and how he rescued them. 

For those brothers and sisters who come from other churches that view baptism differently, we will have an opportunity to discuss our understanding of the ordinance clearly.

Expectations of a member will be also presented.

Additionally the expectations a member should have from his/her church will be presented.

If church membership is the next step, we move forward. If there are barriers to work through, we can prayerfully and carefully do so. It may be that we ask the candidate for membership if he/she would be open to meeting with a current church member (same gender) for a season of study to help answer some questions that may arise. There are other things that may come up, but the goal is not just to get another name on a membership roll or check off another box, but to seek God as we grow in number possibly, but most importantly, as we make disciples. 

I am sure that some will balk at the "interview" process simply because it sounds more business-oriented than church-oriented. Perhaps there's a better term. I am not sure what a better term would be, but I am certain that such conversations will not only be helpful for the individuals but beneficial for the church.

Membership requires relationships. Primarily with Christ. Secondarily with his children. We cannot do life together if we do not know one another. 

You Want to Join Our Church?

So, you want to join our church? Great. Let's talk about it. Maybe over dinner?

It sure beats having you coming down an aisle and being paraded in front of a bunch of people you don't know yet so they can "Amen" you into the family.


The Awkward Encounter with a Former Church Member

Every local church has members who decide for one reason or another to leave the fellowship. The reasons people have for leaving are varied. Some reasons are godly and prayerfully considered. Some are selfish and consumeristic. Some leave angrily and/or hurt. Others may be transferred to another city by their employer and therefore, change churches. Oh, and some leave because the church they attend is toxic, the preaching is not biblical, and compromises in doctrinal fidelity have occurred. There are more reasons, I'm sure, but you get the point.

In a community like mine, there are dozens of local church options. This has increased over the past twenty years as the community has grown, more schools have been built, and traffic patterns have changed.

Therefore, the inevitable has occurred. Our church may actually have more former church members/attenders in our community that current ones. 

We have had people leave our church for every reason listed above (well, except the one about the abandonment of good doctrine on our part, at least from my perspective.) Since I have lived here for over twenty-six years, I run into many brothers and sisters who are in the "former member" category. These encounters take place in restaurants, grocery stores, school events, and elsewhere.

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Photo credit: Indiana Stan on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC

For those who didn't leave angrily or hurt, the meetings are cordial and very nice. Often there's a bit of catching up because I just don't see them as much and am not aware of the latest details in their lives. 

However, there are times when the encounter is . . . interesting.

There are some who angrily left our fellowship. Some disagreed with my teaching or doctrine. To some I am too conservative. To others I am too liberal. One was angry I was not more political from the pulpit (He found a church that tends to wrap the cross in the flag, so he's happier now.) I know some who were just turned off by my personality (I really can't blame them.) Others felt I did not minister to them as a pastor should. They're probably right, to be honest.

So what do I do?

I smile. Ask how they're doing. Sometimes force them to shake my hand and wish them well. In most cases they're going to other churches and I'm comforted to know that.

A few weeks ago I saw a brother in the grocery store. I asked how he was doing. I hadn't seen him at church in a while, but I did not ask about his attendance. I was not setting him up. I was not intending to make it awkward. The encounter wasn't awkward from my perspective. I noticed he was nervous. Then, he said, "Well, my wife and I are now attending [such-and such church, a new church in our area]." He named the church. I smiled. I know the church. It's the latest good church to pop up. While I am certain he is attending there, he said the name of the church incorrectly. I knew which one he was talking about and really wanted to say "Well, if you're going to the church, you should know the name of the church," but I didn't. It didn't matter. He was apologetic in how he spoke, but I stated quickly "That's a great church. I'm so glad you're connected and involved. Stay there. Be a member. Stay committed." He smiled and I went to get my gallon of milk.

Awkward, but not bad.

Membership Matters

Like most churches, we keep a membership roll as up-to-date as possible in order to know our members, where they live, track their attendance and service, and help understand next steps for discipleship. 

Like many, we have names on the roll of people who never attend, haven't attended in years, and are likely members of other churches. We really need to deal with that.

I believe church membership is biblical and matters. I won't get into the details of the biblical justification of such, but recommend the book Church Membership by Jonathan Leeman on the subject. You can purchase a copy here.

Leeman makes this statement in the book (page 22):

If you are a Christian living in a Western democracy, chances are that you need to change the way you think about your church and how you are connected to it. Most likely, you underestimate your church. You belittle it. You misshape it in a way that misshapes your Christianity.

That's a harsh statement for some, but the truth is there. In America especially, the heightened individualization of our faith leaves the faithfulness to brothers and sisters in the local body somewhere on the back burner (if on the proverbial stove at all.) 

Leeman continues:

If you are a Christian, the local church is not a club. It is not a voluntary organization where membership is optional for you. It is not a friendly group of people who share an interest in religious things and so gather weekly to talk about the divine. Nor is a church a service provider, where the customer has all authority.

The church is God-ordained and the fellowship of believers is needed. It is needed for each believer and for glorifying the Father. 

My Responsibility to "My" Church

How I interact with former members varies depending on the former member. This is a reality for all relationships. How a brother or sister in a local church interacts with those who used to be in their church changes when they leave. This is inevitable. 

The universal church is biblical. However, the local church body is as well. These are not the same, yet both are needed. 

As a pastor I have a responsibility to God and my church to the members of my church. (I say my church here just to distinguish it as different from other local bodies. I know it is not my church, but God's.) 

I do not have that same pastoral responsibility to brothers and sisters in the universal church.

In the local church, there is a covenant relationship between members. In some ways this relationship is like the "I do" stated at a wedding. Church membership is about the church taking the biblical responsibility for its members and for each member taking responsibility for the church.

Whether you meet in a church building, a home, a school, a YMCA, or other venue, the local body of the church is where membership is held. This is because it is within the local body that accountability, discipline, discipleship, worship, the partaking of the Lord's Supper, and other needful things occur. 

Back To The Awkward Encounter

My encounters with former members are not always awkward. In most cases, the awkwardness does not resonate from me (at least not intentionally) because I no longer have the oversight/shepherding responsibility for that brother or sister. I won't need to offer them counseling. I won't officiate their wedding or speak at their funeral. I won't take them on mission trips or start a Bible study with them. Of course, I am speaking of the one now attending and a member of another local body.

For the stray sheep out there, going nowhere, seeking God, but simultaneously running from him, I pray and will continue to follow the Holy Spirit's lead of drawing him/her back into the fold.

In most cases however, it's not about getting the distant sheep back into the fold, it is about getting the lost saved.

The Awkwardness Will Likely Continue

The state of American evangelicalism means that these encounters by Christians in suburban and fast-growing areas will continue. People will join your church. They will leave and join another. Some will join who have more church memberships from local churches than Tom Brady has Super Bowl rings. Sadly, this is just how it is. While I lament when a brother or sister leaves our church, especially if it is due to sin on my part or theirs, I trust God that he will place them where they can serve and be shepherded well. 

Pastors, be encouraged in this. The awkward meetings are very real, especially in the west. It will not always be this way. It is not this way on my global mission fields. Be thankful there are others seeking to honor God and new churches are being planted. Shepherd the flock God has given you. Lead your church to seek and save the lost, not the already saved who attend elsewhere.

As for loving your brothers and sisters, regardless where they attend weekly for worship, there is no pass. Love God and love others. This is non-negotiable, whether they attend your church, another church, or no church.

And if you have the awkward encounter, smile, offer a handshake, say a brief prayer and go get your gallon of milk.


7 Things the Church Planter You're Supporting Wants to Tell You

The expansion of churches and gospel ministries is an outgrowth of the Great Commission and in our nation today (and elsewhere) planting new churches in areas of increased population density where few, if any, gospel churches exist seems to be effective in reaching people well. 

Over the years, our church has partnered with planters in Portland, OR, Toronto, ON, Orlando, FL, Tucson, AZ, Washington, DC, Colorado Springs, CO, and more. 

I am currently in conversation with another young man who is planning to move with his wife and children to a densely populated metropolitan area next year. I get excited hearing about his call, his plans, and the anticipation of this new work.

There are numerous books, blogs, videos, and articles written with the church planter and his family in mind. These offer insights, growth and health strategies, and numerous other elements that are helpful and vital for new works. 

Planters

That's not what this post is about. I'm writing to the pastors and church leaders of established churches who are designated as sending or supporting churches. 

A number of years ago at one our denomination's national "Send Conferences" I was asked by one of our "Send City" teams to share in a breakout session with other pastors. I was asked to speak to them, pastor-to-pastor, and share some of the things we had talked about on a vision trip prior. Basically, I was asked to tell pastors things they wish they could, but fear would negatively impact their support.

You see, these planters are so very grateful for the support and sponsorship of legacy church pastors and churches, but sometimes the "help" offered is not the help needed...and they just cannot find a nice way to say it.

So I said it.

And, it bears repeating.

In no particular order, here are seven things your very appreciative church planter would like you to know (probably.)

1. Don't send your youth choir, puppet team, drama team, handbell team, sign language performance team, dance team, etc.

Okay, this is a pretty broad statement and there may be exceptions. One exception (and it may the only one) is if the church planter actually requests such team. For example, we know certain areas in Europe where choirs from America are welcomed and public performances are ways to celebrate the arts well. In this case, the choir may be a good thing (if the choir is a good choir.) However, most of our urban-area church planters have no such venue, opportunity, or place where a choir, drama team, etc. would be a benefit.

Just because your group has traditionally been received well in your church and community does not mean that in an unchurched community such would be welcomed or helpful. 

2. Don't arrive in the city with your "way to do church or ministry" expecting the planter to do it your way.

There is such a thing as contextual mission and for the planter embedded in the city, building relationships, and planting a church centered on the gospel for that region, the way to do ministry may be different than how the visiting team does church. In fact, it likely is. 

What works in a church with decades of history may be counter-productive in a new work. What works in rural Alabama likely will have to look differently in downtown Philadelphia. This is not a statement regarding the gospel, biblical truth, or doctrinal authenticity. This is related solely to how these elements come together for the church in the community God has planted it.

No one likes the expert who knows how to do everything ... but really doesn't.

3. Don't let another agenda overshadow God's.

For example, if your primarily politically conservative, MAGA-hat wearing church members arrive in the city center that is known to be politically liberal and not supportive of the same political party or political leaders, and the city’s residents first encounter with your team members leads them to believe you are promoting a political agenda (you can swap conservative and liberal depending on where you are from and going,) immediate barriers to gospel conversations will be raised and may impact future conversations. This is not to say that any Christian cannot have strongly held political beliefs (just about every person does.) However, the mission is bigger than convincing someone you have never met to vote the way you do.

Maybe it's not political. It may be as simple as not wearing a Dallas Cowboys t-shirt in New York? Sounds silly and kind of ridiculous. You can cheer for whomever you want, but if your church planter is connecting with a New York Giants fan-base in a specific region of the city, your blue star may just shut down a conversation it took him weeks to begin.

For southern, college football fans, it would be like wearing an Auburn shirt on a mission trip to Tuscaloosa. For our midwestern brothers and sisters, it would be akin to wearing a Wolverines sweatshirt in Columbus, Ohio. You see the problem?

How would you know what fits in this category? Talk to your church planter. Listen to him. He likely has figured out much of this already. Don't ignore his insight.

Keep the main thing the main thing.

4. Don't overpromise and underdeliver.

This is the one I am so tempted to do. I want to offer our planters EVERYTHING they need. I desire to do this, but I cannot offer them funds I do not have, resources that do not exist, or help that will not arrive. 

When a promise is made, the planter believes it to be true, as he should. Yet, so many churches have promised things that either just were impossible to fulfill, or due to supporting church dynamics, were simply pastoral desires and not church desires.

5. Don't expect me to plan your mission trip and be your tour guide.

Please don't be offended, but while these planters need your support, your teams, your finances, and prayers, remember that they live in the mission field. They are not tour guides (though they will often give you a tour of their city) and are not vacation planners (I know, you're on a mission trip, not a vacation.) 

Every city we visit has incredible sites and wonderful places to visit. Often, we will add a day of touring for our teams just so they can get a good feel for the city or region. In fact, when we go to Toronto, we'll take an extra day to visit Niagara Falls. When in Portland, we may go to Mount Hood. I see nothing wrong with any of that, but we must not expect the planter to create our agenda for touring on our "extra" day.

As for the work being done during the trip, that is a bit different. Groups or individuals who go to serve, do so at the behest of the planter. Therefore, he will have some things in mind where the help of other people is advantageous. 

Yet, in most cases, the work of the church is long-term. Therefore, no rally/crusade/event/etc. is likely to be planned by the planter for the visiting mission team to pull off. There are cases where this may happen, but most often...no. 

Our people visiting our planters go there to serve him, his spouse, and his family. Whatever they need, we are there to provide. At times, it may seem like we're not doing much, but the ministry of presence is valuable and viable. It counts. If your church needs a "report" of how many "souls were saved" from every trip, you may find yourself frustrated at the very healthy and helpful trip your church planter requested and provided.

6. Don't mess up what we've built.

No one desires to mess up another's ministry. Yet, there are times when a well-meaning mission team arrives in a church planter's city and the conversations at the coffee shop, the activities done, the "ministry" provided actually did more harm than good.

These planters are not just visiting the city for a season. They actually call this city home. It is home. They're building community. They're meeting their neighbors. They have friends. They have new brothers and sisters in Christ and many who they pray will be. They are on a long-term mission and sometimes (unintentionally) the short-term team can actually cause the process of ministry in the city to step backward, rather than forward.

Be careful and again...talk to your planter. Help him and his family serve his city in the name of Jesus Christ. Oh, and doing so may mean doing so in a voice not quite as loud as it is at home (we tend to be loud) and absent of Christianese and "Jesus clichés." Stereotypes of evangelicals and Baptists especially are real. Don't add fuel to them.

7. Don't forget us.

When a planter first goes on the field, it's nerve-wracking and exciting. There's fear and joy about a new work. The sending and supporting churches tend to have very intentional emphases for them initially. Then, it happens.

A few weeks or months into the plant, there's been no communication with the supporting churches. Friends at the former church are still friends, but only through Facebook now. The pages on the calendar have flipped and while life is moving ahead in the new, frighteningly exciting work, for those back home, the same has occurred. The urgency of the immediate takes over and...we forget.

We forget to contact our planters.

We forget to pray for them regularly.

We forget to let them know we love them and support them.

We may even forget to deposit that extra offering in their name that we promised we would (this is often from individuals, but can be from churches as well.)

Ministry is lonely and the support group of brothers and sisters that send out the planter and his wife often find the physical distance to lead to communicative distance. 

And the planter family feels so very alone.

The Three "P"s

Years ago I was sitting in a conference room with some of our North American Mission Board Send City planters and missionaries. We were brainstorming some ways to remember what is needed most from established churches for these planters.

I remember saying, it's simple - prayer, people, and provision.

I think another "P" has been added by some, but the fact remains that these families need to know that they are not lone rangers taking on a city alone. We must be together, but take a moment and think through the seven suggestions. Your support is vital, but wrong support is deadly.

Pray for your planters. Pray for them regularly. Pray specifically. 

Send people from your church, but only the right people in the right number doing the right things.

Give provision to your planter. Give what you promised. Provision = money! Support them in tangible ways. 

Vital Questions

  • How can you know what to pray?
  • How can you know who to send?
  • How can you know what their financial and resource needs are?

Simple - ask them. A photograph on a prayer card is great, but more is needed. Talk to them, email them, give them permission to be honest. Then...get in on this great thing called church planting and stay faithful. The harvest will be reaped and you and your church will have played a vital role.

 

__________

Our church planters serve through the Send City initiative of the North American Mission Board (SBC.) This is not the only church planting strategy and the points shared above are likely useful regardless the sending agency.


Why Do We Have a Christian Flag and Why Is There a Pledge?

Last week, during a "Parents Night Out" event sponsored by the children's and preschooler's family ministry, I was the guest for a time titled "Pizza with the Pastor." It was during this hour I joined our elementary school-aged children. When I arrived, the children were working on decorating cookies with icing and decorations, so the sugar rush was coming. Pizza was on the way and that ratcheted up their excitement as well. Truth be told - they were probably more excited about the pizza than they were about having their pastor there. 

This was more than a time to eat pizza, cookies, and play some games.

These children were given the opportunity to ask me any question they wanted. They did have to write them down beforehand and, our children's ministry leaders vetted them prior to reading them aloud in front of the entire group.

