When Yesterday Seems Better Than Today

A number of weeks ago a twenty-year-old image appeared on one of my social media feeds. It was a photograph posted by a friend and it included a large group of young adults. These young couples and their children were posing in front of our church building on a Sunday. This was a Sunday School class picture that brought back some good memories. These are memories of young families with babies and preschoolers who found community within the covenant relationships offered in our local church.

At first I smiled looking at this group. The numerous shared memories of gatherings, retreats, weddings, baby showers, etc. came to mind. My wife and I did not attend the Sunday School class (primarily because I was the youth pastor then and my wife taught in our preschool ministry) but we were "in-service members" (that's an old Southern Baptist Sunday School term) and these are our contemporaries and friends. 

I started reading the comments and there was one, just one, that seemed to state what came to my mind. One of my friends included in the photograph commented with just one word - "BITTERSWEET."

I "liked" that comment, not because I actually liked that comment, but because it was the only term that seemed appropriate. 

Another friend responded to the "bittersweet" comment - "Amazing what all has transpired since then." 

"Amazing" can mean so many things. In this case, it means such things as "Wow...we were so young" and "Look at how God did such great things in these years with this group."

Yet, for this photo "amazing" also means "Wow...how sad. We never could have expected what would happen."

  • Some of this tightly knit group has relocated to other areas around the country due to their employment. Therefore, in some cases, the tight friendship connections have naturally loosened.
  • Some remain in the area, but are members of other churches now. That's not necessarily negative, just a reality.
  • Some of these happily married couples are no longer happily married (at least not to the spouse of their youth as pictured in this image.)
  • More than one family has suffered heartache due to family issues with children and others.
  • Disease has impacted this group. Sadly, one of our brothers has died (sadly because his wife, children, and we grieve him not being with us. Gladly because we know he is with our Lord in heaven now. So that's bittersweet.)
  • Some no longer openly walk with the Lord.
  • Others are just...somewhere. We have lost touch and no one in the photograph knows what has become of them.

My Old Photographs

I have been serving on pastoral staff at our church since 1994. I have had the honor of being the lead pastor here since 2005, which surprisingly makes me the longest-tenured lead pastor in this 99-year history of this church. With these years of service, I have accumulated many great memories of brothers and sisters who have covenanted with our church for God's glory over the years. 

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Since I was the youth pastor for almost ten years, I have many memories of teenagers and young people who now are adults and raising their own children in our fellowship. I, too have many boxes of old photographs from back in the day when these were actually printed on paper. As I looked through some today, I had the same response as seeing the picture of the Sunday School class. 

Bittersweet.

Many, many people have walked through our doors at the church. Many have joined groups, classes, and ministries. Many have attended camps, choir tours (yes, that was a thing,) ski trips, mission trips, etc. For some, these were life-changing events. These were moments where many solidified their faith in Jesus Christ.

Thankfully, there are hundreds now serving in this church and other churches throughout the world whom I was privileged to know and mentor during their formative years. Some are serving in full-time ministry in churches and on the mission field. Others are serving faithfully as laypeople in their church and impacting the world and the workplace for Christ. Many are raising the next generation of Christ-followers faithfully in their homes in churches.

Then...there are others.

So many others.

People whom I love dearly, but not nearly as much as Christ loves them.

People whom are no longer teenagers, no longer "young," no longer having more years ahead of them than behind, that have sadly relegated their faith to a chapter in their past. 

Some that see their church experience as they do their old high school yearbooks - something fun at the time and good for nostalgic reasons. 

Some have struggled with their own crisis of belief only to walk away.

Others never truly walked with Christ or had surrendered to him as Lord. They may have been baptized, but they never were born again.

Confessionally, there are many whom I failed as friend, brother, youth pastor, and pastor. I failed in not being as intentional or strategic in the covenant relationship required. I failed as many others have in letting the machinery of ministry overwhelm the disciple-making.

Why Is This a Concern Now?

During this pandemic, many people started posting old pictures and photographs. Throw-back Thursday began in March and lasted a couple of months. This is likely because many people were holed-up in their homes and after a few days started cleaning out old closets and suddenly were reminiscing. 

Memories can be healing. They can be helpful. They can also be harmful and depressing bringing people to a dark place of regret.

Likely, God is be using these moments pointing toward our past to remind us of some valuable things in our present. 

As a young man, I took for granted the time I had available. I took for granted much. I presumed that good times were normative. I believed (well, I wanted to believe) that all the kids who had Christ-loving parents and were active in the programs at their gospel-centered churches would grow up serving the Lord. That has proven to not be the case in my own family and in many others. In some cases, not even the parents have remained faithful.

There is much lament among pastors over the large percentage of church members who have not joined online Bible studies since the pandemic hit. Many have not watched services online and have seemingly disengaged from all aspects of church life. Some appear to have abandoned the covenant made when they joined their respective churches.

Yet, what has been revealed is that while many Christians and Christian leaders were content in our service and church activities, it seems we may have actually focused more on building crowds in the past than in discipling the church. 

Ouch.

One of these days, we will look back at today's photos (not on paper, but on some cloud-connected device or maybe a hologram) and we may find ourselves smiling, crying, and wondering "what happened?"

Bittersweet.

But what about today?

You see, sometimes nostalgic photos bring back good memories. Sometimes, they remind us of missed opportunities. Sadly, they also can remind us of what was, but is now gone. 

What about today?

You cannot live in the past. You cannot live in a heretofore nonexistent future. You only have today. 

If we are not careful, we will miss the blessings of now (even if now isn't the greatest experience in your life.) Rejoicing in what we now have with Him is our goal, our desire, our command.

This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. - Psalm 118:24 (ESV)

Don't throw away your old photographs.

Remember that God was sovereign at the moment the old photo was taken just as he is today.

Don't allow your most faithful moments with the Lord be in your past.

Live TODAY for the glory of God (and don't become one of those "whatever happened to them" people.)


Conspiracy Theories, Fake News, and the Absence of Discernment Among Some Christians

Every pastor is dealing with this today. 

With all that we are facing in our communities and churches related to the pandemic, the polarization of political pundits, and the delay and/or cancellation of everything from sports to school, we are seeing more and more of this.

These are CONSPIRACY THEORIES.

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Photo credit: Free for Commercial Use on VisualHunt / CC BY-SA

To be honest, I have always been intrigued with conspiracy theories. Whether they be connected to the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing, Roswell, Area 51, 9/11, or any other number of pop-culture stories, these have always piqued my curiosity. Now, don't read what I'm not writing here. I am not saying I believe them. I am just saying that they have always intrigued me. 

Sometimes, I accidentally think that others are as up on the latest conspiracies and are as intrigued as I am. For instance in our church's recent leadership team meeting, I alluded to those who buy all these latest theories and refer to them as those who constantly believe the black helicopters are hovering above.

One of our team members finally stopped me mid-sentence and asked "David, you keep referring to these helicopters. What does that even mean?"

Oh.

You mean not everyone is familiar with the interconnections between Catcher in the Rye, the Illuminati, Bigfoot, mattress stores, and the silent, black helicopters used by the government to surveil citizens?

I know about the black helicopters because...well, because they were in a movie called "Conspiracy Theory." That means they are real, right?

These theories have always drawn attention from some. They raise questions. In most cases, it is clear that these are nothing more than elaborate theories and not factual (however, you may have difficulty convincing Pastor Robby Gallaty about the lone gunman theory in the JFK assassination.) 

Conspiracies Abound Online

I listened to Ed Stetzer's Leadership podcast today regarding conspiracy theories and the growth of them during this pandemic. He and his guests spoke of the vast number of stories that are shared online by Christians and the challenge facing pastors and Christian leaders seeking to lead their churches in truth and with discernment. I encourage you to listen to the podcast and read the articles he has written (linked below.)

StetzerCheck Out Ed Stetzer's Podcast & Stories Here:

The podcast (Episode 33) is available here.

Ed has an excellent article on this at his "Christianity Today" site here.

Here's another from a previous issue of "Christianity Today" by Stetzer here.

The Lies Just Keep On Coming

Every pastor and leader in the local church has received emails and messages from well-meaning church members and Christian friends. Over the years, I have seen these messages come in waves. They are shared on Facebook and other social media pages. I get a message or email stating something like "Pastor, this is serious. You need to say something about this..."

In most cases, what I say is "That's a hoax. I saw this message five years ago. It's not true."

To be honest, I have been guilty in the past of sharing such things in the past. One friend convinced me that NutraSweet turned to wood in the bloodstream and I shared that story. Once. Wow. Yet, age and discernment help me now to determine the veracity of such things.

For instance...

  • The "gay Jesus film" called "Corpus Christi" has been rumored to be made since 1984. I still receive this email warning Christians about this. While I am certain numerous plays and films have been or will be made that paint Jesus in such a light, this particular email with the attached petition is not true.
  • Pizzagate has been determined to be false from numerous media outlets, but some still declare it it must be true, primarily because the characters allegedly involved are those who are disliked greatly by the ones sharing the stories.
  • There is no one putting HIV-infected syringes on gas pumps intending to infect innocent motorists. 
  • Wayfair is not trafficking children in overpriced containers.
  • Jeffrey Epstein did not commit suicide (Okay, I believe this one.)

These stories and more are shared ALL THE TIME!

Now, in the age of COVID-19, we have even more stories. I get updates related to Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, the 5G conspiracy, and the propagation of a virus as little more than an excuse to monitor everyone via new technology. Most Christians also add the imbedded chip stories connected to the number of the beast from Scripture. I hear how face masks are not helpful for anything other than in helping AI determine facial recognition better. The six-foot separation was nothing more than an organized strategy devised to allow AI to pick out individuals better. And...I hear the black helicopters now.

