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.

Lightstock_74961_small_david_tarkington

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. 

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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.


"The Reports of Our Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated" - Southern Baptist Convention

The oft-quoted phrase "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated" is attributed to Mark Twain. While actually a bit of a misquote from what Twain actually stated, the gist is correct. 

When it comes the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), it is no secret that statistically we (I am a Southern Baptist pastor) do not have the numbers of members, new converts, and attendees that we once did. Much has been written about this. One of the best was recently penned  by Dr. Albert Mohler (read it here.

Normally, the SBC becomes front-page fodder for the news media during our two-day annual meeting. 

We are meeting in Birmingham this week. The news media has produced stories and reports as they do annually. However, this year the focus has been on the state of the SBC and current challenges surrounding sex abuse by clergy and church leaders as revealed in an expose by Robert Downen of The Houston Chronicle. (I wrote of this in an article posted on February 12 here.) While some have lamented the publishing of the Downen article, the truth is that these reports needed to be revealed and stories of sinful actions by those who served in God's local churches needed to be exposed. Though painful, truth is right and Scripture affirms the reality that sin will be discovered when the light is shone.

Bad Southern Baptists

In addition to the issues revealed in The Houston Chronicle, other stories and issues began to appear in other venues.

As preparations for this year's gathering came closer, stories spinning in social media and other media outlets, blogs, postings, and other public venues made it seem, depending on what you read, that the SBC was harboring sex offenders, didn't care for abuse victims, hated women, hated each other, devalued the Lord's Day, was little more than a political puppet for the GOP, financially suspect, racist, social justice warriors, or the opposite of most every one of those.

If you look close enough, you may find a Southern Baptist that matches each of the descriptors above. I'm not defending that reality, but stating the obvious. 

However, there is a big difference between the online version of the SBC as seen in social media posts and blogs, and the actual face-to-face SBCers who worship together, meet together, and even debate one another in person as we are seeing this week. No, the SBC is not perfect. We have many chapters in our history. Some of those we wish did not exist. Nevertheless, they do, and to ignore the bad chapters leaves us to repeat them, or relive them in some ways. We pray never to find ourselves in a chapter that dishonors our Lord and will be regretted by our godly children and grandchildren.

No Rose-Colored Glasses

I do not have a set of rose-colored glasses. I am not an idealist. I sometimes do not see things others do, but just because I cannot or do not see those things does not mean those are not real. This is not a "your truth/my truth" thing. I reject that. This is just a clarification of perspective.

This means that I know there are some bad spots in our SBC that need to be corrected. There are systems in place that likely worked well decades ago, but need to be reworked. I'm not speaking of doctrine. I am thankful for the work done by God in the SBC through the Conservative Resurgence (NOTE: I appreciate the people who were instrumental in the resurgence, but must give the credit not to man, but God. He orchestrated the shift and empowered it. To him alone goes the glory.) I believe our Baptist Faith & Message (2000) is a solid confession of faith and belief. 

Nevertheless, we are an imperfect people seeking to serve our perfect God.

In our imperfection, we seek guidance, healing, and direction for next steps.

I believe the steps taken by SBC President J.D. Greear, our Executive Committee, our Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and the new teams and committees formed to address the sexual abuse issues among our member churches are the right steps. I do not envy the teams that had to work out the language used and the machinations needed to uphold church autonomy while refusing to hide behind that statement to keep from moving forward. The work done and presented this week to the messengers in attendance is godly, right, and needed.

However, it likely is not enough. We all know that. A statement does not heal a wound. A finely wordsmithed document does not fix the past. We know this. I believe we all (or at least most) know this. Yet, this is the right step for now. More steps will be taken in days to come. Prayerfully, healing will come for the hurting ones as well.

Is the SBC done for?

I don't believe so.

The decline is real.

The broken pieces are laid bare, and yet there is hope. Hope not in the repairing of a brand. Hope in the rescue of people from the grips of sin. Hope in Christ alone.

Today at the close of our afternoon session, our International Mission Board presented men and women who have committed their lives to serve the Lord on mission for the sake of the gospel. Single women and men are preparing to go serve those in other nations who have no one to tell them of Christ. Young couples are moving to areas that cannot even be mentioned for safety reasons. They're taking their small children, leaving grandparents and safe homes in subdivisions to go to the uttermost parts of the world. They are willingly going to attend language classes so they may best communicate the truth of the gospel. They want to be obedient and they are taking that step. One couple, recently retired from the mission field and back in the US have said "YES" once more to go overseas. So much for that calm retirement. 

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Photo by Todd Robertson

I was in tears as the testimonies were shared and the commissioning service continued. 

There is much going on throughout the SBC and if you only read tweets and posts, you may miss the real story.

I recognize, as some have tweeted, that the IMB has had their (well...our) own share of abuse issues. No excuses. Prayerfully, steps have been taken to ensure nothing happens like that again. If it ever does, then I pray that proper consequences come and proper care for the victim as well. I pray this is true not just for the IMB, but for all our agencies and especially our local churches. 

The SBC is a strange version of denomination. In a sense, it's not even really a denomination, but we use that word for lack of a better one for the masses. Just try to explain our autonomy and organizational structure to someone who did not grow up SBC or grew up in a mainline Protestant or Catholic church and you will see what I mean by strange.

Yet, in our strangeness, there is good, despite ourselves. The good of the SBC is not founded in the SBC, but in God alone. I believe that we do have great days ahead. I do believe that God is not finished with the SBC. I know he is not finished with his church. May we remain faithful to Him, and live out the greatest commandment to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and love others righteously and in holy manners so that they may know him as well.

The reports of the death of the SBC have been greatly exaggerated. But...this is not really about the SBC.

It is the Gospel...above all.


Maneuvering Through the Politics of the Age Without Embarrassing Christ

"It's never been as bad as it is now."

That statement has been said to me numerous times in various ways over the past five or six years. The topic is American political leadership and the divide among Republicans and Democrats, and all those trying to live outside political party identification.

As a point of reference, we're not the first generation to make such claims. 

In fact, I'm reading a number of  books on the Civil War and just in case we think it is as bad as ever, there were many in the 1860s who said the same...and their war ended up more literal than we can imagine with brothers fighting brothers and a rift that has yet to heal completely. In some ways, it has been said, we are fighting another version of civil war today in our nation. Perhaps so.

Regardless how bad it is, how bad it has been, or how bad it will become (how's that for the negative trifecta?) for those with a biblical worldview, our current state of affairs is no surprise. Oh, the specific issues and items that cause disunity and divides may be surprising, the nature of man is as it always has been.

To put it simply - people sin. The world is broken. Sin seems to reign, and righteousness is often difficult to find. Apart from Christ it is not available and as Christians we understand that all is ultimately good and right comes from God. In the meantime, we are called and placed in a broken world, with all our personal brokenness, as God's ambassadors with the commission to be salt and light and to expand His kingdom in such a way that many more disciples are made.

American Political Christianity

For decades different political parties, for the lifetimes of anyone reading this that has been primarily limited to the Democratic and Republican parties, have sought to align with the most prominent and powerful (i.e. largest voting bloc) religious denominations and groups in the nation. As we move through an era being described and defined more and more as anti-religious or post-religious, we are beginning to see a shift in the strategic moves.

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Nationally, the primary parties virtue signal based on the best potential end for their respective candidates. At the local level, the candidate may be the same party as a national candidate, but since all politics are local, the individual platforms may differ from the national one. This is likely how you can see pro-life Democrats vote for and sign recent heartbeat bills and recently traditional pro-life laws where the national party platform takes a markedly different take. I would say the same would be true with Republican candidates at the local level with issues that may be in opposition to party platforms.