The questions were varied. Some were expected. I was asked how old I was (they guessed I was about thirty years older than I am.) I was asked my shoe size (which makes me think I may get a new pair of Nikes for Christmas.) I was even asked if Joshua in the Old Testament only had one foot. I had never heard that before, so I asked who brought that question. The young man raised his hand and read this verse...

Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses. Joshua 1:3 (ESV)

Apparently, because the work translated here regarding Joshua's feet (or foot) is singular, the big question is "Did he only have one?" Hmmm. There's something for you to think about.

I then received a question regarding the pledge to the Christian flag. For those who did not grow up going to Vacation Bible School in an evangelical church may not have any idea what this is. Some churches have the Christian flag displayed in their building or hanging out front. Some even have it displayed in Sunday School or small group rooms. For churches with an Awana program for children (as ours does) this flag is known and often a pledge is offered. 

Rarely does anyone in a local church over the age of ten do anything with the Christian flag, though there are some churches and groups that have incorporated it into their routine and gatherings. 

The question was asked not so much about the pledge, but about there being different pledges. There is one that many in conservative evangelical churches memorized in VBS that is, at least in their minds, the "official one." Then, there is a pledge created by more mainstream, liberalized churches memorized by many children and must therefore, be the "official" one.

And, there are others.

The Flag

People love flags. There are hundreds of them that exist today and many more that have been used throughout history. Most of the time, flags have been used to designated nations, tribes, or people groups. While many Christians in America today believe the Christian flag is something that has a long, rich history and perhaps was used for centuries by believers throughout the world, the truth is that this red, white, and blue banner is not that historic.

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Here's a brief history of the creation of the flag as reported by Christianity Today...

The Christian flag dates back to an impromptu speech given by Charles C. Overton, a Sunday school superintendent in New York, on September 26, 1897. The guest speaker for the Sunday school kick-off didn't show up, so Overton had to wing it. Spying an American flag near the podium, he started talking about flags and their symbolism. Along the way he proposed that Christians should have their own flag—an idea that stayed on his mind long after the speech. In 1907 Overton teamed up with Ralph Diffendorfer, secretary to the Methodist Young People's Missionary Movement, to produce and promote the flag.1

This moment took place when the Sunday School movement was in full swing, not to mention the growth of young people's societies by groups such as the YMCA and denominationally in the United States.

The colors of the flag were taken from the US flag, but redefined. White was to represent purity. Blue indicated fidelity. Red stood for the blood sacrifice of Christ. 

Over time, the flag became a symbol adopted by many American churches and due to the American missionary movement, it also became popular in South America and Africa. 

What About the Pledge?

There are numerous pledges to the flag that have been used over time. 

One that many grew up reciting is this:

I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag and to the Savior for whose kingdom it stands, one Savior, crucified, risen, and coming again with life and liberty for all who believe.

Another version is:

I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag and to the Savior for whose kingdom it stands, one brotherhood, uniting all mankind, in service and love.

What's the big difference? One (considered more conservative) emphasizes Christ, his death, burial and resurrection while the other (considered by many to be liberal) emphasizes an ecumenical brotherhood among Christians. It is subtle, but as no pledge is accidental (read about the adding of "under God" to the US flag pledge) there are reasons for the verbiage shifts and foci. 

In addition to these two versions of the pledge to the Christian flag, there are others. Some eliminate "pledge" and replace it with "affirm." Still others change words so they fit their denominational understanding and theology.

There is no definitive pledge to the Christian flag.

Why a Flag?

That leads to the question, why do we even have this flag?

Is it biblical? Is it a good thing to have these pledges? Is it right? Wrong?

Likely, you haven't thought about the Christian flag much. To be honest, I don't think about it much. I hadn't thought of the pledge to it until the question came up last Friday.

Personally, after thinking about the Christian flag and the pledge...I don't think much of either of them.

In other words, I don't think it is a sin to recite a pledge, but I definitely do not think it is something that a Sunday School class or church should mandate as required before the beginning of class or a service.

It's just...kind of...there.

I agree with what the writer of this article on the website gotquestions.org stated regarding the Christian flag and the pledge:

There is nothing sinful about displaying a Christian flag or reciting a pledge to it. Given that the Christian flag and its pledge are designed to honor the Lord Jesus, having the flag in a church or school can be a wonderful reminder of Christ and our commitment to Him. The Christian flag’s emphasis on the cross is biblical, since God, through Christ, worked “to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:20).

At the same time, the Bible nowhere advises us to make Christian flags or gives us wording for a pledge. Since the Christian flag is a manmade design, displaying it or pledging allegiance to it is a matter of conscience and not required of any Christian.2

We still have the Christian flag at our church for VBS and Awana. It is a tool for teaching. Nothing more.

I pray that when the pledge is recited by these children it is done as a teachable moment of what Christ has done for us and not as a teaching or indoctrination that somehow this red, white, and blue banner is sacred. It is not. It is a flag created by a Methodist Sunday School superintendent on a whim. Let's just be sure we keep that in perspective.

___________

1 Coffman, Elesha. “Do You Know the History of the Christian Flag?” Christianity Today, 6 Oct. 2017,    www.christianitytoday.com/history/2008/august/do-you-know-history-of-christian-flag.html.

2 "What Is the Christian Flag, and What Does It Symbolize?" Got Questions, https://www.gotquestions.org/Christian-flag.html.


How Did Your Church Die? Two Ways - Gradually, Then Suddenly.

In 1926 Ernest Hemingway published his novel The Sun Also Rises. As with many Hemingway books, this one became a best-seller and remains in print today. This character Mike Campbell was asked about his money troubles and responded with this oft-quoted answer. 

"How did you go bankrupt?"

"Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly." - Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

As a pastor of a legacy church (i.e. old church) in what was formerly called "The Bible Belt" of the southern United States, I have watched numerous churches in our region come face-to-face with closure or abandonment. Even some (most) larger legacy churches are having to make staffing and organizational decisions to ensure they have a future of ministry ahead of them in the city. While an historically large church may have millions of dollars worth of property and a long legacy of great work for the Lord in a region, the reality often hits as changing demographics and population shifts result in a downturn of attendance, giving, and impact. Some have stated how sad it is when this happens. I guess that's true, but this is no new story and should not surprise us. Just take a trip to Europe to visit some of the megachurches of history where great things for God were done years ago. It seems that just about all local churches have a shelf life. 

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A Closed Church in Northern Wales

What is sad is when a local church and its members are surprised by reality and end up panicking, making unwise decisions, and positioning themselves to be little more than a footnote of Christian work in a region.

Church planting is part of our local church's DNA. Even before the term "planting" became popular, our church was focused on launching new "missions" and supporting other churches in our area and throughout the world. This was set in motion long before I came to be pastor and I am thankful for this.

Yet, at the same time we focus on new work and church planting, the reality of local church closures and dying churches is upon us. I don't think we're planting at a rate to replace all the historic churches now faced with death. Thus, we see a focus now on church replanting and revitalization. We are seeking to see a movement of God that historically we have never seen. 

Yet, churches are dying. They're closing their doors. 

The quote from Hemmingway could be applied to churches as well.

"How did your church die?"

"Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly."

Church Planting Is Hard

Church planting is hard. It is hard on planters, their spouses, their children, and on the members who sign up to be part of a "launch team" only to discover that after about month of setting up and tearing down their portable church in their leased location, it just is not fun anymore. I pray for these planters regularly, believing they are truly on the frontlines of ministry and mission in our own communities. 

Church Replanting/Revitalization May Be Harder

As difficult as church planting is, I believe church replanting and revitalization is more difficult. In many cases, the replant/revitalization (I will use these terms together, but I do understand these are not the same) is akin to an adult child having to tell their senior adult parent they will no longer be allowed to drive their car (the one they paid for and have owned for years) and will be taking their keys and license away. That may be the best comparative illustration I have heard. For instance, in many cases, these older churches have decades of history. There is an era of growth likely when things were going well, people were joining the church, being baptized, and the community was being reached. Perhaps the church never hit "megachurch" status (megachurches are very rare) but the church was healthy...for a season. Yet, that chapter of history is closed. It is a great memory and the legacy is very real, but currently the church is barely hanging on. The membership is decidedly older, often comprised of only older people. There have been no baptisms for years. The community has changed so much that the neighbors do not look like the members of the church. While the property may be owned, the offerings are not enough to cover such things as pastoral salary, utilities, insurance, and lawn care expenses. 

The church is bankrupt. 

How did it happen?

Well, gradually at first, but then suddenly.

When the "suddenly" hits, the reality of what is to come becomes clear. It is sad. It is tragic. 

It Doesn't Have To Be This Way

This is the reality of many local churches. In our city and region today, there are approximately forty churches that are in this category (that I know of.) Some realize it. They are taking steps to ensure a gospel witness remains.

We have seen some incredible stories in our network. One church gifted its property to another that was newer, growing, and ethnically different (from the current church, but the same as the community where the building is located.) Another church deeded its property to our network and that facility has been given over to another new, growing church comprised of immigrants and refugees who have relocated to our city. It's thriving now. Still others have partnered with larger legacy churches. In these cases, we are seeing the larger churches bring the older, smaller one under its wings, providing financial support, pastoral leadership, and numerous resources for the purpose of replanting and relaunching the church in the same facility for future decades of ministry.

Tragically, there are many who remain in their state of bankruptcy, closer to dying today than ever. Sadly, I fear that some will end up selling their property, liquidating their assets, and leave their legacy as little more than a historical footnote. This is not good. This is not godly.

I am praying that we will be as the men of Issachar (1 Chron 12:32) having the insight to know the times well and respond wisely. 

Regardless the size or location of your local church the fact that gradual, then sudden death could occur is a reality. Resting on one's laurels (or bank account, pastor's personality, history in a community, etc.) is not enough. It never has been. It cannot be. 

What is occurring in churches throughout our region and nation is not reserved for certain churches of certain demographical makeup in specific areas. Every church is susceptible. Every leader has blind spots. May we wise up and see what God is showing us. 

The Hope

I am hopeful. I know that some churches will close. I know that others will begin. This life-cycle is real and we can continue to celebrate the wondrous things God has done through his local expressions of church throughout our communities. Yet, premature closure is little more than the enemy's attack on God and a small victory. Small, but deadly. I hate seeing a region lose a center for gospel witness. I hate seeing a region left abandoned (not by God, but by his people.) Therefore, we must pray more, serve well, stop living as if other local churches are the enemy, and come together for God's glory. Many are doing so. That's why I have such hope.

This is difficult. But, if it were easy, anyone could do it. Our joy in the Lord gives us strength. Replanting and revitalization is working, but not due to the creativity and ingenuity of those with "new ideas" on how to do church, but because God is empowering his people, living faithfully, for his glory to be the instruments of bringing life to that which was previously dead, or dying. This is God at work. He alone gets the glory, but oh, we get to bask in his glory and this is for our good.

Press on church planter, replanter, and revitalizer. For the pastor of the legacy church who is now experiencing the best chapter in your history, be wise and be aware. Perhaps you are meant to strengthen the replanter or come alongside the dying church to offer support and leadership for a new work?

Let's not leave this task left undone.

What's the worst that can happen? Well...what happens if you choose to let your senior adult parent who cannot see well and is a danger to himself and others continue to drive? 

I believe that revitalized churches will be reawakened in much the same way they began to die, at least in this case.

"How did your church get revitalized?"

"Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly."


When Jesus Said "No, You Cannot Come With Me."

This morning I met with our students at the local junior high to lead our weekly Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) meeting. We have a great group of seventh and eighth graders. Some are athletes, others are not. It's an FCA meeting, but students do not have to be athletes to attend. Truthfully, they don't have to be Christians either. In fact, they don't even have to want to fellowship. Nevertheless, we meet. After our welcome, and the weekly stuffing of our faces with Munchkins from Dunkin Donuts, we enter into our weekly study.

Today, I shared a story that has been a "go to" one for these meetings at different times over the years. It's intriguing, but familiar to most who have been in church. For those who have never been to church, it's a bit shocking - often resulting with "That's in the Bible?" questions.

The Naked Man in the Cemetery

The story is one found in three of the gospel accounts. In some places, it's referenced as one demon-possessed man found living in the cemetery. In another, it's two men. It's not contradictory. Read why here.

Graves-tombstone-grave-cemetery-headstones-death

The story gets the attention of the students...well...because it's about a naked man who lives in a cemetery. That's crazy! Right? That's what the people in the nearby town thought. 

The passage I read this morning was from Luke's gospel - Luke 8:26-39. Click here for the verses.

A Summary

We don't have a long time together on Thursday mornings before school starts, so I shared the story quickly. These students always listen and interact well, but this time they were really drawn in to the strange story. Here is a brief summary:

  • Jesus and his disciples get on a boat on the west side of the Sea of Galilee
  • They begin their journey to the east side of the Sea.
  • A storm comes up. Jesus calms it.
  • They arrive on the west shore. 
  • The disciples stay in the boat. Jesus gets out.
  • There's a naked man in the cemetery on that shore.
  • The naked man comes to Jesus, because the demons inside him know him. 
  • The demons speak, questioning why Jesus was there. They were afraid.
  • They ask if he would just send them into the herd of pigs nearby, rather than cast them into the abyss (apparently, they know how the Bible ends.)
  • Jesus obliges and they enter the pigs.
  • The pigs then run off the cliff and die.
  • The herdsmen aren't happy. They're scared.
  • They run into town and tell the townspeople.
  • The townspeople come to the cemetery and see Jesus sitting with the formerly naked man (now clothed) and everything ... seems ... normal. This is shocking!
  • The townspeople (Gentiles, by the way) are afraid and ask Jesus to leave.
  • Apparently, the disciples are still in the boat.
  • The healed, formerly naked demon-possessed man comes to Jesus and asks to go with Jesus.
  • Jesus says, "No."

The man is instructed to go back to his people and tell them what Jesus had done. 

Shocking Moments

I asked the students what shocked them the most about the story. 

Of course, as is the case every single time I tell this, they were upset that the pigs had to die. 

Yep. Every time.

They thought it was unfair because the pig herders had lost their pigs. Seemed like a harsh thing. They asked "Why did Jesus kill the pigs?"

Interesting, because Jesus didn't kill the pigs, but just as many of us do, when things happen that seem unfair, we often blame God for the hardship.

Then, there's the naked man. That part was weird. How did Jesus know he was there? Why would a good Jewish rabbi go to an unclean land of the Gentiles, be near unclean animals (pigs) and hang out in an unclean cemetery? There's much here. 

Notice, that as far as we can tell, the good Jewish disciples didn't even get out of the boat. They weren't ready for this, but Jesus was preparing them. I wonder if Peter thought of this moment when he had the vision prior to meeting with Cornelius?

We talked about how this crazy, naked, demon-possessed man was not liked by the townspeople. He scared them. Likely, he angered them as well. Why? Because if he's in the cemetery, no one can come and pay respects to their dearly departed. There's no leaving flowers or spending time there to honor the dead. It was too risky.

But now everything has changed. 

Jesus shows up. Heals the man. Transforms him. He's a brand new man!

Rejection?

This is what shocked us most. This man, likely not wanted by his people, desired to go with Jesus. He asked. He was ready to get into the boat and become one of the inner crowd. 

Then, Jesus says "No."

What? This is the total opposite of every invitation at youth camp, revivals, and church services I have gone to most of my life. The pastor or evangelist always says "Jesus loves you. Come to him. He will never leave you. Come on down that aisle and make a decision to abandon everything for the sake of Christ." The message has been "Come see. Walk with Christ. Stay with him. He won't reject you." Then, there's this story.

It seems so out of place, out of character, and just wrong.

Jesus said "No!"

Of course, he gave him more instructions. He said: "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you."

In other words, Jesus said "No, you can't come with me. You cannot get in the boat with the disciples. You need to go into the town. Go home to the people who have been afraid and embarrassed of you for years. Go back to those who made fun of you, avoided you, warned their children to stay away from you. Go back to a people who are from your own culture...but, don't really like you. Oh, and when you do, be sure to tell them all that I, a Jewish rabbi, Son of God, from the other side of the sea has done for you." (That's my paraphrase and definitely can be corrected.)

Oh. Okay.

Then Jesus got in his boat with the disciples and made their way back across the water, never to come to this place again, as far as we know.

It's a strange story, to say the least.

A mission movement in this Gentile region began, to come to fruition when Paul arrived years later. An unnamed man who formerly was possessed with a legion of demons was healed, transformed, and rescued. His seminary training lasted just the time it took for the herdsmen to get out of the region, go into town and bring all the residents back with them. He's then commissioned, ordained, and sent out as a missionary. 