The Biggest Problem with Christians and Conspiracies

You know, one of these days we may discover that some of these conspiracy theories are true.

Maybe.  

That's not the point.

What is the point is what I heard Stetzer state on his podcast. The very Christian who shares every single unproven and outrageous story online (or the angry online rants of discredited pastors who garner likes by their pseudo-patriotism disguised as Christianity) then, perhaps on Easter or at Christmas, shares a story about the miraculous resurrection or incarnation of Jesus Christ is viewed not as a propagator of truth, but simply as one sharing another FAKE NEWS story. Well-intentioned believers will not be heard (or read and believed) not due to their insincerity, but due to their inability to discern truth from lies. Why believe the miracle about Christ if the story is coming from someone who claims to have seen Elvis at the Firehouse Subs on Tuesday?

Words matter...and so do shares and "likes" online. Think before you type. Pray before you share. Check your sources. Where did the story originate? Who wrote it? How old is it? Seriously...Madalyn Murray O'Hair has been dead since 1995 so she is not at work to get your favorite Christian radio station off the radio.

If all you share are the trending conspiracies and politically-themed stories of the day...when you do share something of eternal value, your friends and followers will just categorize it as another fake news story to relegate to the online trash heap.

Bearing false witness is not just something done with the lips. It can just as easily be done through a keyboard or by hitting the "share" button.

Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. - Ephesians 4:25 (ESV)


A Shocking Statement About Christian Republicans and Christian Democrats...That Should Not Be

It's a statement that seems so obvious, but comes across as shocking to some. 

I have heard other pastors state it. I read it on a tweet by Derwin Gray a few weeks back. Then, for some reason, as I was completing yesterday's sermon at First Baptist Church of Orange Park at our 10:45am service, I said it. I said this...

 

I have had a number of friends ask what the response was from my sermon. They weren't asking how many worshiped or came to Christ, but were wondering if I hit a nerve and received a slew of angry emails or texts.

There is much to discuss among believers who hold differing political views, especially when it comes to issues that seem clearly biblical. Yet, the point is that brothers and sisters in Christ who vote differently, have more in common with each other than with those who happen to vote the "correct" way (i.e. "the way I vote") yet are unbelievers.

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Of course, the issues that divide political parties are not unimportant. There are valuable debates to be had and votes to be made. Nevertheless, sometimes, we see little more than party affiliation and miss the value of the image-bearer.

This is a solid reminder in an election year where polarization reigns supreme. 

To be clear, this is not a call to abandon biblical convictions or to ignore civic responsibility. I am not calling for the minimization of important issues and values. I just believe we should remember that the image-bearers of God who know God as Father and have surrendered to Jesus as Savior, have a new name...and it's not Republican or Democrat (or Libertarian, Green Party, etc.)

We serve a risen Savior. Jesus Christ is his name. We, as Christians, are first and foremost citizens of this greater Kingdom of God. 

Perspective.

Oh, and so far I have received no angry emails or messages. They may have been intercepted and deleted. Maybe...hopefully...we see this as the truth and are seeking to love God fully, love our neighbors (even our Christian neighbors who just don't seem to vote the way we like) as ourselves, and live fully as Kingdom citizens.


What If the Face Mask Helped You Reach Your Community for Christ?

For years I have heard stories of church splits. Sometimes these are needed divisions in that they are over doctrine. When unbiblical actions occur or false doctrine is espoused from leaders, division seems inevitable. We have seen this recently in evangelical churches related to the definition of marriage and other such things. In fact, my own denomination was launched over a disagreement regarding slave-holders being sent as missionaries. In our case, we were wrong, sinfully wrong on our stance. Thanks be to God for forgiveness and redemption. And, yes, we are still working toward unity and reconciliation as a denomination.

When it comes to local churches splitting, the stories are just as sinful and sad.

Most often the church splits we have heard about or have experienced personally have little to do with doctrine. In fact, a church can divide over just about anything.

There are stories of churches dividing over the color of the carpet, a change in the schedule, the use of hymnbooks versus projecting the songs, and any other number of things. I heard of one that split over the color of shingles put on the roof of the building, even after the fight led to one side having one color shingles and the other having another. 

People will Fight Over Anything

Humanity has always been divided. History is replete with stories of rebellions, divisions, wars, and battles. There are winners, losers, and those who are categorized as collateral damage. In many cases, the battles were needful and right. Even in Scripture we see battles between God's people and the enemies of God. Unrighteousness and sinfulness leads to disunity and individualism. It has always been the case. It always will be this side of eternity.

There are many battles occurring in our nation today. Being an election year, each division is accentuated and more intense than ever. It seems that we check our news feed daily to determine that which we should be angry about now.

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Most recently, face masks have become the issue. I was talking to one of our missionaries in Europe recently and he asked if the issues over masks was truly happening. He found it amazing that people would actually get upset over being asked (or required in some cases) to wear a face mask. I told him it is an issue and seemingly growing.

I fear that generations to come will look back and wonder how churches could be so foolish as to fight over face masks, just as we do now regarding those splits over carpet color. Ridiculous.

Maybe it is the nature of our personal desire for independence and our elevation of individual rights that makes this such an issue?

Maybe it is because people just, by nature, do not like being told what to do?

Maybe it is because people are watching way too much 24-hour news on television or on their streaming apps?

Maybe it is due to the fact that everyone is overwhelmed, stressed, and angry and masks just seem to be the tipping point in this year of pandemic isolation, racial disunity, murder hornets, bubonic plague infested squirrels, cancelled sports, and social distancing?

Maybe. 

Maybe it is something else.

People are sinful. It's the heart of man that is distanced from God and desires to live for self rather than others.

What about when Christians are asked to wear a face mask? What about when those of us who are free in Christ, redeemed, called, saved, and sent, are asked by...you know, the governor, or the corporation, or the superintendent, or the mayor, or...even their pastor, to wear a mask?

One gentleman (I don't know who he is because I was home last Sunday awaiting my COVID-19 test results, but if he reads this, he may send me an email or let me know how much he doesn't appreciate me writing this) told one of our associate pastors last Sunday when asked to put on a mask, "I have Jesus. I don't need a mask!"

Hmmm. I wonder if he put on his seat belt in his car when he drove home?

I am truly thankful this brother has faith. I just do not believe his choice to not not wear a mask from his seat to the exit is evidence of faith. It may be evidence of self-confidence, but that is not faith...at least not faith in God.

Our church began requiring face masks in our services a few weeks back. We are in Florida, so though we are meeting, we are taking extra precautions with distanced seating, face masks, social distancing, sanitizer, etc. The vast majority of people messaged me and told me personally "Thank you!" Some struggled with the requirement and do not like it. They have let me know, too. Let me say clearly that if anyone likes wearing a face mask, they are super weird. No one likes wearing face masks. We don't wear face masks because we like it. We wear them because even if there is just a slight chance they help, it is worth it.

It is not persecution by the government to have to wear face masks. Persecution will likely come one day, but it will not be spearheaded by mask-wearing. When persecution comes, you will know it. Just ask my friends in China.

Missional Masks

Here's my thought about why we should wear face masks during this time. If I were serving as a missionary in a foreign land I would go through language and cultural training. I would learn as much about these image-bearers who live differently than I do. I would adjust in ways that do not compromise my faith in order to engage them in conversation, show that I care, and ultimately share the love of Christ in words and deeds. Why? Because that is what missionaries do. That is what all Christians should do. We have a mission to fulfill the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.

In our nation today, there are the "wear masks" people and the "not wearing masks" people. In my estimation, there are more wearing masks now because they either are afraid or they are trying to be compliant with the requirements of stores and local officials. 

I want to reach these people for Christ.

I want to reach the anti-maskers, too.

I am concerned that if I do not wear a mask I am creating a barrier (virtual, not physical...like a mask) between others and myself. If in my desire to uphold my right to not wear a mask I lose an opportunity to share the gospel, I have lost more than I can imagine. 

To love others more than self is the calling. To love the Lord most of all is the command. 

If me wearing a mask gives me an opportunity, even without saying a word, to express that I care for others...I will wear a mask.

I hope you will, too. 

And if we're not careful, while we, as Christians are over here debating face masks, the world keeps spinning and millions remain unengaged with the gospel. You cannot "go tell" if you're home arguing over the unimportant.

(Seriously - this is not the time to debate the intricacies of N95 versus homemade masks that look like they used to be T-shirts. If that's the argument now, the point is missed.)


A Good Reminder About Frustration, Anger, Our Need to Control, and Relationships From...Superman?

When I was a child, I began reading and collecting comic books. Back then, it was a trip to the local 7-Eleven and time spent perusing the spinner rack to find three comic books I could get with my dollar. (I was really bummed when they bumped the prices up to thirty-five cents.)

Back then I was collecting the basics like Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, The X-Men, and the Justice League. Over time, I expanded my preferences and began getting any and every book that had an incredible cover, a known character, or a tie-in to a film, television show, or even the most recent toys my parents bought me. My budget soon suffered from my spending.

Eventually, I just put all the books in a box and stopped collecting. A few years back, I met Jonathan Bates, owner of Altered Egos Comics and Games here in my town and we began to talk about the stories presented in these books and how they have captured so many fans over the years. We began hosting a monthly discussion group called CHAT (Costumed Heroes and Theology.) It's a diverse group where a few of us are Christians, Jonathan and others are not, and others may have differing views on religion and faith. One of the reasons we started this is covered in a previous post from 2017 here.