This is not news. Any purveyor of political positioning, virtue signaling, and policy usage understands the reality of local politics and "playing to one's base."

As a pastor I find myself in interesting, and sometimes precarious positions when it comes to local, state, and national politics. To be candid, I believe that every citizen should (and for Christian citizens, prayerfully) consider for whom to vote, and do one's duty to vote and participate in the process. This freedom and access we have do so is not common globally and should not be taken for granted.

However, as other pastors who have recently contacted me, seeking opinions on how to deal with specific expectations within the church, it is perhaps more difficult now, than in recent years to maneuver well and biblically in the culture of American Christianity.

Do You Not Care?

On Sunday, a recommendation was promoted by some religious voices in our nation. Many are biblically sound pastors and teachers that I admire personally. Others are ministry leaders and those with influence among Christians and church attenders in the nation. Many of these brothers and sisters are those I respect as well. Yet, others who have promoted the moment are little more than prosperity gospel hucksters and charlatans who prey on the weaknesses of parishioners seeking a blessing for a buck. I hope that was clear enough so you understand what I believe about them.

It was a strange team of affirmers to be certain. The recommendation was for pastors on Sunday to lead their congregations in prayer from the pulpit for President Trump.

Praying for Leaders, Regardless of Party

The Bible is clear regarding praying for those in authority over us. Paul's letter to Timothy reveals this as true and lays out the very reason we, as Christians, should pray for those in authority.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. 1 Timothy 2:1-6 (ESV)

To argue that as Christians we do not need to pray for our leaders would be to ignore this passage. 

However, it should be noted that Christians are not just called to pray for the leaders they like. Nor are they only to pray that leaders do what they desire politically. I am reminded of a request I was given man years ago at a National Day of Prayer gathering. There were a number of people asked to pray for those in leadership. This is a good thing. The particular prayers came from a template provided by the National Day of Prayer organizers. Our gathering was small. All praying were church members and leaders in our church. We all view prayer as vital. Yet, when it came time to divvy up the prayer focus regarding different office holders,  I asked one person to pray for the President of the United States. 

This person responded, "I can't do it. I do not like that man. I will not pray for him." 

Well, that pretty much eroded the veracity of the prayer gathering since this person was one of the organizers. 

As a pastor I just sat in silence with my mouth agape. I could not believe this. Yet, it revealed how sometimes our politics drives our theology rather than the other way around.

This past Sunday, I did not take the time to have a special prayer for our President or political leaders. I am not opposed to doing so, but did not feel any unction to do so at this time.

On this Sunday, our congregation was commissioning high school graduates into the "real world" and spent time praying over them. That was our focus as God led me to preach from His Word a message about generational lostness.

I know pastors who did take the time to have a focused prayer for the President. I know others who did not. Fortunately, in each case, these brothers' gospel-centeredness, love for God, thankfulness for our national freedoms, and love for their church did not come into question.

For me.

But for some, it did. 

Grace, Mercy, and Pointed Responses

Church members (good, Christ-honoring, redeemed, faithful, truly-saved church members) questioned pastors yesterday afternoon and today. Questions as to "Why didn't you lead a prayer?" to "Why did you lead that prayer?" have been likely filling inboxes, answering machines, and hallway conversations.

Regardless what the pastor answers, for some it will never be good enough and will leave church members questioning the pastor's politics, not to mention his love of God. Seriously - some will go there. 

In response to such questions, I encourage pastors to remember their primary and most important calling. It is to honor the Lord with their lives, shepherd their flock, preach the Word unapologetically, pray, and make disciples. What this means is that in no way should a pastor to shy away from cultural issues (sin issues) that stand in opposition to God's Word. When it comes to some political hot-buttons (which ultimately are not political, but cultural) pastors should...

  • speak out against abortion and euthanasia (Genesis 1:27, Acts 3:15, Psalm 139:13-18, Jeremiah 1:5)
  • work to raise awareness for adoption (Exodus 1:15-22, Romans 8:15, Ephesians 1:5)
  • advocate for orphans (James 1:27)
  • love the foreigner (Matthew 25:35)
  • support and provide opportunities to help women with unplanned pregnancies, encouraging them to keep their babies until birth (Psalm 46:5, Ephesians 2:10)
  • provide for the widows and aged, ensuring the church does not forget or minimize them (James 1:27)
  • speak for and affirm justice for all (Proverbs 31:9)
  • be a voice for the voiceless (Proverbs 31:9)
  • pray for the leaders of the land, regardless who they are (1 Timothy 2:1-6)
  • pray that those in authority will become children of God and be bold enough to not let their policies be driven by a cultural worldview, but from a heart transformed by God (1 Timothy 2:1-6)
  • speak out against the moral revolution that seeks to redefine morality not from traditional values, but from biblical truths (Romans 3:21-31, Ephesians 5:33)
  • love all, but not affirm sin (Matthew 22:39, 1 Corinthians 13:13, 1 Peter 4:8)
  • stand for biblical marriage while speaking against adultery (Matthew 19:5, 1 Corinthians 6:16)

There are more, but ultimately, a pastor should be grounded in the Word, unafraid to preach the gospel, wise enough to do so rightly, and prayerfully and biblically lead those God has entrusted to him as one holding the office of pastor.

Responding with grace is vital. We may be at a tipping point in our culture. It may be a schism awaiting. Yet, we pray. We hope. We believe. God is bigger than any term of office, policies made, laws enacted, or culturally redefined "truths." 

Platt and the President

One of the trending news stories last night and today was that President Trump arrived at McLean Bible Church in Virginia at one of the morning services so that Pastor David Platt (former President of the International Mission Board) could pray with him. 

Opinions vary on whether this prayer moment should have taken place. What I know is that there is no way under heaven that American Christians will agree regarding this moment. 

What I also know is that the prayer offered by Pastor Platt was perhaps the best, non-political, gospel-centered sermon and prayer based solely on 1 Timothy 2 that I have ever heard or could hope to hear. 

I feel for Pastor Platt because he was placed in a challenging situation, but as one pastor stated (who is one not to let politics reign from his pulpit) "When the President shows up at your church, regardless of party or approval ratings, you pray for him/her." That is true.

Was it a photo op? Likely.

Was it a sincere request for prayer? Some say yes, others, no.

Here's a reality check for all - not everyone in a church service on a Sunday arrives with the most noble intent. Yet, while there, we pray that they hear God's Word, experience His love, and the gospel impacts them for change. Whether that person is well-known, or only known by a few, or none in the room is irrelevant.

Regarding Platt's prayer, as pastor of the church, he alone spoke from the pulpit (or stage in this case.) He has the calling and authority to rightly divide the Word of Truth for those under his teaching and pastoral care. He did not give the microphone to another. He spoke. He prayed. He preached. For that is what the pulpit on the Lord's Day is reserved for - the focus and glory on God alone.

As one who deeply cares about our nation, our policies, our freedoms, and the future for our children and grandchildren, I am so very thankful that while "some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we will trust in the name of the Lord our God" (Psalm 20:7 ESV). 

Globally, our brothers and sisters throughout the world, whether in free republics, communist regimes, socialist nations, under dictatorial rule, or even in religious oligarchies are commanded to pray for those in authority over them as Paul instructed Timothy.

So, it is not an American Christian concept. It is a biblical truth for all people, all times, in all circumstances.

Pastors - Stay Focused

Some of my pastor brothers will be labeled this week. They will either be labeled too conservative, too liberal, too traditional, too contemporary, too old-fashioned, too progressive, too patriotic, not patriotic enough, or any number of trending terms.