And Jesus said "No." 

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Photo credit: duncan on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC

What's the Point?

There is much to learn here. Some things I have thought of after reading this over and over, and by sharing it once more with a group of teenagers. These are just some of the points I believe are transferable to our lives...

  • Not all followers of Jesus are at a point of accepting all other followers of Jesus, but eventually will be the longer they walk with him (I'm thinking of the disciples who apparently never exited the boat.)
  • Sometimes we can miss the point by being distracted by other things going on around the main focus (i.e. worried about the dead pigs rather than focusing on the demon-possessed man.)
  • Fear can trump faith. The townspeople were so frightened, they just asked Jesus to leave, rather than celebrate that their friend/relative/fellow townsperson was healed.
  • Following Christ fully mat not look like what we desire (the man wanted to get in the boat, not be left in the cemetery.)
  • Our personal testimonies, or stories of rescue by Christ are not about us, but ultimately about him. This is why we don't know the name of the one who seems by many to be the main character (the man in the cemetery.) Why? Because he's not the main character. Jesus is. He is in our stories as well.
  • A "no" may hurt, but when God says "no" there is always a bigger "yes" behind it. Jesus saying "no" to the man was not a rejection, but an invitation. The "yes" was that many would come to Christ, or at least be open to hearing about Christ. The man, just like you and me, was not privy to all that would occur. Thankfully, he was obedient and remained. Oh, and as an aside, I don't think the disciples were quite ready to take this Gentile into their boat yet.

I love this story. I have heard it so many times throughout my life, but the more I look into it, the more I see. Students love talking about it. It's strange. It has so many odd elements in it - pigs, Jesus, naked man, cemetery, demons, angry business owners, a boat, etc.

We also talked about how so many of us can relate to the rescued man...and maybe sometimes to the disciples in the boat who just aren't ready to like others who are different...yet. 

It was a great morning.

I am, however, very cognizant that some of our junior high students may have gone home today and told their parents "Hey, we talked about a naked man at FCA today," and not explain any more than that. I'm waiting for the phone calls and emails. 


Hey Christian - Your Faith Is Showing (Expressing the Fruit of the Spirit Online)

Social media and a networked online presence for people is here to stay. This new instant media world has impacted much. Conversations are often conducted with misspelled and abbreviated words through texts, political statements and movements are no longer relegated to door-to-door "evangelistic" programs or even whisper campaigns in elevators. Verification of news authenticity is suffering due to the fact that information is shared immediately. When wrong information is shared, it's often not retracted. If retracted, it's rarely noticed. 

For the Christian, social media and an online presence can be a wonderful way to proclaim the gospel. However, it can also be a trap easily ensnaring the believer with deeply held convictions, leaving them searching for online echo chambers where community complaints can be affirmed.

For all the great potential (and no doubt, great and godly things have occurred through online conversations and communication) of an online presence for the glory of God, so too is the great opportunity to do harm.

Even those seeking to do right sometimes find that a tweet or post needs to be deleted (I'm guilty of that.) 

As I read through the Gospel of Matthew, I pause at this statement by Jesus...

Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. - Matthew 12:33 (ESV)

Well...amen! Right? I know this is true. You know this is true. I'm no tree-ologist, but I know that if a tree is good is should produce good fruit. Good fruit comes from good trees. Bad fruit comes from bad trees.

Bowl-with-variation-of-healthy-fruit

When it comes to good fruit, I'm drawn to what the Holy Spirit led Paul to write regarding the fruit of the Spirit (obviously good fruit.)

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. - Galatians 5:22-23 (ESV)

Social Media and the Fruit of the Spirit

One thing that social media has done is allow Christians (pastors, too) to have connections with church members and fellow believers. This is good, sometimes. At other times, it is grievous. Why? Because we see Christians posting, sharing, and opining on things in such a way that is little more than cringe-worthy (not to mention ungodly and harmful.)

Shocker! 

This has been true for all time, but especially in our current culture. Whether it's political divides, anger over chicken restaurants, promoted boycotts, generational divides, or even sports rivalries, it seems that some have revealed what we always have known to be true (but would rather not see confirmed.) Some see their Christianity reserved for the hour on Sunday morning, revealing little of the transformed, redeemed, authentic life of a Christ follower during the rest of the week, either in person or online.

What if we actually believed what Christ stated?

What if our actions were to reveal our faith?

It's not a works theology, but a faith that leads to godliness.

Before you tweet, post, share, or comment, consider the following:

LOVE - Is what you're about to post reveal the agape, unconditional, grace-filled, love of God? This is not a culturally defined love that affirms sin, but a biblical love that begins with the "Come and see..." rather than an attack or declaration of how much you dislike someone or something.

JOY - Is what you share something the can bring joy, even a smile to the face of one who reads it? Yes, it can be funny. It can be a meme. It's not a sin to laugh. Of course, it should not be laughter at the expense of others. Can the reading of your post be used to bring a sense of contentment in others?

PEACE - Are you posting things that divide or unite? Demean or lift up? "Blessed are the peacemakers" is what Jesus said. That's online, too.

PATIENCE - Be slow to speak, slow to tweet, slow to post, slow to comment. 

KINDNESS - Is your post mean? Do you use demeaning terms to describe an image-bearer of God who happens to disagree with you, represent the "other" political party, live a lifestyle you cannot affirm? You don't have to agree with everyone to be kind to and about them.

GOODNESS - Do your words encourage others to live like Christ? He is good. Our words should be too.

FAITHFULNESS - Are your words simply religious clichés? Seriously, just leave the "Let go and let God" phrases go and post things that are true, right, and revealing of your faithfulness in Christ. The clichés may not be wrong, but they're still clichés. So, are your postings designed to point people to Christ or to you?

GENTLENESS - Comment threads are not the place to declare one's frustration with everyone else. I'm a member of a few community pages on Facebook and rarely are there things shared there that are gentle and edifying. However, if I wish to read how some people cannot stand others who dare drive worse they they do, don't put their trash cans up on the correct day, or even dare to move into their neighborhood, I have plenty to read. Rare is the gentle word. Perhaps there is an issue to confront, but likely it's not best to do so online. 

SELF-CONTROL - And this is perhaps the biggest one. Before you post, tweet, respond, or comment ask yourself this question "Should I actually say this?" Based on the other fruit of the Spirit, does this need to be stated here, now, and in this way? Or...is it better to pray first, seek God's lead and maybe...just maybe...the wise thing to do is leave that post left unposted.

Hey Christian, Your Faith Is Showing

Your likes, posts, tweets, and comments reveal who you are. As followers of Christ, this means our online persona as well as our face-to-face interactions. This is not easy. It never has been. It's just that with the online realities of the day, our walk with the Lord has a bigger audience than ever.

You may not grow the kingdom of God online, but you certainly can hinder its growth. Be wise. Be fruitful. Produce good fruit.


Striving to Care Well in Our Church (And Not Allow the Emphasis to Be Another Program)

It seems that every day another Christian leader, church leader, former pastor, and Christian entertainer has succumbed to the #MeToo and #ChurchToo focus. While some just wish we could talk about something else, those who have been victimized sexually in the past by spiritual leaders are thankful that we are finally talking about it. Hopefully, we are doing more than talk.

Southern Baptists naively though the sex abuse issues in the church were primarily "Catholic issues" in the past. The sexual deviancy by some Catholic priests that became news fodder a number of years ago was thought to be a result from poor theology (from an evangelical perspective) and the requirement of singleness and celibacy among the priesthood. 

Then, when reporters Sarah Smith (now with the Houston Chronicle) and Nichole Manna produced the poignant articles under the title "Spirit of Fear" at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram focusing on sexual abuse stories primarily in Independent Baptist churches (including one in my county) many Southern Baptists just shook their collective heads declaring it was due to lack of accountability and legalism that permeates in many independent churches.

The Chickens Have Come Home to Roost

The old saying about chickens coming home to roost refers to the fact that unconfessed and unrepentant sins committed in the past will come back to haunt oneself. The truth will be laid bare and will no longer be avoidable. 

That's what has happened in some of the churches of our Southern Baptist Convention. What could not happen here, has happened here. Thanks (and I do mean thanks) to an exposé titled "Abuse of Faith" by reporters Robert Downen, Lise Olsen, and John Tedesco of the Houston Chronicle published in February 2019, the heretofore not talked about, or even acknowledged, has become a leading topic among pastors, church members, and denominational entities.

Caring well
David Tarkington is seated next to Debbie Vasquez (abused & impregnated by her pastor as a teen) at the Caring Well Conference in Dallas. Photo: Jon Shapley, Houston Chronicle

J.D. Greear, President of the Southern Baptist Convention and Pastor of Summit Church in North Carolina, met with denominational leaders and other pastors while declaring that steps must be taken to acknowledge the sin, hold churches and pastors accountable, and primarily offer help and healing to victims and survivors, while seeking justice for perpetrators. 

From the outside looking in, the concept seems simple, but in reality the functionality of such a move has proven very difficult. This is primarily due to the autonomous nature of SBC churches and the lack of power denominational leaders have. Yet, with that being said, the truth is being revealed that their are right steps to be taken that do work, are working, and offer help and hope in this area. As has been stated by many, we hold to our churches having autonomy, but cannot hide behind that when it comes to doctrinal, legal, and moral issues such as clergy abuse and church compliance.

Caring Well

In just a short amount of time, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and LifeWay produced curriculum, video training, and even held a national conference (the annual ERLC Conference in Dallas shifted its focus to the abuse issue this year) to ensure this issue of response and healing was a front-burner issue for SBC churches. 

Much good has been done, but nonetheless for some, it will not be enough.

While I do not have impact on large-scale denominational policies or practices (other than voting as a messenger at the annual meetings and serving on our state's Board of Missions) I do have impact on the church God has called me to pastor. Like many SBC churches, we have an overabundance of curriculum and program options. We have a closet at the church where we store dozens of video series, workbooks, and other resources. To be honest, I'm just about done with the latest "fix in a box" that's available for purchase. That's why at first, I was a bit skeptical of the Caring Well curriculum and training videos. Yet, I knew we must not ignore this reality and if nothing else, this material may be used to push us forward to be a church that will not ignore abuse issues, nor pretend that our own church's sad history could not happen again (READ MORE HERE).

I shared with our church membership that we would be forming a Caring Well team. This team would include some of the pastors on staff, some age-group leaders, members of the church with counseling backgrounds, some with law enforcement experience, those who have served victims of abuse, and others who may choose to serve. In just a few meetings, we found ourselves with a team much larger than I anticipated. Nevertheless, we have the team God has put together not to protect the brand of our local church, but to ensure we glorify Him and provide hope and healing for those in our church and community who have suffered from abuse by spiritual leaders and those of power. 

Some even felt free to share their own stories of suffering. For at least one, it was the first time her story of survival had been shared publicly. Suddenly, we knew that the statistics do not lie. There are women and men in our church family who have been carrying a burden for years. They don't relish their experience, but being survivors of sexual abuse and discovering they are not alone, or to blame, has moved them to a place where we believe God will bring full healing. This is no formulaic process. It's not cookie-cutter, easy-to-do stuff. As each week goes by, I hear more. I'm heartbroken. I'm grieved. And with each new revelation on social media or the news of another church leader's sin being exposed, I see more who are triggered and brought back to their own moments of trauma.

Our Caring Well team is new. We're still working to figure out what to do. We have some plans in place, but more to be done. We see the primary mission of the church to be proclamation of the gospel. We desire the lost to be saved. We want to see the broken healed. We want to ensure that the Enemy no longer has a foothold in Christ's church, using those with titles, callings, and positions of power to inflict (sometimes eternal) damage on those in the flock. 

Therefore, our Caring Well emphasis must never become another curriculum in the closet. It will not be all we do, but it must be a part of who we are. Our church, every church campus and sister church in our network, must not only declare to care well, but actually care well. That is our our calling.

I asked some of our Caring Well team members to share why they're serving. I am encouraged by these responses (just a sampling, not all responses received):

When you explained what Caring Well Ministry entails, I immediately felt a pull or drawing toward this ministry.  While serving on church staff as the Preschool Director and in another church as Children’s Director, neither church “cared well” for the ones hurting. Situations were quickly swept away and quietly dealt with leaving the innocent feeling betrayed. So my short and brief statement is; I want to care well!  I want hurting individuals to feel safe and know they WILL BE CARED FOR.

 

Victims of abuse deserve to be heard, have their allegations investigated in an objective manner and see the perpetrators brought to justice.  I want to serve to help make sure we minimize the opportunities for abuse to occur, make sure we protect and minister to those who are the victims of abuse and see that they get the justice they deserve. 

 

The best way to care well is to prevent abuse from happening in the first place. A child who is abused anywhere, but especially at church, may be so harmed spiritually that they never come to know Christ. We have to do everything in our power to protect them, so they have that opportunity.

 

I have always had a heart for children whether my own, coaching kids sports, working with 4th through 6th graders at church or my grandchildren. Children are undeniably God's gift to us. As I study our Caring Well Handbook and watch the videos and pray, I think this is beyond me and I won't be able to help much, but I know I can do something.

 

I fought hard for many years for victims and survivors of child abuse and assault, and even though it has been quite some time since I have been active in the system, I have never lost my desire to help or my empathy for the individuals whose lives most certainly have been hugely impacted by their experiences.  When the Caring Well information was mentioned I knew immediately that if possible I wanted to be a part to minister in whatever way God leads to provide understanding, empathy, compassion, friendship and a listening heart and ear. 

 

I am a survivor.  By God's grace, as a child I had the protective factors available to help me cope even though I didn't disclose my abuse to my parents.  I was fortunate in ways that so many others are not, and with that comes a sense of duty to help ensure that anyone suffering from abuse will have access to whatever resources are needed to cope, survive, and thrive.  

More News Stories = More Victims

Sadly, stories of sexual sin revelations continue. Whether it's the potential calling of a pastor who almost twenty years ago victimized young girls in his youth group, a spiritual leader who downplayed a victims accusation to protect an image, or a Christian entertainer whose private sexual escapades and propositions with young single and married women shocked the fans who just wanted some clean entertainment, the truth is clear.

It is not the fault of unbiblical ecclesiology, poor interpretations of theology, suggestive clothing worn by naive (or not so naive) teenagers, or loneliness due to marital stress. 

The fool blames those things for his/her sinful actions. The enemy says "It's their fault. You deserve this. You're a leader. You have needs." and more. 

To the victim, we seek to care well and pray for your healing.

To the victimizer, we seek justice upon you and pray for your healing as well. 

It remains a gospel issue, and therefore something we must do as the local body. The gates of hell will not prevail against God's church. That is so true and we must remember that. However, we must also remember that does not mean local bodies, led poorly, that abandon the fullness of the gospel will continue to exist. Some shouldn't.

 

File this under "Things they didn't teach me at seminary."


How Deep Is This Caring Well? Addressing Sexual Abuse in the Church

Last week my wife and I traveled to Dallas, Texas for the 2019 SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) National Conference. As a result of the February 2019 exposé in the Houston Chronicle regarding sexual abuse in Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) churches, the focus of this year's conference what changed to address the issue directly.

Some have asked us how we liked the conference. 

How can you like a conference that is focused on addressing such heinous crimes and sin? 

Well, we did like it because a very real issue was being addressed. It was "good" that no longer were we intentionally or subconsciously ignoring victims of such abuse. Yet, sin is never good. This left us with an overwhelming feeling of sadness, grief, and lament.

Caring well

From a perspective as a pastor in an SBC church, I knew that focusing on such instances was considered by some to be a risky endeavor. For those who were asked to speak, it was clear that ERLC and SBC leaders did not tell them to hold back. It seems that they were not even asked to avoid certain subjects or people. In this era, that was refreshing.

If you followed the #CaringWell trending hashtag online, you likely saw many comments related to the conference. Some were supportive. Others were cautiously encouraged. Still others were angered that the event was even occurring. Of those angered, they constituted varied perspectives.

On one end were those who fear acknowledging that such abuse even occurred in their (our) churches, seminaries, and institutions and to speak of them would tarnish the SBC brand and image. (News flash: It's already been tarnished.) 

On the other end of the spectrum were those who have been victimized by church leaders or others in power (even if in smaller churches) in the past and were appalled that such an event would be sponsored by an agency of the SBC. It seemed, according to some of the statements and posts, to be little more than an attempt at whitewashing sin to give the SBC the ability to say "See, we did something."

I understand where these opinions come from. To say they're not legitimate would be wrong. 