Jonathan and I discussed CHAT recently on my podcast. This is available below.

Last Sunday, during our monthly meeting called CHAT (Costumed Heroes and Theology) I brought up something I read recently in a Superman comic. Yes, since beginning our monthly conversations on how these fictional heroes and stories often have deeper meanings and even theological undertones, I began reading some Superman comics again. It’s a quick read between my books on doctrine, church leadership, biographies, and current issues.

The Hero Who Can Do Everything

Over the past few decades the hero in red and blue tights with the long red cape has gone through many changes. Created in 1938 by two young Jewish men in Cleveland, Ohio named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman was the hero that young people wanted and needed. The All-American hero in the era of the Great Depression and the onset of the Nazi threat in Europe, Superman was good, right, strong, and as we know, fought for “truth, justice, and the American way.”

Even when superhero comics were fading out and such books were deemed dangerous and a waste of time by those in authority, Superman prevailed. He became the all-powerful Boy Scout with radio shows, movie serials, and even the popular television show starring George Reeves. I remember seeing him appear on an “I Love Lucy” rerun. Superman was everywhere. He was the good guy.

He could do anything.

As the years passed, the writing of the stories became even more outrageous and Superman’s powers were off the chain. Beyond stopping bullets, and leaping over tall buildings (eventually turned into flight) Supes could do things like shoot miniature versions of himself out of his hands to fight bad guys, he could use “super-________” (just fill-in-the-blank) to do whatever the writers needed done in just a few comic panels to bring the story to a conclusion.

His books were campy, corny, and fun. They weren’t realistic (or even realistic-ish considering he was an alien who was indestructible, kryptonite notwithstanding.)

After decades of stories, shows, and films, DC Comics rebooted the hero in 1986 under the creative writing and art of John Byrne. Superman was more “humanized” in these stories.

Reboots have happened multiple times since. All done to make the oldest and most familiar comic book hero more human. He is fictional and changeable based on the whims of DC’s editors and writers. He is make-believe, but still very popular in pop culture.

Even Superman Needs Counseling

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DC Comics: Superman #23

With all that history, we now have a Superman in the comics world written by Brian Michael Bendis, creator of the Miles Morales Spider-Man character featured in Marvel Comics and in the recent “Spider--Man: Into the Spider-Verse” film. Bendis is considered by many to be one of the best and most sought after writers of comic fiction today.

He, not unlike John Byrne in the 1980s, rebooted Superman to a degree. He has done so not by starting over with the character, but by placing him in storylines that resonate with readers because…well, even with all the fantasy and sci-fi, seem so human and realistic. (I know, a flying man from Krypton being realistic is a stretch, but I hope you get my point.)

In this iteration of the Man of Steel, Clark Kent (Superman) is married to Lois Lane. They have a son named Jonathan Samuel Kent (named after Clark's earthly dad, Jonathan Kent.) Superman has also revealed to the world that he is Clark Kent, which has put his writing awards with the Daily Planet under scrutiny. One other thing – his Kryptonian father, Jor-El is still alive. And…he’s not a very good guy. Jor-El convinces Clark and Lois to allow him to take young Jonathan, who is a pre-teen, on a journey into space to teach him about his heritage. It’s a weekend adventure with granddad, and Jonathan is pumped.

The thing is, in comic books and sci-fi, rules of time and space get mixed up and after some adventures that only lasted a few days for the Kents in Metropolis, Jor-El returns with Jonathan who has now aged about eight years. In other words, mom and dad have missed the formative years of their son who is now an adult.

When Superman Can’t Fix Things

Here’s the story that is unlike anything I read as a kid. While there is an alien monster being who shows up to fight Superman, the entire issue is ultimately a counseling session featuring Superman and another character named Dr. Fate.

In this, the Man of Steel expresses his anger, his frustration, and his deeply held father wound. He is angry that he has lost these most important years with his son. He is angry he cannot do anything to get them back (Don’t even bring up flying around the world backward to turn back time like Christopher Reeve did. That’s not an option here.)

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DC Comics: Superman #23

I know it’s just a story. It’s a fictional story. It’s a fictional story in a comic book about an overly-muscled guy who flies while wearing his underwear on the outside of his pants. I know.

But…there’s something here that I’ve seen before.

There’s something here that I have faced in others, and to a degree in my own heart.

In a culture that elevates and celebrates the self-made man and woman, that idolizes those who can get things done, who are not shaken by circumstances, the fact remains…there are more things out of our control than within our control.

Sometimes it seems that nobody understands.

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DC Comics: Superman #23

Perhaps Bendis is venting through Clark Kent? I don’t know. What I do know is that many men face wounds from their earthly fathers, even good, godly earthly fathers. These are real and only the Heavenly Father can bring that healing.

I also know many who, when faced with the uncertainty and the craziness of the world that is out of their control, seem to break. It may be in outbursts at home, maybe towards one’s spouse or children. At times, it’s the seeking for answers in places where they will never be found.

Comic books, not unlike other literature, can sometimes reveal an uncover some very human realities, even when featuring fantastic and out-of-this-world characters.

When Superman says “I can move the moon…but I seem to have somehow lost complete control of my life,” the reader says “I can relate, well not the moon part, but the control part.”

Superman moon
DC Comics: Superman #23

This is a solid reminder to me that identity is key. I am not what I can do. I am not what I can control. I am not what I can think. I am an image-bearer of God and I am truly incapable and unworthy of anything.

That is who I am, but my identity is secure because though I am not so many things, I know I AM.

As crazy as it seems, even a story about the fictional Superman can help us realize some of the realities of own humanity and our need for a Savior.

 

________________

Bendis, Brian Michael. Superman Issue 23. Burbank, CA: DC Comics, 2020.


Don't Waste This Pandemic - Lead with Clarity In the Midst of Uncertainty

Years ago John Piper, prior to having surgery for his cancer, wrote a short message titled "Don't Waste Your Cancer." This is available online with the following description:

On the eve of his own cancer surgery, John Piper writes about cancer as an opportunity to glorify God. With pastoral sensitivity, compassion, and strength, Piper gently but firmly acknowledges that we can indeed waste our cancer when we don’t see how it is God’s good plan for us and a hope-filled path for making much of Jesus. (available at desiringgod.org here.

It's a worthy read, especially for those struggling with cancer or other health issues. 

The principle espoused by Piper is transferable to other areas of life where uncertainty lies ahead.

Recently, Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Church in Alpharetta, Georgia was interviewed by Ed Stetzer and Daniel Yang on the Stetzer Leadership Podcast (listen here) about his decision to not restart in-person worship services at North Point until January 2021 at the earliest. Stanley's reasonings were clear and articulated well and whether others agree with Stanley on areas of organization, leadership, doctrine, or church polity, his explanation regarding their decision as a church continues to be discussed by many in pastoral leadership throughout the nation.

Don't Waste This Pandemic

Much like Piper's "Don't waste your cancer" statement, this one has been resonating since I heard Andy say this, "A pandemic is a terrible thing to waste."

When Andy said that, it was in the context of the church seeking God's lead in ministering well and leading well while serving those who are the church during these difficult and uncertain times. In other words, it would be tragic for pastors and leaders to simply sit on their hands awaiting the return of "normal" so that programming, ministry events, and all our go-to traditions of church gatherings could restart. He wasn't being condescending, and he knows that pastors simply aren't sitting at home waiting, but his point was clear. There is much to be done now.

What if this is the new normal?

That's not a statement of gloom and doom. I am fully confident in God's sovereignty over circumstances and all that occurs. It's not a fear versus faith issue, but is a question of discipleship. At least that is my view.

I am no prophet, but even if we get a vaccine for COVID-19... and even if the majority of people take the vaccine... and even if it works, I believe we will continue to see people wearing masks in public. I believe parents will still be more cautious where they send or take their children than prior. I don't think it will be a never-ending shutdown, but the impact of all that we are facing this year will have long-term effects.

So, what about the church seeking to be faithful, serve well, make disciples, and live missionally?

There are varied responses from pastors and church members regarding this. Even if you ignore the asinine battles taking place between the pro-mask and the anti-mask Christians (BTW - our grandchildren will look back at our divide over masks and laugh the same way we look back at previous generations who split churches over the color of the carpet or the use of hymnbooks versus projecting lyrics on a screen) there are legitimate concerns from pastors seeking to shepherd well and lead biblically. Why? Because these are uncertain times.

Another "Stanleyism" that he presented helps.

"People want clarity. Clarity in the midst of uncertainty is the name of the game and this is a great time for church leaders to provide clarity."

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It seems that just about every other aspect of public life that impacts our community is, if not failing, struggling greatly, to provide clarity. School boards and superintendents are on the clock now as public schools are seeking to restart. Governors and state leaders have become memes and soundbite feeds as messages fluctuate from day to day. Even athletic associations, especially those which determine rules, start dates, etc. for public junior highs and high schools are now top news as they wrestle with whether or not to allow games in their state. In just about every case, the challenge teeters between public health and economic stability. I will not get into all that here, for there are many others who are offering their opinions on such.

What is needed from leaders is clarity. As one coach stated in an athletic association meeting "Someone please make a decision. Just tell us what we're doing!"

Our church is not suspending in-person worship services at this time. Hopefully, we will not have to do so. We began meeting again in-person a few weeks back, with social distancing regulations in place and required face masks for all in attendance. We continue to offer online streaming of our services as well. Our challenge now is to focus less on the Sunday preparation and more on the intentional, strategic, discipleship of all in our church, even those who cannot or will attend in person now, as well as evangelistic engagement in our community.