Men - may you rest easy this week knowing that many ultimately will just have to admit that you were too biblical.* That's a good title to wear. 

__________

*By "too biblical" I mean that you were led by the Holy Spirit, you preached the gospel clearly on the Lord's Day, you may or may not have led your congregation in a prayer for the President, but you did as God led and you speak on the issues of life from a biblical worldview, leading well, living holy, and making disciples.

 

For more on David Platt and the Prayer over President Trump, here is a clear and concise response from Pastor Platt of McLean Bible Church and a video link from the church's site. https://www.mcleanbible.org/prayer-president

 


Why "Family-Equipping Discipleship" Is Needed Now More Than Ever (And Is Better Than What We Grew Up With)

Our church has been making the long shift from a family-based or programmatic ministry model to a family-equipping model over the past few years. It is difficult to understand why for man, but here is another reason... 
 
From Reggie Joiner and Carey Nieuwhof's book Parenting Beyond Your Capacity. (We give this to every parent during parent dedication services.)
 
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A dad was concerned as his daughter cooled toward the faith in her early teen years. She began to date a boy the dad described as "bad news," started to dress differently, and showed a general disdain for church. He confided to a pastor, "I just don't know what I am doing wrong! We have always been faithful at church, making it a priority. We've had her memorize the verses. We've sent her on the youth activities."
 
"What ministries is your family involved in?" replied the pastor. The father couldn't name any. "That might be your problem," said the pastor.
 
"The world is offering your daughter a more compelling story than you are. In the world she sees adventure and purpose. Here at church you have treated her as a receptacle of information."
 
The story goes on about how the father found a small orphanage in Central America that his family could adopt. It's a great story of living out the gospel, rather than simply gathering information about the gospel. It's also a good reminder that discipleship cannot be outsourced. It begins at home. 
____
 
This story is shared in J.D. Greear's book Gaining by Losing.
 
For more on the family-equipping model, read this previous post on the "One-Eared Mickey Mouse" here.

As Southern Baptists, We Aren't Even Reaching and Keeping Our Own Kids

Numbers and statistics can be grueling. Just ask anyone (like me) who moved through two semesters of statistics in college and more in graduate work. The values are vital and helpful, but can become overwhelming. Also, apart from good statistical procedures and analysis, numbers can be misleading, if not totally wrong. That is why I read through articles as carefully as possible and seek to discover where the numbers were gathered, if there was a large enough sample to make the statements being made, and if the information is helpful or simply click-bait for more articles.

As a Southern Baptist pastor who has been leading our church toward a family equipping model of ministry, any story that speaks of losing the next generation always piques my interest. Based on information from the Annual Church Profiles (ACP) (viewable here) provided by participating Southern Baptists, a downward trend in certain areas of categorization continues. For those who are not Southern Baptist, it should be noted that the ACP is provided voluntarily by member churches. Not all churches submit the report and to be honest, not all reports submitted are accurate. A question may be asked to signify the number of attendees in worship weekly. If the church does not do a systematic count each week of people in the room, save those numbers, and then average them, most often the individual filling out the form will simply make an educated guess. The number may be close, but likely not accurate. 

Yet, when it comes to baptisms, the numbers are most often accurate. As Baptists, we count those baptisms. We really don't have a metric to count disciples (unless we simply count those attending classes, study groups, and serving on mission) so we count baptisms. Those numbers have gone down as well. The most troubling of the baptism numbers is not the downward trend, but that the only growing or consistent age bracket of baptisms is that of toddlers (five years old and younger) in our churches. For a denomination that affirms believers' baptism, the toddler baptism numbers reek of little more than pedobaptism. Likely, many of those young children who were led in a prayer will struggle with their faith later in life and hopefully will come to Christ at a later age and then truly be baptized biblically. Of course, that means we have one individual being baptized twice (it happens more than you think) and for our overall numbers, that's multiple baptisms of the same person over the course of time. 

You see why these statistics are a bit muddy?

Nevertheless, those numbers are troubling, but this headline from a recent article published by Christianity Today caught my eye.

Screenshot 2019-05-30 13.13.45

It sadly did not surprise me. Not only have I been pastoring for decades and have seen this, but I am also a parent of two adult children. Statistically speaking, in my own home, we have only seen fifty percent of our children remain faithful in the church.

Rather than repeat all the article states, you can either click the image above or here to read it in its entirety.

According to the data here, the numbers seem to give a good representation of the trend. Just looking across the congregation I pastor, knowing that many of the fifty and sixty-year-olds have adult children who were very active in children's and youth ministry programs years ago, it is hard to debate the veracity of the numbers. 

Simply put - an active youth group does not always lead to an engaged church of adults years later. 

Some, it must be noted, do move from Southern Baptist churches to non-denominational churches or those who align in different denominations. Those as well as the defectors are counted as the half that leave. The fact is this is a reality that Southern Baptists (and I'd say many other denominations) did not face forty or fifty years ago.

But, as they say, times have changed. The sad reality is the model of family ministry in many churches has not. 

The article draws me in, but the lamentations end as I see the call to equip families as disciple-makers as God's original plan for reaching, growing, and keeping the next generation (not just in one's local church, but in God's church wherever the zip code may be.)

Most often when statistics like this are seen, excuses are offered as to why things are the way they are. In local churches when empty pews awaken the aging congregation to the reality of the absent generation, they often seek to push more money, create new ministries, and a new hire of a minister to "fix the problem." We should know by now, that is not the answer. That has never been the answer. It's been done many times...and we are where we are.

It is this time of year when we recognize our next group of high school graduates in the church. It is a celebratory moment where families come together intentionally to honor their child. My challenge to these students will be that they not take the path previous graduates have in our church. I encourage, challenge, and plead that upon their graduation from high school they do not also seek to graduate from church. Many have in the past and our last memory of them gathered together with the covenant members of the church has been when they wore their cap and gown and stood on the stage to be recognized for their achievement. 

We are coming alongside parents to change that. I wish the church had done so this way when my child was younger.

I'll write more on our strategy of making and keeping disciples alongside parents of children and teenagers soon. 


Grieving For and Reaching the Lost Person in Your Family and Church

I recently purchased and just completed reading the new book by Pastor Dean Inserra (who, by the way, when I talk about his new book to people outside Florida or pastor's groups, am asked "Dean and Sarah who?" This is apparently common.) Dean is the founding pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Florida.

Unsaved christianHis book The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel has proven to be very popular among evangelical pastors and church members. This is due, in my opinion, to the fact that Dean has put to paper many of the thoughts and experiences that pastors and church leaders have faced over the past few decades. In some cases, the frustrations have left church leaders wondering what to do next. Dean's book is a primer for next steps of engaging and reaching the American Christian who has unknowingly traded (or never had) the true gospel for the accepted version in our culture.

Many people think they're Christians but have no concept of the severity of sin, necesity of repentance, message of grace, or the overall message of the gospel.1

The struggle is real and for any pastor who laments the latent lostness of church members and attenders, this book provides more than just details on the current state of Christianity in America, but steps for engaging gracefully and strategically with those in need of salvation. 

Over the past couple of decades, I have experienced just about every example of lost "saved" people evidenced in the book. Each evangelical pastor I know echoes this reality. It is heart-breaking, but also very difficult to address. For these reasons, I am thankful for Dean's concise explanations and descriptive steps for evangelizing those who think they're already saved.