Yet, I went to the conference hopeful. I was not seeking to see if anyone shared a "gotcha" statement or if the ERLC was simply putting on a show for the media. I was seeking to hear from those speaking, victims and advocates. I wanted to come away with some insight into what those in my church may be feeling who have suffered through similar events in their past. I realize that based on statistics there are likely many who have suffered as victims of sexual abuse in our church family (even if not perpetrated by anyone in a church in their past) and this reality is something I must consider when praying, preparing, preaching, and leading those whom God has placed in this local body for me to shepherd. 

I want to shepherd well.

So, I came home with a brain full of information, numerous notes (some disguised as tweets) and insight into things that I had never even considered prior. While some practical information was provided to ensure our church is better suited to protect people from abuse (not just to protect our image or brand - oh, Lord, please no - but to protect victims and those who could be victimized) I found myself drawn into the very personal stories shared from the platform from women and men who had been abused. These were not just stories that would make a good episode of Dateline, but stories that exposed a sinful underbelly that often is allowed to grow in ministries, churches, youth sports and other organizations where predation occurs.

There were so many who spoke and shared. I won't be able to highlight all of them in this post. There are some whose stories continue to resonate, not in a way that "Oh, that's interesting" but in "Oh my! I am grieved that you experienced that and I'm amazed you have found the courage to share." For some, they are first-hand accounts of stories I've heard and read about. For others, they were insights and accounts that I had never heard prior.

My wife and I talked about the information presented. We began to question whether certain people we know and some we are related to could be victims of abuse. We saw in our own conversation what we were warned about by the speakers - the tendency to see all as victims or as victimizers. It happens. It was an overwhelming three days of information, all on the same subject. It was needed. It is needed. And while we recognize that not all people we know find themselves in one of the two categories mentioned above, we do realize that there are far too many who have personal stories that sound much like what has been shared in the Houston Chronicle and from the stage.

Some have gone public with their stories. Many have not.

Some have found support from their churches, church leaders, and denominational representatives. Others have not. 

Some have abandoned the church. Others have not.

Some are hoping for change and help. Others have abandoned any hope for change.

This is the reality. It is a tragic reality.

Yet, I have hope.

That may not be enough for those who are needing more. I know that. But even in the midst of these sinful, nasty, abuse-laden, image-bearer trashing, falsely holy, power-focused stories of the past, I hold onto hope. It's not a hope in man, or in the SBC, or in the ERLC, or any denominational entity (and to be clear, I'm not anti-SBC.) It is only in Christ and the healing offered from the one whose image we bear do I have hope. 

As Mary DeMuth stated from the main stage this past week, God has chosen to use the broken, sinned against, "foolish things" of this world to confound the wise. He is using the "least of these" in these cases, years later, to reveal ignored and excused sin, so that he may be seen clearly.

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. - 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 (ESV)

Brothers and sisters, we have much work to do. The work must be done, but not in our power. If done in our power...then, we have nothing but a conference and resources that help make our brand look caring (I'm not saying that is what we have, but that is what it will be if we rely on self) when healing and right steps must be made. 

The church must help the helpless. We must listen to the cries of the wounded. We must stop believing that every victim is no more than a modern-day version of Potiphar's wife just making up accusations against innocent people. There are certainly some Potiphar's wives out there, but they are the minority. 

Videos from speakers who have given ERLC permission to post will be uploaded soon and available for viewing. Our Caring Well team will watch. We will discuss the messages. We will continue to pray and take tangible steps in our church to ensure that we are not just a building on an avenue in Orange Park, Florida, but a local body of Christ-followers who love the Lord with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength...and love our neighbors and most vulnerable as ourselves. We will be a church that cares well. In fact, it is a deep well whose name is Christ. We will continue to go to this well, for that is the only place where the Living Water can be found. 

Until the videos are posted, here are some of the live-tweets I made as stories were being shared (Apologies to Andrew Schmutzer for misspelling his name in every one of my tweets):

 


Why We're Cancelling Youth Group

Well...we're not cancelling youth ministry. 

We are moving one of our Wednesday youth worship services to another location. In fact, we're dividing our group up and saying "go to one of these available locations."

Why?

Partly because we are partnered with the local Fellowship of Christian Athletes para-church group. In fact, our student minister is the county representative for the group. In our area, this is the only para-church group with a presence on every junior high school and high school campus. Being para-church, the emphasis is not to create a youth group on campus that pulls students from the local church. In fact, the focus is to come alongside the local church to best reach as many students as possible with the message of the gospel. Though this is the stated focus for every para-church group, when the county representative is a local church student minister, it is much easier to see it come to fruition. That is, once other church student leaders begin to trust our student minister to have a kingdom focus, rather than "our church" focus. He's proven himself, so we've crossed this hurdle.

Fields of faith

Fields of Faith - October 9 at 6pm

On Wednesday, October 9 our teenagers will NOT be meeting at our church. This is a bit of a shocker for parents who are used to bringing all the children to the church campus, then going to their own Bible study. Yet, on this night, it all changes.

Fields of Faith is an FCA-sponsored event held on local school campuses. (BTW - it's not just for athletes. All students are welcome.)

According to the Fields of Faith website:

Fields of Faith is a student led event. Students invite, pray for, share with, and challenge their peers to read the Bible and follow Jesus Christ. An athletic field provides a neutral, rally point where a community can come together.

But, but, but...

Many questions come from students, parents, and church leaders. 

Who else is going?

Students like routine, just like adults, and if the service at church is not happening, they are not sure about going somewhere else, even a familiar school, unless they know others attending. That's why it is so vital that students lead out. If a student attends a rival school, challenges in their mind occur as well. In our case, we're saying "Go with your friend." It's that easy. Some campuses may have large groups. Others may have just a few. We know that every single student wants to know who else is going. We don't know. We won't know. 

Transportation is a problem.

We know. Parents have let us know. If their younger children are involved in groups at the church building, how are they to get their teenagers to the high school down the street (or on the other side of town?) It's a valid question. We have discovered that most parents and students, given enough lead time can work this out. As a parent, we did so for our children when they had to be at two different locations at the same time, whether due to school events or travel ball. Of course, we would never say to allow your student to ride with someone you do not know, is not trusted, or vetted.

We can't cancel youth group on Wednesday?

This is a reason given by many church leaders. It may be a challenge, but here's something I have found to be true as a pastor...YES, you can. You can. In fact, it is not cancelling, it is moving. (However, if your church's leadership just will not do this, don't push. Don't rebel. Don't get angry. Don't create dissension. Go to your church building and worship with your brothers and sisters. This is not a bad thing. I believe in pastoral leadership and if your pastor says no, then trust him.)

In our case, it is actually putting feet to a message we have preached for years. We tell families and individuals to be the church, share Christ with their friends, don't be sequestered in a church building all the time, be in the world but not of it. This one event on a Wednesday (one of 52 Wednesdays) gives students an opportunity to just show up where we tell them to be real in their faith ALL THE TIME

I am excited we are enabling this to happen in our church and pray that others will.

It will be inconvenient. Maybe we need a little inconvenience in our faith? Who said Christianity was convenient anyway?

What if a student shows up at the church and the youth building is closed, lights are off, and no other students are there?

Well, some will show up, I'm sure. In our case, we actually have a Bible study in our worship center where students can join others. There may be places they can assist in recreation for Awana (never alone with children, by the way.) So, if that student show up and at that very moment remembers "Oh yeah, we're not meeting tonight. We're supposed to be at the high school," they can either leave and drive down the street to the school or join the adults in Bible study. We likely won't have any pre-study games, but the Bible remains true, and not just for adults.

So, we're cancelling our youth ministry meeting for one evening, in order to send out missionaries to the field where their faith will be tested, tried, and they will see that God is doing things in our county that most do not realize.

May this event be more than annual event. May it be a catalyst for renewal, revival, and awakening. (It's not out of the question.) 


Blaming the Monster We Created - Consumer Christianity in America

Pastors often find themselves meeting together at conferences, denominational events, or community gatherings. Once the typical small talk is over, and if they actually like and trust each other, many will begin to express what they feel regarding the seeming lack of commitment of church members nowadays. This is not new. It has been the reality for decades. Yet, like all generations, the present realities are the most pressing. 

I talked with a church planter recently and asked the open-ended and very dangerous question "How are things going at your church?"

He answered. It was a typical answer. It was not one that is reserved for church planters, but in the world of planting is very, very common. He said, "It ebbs and flows. Yesterday was good, but it is hard. It's hard keeping members engaged and focused."

Yep. It's hard. Not just for church plants, but for established churches as well. 

One of the most common targets for sad pastors is lamenting "consumer Christianity" that seems to be so prevalent today. In case you have never heard this term, here are some descriptors:

Characteristics of Consumer Christians (not a complete list):

  • Self-focused
  • Looks for ministry options in the church that solely benefit themselves and their family members
  • Wants a children's program/youth program/choir/band/etc. that is large and attractive
  • Loves programs that entertain
  • Desires excellence in production of events and activities
  • Wants to "be fed"
  • Is an audience member, but not part of the congregation
  • Has a list of what the church should do for them
  • Sees church as a spiritual Target, Walmart, or Amazon, simply there to provide spiritual goods as desired
  • A purchaser who never actually gives back
  • Transient (brand-loyal for a while, but since church is a brand is eventually desirous of a new brand)
  • A marketing agency's target
  • Sees regular attendance as once a month...maybe
  • Actively attends church, unless something else is happening in the community
  • Does not serve
  • Posts "Looking for a new church" online every now and then to see what else is being offered

The consumer model of church attender, or "Consumer Christianity" is rampant in our culture. Whether you live in the urban core, the suburbs, or even in rural areas, consumerism reigns. 

Consider these words by Skye Jethani, writing for Christianity Today:

When we approach Christianity as consumers rather than seeing it [our faith] as a comprehensive way of life, an interpretive set of beliefs and values, Christianity becomes just one more brand we consume along with Gap, Apple, and Starbucks to express identity. And the demotion of Jesus Christ from Lord to label means to live as a Christian no longer carries an expectation of obedience and good works, but rather the perpetual consumption of Christian merchandise and experiences.1

Who's To Blame?

Consumer Christianity has existed in some form or fashion since the beginning of the church. People coming with less than holy motivations fill the buildings. The letters of Paul address some such instances. Yet, the current state of affairs in the world of celebrity pastors and spirituality sold as a commodity seems a bit out of hand. 

While pastors and church leaders lament the consumer nature of Christianity that results in tepid spirituality and a bevy of church shoppers, perhaps it is time to take a good, long look in the mirror. 

Like many pastors my age, I grew up in an era known for the church growth movement. Sadly, this led to the marketing of easy grace, the building of large facilities, and shifting of worship styles in order to reach seekers. The seeker sensitive, attractional model of ministry made headlines, created megachurches, and expanded the power of those at the pinnacle of movement. But...it also added to the creation of consumers, ultimately to the detriment of the church.

This is not to say that every megachurch, engaging church with a popular pastor/leader is wrong or "doing church" unbiblically. In fact, many are faithfully preaching, teaching, and leading. Nevertheless, the reality of consumer Christianity remains.

Who's to blame? We are. At least partially.

The seeker-sensitive model seemed logical at the time. "Let's look at the popular music of the day, strip down the religiosity of the service, and create a fun, exciting event each weekend so that lost people will want to come to church." At least that was the proposed reasoning.

Despite the seeming logic of it all, this passage of Scripture remains true...

As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. Romans 3:10-11 (ESV)

So, no one seeks God, but the church sought to believe that people were seekers, looking for God. 

Frankenstein's Church

We continued to build the monster, not unlike Dr. Frankenstein. The American church pieced together parts and ideas all with good and, I'd say godly, intentions. Church staff were added with the intent of reaching segments of society, whether it be youth, single adults, young professionals, etc. This is not much different than having separate areas in a department store for different ages. People are different, right? Those of different ages desire different things. We know this. Marketing proves this.  It seemed logical.

And it worked...to a degree.

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Photo credit: twm1340 on VisualHunt / CC BY-SA

Crowds did gather. Groups did grow. The era of the huge youth group and ministry was strong. Para-church ministries increased their attendance as well, while many saying they were "for the church" but in practice were just competing with the local church. 

The evangelical church's Frankenstein's monster was roaming the countryside. New versions of church were launched. The old was abandoned as out of date and boring (to be honest, some were really out of date and boring.) New was in and consumers were sought.

Then, we got angry.

We blamed the church attenders and members for being what we built them to be. We became upset when the young family decided to try the new church with a larger children's program or event. We complained when church members started traveling with their children's travel team. We cried foul when numerous members purchased season passes to the local theme parks and began going to them every other weekend because that was their "escape" and their self-defined "family time." We wondered why offerings were down, seats were empty, and attendance sputtered.

But we should not have wondered.

We are a few generations into this model and it clearly works exactly as it was built.

Dr. Frankenstein's monster did exactly what it was built to do, even if the good doctor did not realize or wish to believe it.

Consumer Christians are always looking for the latest version of church. It's not unlike the marketing strategies of Apple when the release a new iPhone. The user's old iPhone still works, but the attraction of getting the latest is so strong that people wait in line just to spend a lot of money for the latest version. Then, in about a year, the "new" iPhone is an old iPhone and customers are now ready to throw it out (or give to their parents) and get an upgrade.

Sadly, some churches market the very same way to the consumers and wonder why there are consumers?

Now What Do We Do?

Well, the answer is not to turn our church services into stoic, gothic, 18th century gathering places. The gospel is not boring, so the church should not settle for boring services with no life. The answer is not to find the better model and shelve everything we're doing (though shelving some things is definitely a good idea.) The answer is not to falsely believe that the heyday of the church in America was the 1950s so we need to do what we did then. That won't work. We have too many churches today built to reach people in the 1950s. Those churches are dying.

What we must do is confess our sin and repent.

We must simply go back to the basics, realizing that lifelong discipleship and transformation of a person is not something that occurs because of a keen marketing campaign, a cool gathering spot, or a nice, new logo. None of those things are wrong. In fact, I like all those, but those are not life changing.

The gospel alone is the answer. Christ alone is the key. He is still the way, truth, and life. He is still the only way. When the local church pushes that message to the side and emphasizes all the extraneous, temporary things, no wonder we find ourselves a few decades later asking "What went wrong?"

While that monster is still roaming the countryside, I'm encouraged by what I am seeing and experiencing in our local church and among pastors and churches in our community. Sure, there are some still focused on being the latest version of church for local consumers, but by and large, most are abandoning the "Come look at us. We have a great, new version of this product you need" approach.

Jared Wilson's latest book The Gospel-Driven Church addresses this. He's not the only one speaking of this, but it is encouraging to see the conversation shift back to the gospel in such a way. Cam Hyde writes in his review of Wilson's book...

Wilson will argue throughout the book for a more gospel-driven approach rather than using any means necessary to get people through the doors of your church (an attractional method). He addresses the pitfalls of relying solely on being attractional and shows the biblical necessity of a gospel-driven approach while showing those in leadership how to steer their churches toward this change. 

We are learning that models come and go, but the gospel remains. The shiny, new, fancy attractional models will not last, and in most cases have proven to not sustain or create disciples. Since our commission as the church of Jesus Christ is to make disciples, not club members, we must confess our collective sin of relying on an attractional model and submit to the Spirit's lead that points to Christ and the good news of the gospel.

Consumer Christians remain. They're everywhere. It is very, very easy to slide into the model that seeks to "meet their needs wants" and build programs that do so. We must remain faithful to the Lord, be the church he has commissioned and called us to be, and remember that life-change only occurs through Christ. We must pray that the consumers in our midst surrender to Christ. Otherwise, they will remain weak in their faith, angry at their previous church, continually searching for the latest and greatest, all the while stagnant as a Christian, if a Christian at all.

__________

                  1Skye Jethani, "From Lord to Label: How Consumerism Undermines Our Faith," Christianity Today, July 10, 2006, accessed September 30, 2019, https://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2006/july-online-only/from-lord-to-label-how-consumerism-undermines-our-faith.html


Sports, Idolatry, and Created Heroes

I am a sports fan. I have been since I was a child. I come by it naturally as my father has always been a big sports fan.

I remember watching games on television as a kid. I also remember when I actually became more enamored with the game than the uniforms or the team logos (though, I still love uniforms and team logos. I guess I'm one who "gets it" according to Paul Lukas and Uni-Watch. I am also thankful for the work of Chris Creamer. I love his site.)

Over the years, like other fans, I have developed a liking for certain sports, teams, leagues, and athletes. Some are based on where I lived as a child and the fan-base that surrounded me. In some cases, these were the teams that we were able to get on television in our region or were those teams and sports followed by family members.