Our fall schedule is written in pencil (actually, it's on a white board, but you get the point–it's erasable.) We are surveying our church members with children, and based on what we see now and where we believe God is leading, we will definitely NOT be restarting children's and preschool groups soon. Our mid-week schedule is likely to be shelved until 2021. That could change. We're flexible. You have to be. Yet, we want to be able to offer clarity, direction, and updates that do not change weekly. That is not easy, but it is our goal.

Perhaps your church is not meeting in-person yet. That may very well be the best for your church and community. 

Maybe you are offering some in-person gatherings, or plan to begin to do so. For a perspective from a church doing so, listen to Stetzer and Yang's interview with the leaders of Calvary Chapel in California. While their plans are mega-church sized, the principles based on implementation are transferable to churches of all sizes.

If you are the pastor of your church, remember that your church is looking to you for direction and leadership. You won't get everything right during this pandemic. Don't worry, you weren't getting everything right prior to it either (none of us were.) I am praying for you and trusting God that in these days of uncertainty, knowing that he always offers clarity, we will be discerning and trusting. Lead well.


Systemic Racism Within the Church - Listen. Learn. Then, Do Something.

We are blessed in our church to have leaders on staff and godly lay-leaders of impeccable integrity. Our church in Orange Park, Florida (First Baptist Church - FBCOP, near Jacksonville) is a predominantly white, Anglo one. We have existed in this community for over ninety-nine years. In that time, there are undoubtedly chapters in our history that are well left in our rear-view mirror. Yet, for every challenge and soiled chapter, God's grace has proven sufficient. For his glory alone, his church in Orange Park remains. I pray that as we look to celebrate our one-hundred year anniversary next spring, we will trust God for the days ahead so that those who are yet to be part of our fellowship will follow God wholeheartedly, lead selflessly, and impact our community and world missionally. 

Every generation of believers in our church has been faced with challenges and difficulties. Some are negative and sinful issues developed outside the church walls that sadly crept within. Others were of our own making. The sinful nature of those in the building sometimes superseded the calling and ministry of God's church. I addressed one such scar and evil era in a post last year. You can read it here.

Racism Within the Church

Much has been said recently regarding racial issues in our nation. Sadly, some of my older pastor friends state that it feels like they're living through the late 1960s all over again. I lament that it seems we should be further along than we actually are.

When it comes to what is termed systemic racism, there are many "hot takes" on the subject. Many of these are shared on social media and sent via email or text to friends and acquaintances. Some would say that even speaking on the subject of social justice would categorize an individual as a Marxist, and therefore in the current "cancel culture" lead to an elimination of any dialogue. 

This is not only outside the church, but within evangelical (and especially Southern Baptist) corners.

Racial Diversity Within the Church

I celebrate the reality that our church is no longer homogenous when it comes to race. It hasn't been since years prior to my arrival in 1994, but this church existed for decades when segregation was the law, so I'm sure there are stories - sad, embarrassing, sinful stories. Nevertheless, the reality is that we are, in the words of a dear friend, still "very white." I'm not apologizing for that fact because those who call our church home have been called by God to join and are covenant members. However, I do recognize God's calling to be missional and strategic in actually reaching those who live in our neighborhood and community (not just those who lived here thirty years ago.) Over the past few decades our community has shifted demographically and while some churches such as ours would seek to relocate to a newer community (basically a version of church-based "white flight") I am actually seeking God's lead in reaching our neighbors of diverse ethnic backgrounds where we live while simultaneously starting new churches in numerous other areas at the same time.

This means our church demography will change. Our leadership makeup will change. To be a multi-ethnic church (or as I like to call it, a biblical church) we must recognize that simply left to our own comfort levels and historical methods, we will never be the church God has been and continues to call us to be.

Addressing Systemic Racism Within the Church

Now, for the part of the article that will either gain me more followers and friends or lead me to be blocked online by others...

I do not back down when it comes to calling out racism. I never have. Yet, in this case, I believe it best to hear from someone else–from a friend, a sister in Christ, and a Christian leader.

Selena and Patrick Hayle have been members of FBCOP since 1997. I began serving on pastoral staff as youth pastor in 1994, later as Lead Pastor in 2005.

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Patrick & Selena Hayle

Patrick currently serves as the Executive Director and CEO of Mercy Support Services, a non-profit focused on helping offer a hand up to the unemployed, homeless, and downtrodden in our community. Patrick also serves as our Pastor of Mercy Ministries here at the church.

Selena Hayle has served for years in various rescue missions and other ministries. She currently serves as the Southeast Regional Coordinator for the Citygate Network which exists to to provide the envisioning, education, training, resources, guidance, representation, and nexus for missions and kindred ministries that are striving to move people in destitute conditions or desperate situations from human suffering to human flourishing through the process of gospel-powered life transformation.

Recently, John Ashmen, President of Citygate, asked black members of the Citygate Network staff to respond to questions that white people often ask as it relates to racism and other issues.  Ashmen presented these questions and responses in an email to supporters and I received permission from Selena Hayle to share her portion.

QUESTION:

"What does systemic racism look like, and specifically, how are you affected by it during a normal day in 2020?"

ANSWER BY SELENA HAYLE:

One of the things that God has done is to use my husband and me to integrate white churches in the South. After we encountered many episodes of racism in New York, we moved to Atlanta in 1991 and continued to share our lives with blacks and whites there. In many cases, we were the only blacks at events we attended, the communities we lived in, and in the places we dined. Some of the racism we experienced looks the same today as it did decades ago: Christians in the churches would sit on the opposite side of where we sat. People would be very sweet and appear welcoming at church but would ignore us in the supermarket or in the post office the following week.

Systemic racism means that people will look at your résumé and see your experience and call you, excited to schedule an interview. But when you get there and they see your skin color, the job is suddenly no longer available, or the process is explained to be longer and more complex than you were originally led to believe.

As a black CEO, systemic racism means that some white people will pass you in the office and ask the first white person they see to direct them to the CEO—whom they expected to be white. Systemic racism also suggests that as a black CEO you should make less than your white peers simply because of the color of your skin.

Having survived 37 years in America as a born-again believer, I must say that things for me have changed. I don’t judge people’s racist behavior anymore, but I continue to have open discussions with both blacks and whites, even when I notice evidence or even hints of racism. I continue to share with my bi-racial grandchildren that not everyone sees their blended cultures as a positive thing. When I’m out with my white relatives and friends, we sometimes have a wakeup call that we’re not all equal in the eyes of our neighbors.

My black family and friends have to face the racist ordeals when they come to visit. But I’ve learned that the only way to love my neighbor as myself is to love God first! We need to be focused on who we are in Christ and making sure that the world sees who we are now, rather than who we used to be.

Listen. Learn. Then, Do Something.

I am thankful God has placed Patrick and Selena Hayle and their family in my life. I am blessed to be their friend and pastor. In Selena's concise response presented in this post, I am also educated in ways that I otherwise would not be. 

As the church (not just our local expression of church) moves through these days, we must be more than open to listen. In fact, there are times when things within the church must shut down so that vital issues may be addressed. With COVID-19, we have not had to plan a shut down. It has been planned for us (and I'm not speaking of the government doing this, but God doing this.) 

In the New Testament, there are two times when the church leaders said "Stop! We need to address this issue right now. Everything is on pause until this is addressed. We cannot just keep going and hope this works itself out." (Okay - that's my paraphrase, but you get the point.) The two times are in Acts 6 and Acts 15 and both cases are about ethnic tension. 

So...racial reconciliation and racial unity are not outliers, but part of what it means to be one as believers. 

Conversations among image-bearers on differing viewpoints of racial issues cannot be done if everyone conversing is of the same race and cultural background. Therefore, we must continue having conversations, but also must begin (or continue) breaking down whatever has been built that, even unintentionally, elevates one image-bearer over another or denigrates one under another simply due to skin color, heart language, or cultural heritage.

We are one in the bond of love and that love is the unconditional love found only in Christ. 


Yes, We're Requiring Face Masks for In-Person Services ... And We Know Not Everyone Will Be Happy

Due to the recent upticks in COVID-19 cases, the City of Jacksonville, Florida (COJ) enacted an Executive Order for face masks to be worn in public indoor spaces. The mask issue has been one of the most debated this year (and that is saying much based on everything else that people are angry about in 2020.) The church I pastor is located in Orange Park, Florida. Orange Park is a suburb of Jacksonville. We are not in the city limits (or Duval County limits) and are not required to comply with the COJ's mandate.

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Based on this decision and subsequent ones encouraging masks in our county and other regions in northeast Florida, we will be requiring masks for those ages six and older attending in-person worship services on Sunday. Once people are seated and are distanced from others outside their household, the masks may be removed if necessary. However, we do recommend wearing them while singing (which, of course is a challenge, but the concern is the spread produced from singing.) We do desire that attendees sing. Actually, we have desired this for decades, but that is another story.