This is a slippery slope for some, mainly due to the strategies used by some traveling evangelists over the years that sow seeds of doubt simply to gain presumed decisions at camps, crusades, and revival services. These same strategies have even been used on mission trips or Vacation Bible School to elicit "results." While the numbers of decisions may increase, the numbers of truly saved individuals does not. 

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Grieving Over Lostness

For the cultural Christian (that term refers to the one who is good by cultural worldview standards, may attend church a few times, probably a member of a church, is the neighbor you want, very nice and friendly...but not actually a Christian because he/she has never surrendered to Christ and been redeemed) lostness is not thought of much, if at all. Church is a place, not a people. Deeds are weighed highly. Political beliefs, tolerance, and good citizenship are viewed as the most desired characteristics. 

Yet, for the born again follower of Jesus Christ the lostness of friends and family members remains a constant burden and focus for prayer. To claim to be a Christian and care not for the lives of others is to sinfully ignore the Great Commission and greatest commandment.

It is this burden that motivates Christians to not simply sit idly by while others falsely hold to a "faith" that requires no faith at all. 

When Christians no longer grieve over the lostness of friends and family members, they no longer recognize the urgency of evangelism and of speaking truth. The teaching, falsely attributed to Augustine that states "preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words" has become a theme for those hoping their loved ones come to Christ, but ignoring the command to make disciples. J.D. Greear states it this way...

You cannot preach the gospel without words. The gospel is and explanation about an act that occurred in history once and for all. We testify through words that Jesus did for uw what we could never do for ourselves by living the life we should have lived and dying the death we should have died, in our place, so that others can believe the message and trust in it. Saying, "Preach the gospel; if necessary use words," is like me saying, "Tell me your phone number; if necessary, use digits." Apart from digits, there is no phone number. Apart from words, there is no gospel.2

May we never cease to grieve over the lostness of others. Once we stop grieving, we stop sharing.

Barriers to Truth

I'm convinced that most all evangelical pastors and believers believe in the necessity of salvation through Jesus Christ. In the evangelical world of what is termed conservative Christianity, the concept is loudly affirmed. Those who hold to biblical inerrancy and seek to have a biblical worldview get this.

Yet, we know that cultural Christianity exists. We know that family members, friends, and even some (not all) church members have never truly surrendered their lives to Christ. It's evident in their words, their stated beliefs, ignoring of sin, tolerance of wrong, and their elevation of deeds over faith. It is seen in the devotion to church only when it does not interfere with other events or activities. It is not new as some active members of the church are more committed to the Rotary, the Kiwanis Club, Lions Club, or their lodge than the community of faith. It is inferred or voiced in eulogies at funerals where universal salvation, and particularly the salvation of the recently deceased, is inferred if not clearly stated as the dead person is declared to be in a "better place." 

Well-intentioned Christian leaders desire to see change. They hope for transformation among their congregants. Pastors preach clarity. They refuse to apologize for calling sin what it is. In their desperation they are said to be entertaining at first, but eventually may be accused of being negative, angry, or lacking grace. Church members shift to another congregation to avoid the weekly diatribes. A seeking of positive-worded, deistic therapy is sought and many "churches" offer such.

The fear of offending often keeps Christians from sharing. The fear of losing members can keep good pastors from preaching the fullness of the Word.

When fear wins, people lose (or remain lost.)

When truth is compromised, lostness goes unaddressed.

Comparative Analysis 

Well-intentioned adults may actually live their entire lives believing they have everything in order. It may be because they repeated a prayer at one time, but never surrendered to the lordship of Christ in their lives. It may be because they vote a certain way, are faithful to their spouse, raise their children with good manners, provide financially for their family, and maybe give to charity regularly. All are good, but without Christ, they are worthless.

Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?" And then will I declare to them, "I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness." - Matthew 7:21-23 (ESV)

Sometimes the largest barrier to surrender to Christ becomes the religiosity of deeds that leaves our friends and family members doing comparative analysis with others. From any equation used, they likely are better people than others. However, compared to Christ, they fall short...just as all of us do.

They need a Savior. They need rescuing. They need redemption. That is only found in Christ. The surrender may be initiated through prayer. It likely will be, but it is more than just repeating words. 

May we never let fear keep us from sharing the truth. 

May we never presume that our loved one or friend is a child of God simply because they are better than the next person. To ask a believer if they are a Christian and have them tell you about their faith journey will not offend a true Christian. So...ask.

Then, be prepared to tell.

May we see a decline in the number of cultural Christians in our communities and an increase in children of God.

________________

    1Dean Inserra, The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2019), 12.

    2J.D. Greear, Gaining By Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches That Send (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 123.


The Family Equipping Model is Right. It's Biblical. It Just Doesn't Market Well for the Church Consumer.

For the past three years, I have been preaching and teaching on a better way to connect with and reach families in our church than we have done in the past. It's a challenging subject, because we are a church that has been in the community for 98 years. Over those decades the community has changed dramatically, not to mention our church.

I have been at our church for twenty-five years. Initially, I served as the youth pastor. When our senior pastor retired, I was called to take on that role. That shift occurred almost fifteen years ago. Needless to say, I have been around a while. I have learned much and have discovered some things in my own ministry strategies that, if I could, I would do differently.

As a youth pastor, I inherited a great group of students. Each week we would have anywhere from 100 to 150 attending one or more of our events or services. Not unlike other churches at the time, I was building a structure around Sunday morning Bible study classes, Sunday evening classes, choirs, bands, and Wednesday evening worship services. In addition, I sought to ensure that no student was left without something to do weekly at or with the church. We were calendar heavy, as that was expected. This meant numerous mission trips, ski trips, beach trips, camps, DiscipleNow Weekends, lock-ins (the one youth ministry event I believe was created by Satan for the sole purpose of causing youth pastors to leave the ministry), concerts, conferences, and more. If LifeWay, Youth Specialties, Reach Out Youth Solutions, StudentLife, Baptist conventions, or any of a dozen or more youth ministry groups promoted an event, curriculum, or conference, we were in.

The Great Thing About Youth Ministry Then...

Our church was not unlike others. We hired a youth pastor (for that I was thankful) and parents and volunteers served in youth ministry. We loved God and teenagers and wanted as many students as possible to know Him and experience a great season of life through what could be a tumultuous time. It was about five years into our ministry that I began to regret some of the things we were doing as a ministry. Many of these things I inherited from and most were expected by the church leaders and especially parents. Yet, I knew that something was missing.

We had a number of students surrender their lives to Christ. This was and is great!

We had some who surrendered their lives to full-time ministry. This became a wonderful legacy.

We had a large youth group in a town with only a handful of churches and fewer schools compared to what we have today. We saw God do some incredible things, despite some very bad chapters in the story of our church and community.

The Regrets...

We were promoting the model known as the "One-Eared Mickey Mouse" that encouraged teenagers to join the youth group, but not the church. 

One ear mickey mouse

In truth, our youth ministry actually was functioning as a parachurch group. I have written about this issue here...

- WHEN YOUR YOUTH GROUP FUNCTIONS AS A PARACHURCH MINISTRY -

Students were active. They did much together. We had the required matching mission trip shirts, we took photos at Christian concerts, we attended camps, retreats, and a host of other things that made youth group great. The only problem was we primarily made youth group members and not disciples.

I cringe when I hear of youth pastors speaking of their former students. In many cases, it is a statement related to a by-gone day of youth ministry. Sometimes these former students remain faithful members of their local churches, raising and impacting the next generation for God. Yet, in far too many situations, these former students have graduated from church and faith and have no more spiritual legacy today than they did prior to moving the tassel on their mortar board from one side to another.