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Photo credit: Jim Larrison on Visualhunt / CC BY

Like many American sports fans, I have favorites in the big four leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, & NHL,) while I have begun to follow teams in some of the smaller leagues growing in popularity as well (mainly MLS.)

Not only did I grow up watching sports, I played as well. I played soccer (one season - we lost every game except the one I didn't make it to, so that ended my soccer career,) baseball, and basketball. Being one of the tallest kids in junior high and high school (topping out at 6'7") I leaned into basketball after some urging by the coach. While my skill level was a bit behind my peers for years, as the coach said "You're tall and I can't teach height. I can teach basketball, so you're on the team." I loved the sport, but mostly I loved being part of a team and representing my schools. Playing in high school was great, but the years I played in college truly helped me to grow in areas off the court. It was only two years of being on the team, so I learned the ups and downs of making a team, being let go, and working through adversity.

Sports as Idolatry

At some point, every kid playing basketball in the driveway or throwing a football in the front yard dreams of playing on the biggest stage in the world, for that team he cheered for growing up. Some do make it to the big leagues, but the vast majority do not. For these (of whom I am one) we go to games and buy tickets or watch our favorite teams or athletes on television and land into the category of fan.

Here in the South, sports has been called religion. It's often said "tongue-in-cheek" but we know there is truth to that, especially on Saturdays during college football season.

Can sports become an idol? Sure it can. Anything can. Barnabas Piper was featured on the Sports Spectrum podcast this week and was asked that question. He stated...

It can very easily be idolatry in that way where it is the thing people depend on to fill in the gaps in other areas of their lives. They fight with their spouse and turn to watching football. They had a miserable week at work and turn to, you know, playing softball. They...do whatever...and it becomes a crutch or an idol often. You see it in them.

I think that's where vitriol comes from.

When we depend too much on something that we don't have any control over or ... it's not an ultimate thing. Sports are not ultimate. They're a gift from God. They're tons of fun, but they're not an ultimate thing.

When we put too much dependence on that, we're just setting ourselves up for misery, for disappointment, and so...then, all that hope we put on it just gets crushed. It seems to be a pattern across sports. It doesn't matter what the sport is, what the level is. When you see the Little League dads throwing haymakers at their kid's game because a fourteen-year-old made a bad strike call...there's just a level of insanity.

I believe Piper is spot on. Most every sane, adult sports fan would agree. But, we often slide into this idolatrous mode where our fandom becomes more important than it ever should be. 

I asked a friend who serves as a chaplain and mentor to many athletes about some of the dynamics these athletes face. I began to see things that should be obvious to all of us as fans, but often get ignored. These are things as Christians we may even miss as we watch our favorite uniforms compete during weekend games. 

Creating and Destroying Sports "Heroes"

These are not points shared by the chaplain, but things that have come to mind that I believe should be remembered as we cheer on our teams and favorite athletes, in no particular order:

  • For the most part, these sports "heroes" are very young. This is especially true for rookies. While there are some exceptions, and some long-time veterans on these professional teams, most of the premiere athletes on our favorite teams are in their young twenties. I am now at an age where my young twenties are little more than history lessons. What I know is this - I am glad social media did not exist when I was in my late teens and early twenties. If it did, my statements about life would still be posted online somewhere from a twenty-year-old's perspective. I know there are some very wise and insightful young men and women out there, but just knowing who I was back then...I'm glad there's not much of a record. I was immature. I was young. I was growing up and learning. So too are many of these young athletes. 
  • "They're all millionaires. They're set for life." It may seem that way, but it's not true. Some are multi-millionaires. Some have shoe contracts and logos and have their images plastered everywhere, but there are many more professional athletes who may be a few rungs down on the bench, making the rookie minimum (which is substantial in some leagues, but is simply an annual contract.) Be careful to judge someone by the stuff they accumulate, especially in cases where their surrounding support do not bring wisdom to the table. 
  • "They're getting paid to play a game, so they should just be quiet and play!" Uh...I've heard this. You likely have as well. It may be a game, but do not forget, at the professional level it is a business. There is a union. There are team owners. There are many dollars being negotiated. Players have a shelf-life. Even Tom Brady will not play forever. While some athletes tend to say things that make us cringe, or become the opposite of fans of them, remember the previous bullet points and also remember that not every twenty or thirty-something has a microphone shoved into their face regularly with pointed questions designed to elicit controversial remarks. There are likely many who have said things only to go home where their spouse says "Honey...really? You shouldn't have said that." Okay, that's what happens in pastors' homes, but I imagine it happens in athletes' homes as well.
  • When it comes to professional and collegiate athletes, most have experienced a lifetime of playing sports where they were the best on the team. They were celebrated in high school and on their travel teams. They were placed on pedestals and told they were the best. In some cases, some people have used this idol-making process to create revenue streams for their respective teams, doing little more than using the athlete for the good of the brand. 
  • When the run is over...many are forgotten and struggle to find their way. I believe the severity of this reality increases at every level of play. I was excited to finally become a starter on my high school basketball team. I was pumped when the small college in my town offered me a scholarship to play for them. Two years later I was traumatized when my scholarship was removed, a better player was signed, and I was told I would no longer be on the team. I wasn't even playing at the NCAA D-I level, but even then, my identity which has been so wrapped up in my sport was shaken. I don't think I even watched basketball for four years after that. I cannot imagine the emotions and fear that comes when the professional athlete who has a good contract with his team, an agent who helps negotiate such, is then brought into the coach's office to be told that his/her services will no longer be needed. It cannot be easy. Some may make the transition easier than others, but what about those who do not? Identity wrapped up in what you do (playing a game in these cases) is gone when what you do becomes what you used to do. 
  • Fans forget that these people are not just imaginary players on a video game or just someone chosen for a fantasy league. These are men and women, made in the image of God, who for a short season of their lives, played a game for fun and the entertainment of of those who bought tickets and cheered for the logo on the uniform. 

The sports-saturated culture we live in creates sports "heroes." I use the quotes because I struggle with using that term to describe athletes, but it is used so often, it seems to resonate with most. Therefore, when our sports "heroes" are doing well, standing high upon the pedestal we create for them, we are at peace.

Until the next week, when the "hero" has a bad game. Worse yet, what if the "hero" is injured? What if he/she cannot ever play at the high level again? 

I'm guilty of just moving on and cheering for the next in line. Why? Because I've been a fan of certain teams for years and the players and personnel always change. I will likely always be that fan. In fact, that's pretty normal.

However, I am convicted that the players who entertained me for years while wearing the uniform I cheer for, are not two-dimensional men and women, but people just like me (well, okay not just like me. They're actual athletes. I'm a former athlete who never made it to their level, with a strong emphasis on "former.") They are like me in that they are image-bearers of God. They have things in life that bring them joy. They have fears, too. They wonder who they truly are and many have been seeking that for years. Some had a higher level of confidence in their identity as long as they wore the uniform, but now? Now, they wonder.

That's why it is so vital that these men and women hear the truth of the gospel. It's needed for all, not just them, so don't misread what I'm writing. Yet, in this case in a culture that creates these sports idols, the church needs to be proactive in seeking to help those who help them during the most difficult times of life. Maybe it's a chaplain? Maybe it's a coach?

What If Christian Fans...

Maybe it begins with prayer?

While some may not see the value, can you imagine what it would be like for a professional or collegiate athlete who was celebrated for years in his town, but due to recent reports or maybe some poorly advised choices, is now being raked over the coals daily in the blogs, articles, radio programs, and television media? What if they received a card or message from a fan who "gets it" saying something like "I don't know exactly what the pressure you feel is like, but I want you to know that God does. It must be hard to be in your situation right now. Please know that while I am a fan of the team, I have beliefs and a faith that is much bigger and more important than wins and losses. Therefore, know that I am praying for you and your family."  What if that fan actually did pray? More than once?

This would not be some sappy self-focused message intent on receiving an autograph or free tickets to the game, but a true prayer for these young men and women who play games for our entertainment. Prayer that they would know the God who bestows identity, not based on sports performance, but on submission to Him, repentance of sin, and surrender to Jesus Christ as Lord.

Maybe, just maybe, those we celebrate would begin to understand a game plan for life that goes beyond the playing field. And, we as fans, could be a catalyst for a God-sized story to occur.

BTW - I still like when my teams win. I still get upset when they do not. I'm still a fan of sports. However, I'm a follower and child of God. That changes everything.


The Most Shocking Thing in the Bible

The Bible is an amazing book, and much more than just a book. Within the sixty-six books of the Bible there are stories of adventure, romance, battle, rescue, and numerous other things that are commonly spoken of as elements of an epic. There are also stories and passages that cause you to pause as a reader and say "What did I just read? That's in the Bible?" These verses have been called obscure by some. I do not like categorizing any of God's inerrant Word as obscure, but I understand the reasoning. These are shocking passages. These may be stories that didn't get the Veggie Tales treatment or were not illustrated in your Children's Bible. Some are strange. Others are ... well, not rated PG.

Yet, the truth remains...

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. - 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV)

There are no passages or stories that should relegated as obscure or unimportant. However, they still may be shocking.

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Photo credit: Mirra fotograf og kunst on Visualhunt / CC BY-SA

In most cases the surprising verses have to do with things that are not fully explained to the reader. For example, the story of circumcision of Moses's son by Zipporah which led to Moses not being killed by God (Exodus 4:24-26) is one such account. It is in the Bible. I have read it, but I don't understand fully what is happening here. Oh, I get the specifics, but there are more unanswered questions than answered ones. Apparently, I am in good company because commentators also struggle with explaining this passage well, or at least consistently. 

Other stories are ones that reveal elements of God's nature that most would rather just not know. For instance, there are numerous accounts of God's wrath being poured out upon people in the Bible. The stories of Noah, the exodus, Sodom and Gomorrah, and others come to mind.

The wrath of God is often sanitized, if not ignored, by many who claim to be Christian. In many cases, cultural Christians want God, but not the one of the Bible. They desire the god who is made in their own image. This God is a god of love and friendship and acceptance. He is the "god who behaves" according to one's desires. Sadly, that version of God is not God at all.

A god who is all love, all grace, all mercy, no sovereignty, no justice, no holiness, and no wrath is an idol. – R.C. Sproul

The Shocking Truth

What is more shocking than discovering that God is a God of justice, holiness, and wrath is discovering that his gracious love and mercy provides a way for you and I to avoid his wrath.

As Christians we say "we were saved" and that is true. It seems that most believe that we have been simply saved from hell. According to Scripture, when we surrender to Christ, repent of our sins, receive his payment on the cross as justification for our sins, we are saved. We are saved...FROM THE WRATH OF GOD. 

Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. Romans 5:9 (ESV)

God is love. He is merciful. He is gracious. So much so that he has saved me, a wretched sinner who does not deserve a chance at life. He saved me not because I deserved it, but because he desired it. He provided a way. That way is truth. That way is life. That way is Jesus Christ.

That is truly shocking.

And I am so glad it's true.


Christians, Depression, and Mental Illness

Through my recent studies in the book of Ezekiel for Sunday sermon preparation and 1 John for my mid-week Bible study, I have been speaking on the tendency for us to either justify our sin or not acknowledging it for what it is. This is part of human nature (i.e. sin nature) and we all do this at some point. 

In 1973 psychologist Karl Menninger shocked many with his book Whatever Became of Sin?

He writes about the seeming absence of the word sin in modern English. He stated that churches and pastors who were known to preach against sin and used the world prolifically now seemed to avoid it. He was speaking of many in the mainline Protestant denominations and even the early 1970s genesis of what became known as political correctness.

He states this regarding the word “sin”...

It is surely nothing new that men want to get away from acknowledging their sins or even thinking about them. Is this not the religious history of mankind? Perhaps we are only more glib nowadays and equipped with more euphemisms. We can speak of error and transgression and infraction and mistakes without the naïve exposure that goes with serious use of that old-fashioned pietistic word “sin.”

We love sanitized words. That way we can pretend sin isn’t real. 

Mental Illness and Sin

Sometimes we like to call our sin something other than sin. In the past, I have stated "We may call it a mistake, a challenge, or even call it mental illness or a disorder in a way to excuse sin." I now realize that by categorizing mental illness and disorder as I did, I presented these as synonymous with sin. They are not. 

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To claim that someone's illness is a sin is akin to what the disciples asked Jesus when they came upon a blind man.

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” - John 9:1-5 (ESV)

There is much division among evangelical Christians regarding mental health. The spectrum of mental illness is wide and when spoken of among Christians, various opinions arise. For years the concept of depression or mental illness among Christians was seen as a sign of sin or wrongdoing. In some cases, the prescription was just to "be positive and pray more, go to church more, trust God more, be happy, etc." None of those recommendations are wrong. However, the Christian in your church who sincerely desires help, who reads the Bible more, prays more, and everything else that good Christians are supposed to do, often experiences an "almost there, but not quite" reality and wonders if it will ever get better.

What is mental illness?

When speaking of mental illness or depression, a clear definition is difficult to find. Biblical counselors often state that mental illness is not a disease but a construct. Psychologists Herb Kutchins and Stuart Kirk who have served on The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) committees (the group that decides what is and is not a mental illness), state:

The category of [mental illness] itself is an invention, a creation. It may be a good and useful invention, or it may be a confusing one. DSM is a compendium of constructs. And like a large and popular mutual fund, DSM's holdings are constantly changing as the managers' estimates and beliefs about the value of those holdings change.1

That description may cause frustration for some. At first glance, it appears that they are saying mental illness is not real. That is not what they're stating. What they are emphasizing is the mystery of defining that which is seemingly understood by the masses as clearly defined, most often as biological. 

Sadly, the church often becomes the place where those who suffer from mental disorders or depression feel less safe than elsewhere.

Dr. Jeremy Pierre stated this in an article about mental illness and the church, following the suicide of Saddleback Church's Pastor Rick and Kay Warren's son, Matthew...

Everyone knows the unpleasant impulse to hide something about himself that others wouldn’t approve of. For those who experience overwhelming emotions or find themselves caught in patterns of unusual behavior, this impulse is more than unpleasant—it’s terrifying. We are aware of the general standards of normalcy around us, and when we don’t measure up to those standards, we feel shame. The easiest way to stay included is to hide those things about us that don’t measure up. Lest we demonize the church, let’s admit that this is true in any sphere of relationships—the neighborhood, the workplace, the rec league.

Nevertheless, it’s right to recognize that the church should be different. And, at least in some churches, it’s not. Sometimes it’s worse because the standards of normalcy are mixed with standards of morality, and the stakes get even higher. The thought of a guy at work finding out you take meds might be unpleasant to you, but the thought of your pastor finding out might be downright distressing. In your mind, your coworker might think you’re a little screwy, but your pastor might think you’re screwy and sinning. And so you may be more tempted to hide stuff from your pastor than from your coworker.2

To equate mental illness, mental disorders, or depression as sin is inaccurate. Yet, as believers, we know that all illness (physical, emotional, behavioral, etc.) are results of the fall of man. Sin is the ultimate source. Our brokenness impacts all of creation. The sin nature within all leads to suffering and that suffering is meant to make us groan for the life to come, when all of creation will be set free from corruption (Pierre). 

That's the promise in Scripture.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. - Romans 8:18-19 (ESV)

Counselors such as Jay Adams, with his nouthetic (to confront out of concern for the change of heart) biblical counseling approach addressed from a biblical perspective the same issue that Menninger did from a secular one in his book referenced earlier. The context of sin minimization meant that the segmentation of the person was being addressed (i.e. behavioral, physical, mental, emotional, etc.) without taking a biblical perspective that we as image-bearers of God are not just one aspect of humanity. Adams noted that the the church seemingly lost its focus on sin and salvation and also the focus on sanctification. This ignoring of the daily growth in Christlikeness through the valleys and lamentable moments was ignored by many.

Ultimately, we know and affirm that Christ is the answer for all life's circumstances and for our sin. He is the redeemer. These are not questioned.

But, what about the one who is ill, the one struggling to get up in the morning, battling thoughts and feelings that seemingly paralyze them? 

Rather than simply declare that the person is in sin (they may be, but address that for what it is, not just because they are battling depression or suffering from a mental disorder) we should look to Christ for guidance and follow the Holy Spirit's lead in offering help as brothers and sisters. 

The mind can descend far lower than the body. For [the mind] there are bottomless pits. The flesh can bear only a certain number of wounds and no more, but the soul can bleed in ten thousand ways, and die over and over again each hour. - Charles Spurgeon

Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers, had bouts of sadness. Perhaps even moments of severe depression. His words do not discount the Lord's helping hand, but also does not ignore his very real feelings. 