Just so you know, I have heard the concerns and see the online comments. Here are my responses to a few of the most common statements:

  • "We are not in Duval County and therefore, the City of Jacksonville rulings do not apply to us." - That is true. Yet, we do have members who live in Jacksonville. We also know that often the decisions made in Jacksonville impact the subsequent ones made in our county. So...we're just ahead of the game a bit.
  • "Face masks do not help." - I've heard this. You've heard this. Some have said this. Maybe they do help, maybe they do not. I am pretty confident they do not harm, so that is pretty important here (Yes, I've heard some who postulate that they are breathing in too much carbon dioxide and other concerns, too, but overall it seems that those in the medical profession are not discouraging the wearing of masks.)
  • "It's all political. There's no real issue. It's all overblown." - I've heard all this as well. It's an election year so everything is political. While I cannot speak on the details of the virus and/or the spread, I know there are as many opinions on this as there are cable news, online news, and other outlets giving insight and information. I have learned over the years that every side has an "expert" and sometimes what is presented as news is simply entertainment (entertainment designed to keep angry people angry and frustrated people frustrated which leads to more hits online, more viewers, and more return readers.) So...while there may be a conspiracy at work and one day when we get to heaven we can ask that (we won't because we won't care) for today...we're asking you to wear masks.
  • "Wearing a mask is showing a lack of faith or trust in God." - Believe me, way too many people lack faith. Yet, to wear a face mask, from my perspective, does not reveal a lack of faith. From a missional perspective, I see it as showing care for others and seeking to not shut down opportunities for true, gospel conversations. As for showing a lack of trust in God, I ask "Do you wear seatbelts in your car?" You likely do (and should) not only because it is the law, but because it is the smart thing to do. When first required by law, it was hard to get used to wearing seat belts every time I entered a car. Over time, it became second-nature and now if someone is in my car, I make them wear their seat belt before beginning our journey. Why? Because I want them to arrive safely or to be safe in case there is an accident. We have been told (yeah...I know, can we trust who is telling us? I hope so.) to wear masks because it may keep someone else from getting sick. So, we ask you to wear them for your sake, but also for others. It's a practical way to show that you actually take seriously the second portion of the Great Commandment. At least it won't eliminate a conversation about Christ and his love for others and how we as Christians love as well. 
  • "Other churches aren't requiring masks." - That's the joy of autonomy. Nevertheless, since churches tend to watch what others are doing, some who have not required masks will see that we and others are and begin to do so. And, there will be some who will continue to not require masks, not encourage masks, and will do as they choose. I pray that we do not see massive outbreaks in local churches, especially where unwise risks are being taken under the guise of faith. Sadly, poor choices by some impact all (and this has been the case for centuries in the church, so not just relegated to pandemic responses.)
  • "It's hard to breathe when I wear a mask." - I know. Sorry.
  • "My glasses fog up when I war a mask." - Mine too. I hate that. Sorry.
  • "Everything smells like my breath." - Yep. Gross. Chew gum or get a mint.
  • "Being told to wear this is like persecution." - Nope. It's not like persecution. It's like wearing a mask.

I don't intend to anger anyone or upset you, but as your pastor, I ask you to please comply with this request if you attend in-person services. Believe me, based on the comments I have received, your fellow church members will and do appreciate it. 

If you have medical reasons why you cannot wear a mask for long periods or find yourself feeling constricted or unable to breathe, then when you get to your seat, safely distanced from others, remove it. Or, just don't put yourself in the position to be angry, frustrated, or disappointed that you are being asked to wear it. Stay home. Be safe. Join us online at 11am for our livestream of the worship service on either our YouTube or Facebook pages (links at firstfam.org.)

I believe having to wear masks will be temporary.

I pray it is.

You know why?

Because I don't like wearing a face mask...but I will for your sake.


Persons of Color Do Not Need a "Seat at the Table." Rather, We All Need a New Table.

The term "seat at the table" is often used in corporate America as well as in non-profits, denominational entities, and churches. The "table" is often seen as the place where those who have influence and power make decisions that impact the organization. The table has become a symbol of power, creditability, and insight. In other words, when one is offered a seat, it is seen as an invitation to be heard and make a difference. That's not bad, actually.

I know we now live in the "cancel culture" where many things are now being challenged, deleted, and removed that for many people have not been viewed as historically offensive or wrong. Yet, just because a majority does not view something as hurtful or offensive does not mean it is not. Regarding the proverbial "table" I do not view this necessarily as an item to be cancelled, but I do believe our focus on words matter and for true gospel reconciliation to occur between people of different backgrounds, cultures, and skin tones, things that may seem as minor by many must change.

The Invitation to the "Table"

For the most part, my denomination remains very white (Southern Baptist Convention,) but I do believe we are making strides to be not just inclusive, but to see reconciliation and biblical healing occur as we strategically seek to eliminate the reality that "11am Sunday worship hour is the most segregated hour in America."1

I know we have very far to go to see this happen, but many in the local churches are taking the needful, gospel-centric, biblical steps.

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Photo credit: BI Watercooler on VisualHunt / CC BY

I have been in religious and denominational meetings involving many fellow pastors and ministry leaders in our city and state over the years. In a number of these gatherings, the discussion has arisen from well-intentioned brothers, regarding the inclusion of non-white pastors and predominantly non-white churches in our city and network. The statement "We need them to know they have a place at the table" or one like it has been stated by many.

Again...well intentioned, but even years ago when I first heard this, I cringed. I wasn't sure exactly why I did not like the phrase, but it just did not set well.

The "Kids' Table"

It hit me as I was reminiscing with family about our Christmas gatherings years ago. My parents, brother, and I would travel back to western Tennessee to spend the holiday with my grandparents. One side of the family would gather on Christmas Eve for a great, country dinner followed by the opening of gifts. On Christmas Day, we would travel over to my other grandparents' home for lunch with family, followed by more gifts.

The gatherings were fun, but as a child, it always seemed that the adults took way too long to eat. Then...they had to wash all the dishes (and there was no dishwasher other than grandma and those she allowed to help.) Not unlike many families who have had such gatherings, the adults would gather in the dining room around the table for dinner or lunch while the children would be in the kitchen at the smaller table. This was the kids' table. The food was the same (but the plates were not the "good ones.") The discussions around the kids' table were much different than around the adult table. I longed to get to the age when I could finally sit at the adult table. Looking back, in order for that to happen, someone either had to die, not attend, or give up their seat for me. I never thought of that at the time, but the house wasn't big, there were no more extensions to be put in the table, and there were no extra seats available. 

I eventually made it to the adult table (there were some deaths and others who could not attend.) The anticipation was high but the actual result was...meh! I was a teenager and I soon discovered that the conversations among the adults were not as interesting (or understandable) as I had thought. But...I had arrived. I WAS AT THE ADULT TABLE!

I was only allowed to sit at the adult table once the invitation was given and even though I had a seat, was loved by all who sat at the table with me (as well as those still at the smaller table,) it was never my table. In fact, I was still young, more of a smart aleck than smart, and not really able to engage in discussions of politics, local events, global events, etc. I was able to talk some about college basketball, but even that was limited.

There is nothing wrong at all with the "adult table" and the "kids' table" at family gatherings like this. Yet, when we (the collective "we" meaning those who are the majority, have been given a voice in an organization, have a bit of influence, and may be serving in leadership positions) state that persons of color (or any identified minority population) is invited and can have a "seat at the table" it just sounds a bit ... well ... insulting.  

Maybe? Maybe not. 

It could just be me.

The intentional and needed avoidance of "tokenism" keeps me from using the phrase today. I would not want to feel that I have a "seat at the table" as simply some form of diversity maneuver designed to allow an organization to either consciously or subconsciously say "See, we're diverse. We have a black/brown/Asian/Hispanic/etc. person at the table."

A New Table

Now, I will propose something that I have absolutely no idea how to accomplish. Whether it is in a local church, on a denominational board or committee, or in a non-profit or even corporate/for-profit organization, it seems that just inviting persons of color to the table is not enough. It seems what we need is a new table. 

We know that the table we speak of is not a literal one. Nevertheless, the structure within an organization always has teams and individuals who are visionaries, leaders, organizers, planners, implementers, and influencers. It is in these positions we (again, the collective we) must seek and be intentional to place, invite, and be willing to share space with others who can move the organization forward. In the church it is to lead the church to be and remain gospel-centered, missional, and focused on showing Christ well to the community while simultaneously living life together as His church. 

Again, I'm not sure how this happens, but I know just inviting my brothers who have an increased amount of melanin in their skin to come sit at my table is not enough. Maybe that is the problem - even in that sentence I defined it as my table.

I believe that together, we must create "new tables." 

Again, I do not know how to do this, but acknowledging the need is the first step.

Now, I need to go spend some time in prayer and journaling and then have some conversations with others to hopefully discover what the next steps may be.

 

_____________

This statement has most often been attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He definitely said this and added the word "still" between the words "is" and "the." According to news archives, Dr. Billy Graham said this very statement as well. In fact, in 1953, Dr. Kenneth Miller, Executive Secretary of the New York Mission Society at a conference. It seems that all these men made this declaration, but they were not the first. Sadly, the reality has been such for years and now, even in 2020, it appears to remain in many regions. (Quote verified here.)


White Church/Black Church – Rich Church/Poor Church – Suburban Church/Urban Church – Our Church/Their Church..."Lord, Where Is YOUR Church?"

During the early part of the 2000s, it seems that more and more independently funded "Christian" films were being released in theaters and direct to DVD. Some of these films featured Hollywood stars (yet mostly actors who were not A-listers or who had made their name decades earlier) or unknown actors looking to break into the industry. Some featured actors from local churches and friends of the producers.

Many of the films were produced on shoestring budgets and were as much a labor of love of the creators as an attempt to make a profit.

I enjoy many of these films. It's refreshing to be able to watch a positive, faith-friendly film with family members. Of course, some films are better than others and some...well, at least they were trying to do well.

In 2006, I watched a film starring a popular artist in Christian music. To be honest, our church staff was planning to go on a weeklong retreat and I needed to find something to fill the Wednesday evening adult gathering at church since all staff would be gone. My regular lay-Bible teachers were already committed, so I went the easy way and found a new film to show at the church. I even purchased the license to ensure we we legal.