Once the youth ministry developed in this way, it was not long that others followed suit. We had other extended "ears" that grew over time. These were children's ministry, women's ministry, men's ministry, senior adult ministry, single adult ministry, music ministry, etc.

Once we began strategically removing the extended "Mickey Mouse ears," not by eliminating the ministries in question, but by ensuring they were within the church, not simply orbiting around it as a moon, we lost church attenders and members. Most of these (adults) were never active members of the church. They simply hid out in their chosen sub-ministry for years, under the leadership of volunteer or associate pastor. They would speak how they did not fit in with the church as a whole, and it was clear...they were never really part of the church with no covenant relationship with fellow members. They had settled for something less. Something God had not ordained. Something that could not replace the Bride of Christ.

It is sad, but I have talked with other pastors, and this is not unique to our local body. In fact, this is why so many people in the community have been members of numerous churches over the years.

While personal responsibility is required from those who abandon their faith family, the church (and pastors like me) need to acknowledge when our well-intentioned models of ministry have not fulfilled what Scripture requires. We have to confess that sometimes our ministries have been designed to simply draw a crowd for a season and not make disciples of Christ for eternity.

The Family-Equipping Model

Our church has been making the shift from an programmatic model (that which we have had for decades, built upon individualized ministries, separated from other ministries with adult leaders tasked with growing their groups) to a family-equipping model. This is no easy task.

The family-equipping model focuses as much or more on the parents/guardians of children and teenagers than it does on the young people themselves. 

The family-equipping church does more than just invite parents to specific ministry events. Every aspect of ministry with children or teenagers focuses upon training, involving or equipping parents as their respective children’s primary disciple-makers.1 Opportunities for service traditionally held for the professional church leaders or ministry directors now strategically involved parents.

There is much to be said about equipping parents to be the lead disciple-makers for their children. In fact, I have said it in writing, in emails, in text messages, and from the pulpit on numerous occasions. The responses have been positive. This is because we all know this is correct. We all know this is right. We, parents and church leaders, know this is the biblical model (Deuteronomy 6 and elsewhere.) We know we cannot argue against the biblical reality that disciple-making of our children is the goal and that parents are the primary ones responsible for doing this. But...

It Is A Hard Sell

Why is it so difficult for churches to make this shift?

Why do families leave the church when they see what it truly means to disciple their own children?

Why, when we KNOW the One-Eared Mickey Mouse is wrong, do so many seek churches that not only have that, but perpetuate it in all other ministry groups as well (children's, music, senior adults, college, single adults, etc.)?

I believe it is because the family-equipping model is difficult. I believe it is because well-intentioned, busy parents are afraid of what this means for themselves and their children. 

I also believe that everything else in our culture focuses on the consumer mindset we all are susceptible to have. We want our kids in the best schools, to have the sweetest friends, to have the right haircuts, best clothes, latest shoes, to make the team (and if they don't we'll put them in another school or just live as a travel-ball, cheer, or dance parent), earn trophies, get trophies, be popular, have fun, experience big events, etc.

Just because you desire these things for your children does not make you a sinner. What makes you a sinner is the fact you're human (see Genesis 3).

Joining a church with a smaller youth ministry (or children's or whatever sub-ministry is the most attractional at the time) is not something most parents desire, especially if those parents are now in their thirties and have memories of ski trips, camps, D-Nows, and other big 90s and 2000s youth groups. For many parents, those were great memories and they desire their children to have the same, or better.

But, at what cost?

As I reflect and repent over the model of ministry I led and perpetuated, I am convinced that God is honored not by the gathering of big crowds so much as the growing of disciples. This is biblical truth.

While I would love for our church to have hundreds and hundreds of students gathered weekly in our facilities and extended campuses, I would much rather see us equip families biblically (and step in when family members cannot or will not) to see disciples made. That is a legacy the One-Eared Mickey Mouse does not offer.

_____________

1Timothy Paul Jones, Family Ministry Field Guide: How Your Church Can Equip Parents to Make Disciples (Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2011), 166.


A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to Hell

Last Sunday, I preached a message from Luke 16 about a subject that most do not wish to discuss. The story in the passage is about rich man who died and went to hell and the poor man, Lazarus, who went to heaven. 

The sermon focus was one provided by the North American Mission Board and Pastor Johnny Hunt as part of the "Who's Your One?" emphasis. I do not preach other pastor's sermons. Yet, I have read and listened to many sermons and often God uses insight provided to these godly men to lead me in areas of my own sermon preparation. God used Pastor Hunt's sermon as I prepared to preach. I am thankful for this.

Since Sunday's message, many have commented on the focus and the message related to heaven, hell, and the destiny of man.

I am praying that the message will resonate and continue to be used by God as we collectively seek to share with the one person God has brought to mind regarding the gospel and the need for salvation. 

In Johnny's sermon he says the phrase "A funny thing happened on my way to hell..." and that caught me as an amazing thought. I did share that with our church on Sunday. The fact is that the "funny thing" that happened was that God met me, drew me to himself, led me to repentance, and changed my destination. Like you, I was headed to hell. Apart from the intervention of God, I would still be heading that way. Yet, because of his grace and incredible mercy, God changed not only my destination, but my identity.

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Photo credit: ChrisGoldNY on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC

The problem now is that often I forget that I once was lost, but now am found. I forget that I was on a highway to hell and had my destination changed. I forget that I was the wretch in need of rescue. When I forget these things, I tend to lose my burden for others who are still heading to hell.

This heaven and hell talk rubs people the wrong way. The "fire and brimstone" messages seem to be caricatures rather than authentic, but for a pastor to ignore the reality of hell would be as heretical as disavowing other orthodox teachings such as the nature of God, the Trinity, and the doctrine of salvation. 

Funerals for Lost Family

Like many pastors, I have preached many funerals. When I meet with the grieving family members of the recently deceased, I am searching for any indication of where the deceased stood with God. I get all types of memories that are good and funny and worth remembering and sharing. Yet, if all you have to tell me about your loved one is that he loved football, enjoyed fishing, she loved to cook, do puzzles, spend time with the grandkids, etc. and there is no statement of spiritual vitality or substance, it means that likely, the loved one you hope is in heaven is not. 

Some may say "Well, you can't really know if they're in heaven or hell." Maybe I don't, but what I do know that Scripture promises that a person can know for certain about their own eternal destination (1 John 5:13). It just saddens me when a person is seeking to remember all that matters about their recently deceased loved one and there is nothing of spiritual substance that reveals that person had surrendered to Christ and lived for him. 

No one wants to think about that reality, but the facts are that more people will NOT be in heaven than will. There is a wide road that leads to destruction and a narrow one that leads to life. This is not just some poetic illustration. It is truth.

For those of us who do know...who have been rescued and had our identity and nature transformed through Christ and the Holy Spirit, how dare we keep that a secret! How sad would it be for a person to bust hell's doors wide open while living their entire life in a home where a loved one knew the way to heaven, but never told them? How sad to have worked with someone for decades, but never hear the gospel from the co-worker who has been saved? How tragic to be like the rich man in Luke 16 who immediately recognizes that Jesus is the Way, Truth, and Life, but to realize it is too late.

Like you, I have family members who have not had their destination changed. I have loved ones who will spend eternity alone, separated from me, but more importantly separated from God. It hurts to think that this is reality. But there is good news...

A funny thing happened on my way to hell. I was saved.

You, and my family members and friends, can be too.

_________

My sermon from Sunday is available here and wherever you listen to podcasts.