For the believer who is suffering with depression or other mental disorder, here's what Lieryn Barnett states on a post featured at The Gospel Coalition (full article here.)

  1. You are not alone.
  2. It is not your fault
  3. God sees you and is with you
  4. God's Word speaks to you

The thorn in the flesh is very real, and unique for different individuals. The feelings you have do not define you, though in the midst of the difficulty, they feel as if they do. God ultimately is the healer. Go to him, lean into him, trust him. Trust that he often provides others (pastors, doctors, nurses, friends) who can be very real help along the journey. 

Where there is sin revealed, confess and repent. 

Where it is not sin, it is a "thorn in the flesh" and we pray as Paul did that God would remove it. If he does, we will praise him. If he chooses not to, we will praise him and pray that you experience his grace as sufficient.

______________

           1Heath Lambert, "Can Jesus Heal Mental Illness? Part 1," Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, March 16, 2014, accessed August 28, 2019, https://biblicalcounseling.com/can-jesus-heal-mental-illness-part-1/.

         2Jeremy Pierre, "Mental Illness and the Church," Biblical Counseling Coalition, April 19, 2013, accessed August 28, 2019, http://www.biblicalcounselingcoalition.org/2013/04/19/mental-illness-and-the-church/.


"The More You Love, The Harder You Fight!" - a Review of Rachael Denhollander's Book "What Is A Girl Worth?"

In 2016 after the IndyStar ran an exposé on USA Gymnastics (USAG) and how the organization turned a blind eye to sexual abuse perpetrated by coaches for years, a young woman in Louisville, Kentucky responded. She sent an email to the writer of the story stating that it was not just coaches, but one of the premier doctors for USAG who was also an abuser. When this email arrived at the IndyStar, it was soon answered by the reporter responsible for the story. It was at that moment Rachael Denhollander stepped out of private life and began the journey to become whom BBC News called "the five-star general in the army of survivors."

Rachael Denhollander, a wife, mother, attorney, former gymnast, and survivor of sexual abuse by Dr. Larry Nassar stepped into the public eye and became the voice for hundreds of women who had been victimized sexually. In many cases, these women felt they had no voice. Sadly, some felt they were to blame for that which was done to them.

The last few years have been a whirlwind for Denhollander, her family, and the other survivors. After a long, tedious, painful, and revealing journey of testimonies, interviews, and trial dates, the battle against a culture that often protects and enables abusers continues.

Yet, there has been victory–great victory. In January 2018, Larry Nassar was sentenced to prison for his crimes. The victory is that the voices of these victims survivors were eventually heard.

The battle continues because the reality of systematic, ignored, and enabled sexual abuse continues in our nation. It continues in organizations (businesses, schools, churches, etc.) where protecting the brand is more important than protecting people. It continues in states where laws designed to bring abusers to justice often do not have enough teeth to actually provide help for the abused. It continues in communities where subtle statements such as "Well, did you see what she was wearing?" and other heinous statements point the blame at the victims rather than the victimizers. It continues in a world where the depravity of sin remains and the only hope for true healing is through repentance and total surrender to Christ.

I was given a copies of Rachael's soon-to-be-released books for review.

Denhollander's books
Rachael Denhollander's books

How Much Is a Little Girl Worth?

One book is written for parents to read to their little girls. How Much Is a Little Girl Worth? is a beautifully illustrated (by Morgan Huff) storybook showing images alongside a poem written by Rachael. I haven't read books written for little girls in a very long time (my daughter is now in her mid-twenties) but as I read this I could clearly sense a mother's love for her daughter throughout. I shared this with the preschool and children's ministry leaders in our church and they stated that every parent of little girls should have this. It declares clear messages intended to be preemptive strikes against the enemy's attack on a girl's identity. The world is a dangerous and a girl's identity is often attacked early, and continually. This portion on page 23 is a great example of the focus...

Your value is found not in what you can do

Or the things you accomplish and win.

It is found in how you were made, precious girl–

Created and cherished by Him.

What Is a Girl Worth?

What Is a Girl Worth? is the autobiographical account by Denhollander giving insight into her upbringing in Michigan, her desire to become a gymnast, and her eventual meeting with Dr. Larry Nassar at his Michigan State University clinic following an injury. Rachael's writing is clear, and narrative. The reader is quickly brought into her world and can begin to see how she transitioned from an innocent young teenager just wanting to become a gymnast to a young woman who, by no desire of her own, had to become the voice of silenced ones who have suffered abuse. 

The reader gets a first-hand view of the fear, frustration, risks, and reality of life that Rachael and her husband Jacob faced. For those who followed the story once it became a media firestorm, there really is no spoiler. Just as those who watched the film "Titanic" knew the ship eventually sunk, the readers know that Larry Nassar was eventually convicted. Yet, while reading (even knowing the outcome) there is a sense of nervousness and a need to turn the page to get to the next portion just to see how the next phase of the account plays out.

It is almost as if you want to read the book as quickly as you can just so you can be assured that Nassar gets convicted. You know he does, but Rachael's writing makes her story personal for the reader and suddenly, even if you never have personally been victimized sexually, you begin to hurt with those who have and want their voices to be heard.

I believe Rachael begins her book with the very best opening line she could have. 

Why didn't you say something sooner? (p. 1)

In this age of #MeToo and #ChurchToo, I have heard many say similar things. Every accusatory statement made for those bold enough to speak about their victimization is referenced in Rachael's book. Suddenly, you discover how easily (maybe unknowingly) people accuse the accuser rather than believe the harmed. 

I have highlighted many portions of the book. There are numerous statements that stood out and made me think more clearly on the issue of sexual abuse and victimization. Here are just a few:

I couldn't choose what had happened, but I could choose how I responded. (p. 87)

Church wasn't safe. Nowhere was safe. (Related to how her Bible teacher chose to teach the David & Bathsheba story plus bringing up an abuse issue in her life that occurred in her church. p. 90)

I noticed that fellow Christians pretty much talked only about our need to understand the wrong things we'd done. No one talked about God's supposed hatred for the wrongs done against us. (p. 99)

Doing good didn't erase the bad. (p. 101)

I care about the survivors. I care about the church. I care about the integrity of the gospel. When we get this wrong, it does terrible damage. (p. 147)

The dynamics survivors have to navigate just to be heard are no-win situations. (p. 157)

"Little girls don't stay little forever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world." - Kyle Stephens, abused as a little girl by Larry Nassar while addressing him. (p. 298)

The book is filled with such nuggets of truth and clarity.

The phrase that Rachael puts in the book numerous times, as a reminder of her upbringing, her faith, and her resolve is "The more you love, the harder you fight." This is why she persevered and why she was called the "Five star general" of this army of survivors. 

This book is a systematic account of how God brought Rachael through her pain to be used by Him for His glory and the very good of many other women. It is also the story of how her own wounds found healing as God brought her husband Jacob into her life. I told my wife that the book is a combination of a legal thriller, a sports story, a battle between good and evil, with just a little Hallmark movie in the middle (Chapters 11 & 12).

Denhollander is a Christian and her book is replete with messages related to biblical truths such as sin, grace, forgiveness, true love, and justice. While Christians will connect well with these stories, even non-believers will be able to relate. In other words, while What Is A Girl Worth? is not a "Christian book" (I'm not sure books can become Christians) it is a book written by a Christian and since one's Christianity is not something that can be turned on or off, biblical truths resonate throughout. 

In addition to the pointed story regarding USAG and Larry Nassar, there is a subtext related to the Denhollanders church and how sexual abuse among God's children is often addressed wrongly. Sadly, this was their experience, but as stated in the final chapters, God has brought healing there as well.

I highly recommend Rachael Denhollander's books. For those with little girls, the storybook is a must buy. The autobiographical account in the adult book is for all who have been victimized, know someone who has, or is part of an organization or institution (church, team, business, etc.) that could easily be positioned to protect the "image" of the organization rather than the image-bearers of God within. It is a must read. It will challenge you. It will grieve you. Hopefully and prayerfully, it will be used as a catalyst for change so that other little girls don't find themselves taking the blame for horrendous acts perpetrated on them. 

How much is a girl worth? They are infinitely worthy. 


How You Teach the "David & Bathsheba Story" May Cause Harm

You know the story, I'm certain. David is the king of Israel. He's the "man after God's own heart." He has risen to the throne after years of service to King Saul, a daring escape and hiding out from the king who sought to kill him. His entire life plays like an epic film. That's why there have been many films made about him.

Bathsheba is a beautiful woman bathing on the roof of her home. 

It just so happens that her roof is viewable from the king's palace and David is home. He shouldn't be home. He should be out with his army fighting battles and leading them.

In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel. And they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem. - 2 Samuel 11:1 (ESV)

"But David remained at Jerusalem." This is bad. Really bad.

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Photo credit: corrine klug on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Imagine you're in Sunday School. You're a teenager and the teacher reads the rest of 2 Samuel 11 and you hear how Bathsheba, the wife of one of David's warriors, is home, bathing and is seen by the king. She's desirable and he calls for her. He has his way with her and sends her home.

Who sinned?

That's the question. I have heard it asked before. I have heard sermons preached on this. 

The obvious answer is that David has sinned. 

But...what about Bathsheba?

It's mentioned by someone in class. The pastor may be making a point about the sins of bathing on the roof. (BTW - despite how this has been taught for years, the Scripture doesn’t say that she was on the roof. She could have been inside near a window. It was David on a roof looking at her.) Regardless, there's this message given that she was complicit in the sin. She did the deed with David and it's her fault.

Bathsheba's fault?

But, wouldn't a person in an ancient Middle Eastern kingdom be basically stating "kill me" by refusing a request from a king? That's referenced in other books, even in the story of Esther and the Persian king. 

I get it. Bathsheba is not perfect. She is a sinner. There's no doubt there. Oh, not because of this story, but because of what Scripture states regarding everyone's sin. We're all sinners. So, the sin nature of humanity is not in question here.

What I am speaking of is how we teach this lesson. So often I hear points made related to the great sin of Bathsheba. It is almost as if her rooftop bathing caused the sin perpetrated against her. Really? Her bathing caused David to stay home when he shouldn't have been home. Her bath caused him to do the ancient equivalent of surfing the web for porn? Her rooftop bathing made David send for her and plan out an encounter that was about his pleasure alone. 

That's how it is often presented. 

What's the big deal?

Imagine you're teaching this class and unbeknownst to you there are women (it could be men) in the room who were stalked, groomed, seduced, and sexually assaulted in the past by someone in authority. Maybe it was a parent, a pastor, a teacher, a coach, a relative, or someone else. It doesn't matter who it was. What matters is that a person of authority took advantage and greatly harmed someone sexually for their own desires and personal pleasure. 

That survivor in your class hears your Bible lesson and doesn't hear anything else than, "They think it was Bathsheba's fault." This leads them to think "I guess it was really my fault, too."

And that's how victims remain victimized and how, even unintentionally, our teachings of inerrant Bible stories and truth can state things the Bible does not say and things we don't intend.

David sinned greatly. He was also confronted by God's prophet Nathan. Look how Nathan refers to Bathsheba in his confrontation...

1And the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.” - 2 Samuel 12:1-4 (ESV)

The "lamb" was innocent. Bathsheba is the innocent lamb in this story. She had been taken advantage of, used for the pleasure of the king, and violated. As we see her in this story, she was taken from her home and was little more than a possession the powerful king desired.

It was not her fault.

It's that simple. In this story where we are first introduced to Bathsheba, based on what God's prophet Nathan reveals and what we have in Scripture, this woman was not to blame. 

I guess it's the "naked woman on the roof" (or at least visible from a roof) that just makes people want to blame her. Amazing how that becomes the focus for so many when studying this story.

And those who have been sexually victimized sit in our churches remaining silent, because they blame themselves for what someone else did to them. And, they reason that no one will believe them anyway. I mean, in Sunday School they blamed Bathsheba.

Sometimes the way we teach Scripture leaves our learners unable to hear the truth, much less receive it. 

___________________

This post was prompted by a story in Rachael Denhollander's soon-to-be released book What Is a Girl Worth? Available for preorder here.


No, You Don't Have a Right to Join the Church

Growing up in various Baptist churches (my father was in the Air Force, so we lived in numerous cities) we would prayerfully consider where to attend church and when the "right" one was found, we would join. In those days, the process of becoming a member of a church was quite common.

  1. You walked down front at the close of the worship service while the music minister led the congregation in "Just As I Am" or another "come on down" hymn. 
  2. You introduced yourself to the pastor. If you had your family with you, you introduced them as well.
  3. The pastor would ask "Why are you coming down today?"
  4. If already a Christian, you would say "I'm coming to join this church by moving my letter here."
  5. Then, most often, it was a "Well, amen! We're glad to have you." The pastor would have you turn around and face the congregation. He would introduce you and say something like "If you approve of having John Doe join our church, say 'Amen!'" 
  6. The congregation always said "Amen" and boom, you're a church member.

There was a longer process if you hadn't been baptized by immersion or were coming from another denomination. Yet, by and large, it was often a very simple process.

I grew up thinking this was correct. While common, it certainly was not the best understanding of church membership. In fact, looking back now, this process was terrible and terribly problematic for the local church.

Is Church Membership Biblical?

Sometimes you will hear the argument that membership in the local church is not biblical. There are newer churches who "don't do membership" and see it as a man-made administrative step that leads to legalism. To put it bluntly, those churches are wrong, regardless how spiritual their reasonings may sound. 

The church universal is often spoken of when seeking to minimize the membership expectations of the church local. Some "seeker sensitive" churches of the 1980s and 1990s built models that left membership in the margins, if referenced at all, in an attempt to be "relevant" and grow a crowd. 

Matt Chandler, Pastor of The Village Church in the Dallas, Texas area wrote of this a few years back. he stated:

With conflicts already brewing over other doctrines that I viewed as far more central, I wondered if we should let this church membership thing slide and come back to it later. I was preparing at the time to preach through the book of Hebrews and “happened” to be in chapter 13 when verse 17 leapt off the page: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

Two questions occurred to me. First, if there is no biblical requirement to belong a local church, then which leaders should an individual Christian obey and submit to? Second, and more personally, who will I as a pastor give an account for?

These two questions started my search for a biblical understanding of the local church, and they began around the ideas of authority and submission.

Regarding the first question, the Scriptures clearly command Christians to submit to and honor an elder body (Heb. 13:17, 1 Tim. 5:17). If there is no understanding of local church membership, then who are we to submit to and obey? Is it anyone with the title “elder” from any church? Should you as a Christian obey and submit to those loons at Westboro Baptist? In order to obey Scripture, must you picket soldiers’ funerals, as the pastor of Westboro seems to imply?

Regarding the second question, the Scriptures clearly command an elder body to care for specific people (1 Pet. 5:1-5; also, Acts 20:29-30). Will I as a pastor be held accountable for all the Christians in the Dallas Metroplex? There are many churches in Dallas that I have strong theological and philosophical differences with. Will I give account for what they teach in their small group, how they spend their money, and what they do concerning international missions? (9Marks Journal, April 28, 2011)

In addition to this, the concept of church discipline falls apart when there are no clear membership roles or expectations. Paul's confrontation of the church at Corinth clearly reveals an expected behavior of those who claimed to be part of (members of) the church body.

While church membership may not seem cool for some, it is biblical.

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What Is Church Membership?

A clear understanding of what it means to be a member of a local church is essential. Pastor Dean Inserra stated that years ago following a new member's class at his church a potential member asked him "What changes for me on Monday if I join the church today?" It's a challenging and needful question. It led Dean to clarify the membership process and expectations in his church, to the benefit of the church body.

All pastors should contemplate that question. What is the big deal? What changes?

If the answer is "Well, you get to vote in our business meetings," you likely are not fully understanding the need for people to be church members. And...if someone joins the church just to vote in a business meeting, you likely have more issues, or will, you have deeper problems.

Jonathan Leeman of 9Marks gives a concise definition of church membership here...

Church membership is a formal relationship between a local church and a Christian characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church. (9Marks Journal, August 22, 2014)

When a person seeks to join a local body of believers (the local church) the church, or designated pastors, elders, and leaders are not to just say "Come on and join. It's easy. There's nothing to it." but to clearly delineate what the covenant relationship means.

Church Membership Is a Relationship

The relationship between men and women in a local church is covenantal. It is relational. The relationship begins with God and is centered upon him. God is relational. The Trinity expresses this clearly.