This film is titled "The Second Chance" and it stars Michael W. Smith (yes, that Michael W. Smith of "Friends are friends forever" fame.) The film was produced by Steve Taylor (yes, that Steve Taylor of "I Want to Be a Clone" fame.) If the names Michael W. Smith and Steve Taylor don't ring a bell for you, then you were not a youth pastor in the 1990s, or you didn't listen to every CCM artist of the day when the music genre was growing in popularity.

"The Second Chance" Went Where Other Christian Films Would Not

I wasn't sure what to expect, but let me say that this film was not exactly like the other "faith-based" movies of the era. In fact, I can't remember any other Christian film rated PG-13 that was marketed to churches (probably because one of the pastors says "damn.") I don't count the R-rated "The Passion of the Christ" in the same genre. 

The second chanceOn IMDb.com, the following synopsis of the film is given by user Tracey Zemitis:

Ethan Jenkins (Michael W. Smith) and Jake Sanders (introducing Jeff Obafemi Carr) are both passionate pastors who worship the same God from the same book--but that's where the similarity ends. White and well-to-do Ethan is comfortable in his music ministry at the media-savvy suburban mega-church, The Rock; Jake is a street smart African-American who ministers to the gang members, teen mothers, and drug addicts of the urban Second Chance. When they are suddenly thrown together in a tough neighborhood and forced to work side by side, Ethan discovers there is no boundary between the streets and the sanctuary. But can the faith these two men share overcome the prejudices that divide them to give themselves and a struggling urban church a second chance?

The film is now fourteen years old. Most people I know have never seen it. Those who have may not remember much about it. Yet, this morning, one of the most pivotal scenes of the film came back to my mind. I have a copy of the film and I looked up that scene. The writers (Steve Taylor, Henry O. Arnold, and Ben Pearson) took a risk of potentially upsetting the very audience who would purchase the DVDs and watch the film. I think it was a needed risk. If you have ever listened to Steve Taylor's songs or heard him interviewed, you know that he is not one to shy away from risky endeavors for the sake of the speaking plainly to the church. The message in the film is clear and sadly, I am not sure the evangelical churches in America are much further along from what is depicted here.

Here is the scene. Let me set this up. Michael W. Smith is the prodigal son of a suburban mega-church pastor who is trying to rehab his image. He's a Christian singer (not too much of a stretch for Smitty) who is instructed by the church elders to serve at the pastor's first church, and current sponsored mission in the 'hood (as it is described.) The pastor of the church located in the inner city is African-American and once a year is invited as a guest to the megachurch for the fund-raising day where money is pledged by church members to keep the inner-city church open. This scene takes place on that Sunday. Knowing this...the scene is self-explanatory.

According to JustWatch, the film is not streaming anywhere at this time, though it may be available on YouTube. 

The Lord's Church

As with most films like this there is a somewhat happy ending, though it is not sugar-coated and simple as many "Christian" films show. I am left with the questions regarding what we are facing in our city, community, and nation now. As evangelical Christians, we must seek to live and be the Lord's church, commissioned as he has called us, living as missionaries in our communities and neighboring ones. Throwing money at a mission (or a cause) is not the answer and is no substitute for living our faith. 

I have no easy 1-2-3 steps for the church, but I know that which is illustrated in this film is not fiction–though I wish it were. 

We must do better.


Juneteenth - A Holiday Many Americans Will Hear About for the First Time Today

I have a prediction.

With all that has been happening related to racial issues in our nation over the past month, especially, it will not be long before Juneteenth is a recognized national holiday.

Currently, the day is recognized in forty-nine states, but rarely is mentioned and most employees do not get the day off.

It was a few years ago that I began posting on our church social media pages about Juneteenth every June. For our predominantly white community and church membership, this holiday is one often not spoken of, and more often than not, not even known about.

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It could be said that many of our children are not taught about the holiday because it occurs in the summer and not during the school year, but there are other holidays in the summer and most Americans are fully aware of them. Of course Independence Day should be known by all, but I imagine more Americans have heard of Flag Day than Juneteenth.

I first heard of Juneteenth when I was a high school student in Texas. Sadly, that means for the first sixteen years of my life, I had never known of it.

What Is Juneteenth?

It has been called "Freedom Day" and the "Black Fourth of July." This day, as explained on the website juneteenth.com commemorates the following:

Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States.  Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19th that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. Note that this was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation - which had become official January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on the Texans due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new Executive Order. However, with the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance.

It is hard to imagine that black men, women, and children remained slaves in south Texas for over two years following the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet, when you study our American history, this should not be surprising.

Initially, the celebrations of Juneteenth grew and became annual events. These celebrations had little or no impact among the non-black communities. In fact, there was hostility from some toward the former slaves and their children for even desiring to celebrate.

Over time, interest in the annual celebrations waned. The decline is described here:

Economic and cultural forces led to a decline in Juneteenth activities and participants beginning in the early 1900’s. Classroom and textbook education in lieu of traditional home and family-taught practices stifled the interest of the youth due to less emphasis and detail on the lives of former slaves.Classroom textbooks proclaimed Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 as the date signaling the ending of slavery - and mentioned little or nothing of the impact of General Granger’s arrival on June 19th.

The Depression forced many people off the farms and into the cities to find work. In these urban environments, employers were less eager to grant leaves to celebrate this date. Thus, unless June 19th fell on a weekend or holiday, there were very few participants available. July 4th was already the established Independence holiday and a rise in patriotism steered more toward this celebration. (juneteenth.com)

During the rise of the Civil Rights Movements of the 1950s and 1960s, Juneteenth grew in popularity once more. In 1980, the day became an official Texas state holiday. Since then, many other states have designated the holiday.

June 19, 2020 is Juneteenth and I believe many will be celebrating. Perhaps more this year than in the past. Hopefully we will soon see Juneteenth as a national celebration of freedom, simultaneously reminding us of our sins of the past (repentance and lamentation are good and healthy,) and also of the move toward truly recognizing as a special day in July reminds us that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.


"The Gathering Storm" by Albert Mohler - Book Review

Dr. Albert Mohler has become one of the best-known Christian leaders in the United States over recent years. As president of The Southern Baptist Seminary (SBTS) he has a particular platform in evangelicalism that offers him opportunities to speak and respond to the many issues impacting the world today from a viewpoint described by Mohler and others as a "biblical worldview." 

I, for one, have appreciated his input on numerous cultural issues, especially over the past decade and a half, as seismic shifts in cultural norms and the now-termed "moral revolution" has sought to change the landscape of our understanding of right and wrong.

In addition to serving as the president of SBTS, Dr. Mohler has a prolific speaking schedule, as he is sought by many to fill pulpits and speak at conferences and special events. He is the host of two podcasts–"The Briefing" and "Thinking in Public." He is also the author of numerous books and this article focuses on his latest published by Thomas Nelson Publishers titled The Gathering Storm: Secularism, Culture, and the Church.

Mohler book
Image from https://www.thomasnelson.com/p/the-gathering-storm/

Churchillian Title

One of Dr. Mohler's favorite figures of history (known to anyone who regularly listens to his podcasts or has visited his personal library) is Sir Winston Churchill. The British Prime Minister, known for his solid and tenacious leadership of the United Kingdom during World War II, wrote the first of his six-volume series on the Second World War covering the growing threat of Nazi Germany. Churchill used the title The Gathering Storm for this volume. Mohler credits Churchill's book title as the reason he chose his book's title.

As the threat of Nazism was growing in Europe, many in the UK and elsewhere minimized Hitler's potential impact and most saw Germany's revival as something that would remain within the German borders, not impacting the neighboring nations, much less the world. Churchill, on the other hand, was a voice crying out for others to take note of the growing threat. When it became clear that Hitler and his powerful Third Reich was bent on European (and eventual global) domination, Churchill seemed prophetic as one who had warned of the storm.

In the same way, Dr. Mohler speaks in this new work of the growing and present threat of secularism to the culture and to the church. This is not a cry heretofore unmade. Dr. Mohler, as well as others, have been speaking of these threats for decades. Not unlike many in the UK who heard but ignored Churchill's warnings, sadly it seems that many Christians have either willingly or unintentionally been ignoring the warnings of secularism to such a degree that now the storm is not simply something that may impact us, it is clear that landfall has occurred.

For those, like me, who live in Florida, hurricane preparedness is a way of life. Floridians have different seasons than other regions in the nation. We have spring, summer, football, and hurricane seasons. When hurricane season begins, we begin to watch our local meteorologists more intently as they share of new storms forming off the west coast of Africa. We know those storms often build up, begin spinning with more intensity, and at times, move from tropical depression to tropical storm to hurricane with eventual impact somewhere in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, or the southeastern coast of the US. The "cone of concern" is developed and we watch daily wondering if we will be impacted personally. Watching the daily hurricane updates is like watching a turtle run a race. It's slow and plodding and uncertain...until it isn't.

Hurricane Warnings

Living in a state where hurricanes are part of our annual schedules, there are often times where warnings are given, but ignored by many. It is akin to the ignoring the flight attendants in commercial flights as they give instructions regarding how to wear the seatbelt, put on oxygen masks, and emergency exit rules. Since most who have flown numerous times have never experienced an in-flight emergency, these repeated warnings go unheard. Yet, when something mid-flight does occur and the oxygen masks fall from the console, it is clear that many would be doing their best to remember what was said pre-flight as they slide into panic.