 


The Gay Kid in Your Church May Think You Hate Him

As the years go by, the moral revolution continues to move forward. With changes in cultural norms, many churches struggle with how to respond.

The Moral Revolution and the Church

It is no secret that the moral revolution is in full swing in our culture today. The speed of change has amazed many and with new laws and the the Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage being handed down by the United States Supreme Court. Legalized gay marriage led to churches having to define and describe their beliefs about marriage and especially weddings. For some, it was an easy slide to affirm that which the courts had decided. For others, it created a need for clarity regarding why same-sex weddings would not occur in their facilities and the non-affirmation of gay marriages.

Dr. Albert Mohler book We Cannot Be Silent addresses these issues. He writes...

Every Christian church – and every Christian – will face huge decisions in the wake of this moral storm. When marriage is redefined, an entire universe of laws, customs, rules, and expectations changes as well. Words such as husband and wifemother and father, once the common vocabulary of every society in its own language, are now battlegrounds of moral conflict. Just consider how children’s picture books have to change in the wake of this revolution. As those who demand this revolution make clear, there will be no model of a normative family structure left in its wake.

But this revolution has also reached into our churches. Some are arguing that Christians need to revise our sexual morality and definition of marriage in order to avoid costly and controversial confrontations with the culture at large. Are they right?

Faithfulness to the Gospel and to the authority of Scripture will not allow such a revision.

Just to be clear - our church holds to the inerrancy of Scripture. We do not affirm or accept same-sex marriages as biblically viable. We do not host same-sex weddings. We do not affirm the LGBTQ+ lifestyle as biblically acceptable. We have stated this clearly and I am one of many signatories of The Nashville Statement

This Is More Than a Same-Sex Marriage Issue

While many churches have clarified their stance on same-sex marriages and weddings, the primary issues within the local bodies have less to do with policy and weddings. Depending on where the church previously stood on doctrinal matters relating to the Bible, inerrancy, infallibility, and other matters, there was likely no shock within the body related to each church's decision on this issue. 

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Photo credit: www.ownwayphotography.com on VisualHunt.com / CC BY

The LGBTQ+ People In Your Church

Regardless where the church stands on biblical fidelity and interpretation, all churches either have individuals in their congregation struggling with their gender and personal attractions, or have friends or family members who do. Some have come out of the closet. Many have not. 

As I think more about this and my twenty-five plus years on pastoral staff (nine as youth pastor, the remainder as lead pastor) of our church, I can name at least twelve young men and women (teenagers at the time) who were members of our church or actively attending that have come out as LGBTQ+. I'm sure there are more who are not coming to mind. There are others who are adults, married, single, of various ages. It is a wide demographic.

Over the past five years I have had numerous contacts with pastors and ministry leaders from other churches who are seeking to respond biblically and in love with these young people and family members. In many cases, the young people are children of deacons, elders, ministry leaders, and pastors. Now, more than ever, a biblically sound response (not reaction) is needed.

Each church responds differently. Some denominations and local churches have declared their affirmation of homosexuality and welcomed the moral revolution that affirms the LGBTQ+ lifestyle. In those churches, which admittedly hold to a more liberal or moderate view of biblical interpretation, there may be less of an issue related to the welcoming and acceptance felt for those who have declared their LGBTQ+ identity.

Other churches hold to a more conservative and often inerrant view of biblical interpretation, considered by some to be more stringent in their doctrinal beliefs (this would be my church.) In these churches, those who identify as LGBTQ+ often feel as if the church is a place of hate rather than love.

I am sure that hateful things have been done and said to those individuals. I know that while my constant intent is to show and reveal the love of Christ fully and clearly, there are times that my intentions are not evident. Due to my sinful nature, I repent of those moments where I poorly reflect Christ to others, especially those close to me.

Hating the Church 

I recently saw an interview featuring Bobby Berk of Netflix's show "Queer Eye." Bobby shares about his upbringing in church. His story of youth group doesn't sound much different than many students who have attended our church. You can watch Bobby's interview here. Be warned there is inappropriate language used in this clip.

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Photo credit: Texas Monthly - Sept 2018

In his case, after coming out as gay, he shares of feeling hated and ostracized. He responds "I carried so much hate for the religious community for completely turning their backs on me."

I do not know his former church or pastor, but I have no reason to doubt that Bobby experienced what he did, whether intentional or not from the church's perspective. 

I am certain that many of the students who have come out to their parents and peers within our church family have felt the very same way. I do not doubt that many, if not most, felt ostracized, looked down upon, perhaps even hated by the church and some within. 

In many cases, young people are afraid to come out due to fear of family rejection and friend disconnection. For the "church kid" who has been in the children's and youth ministry his/her entire life, this fear can be overwhelming. In some cases, years of hearing gay jokes and snide remarks from peers and even youth pastors and parents has created an honest fear of revelation.

Of those students who self-identify as LGBTQ+ and have grown up in evangelical families, 85% felt uncomfortable coming out to parents and 81% feared being viewed as disgusting by family members. A majority feared being disowned. Nine percent feared they would be literally kicked out of their home.1 I do not doubt that at times these fears were founded, but in some cases the story of response and rejection was already played out in the mind of the young person and therefore became somewhat a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Hated By the Church

You've likely heard the phrase "perception is reality." Therefore, many young LGBTQ+ people have echoed their feelings of abandonment from their churches and families and feel hated. 

At times, well-meaning Christians throw out the statement "Love the sinner. Hate the sin." as if they are quoting a Bible verse. It is not a verse, but a phrase that goes back to St. Augustine and his encouragement to nuns in Africa regarding prayer. Much later it was quoted by Gandhi in his challenge to Christians that from his perspective, didn't look like love at all.

There are biblical principles and commands to love God and all that is holy. Sin is to be hated. It's not to be taken lightly. Sin is an act and does not occur independent of a person. The truly loving response to a sinner (and we're all sinners in need of God and his grace) is to speak truth, in love, for the hope and purpose of redemption through Jesus Christ. This is the message of the gospel and cannot be weakened or watered down.

The most hateful thing a person could do is ignore sin and not tell loved ones the truth. 

Nevertheless, in the world today, this is viewed as intolerant and even hateful. When emotions get intense in such discussions, there are often tears and words then said that would be regretted later and even if stated in love, feel like hate. 

Love and Affirmation Are Not Synonyms

So, why does the student in your church who has been struggling with his/her feelings of same-sex attraction, been affirmed by friends, teachers, coaches, online followers and acquaintances feel like you hate him/her?

Presuming you don't actually hate the person, it could be because somewhere along the line love and affirmation have become synonyms in the young person's mind. This has been the reality for generations. Some wrongly believe that to truly love someone you must affirm their actions, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.

However, we all know this is not reality. Parents who deeply love their children with a love that is as close to unconditional as a human can offer, will not approve of every action taken, attitude, or belief held by their child. The same is true for every other relationship of true love, be it spousal, family, or friend-based.

The argument here is that to not affirm someone for feelings they did not choose and an identity they believe they were born with is akin to hating them. That is another conversation for another time. 

For the church, the pastor, the parent, or the Christian friend, the reality is that we are called to love our neighbor (even if they're gay) but that love does not mean blanket affirmation for every belief and action of the loved one. 

One reason that so many families are divided over this is because it is falsely believed to be a culture battle, rather than a gospel issue.

Dr. Russell Moore addresses that this way (full article here)...

One of the reasons this is so hard for some parents and grandparents (of LGBTQ+ children) is because somehow we assume this issue to be merely a “culture war” issue, and not a gospel issue. As such, parents are often perplexed as to how to deal with this in their families because they think this is about them.