The relationships Christians are to have with other believers flow from this relationship with God. Within the local church, those relationships are even more connected. The "one anothers" of Scripture are played out within the body. There is no mistaking this. The "Jesus and me" mentality that sees church as the place where I go to get my fill of weekly spiritual teaching so that I can get through my week, tends to place "me" at the center of everything. 

No wonder so many get bored and tired at church and are seemingly always looking for the latest edition or version available. 

This me-centered, independent mindset prevails in our culture. It leads to the shopping for churches and consumerism disguised as Christianity.

It also leads to a belief that people have the right to be a member of the local church.

Church Membership Is Not a Right

As Americans, we love our personal rights. We even have a "Bill of Rights" in our Constitution that have allowed freedoms to be expressed and experienced that are unavailable in other areas of the world. We truly are blessed to have these. However, sometimes we transfer what we believe to our rights to aspects  of life where they do not apply.

When it comes to becoming a member of a local church, no one actually has a right to be welcomed in as a member.

I know this sounds like we have some super-exclusive club where certain people will not be welcome. That becomes some of the pushback for churches who require membership. Truly, in the past, some have used unbiblical guidelines (such as race) as determining factors regarding who can or cannot be a church member. I am not speaking of such vile circumstances.

Some basics are expected and those must align with the church's declared and shared doctrine. A person should not be admitted into membership if certain doctrinal differences exist, especially if they're first- or second-level theological issues (view of Trinity, justification, mode of baptism, meaning of Lord's Supper, etc.)

For a person to be accepted in membership of a local church, there are definitely expectations that should be understood. These are not only things expected from church members, but things the potential member can expect from the church. This is a relationship and therefore, there are expectations.

When churches minimize what it means to be a member and lower the standards expected of church members, membership not only becomes unbiblical but troublesome.

What About Members Who Abandon the Church?

Most churches I know have a list of church members who never attend. This list includes a small percentage representing those who are incapacitated or unable to leave home and attend worship services or other activities. Their health is failing or they have physical or other disabilities keeping them from the local gathering. For those individuals, membership has not been abandoned. In fact, the church has expectations to continue the relationship (remember, it's a covenant relationship) and to help when family members are not able to do so.

What about the rest of those disconnected "members"?

Most pastors know this passage in Hebrews, yet we often only focus on a portion of it.

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17 ESV)

I fear that we love the "obey" and "submit" portion, but skip over the "those who will have to give an account" portion. Simply put, the displaced and non-attending church member should be contacted and sought to be drawn back in to the fold.

Why? Because we (pastors and leaders) will have to give an account to God for our care.

However, there are likely members who haven't attended in years and would not want to come back into the fold simply because doing so would put them immediately into a process of church discipline. Yep, that church member living opening in sin cannot just slide back into church. Therefore, they seek to hide away from church, while simultaneously keeping their membership in the church.

It's bogus. It's sinful.

Some may not even know they're still considered members of the church. Maybe they've been attending elsewhere. Perhaps they moved away. Some may actually be members at another church that either "doesn't do membership," is of a different denomination, or simply is poor in their administration that they never saw fit to reach out and connect with the former church.

We actually had some church members who were serving at a sister church as deacons and Sunday School leaders years ago. Why? Mainly because our membership process at the time did not allow us remove members unless another church sent for their "letter" (membership) or the individual requested to be removed from the church roll.

Why Would Someone Want to Remain a Member and Not Attend?

The cultural Christian reality explains this well. Dean Inserra's book The Unsaved Christian covers this well. There are many reasons, but some that come to mind are...

  • Membership allows someone to use the building for a wedding at no or reduced rates.
  • Membership allows someone to use the building for a funeral.
  • Membership looks good on the postcard or website in some areas if you decide to run for office.
  • Membership allows for some to claim connectivity with others when there is no relationship.
  • Membership in the church is like membership in the Rotary, Lions, or any other community organization. It's good for business.

Church membership can be a mess.

While our church won't be dropping church members wide-scale, we will begin to delete the "Sunday School members" who haven't attended in months. We will eliminate names that have been passed and promoted for years.

People matter, but membership is more than a name on a roll.

Joining a church is a covenantal agreement. Anything less is superficial at best, and sinful at worst. So, no you don't have a right to be a member of the local church, but God desires that you be a member. It is good. It is right. It is holy and it allows for the believer to be a disciple who makes disciples. 

 

Oh yeah...

If you're actively attending another church and engaged in ministry there...join it. Don't keep your membership in one church and act like a member in another. :-)


Hope in a Culture Defined By Hate

"It has never been this bad" is a statement of despair that I have heard from numerous people over the years.

This cry echoes in our culture once again as we hear of the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. These evil actions of two individuals (with seemingly unrelated motivations) have brought cries from various corners of society for fixes. Political pundits and creators of sound bites and spin have once again taken center stage in order to state their cases.

While cries of action come from some, cries of grief continue for family members and friends who are now planning funerals.

It is bad. There is no question that these events are terrible, horrific, and evil. The loss of life, even in a desensitized culture, is always tragic. It is even more tragic when deaths are not the result of accidents or illness (though those are tragic as well) but at the hands of deranged criminals. 

Thus we hear "Woe is us. It has never been this bad."

Hate Is "Normal" 

From a Christian perspective, we know the story of sin. We not only know it historically, but we understand it personally. Thus, the need for a Redeemer. 

The Enemy hates God. His hatred is revealed clearly in the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden. His hatred for God is played out upon God's image-bearers, Adam and Eve. Sin enters the human story and separation from God results. Even so, in this separation, the love of God remains. It always has.

Shortly into the story of the first family, hatred between brothers is revealed as Cain kills Abel. 

The account of Noah is more than just a story about a large boat and animals. The destruction of humanity (except for Noah and his family) was due to the hatred and wickedness within the hearts of man. 

The human story continues with wars, attacks, jealousy, and hatred. The Scripture is replete with these accounts. Thankfully, Scripture also reveals the amazing love of God for those who, by nature, hate him.

So, hate is "normal." It's the factory default for humankind. Yet, it is not good. It is not acceptable. It is not excusable. It is not holy. 

Hate Is Historical

It does not take long to develop a list of heinous, hateful actions perpetrated throughout history. Globally, there are numerous accounts of terrible actions done against others. Sadly, in many cases, these have been done under the guise of religion or nationalism.

In our short history of the United States, we have more incidents than could be listed here.

Today, we face the reality of hateful actions perpetrated against seemingly innocent victims. In the case of the El Paso shooter, a manifesto has been found where he (Patrick Crusius) expresses his motivations and warped reasonings for driving hours from his home in Allen, Texas to the border-town of El Paso in order to murder and create mayhem in a local Walmart. His "manifesto" does little to provide insight as it presents little more than what has been stated for generations by those whose dark hearts see other image-bearers of God as enemies to be eradicated. 

Walmart shooting
Photo: Mark Lambie/El Paso Times

Crusius's actions have been described as "white terrorism" and that is not an incorrect assumption. There are some who would claim the color of his skin to not be relevant (though this is often only an argument when the criminals are white), but the fact is that in this case and others (Charleston for example) the declared reasonings for the attacks have much to do with old fashioned, sinful white supremacy and self-declared racial superiority.

"It's never been this bad."

Yes. It has. It has been this bad for a very long time. It has been this bad in the USA. It has been this bad as evidenced...

  • When churches would segregate their gatherings so that the whites could worship in "unity" without having people of color in the room. it was bad. It was evil.
  • When self-proclaimed Christians would line up with those who peddled hate, it was bad. It was an abomination.
  • When self-righteousness and political power-mongering justified the devaluation of human beings as less than human (3/5ths of a human to be exact.)
  • When humanity was defined at beginning far after conception to enable the legal murder of unborn children.
  • When those who speak a different heart-language than English are denigrated as second-class.
  • When the elderly, ill, those with special needs, etc. are forgotten and deemed as burdens rather than image-bearers of God with value.
  • When churches have ignored the cries of victims of abuse in order to protect their brand.

...and more.

Hate is an equal opportunity offender. The "manifesto" from this killer seems to place him in contradictory and opposed camps so that all can be claimed, or disavowed, as the case may be. Pastor Bart Barber from Oklahoma stated it well in this tweet...

 

Hate Is Elevated

Perhaps it is not the worst it has ever been, but with the shrinking of the world through instant information via the internet and social media, polarization has seemingly increased.

Evangelical Christians are not immune to this polarization. This has become more evident than ever since the 2016 presidential election. Nevertheless, the polarization politically, ethically, morally, and communally did not begin then. It just seems more prominent. 

Of evangelicals with an opinion, 82 percent believe that since the 2016 presidential election, groups within the Christian church have become increasingly polarized on issues of politics. (Ed Stetzer, Christians in the Age of Outrage, p. 5)

You may say that the incidents in El Paso and Dayton are not political. I disagree. In the current culture, everything is political. Even the "manifesto" presented by the El Paso murderer references this.

The divisions among Christians were not created by a political win or loss. However, 73 percent of evangelicals believe that in the just the past few years, long standing divides hidden for years within "religious-speak" and "church-talk," have become more evident. (Christians in the Age of Outrage, p. 5.)

I believe that the current climate in our nation has not worked to quell the latent anger (often based on fear) among many, but has been used by the enemy to fuel the feelings of despair, frustration, and ire. 

People are being played. They are being manipulated and tempted by the same enemy of God who spoke first to Eve and offered the concept that God was holding out on his image-bearers and was not to be trusted. Individualism and self-defined "fairness" became a key to rebellion. 

Hate Is Healable

When I first read the news of the El Paso shootings, I was grieved. I knew it would not be long before "experts" began posting well thought out opinions on why this terror occurred. In many cases, they proffered fixes that were centered on legislation and political action. Then, statements regarding immigration, border walls, legal citizenship, etc. developed. These were often lead-ins to harsher opinions. Posts and statements turned south. The racial heritage of the victims and the Spanish-speaking, Hispanic, Latino culture was to blame for the attacks. Some even saw a justification for the acts based on certain beliefs related to race, laws, immigration, etc.

Before you begin posting responses understand that I am not writing this post with intent to enter into a discussion related to political parties, immigration laws, citizenship procedures, walls, or anything else that has been and remains as front-page fodder for those in Washington and beyond. I believe each of those subjects is legitimate and wish that level-headed, wise, humane, and constitutional conversations among lawmakers and influencers would occur (some have) and will lead to resolution.

This article centers on the very real hatred that was evidenced in the shooter in El Paso (and likely in the shooter in Dayton as well.) The shock of the attack hit hard. Being in a Walmart moved many Americans to realize "It could happen where I live."

It could.

I pray it won't ... wherever "here" is.

The ultimate answer for such depravity is not found in Washington DC. It is not found in any state assembly room. It is not found in protests, sit-ins, displays, or even by sharing thoughts online. It is not found in "sending our thoughts" to the families of victims. 

The answer is the same it has always been.

It certainly has been this bad before. It has been this bad since our perfect relationship with the Father was lost through sin in a garden.

The good news is that the answer and the healing for this hate, fear, emptiness, and lostness is the same God that we read about in Genesis. It is the good news, the gospel message, that Jesus Christ has come to redeem us. He took on all the sin, all the hate, all the evil in the history of humankind. He died...and so did the sin debt owed. He rose again. Through this glorious reality of resurrection, we can live too.

Church, we grieve with those who grieve. We lament the realities of evil in our world and the impact on the seemingly innocent. We sometimes throw up our arms and wonder where God is (the psalmist did this often, so we're in good company.) The answer we receive is the one we have known all along. God has not abandoned us. He is here. He is hope. He is the healer of the broken-hearted. 

In the midst of tragedies where evil seems to be winning, let's remain true to the calling which we have been given. Let us remember well that all is not lost. 

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 (ESV)


The Shaming of Purity and the Falling of Christian Leaders

In November 2018, I posted an article here regarding Joshua Harris and his renouncement of his best-selling book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. At that time, he was most widely known in conservative, evangelical circles as the former pastor of a prominent church who became a best-selling author in his twenties. His book spoke of the value of courtship, the wrongs of dating, and the importance of remaining sexually pure until entering into a biblically affirmed marriage. For those who did not grow up in church in the 1990s, this concept may seem foreign or at least what the Duggar family espouses on their once-popular reality show.

In Harris's retraction of his book, I found some interesting statements and some insights with which I agreed. Yet, I did not at any point believe the emphasis on sexual purity among Christians was, or is, wrong. I am not one who viewed "True Love Waits" as a legalistic step of the church built on fear. It likely was for some, based on how the concept was taught and presented.  Though "purity culture" may be trending now, I do not find where purity is something to be avoided or that the biblical teachings of such are wrong. I do not believe they were wrong in the 1990s. They are not wrong now. 

In addition to Harris's current stance, other authors such as Linda Kay Klein have made declarative statements regarding the evangelical culture of purity and "sex shaming" that grew to prominence in the 1990s. I have read Klein's book Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free. Klein is an excellent author and I really do appreciate much of what she expressed in her book. There were elements that resonated with me (a male pastor who served as a youth pastor during the 1990s and early 2000s) to be true to the culture and very insightful. There were helpful statements and perspectives that I had never considered.

Harris
Joshua Harris, author of "I Kissed Dating Goodbye"

Klein's book is insightful, yet it is likely that many evangelicals have never heard of her. If they have, I sense that her book would not be found in their libraries. I am not endorsing her book, but I did find the information and her perspective helpful (even where I disagree.) I do own the book and I did read it. I shared a number of insights from the book on Twitter and the author's responses were greatly appreciated. Perhaps this just shows that you do not have to agree with every author you read and that somehow, someway, even on Twitter, one can have a discussion where agreement may not be found, but mutual respect can be? That will be a subject for another article in the future. This one is about the purity culture and former Christians.

Purity Culture

So, what is meant by the now trending term "purity culture"? Joe Carter gives a good definition on The Gospel Coalition blog. Here's what he writes:

“Purity culture” is the term often used for the evangelical movement that attempts to promote a biblical view of purity (1 Thess. 4:3-8) by discouraging dating and promoting virginity before marriage, often through the use of tools such as purity pledges, symbols such as purity rings, and events such as purity balls. (Full article here.)

For those in their 30s and 40s, this may bring to mind "True Love Waits" rallies, signed pledge cards on display, ring ceremonies, and prom alternatives. Books such as Harris's were purchased in bulk by churches and given to students. While Harris's book was often given to boys (with the belief that teenage boys actually want to read a book about not dating) another book titled Lady in Waiting was given to girls. The girl-focused book was not nearly as popular, but presented the same themes of sexual purity, chastity until marriage, courtship, and fidelity within the confines of biblical marriage.

Why is Christian Sexual Purity Newsworthy Now?

One reason this seems to be trending is that a number of authors such as Klein have written on the subject from a perspective expressed previously in this article.

Another reason stems from what has been aired on  television series "The Bachelorette." This summer hit features a young woman named Hannah who declares herself to be a Christian while openly sharing of her sexual relationship with one of the game show's contestants. She stated in magazine articles and on television that her sexual activity is good and not in opposition to her Christian faith and others should stop "slut shaming" her. 

Finally, and most recently, has been the public statements and revealed actions and beliefs of one of the Christian purity culture's most known proponents, Joshua Harris. Following his renouncement of much of what he wrote in his bestselling book last year, he and his wife have publicly announced their pending divorce. Upon this announcement, some cynically stated "He has kissed marriage goodbye." Sadly, there is even more to the story. 

Just last week, Harris shared this on his Instagram account:

 
 
 
 
 
View this post on Instagram
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

My heart is full of gratitude. I wish you could see all the messages people sent me after the announcement of my divorce. They are expressions of love though they are saddened or even strongly disapprove of the decision.⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ I am learning that no group has the market cornered on grace. This week I’ve received grace from Christians, atheists, evangelicals, exvangelicals, straight people, LGBTQ people, and everyone in-between. Of course there have also been strong words of rebuke from religious people. While not always pleasant, I know they are seeking to love me. (There have also been spiteful, hateful comments that angered and hurt me.)⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ The information that was left out of our announcement is that I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is “deconstruction,” the biblical phrase is “falling away.” By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now.⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ Martin Luther said that the entire life of believers should be repentance. There’s beauty in that sentiment regardless of your view of God. I have lived in repentance for the past several years—repenting of my self-righteousness, my fear-based approach to life, the teaching of my books, my views of women in the church, and my approach to parenting to name a few. But I specifically want to add to this list now: to the LGBTQ+ community, I want to say that I am sorry for the views that I taught in my books and as a pastor regarding sexuality. I regret standing against marriage equality, for not affirming you and your place in the church, and for any ways that my writing and speaking contributed to a culture of exclusion and bigotry. I hope you can forgive me.⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ To my Christians friends, I am grateful for your prayers. Don’t take it personally if I don’t immediately return calls. I can’t join in your mourning. I don’t view this moment negatively. I feel very much alive, and awake, and surprisingly hopeful. I believe with my sister Julian that, “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

A post shared by Joshua Harris (@harrisjosh) on

There is much in this posting that I find heartbreaking and troubling. Yes, I know some of you reading this will resonate more with what Harris has stated than what I am stating. I understand that. I get it. Nevertheless, I am still troubled at what has been called a "falling away" or even an apostate belief.