In our culture wars and shifting sands of morality and rightness, the storm is no longer on the way. It is here. For those who have listened to Dr. Mohler's daily podcast "The Briefing" and at times felt overwhelmed with the data and daily updates of issues that run counter to a biblical worldview, his new book is a welcome resource. Many of the illustrations and delineated accounts in the book have been covered at some point by Dr. Mohler in one of his briefings, but to have the book available giving a systematic unveiling of the history of secularism and the subtle (and overt) impacts of this philosophy in our lives is telling and helpful. In some cases, the shifts have seemed immediate (e.g. the 2015 Obergefell vs. Hodges Supreme Court case legalizing same-sex marriage) but in truth are simply the latest visible impacts of the storm gusts upon culture.

Responding to Landfall

When hurricanes make landfall, the impact varies depending on wind speed, the structural strength of the buildings nearby, the depth and health of the roots of trees, and the preparedness of residents. Once the storm has passed, disaster relief teams arrive (many wearing yellow hats representing Southern Baptists serving and helping in Christ's name,) damage assessment occurs, and next steps for recovery begin. 

Unlike a natural hurricane, the storm we now face seems to be only increasing in intensity with an ever-widening cone of concern with no end in sight. Yet, as Christians we are affirmed that as we stand firmly on the gospel of Christ, though a narrow foot-hold certainly, we will not only withstand the storm, but thrive in its midst and in the aftermath. So, be encouraged.

In Dr. Mohler's book, he focuses on nine specific issues impacted by the rising secularism. Sadly, this is not only a secular, godless worldview present outside the church, but also at times visible within. The chapter titles categorize these areas so the reader can more clearly see that which has occurred and is occurring. Chapters speaking of "The Gathering Storm in..."

  • Western Civilization
  • The Church
  • Human Life
  • Marriage
  • Family
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Generational Divides
  • Engines of Culture
  • Religious Liberty

After reading The Gathering Storm, I cannot help but see indicators of the growing secularization and worldview shifts daily as new headlines appear on my newsfeed. In fact, yesterday, the US Supreme Court ruled in what I deem a disastrous ruling, that "that 'sex' does, in fact, include sexual orientation and gender identity, despite the fact that legislators repeatedly voted against including those categories in the legislation." (ERLC - "After the Bostock Supreme Court Case") Where would this lie in Dr. Mohler's analysis? It is clearly part of the storm related to gender and sexuality, but also impactful in the area of religious liberty, not to mention family and generational divides.

This is just one headline from today. 

One can simply peruse other current and recent stories to see how the moral revolution and the rise of secularism continues to impact all avenues of our culture on a daily basis.

What Now?

Dr. Mohler's concluding chapter hearkens once more to Churchill's warnings prior to World War II. While Churchill, along with the other Allied leaders, entered into the storm against Nazism, fascism, and imperial despotism with a united, military campaign that proved to be essential for victory, Dr. Mohler is not calling for a militaristic movement. He is, however, clearly reminding the church that what we face today is truly a battle. The church has been in this spiritual battle since the very beginning, but the storm of secularism is our most recent and current beachhead.

Dr. Mohler gives reasoned, practical, and timelessly biblical encouragement and insight into how Christians and the church must live in such times. The concluding chapter is titled "Into the Storm" and that certainly is our calling. 

I recommend The Gathering Storm highly and encourage readers to subscribe to "The Briefing" for continued daily updates of current trends and shifts in culture from a biblical worldview.

Insightful Quotes from The Gathering Storm

  • A central fact of the storm now gathering strength is moral liberalism, which cannot be explained without the dechristianization of society. (xv)
  • Secularizing societies move into conditions in which there is less and less theistic belief and authority until there is hardly even a memory that such a binding authority had ever existed. (5)
  • We do not need a political movement. We need a theological protest. (13)
  • A true church does not give a non-answer to a direct biblical question. (27)
  • What morally atrocious age we have slipped into where we sacrifice babies on the altar of "women's health, autonomy, and their right to the pursuit of happiness"? (47)
  • Secularism has paganized the culture. Pagans speak of holy things as if they were lowly while speaking of lowly things as if they were holy. (64-65)
  • The headlines will continue down this trend–we will see not only liberals versus conservatives but revolutionaries versus revolutionaries; feminist ideology versus transgender ideology; gay and lesbian activism against transgender activism. (97)
  • We should lament the brokenness and understand the many failings of the Christian church toward those who identify with the LGBTQ+ community. But we dare not add yet another failure to those failures. (115)
  • In response to the storm gathering over gender and sexuality, Christians must do at least two things: preach true gospel liberty in the face of erotic liberty and stand ready to receive the refugees of the sexual revolution. (119)
  • Teenagers have been listening carefully. They have been observing their parents in the larger culture with diligence and insight. They understand just how little their parents really believe and just how much many of their churches and Christian institutions have accommodated themselves to the dominant culture. (128)
  • Liberalism often fails to distinguish between conservatives and the extremists on the right. this can be driven by intention or by carelessness, but the result is the same. (153)
  • Consider the fact that religious liberty is now described as religious privilege. By definition, a privilege is not a right. (166)
  • Where you find failing churches and denominations, you find a loss of faith in God. (191)

 


Are You Pastoring the "Kobayashi Maru" Church of the No-Win Scenario?

The "Kobayashi Maru" likely does not ring a bell for most people, but for the few who grew up watching the original Star Trek television series and then enjoyed seeing Captain Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy and the rest of the crew of the starship Enterprise when they jumped to the big screen the reference is clear. The introduction of the Kobayashi Maru was in the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (the best Star Trek movie, by the way.) The Kobayashi Maru was the name of a fictional ship (even fictional in the fictional universe of Star Trek) that was created as a training exercise for Starfleet officers. The ship was in a battle with the evil Klingons and the trainee was to guide his/her ship to the rescue and win the day. Yet, in this exercise, the Kobayashi Maru was always destroyed, regardless what the trainee did. (For those who actually care, click here for a clip of the scene.)

The 1982 film opens with Saavik in the command chair, leading her crew made up of original series stars into the battle, only to see crew members die and the Maru destroyed. It was truly a dramatic scene when first viewed in the theaters back in the 1980s. Soon after the destruction and defeat, the scene shifts and the hero, Captain Kirk walks from behind a wall and makes it clear that Saavik, not unlike others, has failed the test. 

It's a short scene, but has become over time a reminder of what is known as the "no win scenario." It was repeated in J.J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek starring Chris Pine in 2009 as well as numerous books, reference works, and fan fiction.

(Okay, you figured it out by now, I am a Star Trek nerd. No apologies. Live long and prosper. Now read the rest.)

The No-Win Scenario

Sometimes in pastoral ministry, leading the people in the church God has called you to serve feels like a no-win scenario. That's a foreboding thought and not necessarily one that comes to mind when one surrenders to full-time ministry and is called to serve as pastor in the local church. Nevertheless, as I have discovered over the years and in talking with many other pastors, the thoughts of leading a church through cultural changes and missional engagement seems to be a no-win.

Church Members Divided

There have always been divisive issues among Christians within the church. Some are primary issues that must be addressed with no compromise. These would be issues of biblical fidelity, trinitarian teaching, doctrinal clarity, etc. There is really no debate on whether or not to stand firmly on such issues. To do otherwise is an affront to biblical Christianity and leaves the church open, if not embracing, false teachings and teachers.

There are, however, divisive issues that often rise up among church members that have nothing to do with first priority issues. They are not doctrinal. They are not biblical issues. Many have written about such divisions and articles on theological triage by Dr. Albert Mohler (here) and podcasts featuring Dr. Jason Allen and Dr. Gavin Ortlund (here) have addressed such clearly. 

Today's Trending Church Divides

There will always be issues that rise up causing division among church members. Most recently, that division centers around church responses to COVID-19 and how congregations are planning to meet in person again for worship. These are not insignificant issues, but as we all know, the opinions vary greatly on how one must respond and what must be done. Whether it is the use of chemical cleaners in the church facilities, the enforcing of social distancing, the forced locations for seating in worship, or guidelines regarding wearing/not wearing masks, the opinions are there - within every church, and they differ greatly depending on whom is speaking. 

I have received numerous emails and text messages from other pastors and have had a number of conversations with men in our community asking how we are addressing such. These are not isolated issues. Yet, as one pastor mentioned to me, "This is a no-win scenario." Thus...the Star Trek-Kobayashi Maru comparison. 

Captain David
Taken years ago when I had darker hair and a set for Star Trek existed in South Georgia

I was in a meeting earlier this month (not a Christian ministry or church related one) with friends from the community and one man dared to share his opinion related to being required to wear masks. I watched as another jumped into the conversation and the soon-escalating discussion revealed that no resolution would be found. Opinions are very strong. Fortunately, the moderator of the meeting kindly shut down the conversation and we moved forward (and these men remain friends, so no harm, hopefully.) This revealed once more that divisiveness is natural in a sinful world. The challenge facing pastors is shepherding through what some have called a no-win scenario.

Beyond COVID-19 and other pandemic related talking points, we now face the greater, and I believe the more serious divide relating to racial unity, police actions, government responsibilities, and all that has developed since George Floyd's death in Minneapolis.

If you thought opinions on issues within the church related to carpet color, music style, schedule changes, pandemic response, and all were big, you now know they pale in comparison to these even more potentially divisive chasms among those who not only are brothers and sisters in Christ, but covenant members of the same fellowship.

For the pastor wondering what to do...it seems like a no-win scenario.

Changing the Conditions by Clarifying the Calling

In Star Trek lore, the only Starfleet cadet to ever beat the no-win scenario of the Kobayashi Maru was James T. Kirk (of course.) When asked by Saavik how he did it, Kirk responded with "I reprogrammed the simulation so that it was possible to rescue the ship."