They wonder if others will judge them, as though they did something to “cause” this. That’s ridiculous, and it leads people ultimately either to reject biblical teaching to keep their kids or reject their kids (and their gospel witness to them) for the sake of appearing to keep the biblical teaching. At the root of all of that is pride, and I don’t mean that in the sense of “gay pride” but in the sense of carnal self-seeking. That’s a temptation for all parents, not just for those of gay children. We’re tempted to see our children as reflections of ourselves, and we’re tempted then to keep up our image.

Crucify that temptation. God calls us to holiness, and to encourage one another to holiness. The Bible is clear that this means fleeing from sexual immorality, and that includes same-sex sexual activity (1 Cor. 6). God also calls parents to love their children. Be clear about your convictions, and at the same time don’t exile your child from your life. If we sacrifice grace for truth or truth for grace, we’re sub-Christian.

Love Wins (And That's More Than a Political Buzzword)

There are numerous voices in the church world today speaking on the LGBTQ+ experience and their experience within the church. Perspectives vary from those of Justin Lee and Matthew Vines (gay men who affirm the LGBTQ+ lifestyle as not being opposed to Scripture) to Christopher Yuan, Rosaria Butterfield, and Jackie Hill Perry (those who no longer affirm the LGBTQ+ lifestyle as biblically viable.) Each individual's story brings insight and reveals personal pain and in certain cases hope. Caleb Kaltenbach presents a unique perspective as he is a pastor who was raised by gay parents. His insight revealed in his book Messy Grace shows that Jesus's command to "love your neighbor as yourself" doesn't exclude your gay neighbors (or family members.) 

The "Love Wins" mantra is strong and has been used in pride parades and as declarations of LGBTQ+ affirmation. Beyond the placards held by protestors and hashtags used to promote LGBTQ+ agendas, the church must remember that this "culture war" is not about winning a political battle. It comes down to loving those individuals, as individuals regardless of their sexual orientation. Love does not equal affirmation and the church, and individual Christians must understand this. That being said, biblical fidelity need not be abandoned. 

Jackie Hill Perry gives wise counsel for Christians who seek to preach a "heterosexual gospel" with intent of getting their gay child/friend/family member straight (full article here)...

Stop telling gay people that if they come to Jesus, he will make them straight.

When the gospel is presented as “Come to Jesus to be straight,” instead of “Come to Jesus to be made right with God,” we shouldn’t be surprised when people won’t come to Jesus at all. If he is not the aim of their repentance, then he will not be believed as the ultimate aim of their faith. They will only exchange one idol for another and believe themselves to be Christian because of it.

What the gay community needs to hear is not that God will make them straight, but that Christ can make them his. In this age, they may never be “straight” (for lack of better words), but they can be holy (1 Corinthians 1:30). We must remind others (and ourselves) that Christ is ultimately calling them to himself — to know Christ, love Christ, serve Christ, honor Christ, and exalt Christ forever. When he is the aim of their repentance, and the object of their faith, they are made right with God the Father, and given the power by the Holy Spirit to deny all sin — sexual and otherwise.

Love does win...eventually. Otherwise, we have abandoned the gospel of grace and truth and swapped one idol of self for another. 

You may not hate the LGBTQ+ people in your church or community, but they may believe and feel that you do. Christians...we must do better.

_________

1VanderWaal, C.J., Sedlacek, D. & Lane, L. (2017). The Impact of Family Acceptance or Rejection Among LGBT+ Millenials in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Journal of Social Work and Christianity. 44(1-2). 72-95.


When Your Youth Group Functions As a Parachurch Ministry

Parachurch ministries have been common in American evangelicalism for decades. In most cases, these ministries have provided opportunities for mission involvement, evangelistic outreach, and domain engagement. The term "para" means to come alongside as healthy and beneficial parachurch groups come alongside the local church for the sake of gospel ministry.

As a Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) huddle leader at a local school, I see the value for many of these groups, but also the ease of a  parachurch group losing sight of the "para" concept. Of course, in my circumstance, I am not funded through donations or supporters as many parachurch missionaries are.

Recently, Sam Rainer, Micah Fries, and Josh King spoke of the local church and relationships with parachurch organizations on their Established Church podcast. Listen here.

But, this article is not about the good and bad of parachurch ministries. It is about those ministries within your local church that basically function as a parachurch ministry. This is not necessarily intentional, but it does happen. When this occurs, it ultimately is to the detriment of the church and the individual believers (or at least members of the group.)

Youth Group Experiences*

Last Wednesday we baptized two teenagers at our church. One of these students is a high school senior. We'll call him Andrew (not his real name.) Andrew had become active in our mid-week student worship service and faithful in attendance. The Lord had been drawing Andrew to himself and after a few weeks of wrestling with God's call, Andrew surrendered his life to Jesus Christ. The next (and first) step of obedience for Andrew was to be baptized. As a Baptist church we believe the biblical mode of baptism is immersion and that while it is not salvific, it is the right and obedient step for a believer. Since baptism is a public declaration, the Wednesday gathering for worship became the venue for the ordinance. 

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Andrew had met with our student minister and talked through the details and the meaning of the baptism. His family members were in attendance to witness this, as were members of the church.

The second student baptized was a young lady. We'll call her Susie (again, not her real name.) Following the evening's service, she surrendered to God's calling, repented of her sin, and submitted to Jesus Christ as Lord. We counseled with her and baptism ended up being a "See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?" moment.

Her family joined us and before her new church family, Susie was baptized.

"You're not joining the youth group."

I met with Andrew prior to his baptism. I was congratulating him on his step of faith and gave him a new Bible to remember this moment and for his further study. As he was preparing to be baptized and become a member of our church, I said to Andrew, "You are joining the church, not the youth group."

He responded "Absolutely!" I was encouraged, but also realized that through this, over the years we have sometimes been satisfied for students to simply join the youth group apart from being covenant members of the body.

As I look back at photographs taken at youth trips in the past, mission outings, and events involving our students (most of whom are now in their 30s or older), I cannot help but notice how many were faithful and active for the years they were in junior high and high school, but were never engaged in the life of the church. In many cases, as students became adults, their church participation dwindled. They are no longer active in a local church and often only see their church experience as a great time they had as teenagers, much like other events that were experienced during the formative years.

Perhaps it was the "At least they're coming to youth group" mentality held by church leaders that promoted this as acceptable? As I sought to see as many teenagers as possible come to the Lord, I would invite them, encourage students to invite their friends, and unwisely promote the "Wednesday youth service" as the end-game. 

The Virtual Parachurch Ministry

Parachurch ministries have been assets to the Kingdom of God. Many have come to know Christ and grow in their faith through them. In fact, many people in our church are supporters and partners in such groups as the Gideons, YoungLife, FCA, Bible Study Fellowship, and more. 

Yet, none of these groups are the church. 

They know it and they do their best to ensure their members do as well. The healthy parachurch ministry comes alongside the local church, not seeking to be "in place" of the local church. This is not a problem. What is a problem is when those ministries within the church begin to function as virtual parachurch groups.

This is not only in youth ministry, but in any age-graded ministry or specialized group (i.e. women's ministry, men's ministry, senior adult ministry, choir, children's ministry, etc.) 

There are numerous signs that this is occurring. Sometimes, they are not noticed until it is too late. In my experience, these are just some of the indicators...