Harris's statement is not about the "purity culture" but because he is now newsworthy outside the Christian bubble, this just adds to the confusion regarding gospel clarity, holiness, biblical Christianity, and yes...purity.

The Fall of Celebrity Christians

People love putting others on pedestals. This is human nature. Celebrity culture is not new. It has been around for millennia. Most recently, it seems that this little bubble known as American Christian evangelicalism has excelled in creating celebrities. Those who have pastored large churches, grown immense followings, written many books, and influenced many seem to be falling quickly. Names that not so long ago were listed as influencers and godly models such as Driscoll, Tullian, MacDonald, Bell, Hatmaker, Patrick, Noble, and others have either fallen morally, lost their positions,  started believing they were above others, or simply abandoned orthodox Christianity. And the same believers who elevated them often celebrate their demise. 

I guess that is human nature.

And that's why we need Christ.

Every pastor I know can list church members who were at one time faithfully engaged and some even leading in ministry, only to disappear from the fellowship of the redeemed. In some cases, the reasons were similar to those listed above for the fallen celebrities. In other cases, they were simply forgotten as they began to disappear. They ended up in the "Whatever happened to _______" category. 

Joshua Harris does not desire my empathy. I do not know him. He has never heard of me. 

I know some who have read his books and listened to his teaching. They're angry now. They've thrown away his books. They no longer follow him on social media. They are distancing themselves from his influence.

Based on what he has most recently stated, this response is understandable. He has "kissed biblical Christianity goodbye." It leaves us with more questions than answers at times. 

Legalism Never Brings Life

To be clear, I believe in biblical holiness and that sexual purity is right and godly. I do not see this as anathema to true Christianity. Nevertheless, it is clear that for some the legalism that permeated and defined the presentation and practice of sexual purity harmed many. The harm was not physical, but spiritual in that the hope from the gospel was traded for the rules of church expectations that were little more than processes intent on behavior modification. 

Behavior modification does not save anyone. Just being better, acting nicer, doing good deeds, being moral, etc. will not redeem for they are not the gospel. 

David French wrote of this in National Review...

The indescribably good news is that from the moment of the confession of faith, believers are not defined by their sin. They’re not defined even by their own meager virtues. They’re defined by Christ. Moreover, they find that “for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” This does not by any stretch mean that past sin wasn’t sin — one of my best friends is an eleven-years-sober addict who did dreadful things during his worst days — but it does mean that their past now gives them a unique ability to reach suffering people. Their terrible stories and past pain have been redeemed, transformed into instruments of grace and mercy.

One of my first acts as youth pastor was to lift the ban on dating (a ban for teenagers in the youth group put in place by a previous youth minister.) Ending legalism is not the same thing as sanctioning sin, and I have no idea if there was more or less extramarital sex as a result of the dating ban or the purity rings. But it was incumbent upon me — in the limited time that I had in leadership — to tell the truth, and the truth was that legalism is its own kind of sin. To create burdens where Christ did not is an act of arrogance. It’s deeply harmful. And, sadly, it’s a way of life in all too many Christian churches.

Harris previously repented of his legalism. Yet, it seems the poison of legalism continues to poison. This impacts Harris and his family, but also other believers and non-believers now reading of his decisions.

I have prayed for Harris and his family. I have prayed for the others who have walked away, or have felt pushed away, from the church. Whether it be self-righteous celebrity culture or the overbearing weight of legalism, or perhaps something else, the facts are clear that the Enemy continues to seek to steal, kill, and destroy. 

Do not abandon the truth for a lie and allow cultural Christianity, civic Christianity, patriotic Christianity, therapeutic Christianity, legalistic Christianity, or any other false Christianity keep you from the Truth. 

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. 1 Peter 5:8-9 (ESV)


On Death and Why We Hate Using That Word

The longer one serves in pastoral ministry, the more funerals one attends. Depending on the average age of one's church, the number of funerals vary. Our church is almost one hundred years old and our membership is fully intergenerational. Therefore, I have attended and preached as more funerals than I ever thought I would as I was studying for pastoral ministry in seminary. In fact, I don't know anyone who begins their ministry with the thought "I can't wait to preach some funerals." While funeral services (and weddings for that matter) are not exactly biblical services, the fact is that for followers of Christ, these services should be God-glorifying and gospel-centered.

On Funerals

I have written prior on the things young pastors should learn from others regarding funerals. Practical insight related to helping the grieving, as well as planning and preparing the service are given in this article. CLICK HERE FOR THIS ARTICLE.

On Death

Pastor Mark Dever mentioned in a recent 9 Marks "Pastor's Talk" podcast some things he has learned regarding preaching funerals. His insights are valuable. I encourage you, especially if you're a pastor, to listen here.

One thing Dever mentioned that caused me to think more deeply about this very natural process of life is that it seems many do not want to use the term "die" or "death" when referring to the one being eulogized and remembered at the funeral. Even Christians tend to use euphemisms to describe the death of a loved one or friend, whether consciously or subconsciously, because death is seemingly so offensive. Culturally, death has been something to fear. It is a subject we just do not like talking about in public.

“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” 1 Corinthians 15:55 (ESV)

As Christians we quote the verse above, but sometimes we just act like it is not true. The victory and the sting of death causes many to not even use the word. So, we use euphemisms like...

  • Passed away
  • Passed on
  • Dearly departed
  • Demise
  • Deceased
  • Slipped away
  • Moved on
  • Lost his battle
  • Entered into glory (not untrue, but sometimes used so we do not have to say "death")
  • Kicked the bucket
  • Graduated
  • Is in a better place
  • And many more...

Perhaps these words are comforting? Maybe they're just distracting. Is it sinful to use these terms? I don't believe so. I have used some. I get it. My question is, as Christians, why would we avoid so strongly the reality of death? In reality, Christians should be the last people on the planet to run from speaking on death. If our understanding of the gospel is clear and our world view is truly biblical, the reality of death should not be ignored. 

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Photo credit: Bernie Durfee on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

In his excellent book Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope, author Matthew McCullough shares this point:

Death is no less universal now than it's ever been. Death is not a disease to be eliminated. It is the inevitable end of every human life. People don't die because medicine failed them. They die because they're human.1

As followers of Christ, we know that "death is the destiny" of all, as Solomon stated. We know that death has no sting. We know that death only exists because of sin. We know death is natural in the sense that all die. We know this wasn't how it was in Eden.

We also know that Christ died. He really died. The cross execution was no myth. It was no unconscious experience. It was death. The heart stopped beating. The blood stopped flowing. The brain stopped sending impulses. The lungs stopped filling with oxygen. 

The grief of loved ones, especially his mother and dear disciples was very real. The quick funeral occurred. It surely seemed rushed, unfair, and wrong for Mary and the others. 

That reality must be understood. Jesus did not just "pass away" or "go home" or "graduate to heaven." He died. 

Jesus died because of sin. Just like you and I will die because of sin.

Yet, Jesus died because of the the sin of God's image-bearers. The sin that is our natural state. The sin that we all are born with. The sin that is our "pre-existing condition" from birth. 

Jesus died because sin requires it.

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 6:23 (ESV)

Every time a loved one dies we are reminded that this penalty is still in place. Yet, because of the fullness of the gospel, we are reminded that death's sting and victory has been removed for those in Christ. That's the joy of the resurrection. Christ did rise again and that encourages us to know that our loved ones who are in Christ and have surrendered to his lordship will too.

Funerals are difficult. We may have started calling them "celebrations of life" to make us feel better, but they only occur when there is a death. Acknowledging death's reality enables followers of Christ to find hope in the life-giver and in the gospel. It also should encourage us to speak truth to those who are far from God and have no hope. 

Death is appointed by God alone. Therefore, to take one's life or to take another's is not God's desire. May there be no question regarding this. 

Once death occurs, no carefully worded sermon can move a lost person being eulogized into heaven. So, pray, share, and have hope in the One who defeated death. Rest in Christ and in the truth of the gospel.

__________

Brian McCullough, Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2018), 38-39.


So That's Why They Asked That Question - Pastoring a Church Healing From Sexual Abuse

*(JUNE 21, 2019) EDITED BASED ON INFORMATION I DID NOT PREVIOUSLY KNOW. APPRECIATE THOSE WHO BROUGHT DETAILS TO MY ATTENTION.

THE INFORMATION IN THIS ARTICLE REFERENCES A STORY FROM OVER THIRTY YEARS AGO. THE STORY REFERENCED IS PART OF THE PUBLIC RECORD. THE PERPETRATOR WAS ARRESTED AND WENT TO PRISON. HOWEVER, THERE ARE MANY VICTIMS STILL SUFFERING FROM THE ABUSE SO NAMES ARE NOT USED IN THIS ARTICLE. 

______________

Twenty-five years ago I began serving as the youth pastor at our church. I had gone through the search process with the church. I was finishing up my final semester at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and was very excited about the possibility of being called to serve on a church staff, especially in a state I had never even visited prior. I had phone conversations with search committee members and the pastor. I was flown to the city to see the community, the church, and discuss possibilities of joining the staff. When the time came for the committee to present me to the church body, my wife joined me. We met with church members, students, and spent time in homes with key members and those involved in the youth ministry. 

I met with the church membership in an afternoon session where questions would be asked. I had tried to prepare myself for this portion of the interview, but with an open mic, there are often questions that seem to come from left field. I shared my personal testimony. I shared my philosophy of ministry. I then began to answer questions. 

One of the other staff members had previously warned me that I may get some questions related to sexual issues. 

Um...okay. I had not had a class at seminary where this type of questioning was covered. The staff member informed me that one or two church members had asked him some interesting questions like this when he was hired and that I should be prepared. 

"Okay," I thought. This must be normal.

The question was asked about our marriage. It was a question regarding intimacy in our marriage. I answered quickly, likely as my face reddened, and said something about "I love my wife and we have a new baby...so...yes, we know what intimacy is." 

Next question.

Fast forward a bit. The church voted. I was called to be the next youth pastor. I would go home to Texas, finish seminary, and following graduation move to Florida. 

I was loving the challenge of leading a youth ministry with more members than most churches I had ever attended. I was learning and seeking to lead well. I was setting up meetings with parents and reaching out to them. I told them "I am not a parent of a teenager. You are. You love your children more than I can and I want to help you as best I can. I will be your advocate and resource." 

It seemed biblical and right. This was part of the philosophy of youth ministry that I held. 

After a few months, one of the youth parents told me that he did not trust anyone with the title "pastor" or who held a seminary degree. I was surprised and felt this was going to be an awkward conversation. Then he said that after getting to know me and as he served as a leader in our ministry, he believed I was God's man for this role and that he was glad I was here. Whew!

It was a few months later and another, similar conversations occurred. I could not figure out what had led these people to distrust pastors and especially youth pastors. My predecessor was a good man. He was a godly leader, a faithful husband, father, and a seminary graduate. He was and continues to be a friend. Following a season serving at another church, he has come back to ours and remains a faithful member. I soon realized that he was not the one they distrusted. He was not the problem at all. This distrust went back years prior.

At one point after a short time into my service here, we were entering into a new building program payoff and fund-raising effort for newer facilities. We were tasked with visiting all the church members on the roll. (I don't recommend these visits, by the way.) I met some members of the church who hadn't attended in years, but being a Baptist church, their names were still listed on the roll. I don't remember the person's name, but I do remember the visit. He was cordial, but clear. He had an experience at our church - well, his child did - and he was not ready to come back (much less commit to a building program.) 

What Was Going On?

I eventually discovered the story. 

Back in the 1980s, while I was still in high school in Texas, the church here in Florida was growing and thriving. The youth group was huge and reaching many students at the local school. The leader was a charismatic (personality, not theologically) person who was able to reach and connect with students. There were ski trips and events and other things that drew in the students. They did not, however, do many events, camps or activities with other Baptist churches.

The church had a house in the parking lot that became the youth building. This was the norm for many churches doing youth ministry in the 1980s. 

Legs-in-jeans-and-canvas-shoes
Photo on Visualhunt.com

Then, the story broke. This sad, dark chapter in our church's history was made known. The secrets were discovered. Families were torn apart. Students were revealed to be victims. The one with the pastoral title was the victimizer. 

I won't go into details, but suffice to say that in an era prior to online searches, internet news stories, and instant information access, our church was facing a reality that had to be dealt with immediately and clearly. 

I was not here. No one on pastoral staff when I was called here in 1993 was here either. Most current church members were not here at that time. Those who were do not talk openly about it. 

Why Bring This Up?

As a pastor of a Southern Baptist Convention affiliated church, we are talking openly and clearly about the reality of sexual abuse in our churches. Our votes at our annual meeting last week in Birmingham will go down as an important first-step to bring transparency, clarity, justice for victimizers, and healing for victims of sexual abuse in the church.

In our little story of shame, it was revealed that at least two other Baptist churches discovered similar acts being done by this same staff person upon students in their fellowship when he served there. However, rather than calling the police, these churches did what so many others have done over the years. They released him from his duties and let him go to find work elsewhere. In other words, they passed the buck and washed their hands of the story, letting others deal with it. In their passive dealings with the issue, for whatever reasons given (protecting the name of the church, protecting the victims, the family of the victimizer, fear of lawsuits, etc.) they became complicit in the sins perpetrated upon other young people.

That's why I bring this up.

Last Sunday I preached on the role of the father. I mentioned that some fathers try really hard, but are not leading well in the home and therefore leave their children spiritually void or worse.

I then took a sidebar, so to speak, and briefly addressed those who have been abused by their fathers and others (even pastors.) I mentioned forgiveness to be biblical and needed. I also referenced Romans 8:1 which states that there is "no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus." I affirm that verse, as I do with all Scripture, but made clear that the verse does not state that there are no consequences for sin. 

That, I fear, has been the ignored reality for many churches and Christians when addressing physical and sexual abuse. 

At that moment, from the pulpit I stated to our congregation,

"For the victim, we want to help. We want you to feel safe. We desire to walk with you through the very painful and needed areas of healing. We're still trying to discover how best to do that."

Then I said,

"To the victimizer, we want you to know that Christ loves you too and that you need to repent and receive the forgiveness for your sins. We also want you to know that you need to go to jail. We want to make sure that happens." 

It was quiet at that point.

Now I Know

I know now why that question was asked in my interview twenty-five years ago. I was not here in the 1980s. I have brothers and sisters in Christ who were. God has brought great healing to our church. The police were called, but apparently not by our church leadership (and for that we were wrong), but by a parent of a child and another person in the community that had learned. It seems that the church leaders were focused much more on potential liability and harm to the brand (of the church) than for the healing of victims. This was a perception by some. Sadly, it may be the case in that many churches have shown this to be the initial (if not only ) focus. Thankfully, the truth was made known. Truth is always right.

The accused was convicted and went to prison. Sadly, I am pretty confident that our church did not provide the healing place needed for all the victims. 

I also believe, based on what I have heard from some, that it was not because we did not want to. It was because we did not know how to do so. I am not sure we know how now. What I do know is that those who were hurt still carry scars. Some have remained in the church (if not ours) and are faithfully serving the Lord. Some may have pushed these stories back so far in their history as to not have to deal with them. I apologize if this has reopened wounds you thought were healed.

For others ... well, I don't know. I fear there is a group of fifty-year-old wounded people out there who have abandoned the church because a wolf entered the sheep pen and did great harm. For those, I am deeply sorry and I pray you will receive the help and healing needed that only God can provide.

The Caring Church

Like many pastor friends of mine, I am not content with just offering lip service to an initiative that can be perceived as simply a reaction to news articles. I believe the issue of healing and hope for those victimized by sexual abuse is a gospel issue. That's one reason we have signed up for the Caring Well Challenge and encourage other churches to do so as well. That is not enough, I know. However, it is a start.

Rather than have a dark chapter that no one speaks of, perhaps we can learn from the past so as not to ever repeat it.