  • People are encouraged to join the ministry rather than the church.
  • Volunteers are committed to the leader of the ministry, or to the concept of the ministry, but are unengaged in the fellowship of the church body.
  • In some cases, the ministries have separate websites, programming, logos, etc. that differentiate them from the church as a whole.
  • There are "hangers on" in age-graded ministries. For example you may have a student in youth ministry that graduates out, but refuses to step into the "big" church, and would rather just hang out in the youth group. At times, it may be a calling, but in most cases, it is due to the fact that a student joined the youth group and not the church. The unwise leader then seeks to find a place of service for him/her to keep him/her engaged. (I've done this, so I know it's easy to fall into this trap.) I have never seen then end in the development of a healthy church member, maturing in the faith. And...if the "hanger-on" is now 30 and still in the youth group, it's more than just a little creepy.
  • A family-equipping model of discipleship is not only difficult to build, but likely impossible to implement without major challenges.
  • The church body views ministries as separate entities designed to gather people and in the cases of children and teenagers, to "keep them busy" but never view the attendees as part of the church. In other words the students may be "those teenagers" rather than "our students."
  • In the age of segmented living (work life, church life, school life, etc.) the church is viewed more and more as a commodity designed to "meet my needs" or the family's desire. 

Why Is This a Problem?

I stated prior that "it ultimately is to the detriment of the church and the individual believers (or at least members of the group.)" when this occurs in the local church. But why? Why is it to the detriment of the church and members?

  • Biblically, the church is ordained, called by God, and as the bride of Christ is his chosen instrument for bringing him glory and fulfilling the Great Commission and Great Commandment. There are no parachurch ministries in the Bible. This does not mean parachurch groups are wrong, necessarily, but does emphasize that only the church can fulfill the calling of the church.
  • In other words, a parachurch ministry cannot biblically observe the ordinances of the church (baptism and the Lord's Supper.) This means that if a student is baptized in the youth worship service, it is not a youth ministry ordinance or observance, but a celebration of the church (just as it is at satellite campuses). This has to be clear and expressed plainly.
  • The Lord's Supper is for the church, not something that should be done just for a sub-group gathered for Bible study. This is why we don't observe the Lord's Supper in small groups, at funerals, weddings, or retreats.
  • Church discipline (Matthew 18) does not fit within the parachurch ministry. While there can be discipline of members in such and at times result in expulsion from such groups, it is not church discipline. Church discipline can only take place within a covenant relationship of the local body.
  • Another problem is that when individuals are only committed to a specific ministry or even the leader of a ministry, when that ministry ends (and there are times when ministries need to cease) or the leader moves on or no longer leads, the members leave. We have seen this over the years far too often. Individuals who were regular attenders to church events, but never engaged in the church and rather hid stayed in their ministry of choice end up in the category of "Whatever happened to so-and-so?" 

After 30+ years in ministry, it is clearer now than ever for me. Church leaders lament that members leave their congregations or stop attending after graduation (either their own or their children's) or when a ministry ceases to meet. Yet, what often has happened, though unintentional, is that the church has propagated a subset of good ministries that function as independent entities within the church (virtual parachurch groups) rather than elevate and emphasize the value and biblical foundations of being the church.

So, when we tell folks to "be the church" they struggle because they have only ever been the youth group, children's ministry, men's breakfast, women's tea, senior adult group, etc. 

Be the church, but be part of the church first.

_____

*It is not just youth groups. Any ministry within the church is susceptible to becoming a "virtual parachurch" group.


Remaining Faithful When There Are No Victories

Our church staff (First Baptist Church of Orange Park) was invited to join the staff at a sister church in our community (Hibernia Baptist Church) today for a time of fellowship and to hear from Dr. Donald Whitney. Dr. Whitney spoke at the mid-week service at Hibernia on Wednesday and this morning spent some time sharing with pastors and ministry leaders. 

Dr. Donald Whitney is the Professor of Biblical Spirituality and Associate Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

I have a number of Dr. Whitney's books and have found his teachings, writings, and sermons to be powerful, faithful to the gospel, and helpful for me personally. Many in our church have read his book Family Worship and have been in a small group with me as we studied the material together. 

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Dr. Donald Whitney - picture by Hibernia Baptist Church

As is the case whenever speaking to a large group, or even a smaller group as we were today, the speaker never really knows all the details regarding what is going on in the lives of the listener. As a Christian, and especially as a pastor, it is vital that one prepares and prays prior to speaking, trusting that God will use whatever is said in conjunction with his Word to impact listeners in needed ways.

At times, this may be convictional. At others, encouraging. In fact, it could be both.

I won't go over all that Dr. Whitney shared, but there are a few points that I wrote down and have reread a few times already today. Here are some quotes that have resonated with me...

"Perseverance is developed when your prayers aren't answered."

"The proof of your faith is not always in the glorious spiritual victories, but in the gift of perseverance when there is no success."

"Job is famous for his faith, not because he is ultimately rewarded for it at the end of the story, but because he just wouldn't quit during the difficulties."

"The Christian is like a bell. The harder it strikes, the louder it rings." - John Bunyan

"The more Christ persevered, the more the persecution came."

"How do you persevere? You remain faithful when it's hard."

"Sometimes in church life, and in pastoring especially, it takes more faith to stay than to leave."

"Hang in there, even when it's not seemingly working, as long as what you're doing is right."

Perseverance is not something often heralded in the modern and marketable versions of Christianity we see in America today. Perhaps consumerism has overtaken our ability to persevere. 

For pastors and church leaders, this word is vital. 

For Christians in all areas, remember that just because it seems that God is not answering your prayers...just because it appears that what you are desiring to occur, even for the right reasons, is not happening...God remains sovereign and faithful. 

Hang in there. Perseverance never occurs quickly. It always takes more time than we would desire. Yet, it's necessary. In fact, as Dr. Whitney stated today, "Because God's plan of sanctification involves building faith and perseverance, there will be areas in your life where you will have to persevere. It is not optional."


The Risk of Pastoring in a Culture Saturated With False Teachers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discernment, Not Self-Righteousness

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

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

The Risk

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

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

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

It's risky.

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

There's a Greater Risk

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

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

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

_____

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

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

 

American Gospel - Trailer 1 from Transition Studios on Vimeo.

 


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

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

New-Church-Launch
The Intersection - Newport, NC

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

Believing In Church Planting

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

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

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

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

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

You're Planting Where?

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

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

It's a legitimate question.

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

Not Every Person Will Get to Heaven Through Your Local Church

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

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

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

We truly are better together.

However, Not Every Church Plant Is Your Partner

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Hollis

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

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

Hollis
Hollis Co./Rachel Hollis

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

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

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

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

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

For Hollis, salvation is found in ourselves:

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

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

On staying home with her kids, Hollis says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow yourself. No apologies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hollis writes,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Is This a Good Book?

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

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

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

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

Yet, the question was clear and needed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things I Check

  1. THE AUTHOR'S CREDENTIALS

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

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

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

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

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

One Other Thing...

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

Happy reading.

___________________

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


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

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

The story is wonderful in so many ways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps the Most Difficult Part of the Prodigal Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

What About the Dad?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With that, I watch and wait. 

Trusting God. 

Everyday.

I pray that you can do that as well.

_____________________

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


Confessions from a Gossip

They say confession is good for the soul. 

That's what "they" say.

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

It is most difficult.

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

The Prayer Request In Disguise

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

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

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

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

The Sinfulness of Gossip

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

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

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

This being said, I must confess.

My Sin

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

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

Here's the problem.

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

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

The Needed Confrontation

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

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

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

My Imperfections Revealed

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

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

Why Tell This?

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

Oh man. I thought this was done.

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

So, I confess today...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forgiveness Is Freeing

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

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

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

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

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

I ask that you will forgive me as well. 

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