Immediately, his son David Marcus says "He cheated," to which Kirk replies "I changed the conditions of the test. Got a commendation for original thinking. I don't like to lose."

It's a gutsy move for the movie's hero, but in the church there is no "reprogramming" of the scenario. Some pastors desire to change the conditions and at times, they do. In some cases, these are incredibly positive shifts that lead to church health and biblically strong congregations. Sometimes, however, the conditions change simply because the pastor leaves. At times by his choice and God's calling. Sadly, at times due to the church's lack of desire to follow God's man's lead. 

However, all pastors realize in their ministry how easy it is to be distracted by secondary and tertiary items to such a degree that the primary ones are forsaken.

I know this is overly simplified and actually doesn't address specific things to be done regarding COVID-19 issues much less the issues of  racial unity among believers. I am not offering step-by-step fixes for such dynamic and serious issues. Please know I am not minimizing these either, but I do believe that pastors must first and foremost remember that the calling to lead a church is not the calling to be a CEO or Director of Activities. He is not placed by God to just tickle the ears of the congregation so that offerings will continue. The pastor is not called to be the political action committee chairman or a puppet for any group in a community or region.

The pastor is called first to God, then to his church where God has placed him to pray, study, serve, protect the flock, and proclaim the Word. 

There are many sub-points for each of these responsibilities. For example, protecting the flock is a biblical mandate and covers not only protection from false teaching (primary) but also from other issues (e.g. pandemic.) Proclaiming the truth of the Word and allowing the Scripture to speak clearly is primarily for the preaching of sermons but also speaks into cultural injustices of which there are many (e.g. life, racism, abuse, inequality, health, etc.) not from worldly devised talking points, but from biblically grounded truth.

My denomination's statement of faith, the Baptist Faith & Message (2000), delineates our beliefs regarding the Word of God...

The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God's revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.

An open, read, studied, and proclaimed Bible reveals, without error, God's truth and his answers to the issues of sin and suffering in our world. The Scriptures, inspired by the Holy Spirit, reveals the truth of the Gospel so that we may know the Father through the Son. 

Sometimes when it seems the issues we face as pastors fall under the category of the "no-win scenario" we must remember that the true win...the ultimate win...the primary win is found in Christ alone. 

I know for some that sounds like a trite answer to the very real issues and sinful hardships being experienced by many today. Please understand that despite all that we are suffering through, the One who is the "Suffering Servant," the Way, the Truth, the Life has been, and must always be THE point. 

To quote the great theologian James Tiberius Kirk (that's a joke) "I don't believe in the no-win scenario." 

With all that we face in our world today, I rest in knowing that our sovereign God is never taken by surprise and in him is the victory, the win. Press on pastors - just keep the main thing the main thing.


George Floyd, Justice, and a Longing for Change

Is this some horror-story version of the movie Groundhog Day?

We have heard this story, or similar ones, before. 

"A black man is killed by a police officer - film at eleven."

"Video footage of the killing of a black man taken by bystanders with smartphones."

"Surveillance video shows black man prior to killing."

"Protests erupt after the killing of black man."

"Celebrities and athletes tweet their feelings regarding the killing of black man."

We have been here before. And...like you, I am ready for this version of Groundhog Day to stop. If it doesn't, more violence and killing will occur.

George Floyd

This time the story centers around a Minneapolis police officer arresting a black man named George Floyd for allegedly passing a counterfeit twenty dollar bill in a convenience store. I won't attempt to describe the event in detail here because news agencies are doing analysis and showing video accounts on every platform they have available.

I did watch the video once, and not unlike the videos of similar stories in the past (sadly, in the recent past) one viewing is enough.

I personally have similar feelings as when I heard of Ahmaud Arbery's death in Brunswick, Georgia (link here.) Yet, in the case of George Floyd, the story shifts due to involving active-duty police officers.

I have had messages from police officer friends since this incident in Minnesota revealing their feelings. The ones I have talked with and the posts I have read show a deep anger. 

One officer told me - "Incidents like this takes away anything positive that officers do for the public. I can't imagine any situation where what they did would be acceptable." 

The story in Minneapolis continues. The officer in question has been relieved of duty. Protesters are calling for his arrest. The mayor is calling for his arrest. Those desiring to be on the news for a moment, whether celebrities or laypeople, are calling for his arrest.

He will likely be arrested.

But while all that is happening and the frenzy and calls for justice continue, let me share with you something from a pastor who used to serve in Houston, where George Floyd lived prior to being in Minnesota.

I did not know George Floyd. His background is being unearthed for news stories and you can read those accounts if you choose. His character is being either uplifted or degraded depending on the agenda of the ones posting or talking of him. Sadly, this too is part of the repeated stories whenever an tragedy like this occurs. It is wrong.

I also do not know this pastor personally, but we do have a few mutual friends. The pastor's name is Justin Bouldin. He now serves in North Carolina, but in 2015 he served in Houston. Justin posted this on his Facebook page (available here.)

Let me tell you about George...

My family and I moved to 3rd Ward (Houston, TX) back in August 2015. We moved there to serve as church planting residents at Resurrection Houston, a church that gathered and had their HQ right there in the Tre. The church also dedicated itself to serving a large housing complex called Cuney Homes. Cuney was nestled right in the heart of 3rd Ward, across the street from TSU.

When we arrived, the church was in the midst of planning a 3 on 3 basketball tournament at Cuney. It was a way to bring a day of positive energy, lots of fun, and just love our neighbors well.

The day of the tournament was your typical hot, sun-drenched August day in H-Town. But that didn’t matter because there were so many people out there on and around the courts that day.

George played on one of the teams that were entered in the tournament. (In fact, they ended up winning the whole thing.) During some games where they weren’t playing, I happened to get to sit beside and talk to George for a few minutes. He knew I was with RH and I introduced myself as the “new guy” (New Drew is how I said it to all the Cuney residents) who was serving with them and in Cuney Homes.

As we watched the games in front of us, George had these words and I will always remember them. He said:

“We need more of this in our community. See how everyone is out here, having fun and not worried about no nonsense. We need more positive opportunities for our people and that’s why I’m so glad Rez Houston is out here. Y’all always showin love and keeping it real for these youth. They need it more than anything.”

That was George. A guy who knew where he was from and never made excuses. He wanted a better life for himself, but also for his neighbors.

In fact, the picture on the left is the next day at our church service we had at Cuney. George and his team came to service and we recognized them as the champs from the previous day!

George floyd

But that wasn’t out of the ordinary. George would always help us put out and fold up chairs when we would have Church in the Bricks. My brother Ronnie Lillard (Reconcile) told how George helped him drag the baptismal out there so we could baptize people who had professed faith in Jesus.

Ronnie, Corey PaulNijalon DuBoi James DunnP.T. Ngwolo can tell you so many more stories of George and how he was one of the people of peace that helped open the door for Rez to become a part of the Cuney community and share the hope of Jesus with so many.

My heart is broken this morning after weeping last night. My heart hurts for our Cuney and 3rd Ward family for the tragic loss of yet another life. From what I have heard, the whole reason George was in Minnesota was because the seeds that had been planted and watered all those years were starting to take root. He was pursuing and taking steps of repentance and following Jesus.

But not only am I heartbroken, I am filled with anger. I want to say it is righteous and I pray to God He hears me, but I am tired of the character assassination and same M.O. every time something like this happens. This is so raw for me right now because I personally knew the man. I got brothers and sisters that literally spent so much time pouring into his life and watching the Lord work miracles. (The last picture was a recent message from George to Nijalon that he sent while he was in Minnesota.)

It hits different when you know the victim and have seen the real character. It sickens me that people who do not know him and have never encountered him want to freely throw out garbage takes about how he should’ve done this or probably did something to warrant what happened.

Justin writes more and you can read that on his page, but what he shares here goes hand-in-hand with a point I made last Sunday in my sermon. 

When we begin to see people as image-bearers of Christ, with friends, family members, siblings, etc., rather than just as unnamed, non-important characters in a news story then perhaps our culturally fueled insensitivity to violence and injustice will be piqued. 

I'm Praying for a New Day

Did George do something wrong that day? Did he break a law? Did he pass a counterfeit bill? I don't know. I do know based on what the videos show and after hearing from police officers who serve faithfully and honestly in their own communities that the actions and results in Minneapolis were unjust, wrong, evil, and ultimately deadly. 

Like you, I am seeing tweets and postings (not unlike this one) from numerous pastors and church leaders in our religious sub-group of evangelicalism. I know that Jesus Christ and a changed heart is the only thing that will cure this sin-saturated world. I know that. My fellow pastors of all shades of melanin know that. 

I also know that in order for this version of "Groundhog Day" to end, something has to change. I am praying for God's lead in what the next step will be. I am asking for wisdom for pastors and church leaders as we seek to respond righteously, and lead under God's direction toward a new day, not a day of temporal racial reconciliation, but of true unity in Christ.

I pray for a day when calling for justice does not get a Christian blasted for being anything other than true to God's Word.

I pray for a day when seeking to understand how brothers and sisters experience daily life in our communities does not come with accusations of abandoning the sufficiency of God and his Word.

I pray for a day when our children and grandchildren can sing the old song "Jesus loves the little children of the world...red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight" and realize that Jesus does love all and that because he does, we must too.

I pray for a day when white people will stop saying "I don't see color" when referencing a person of darker melanin. I understand the sentiment is "I'm not racist" but the words actually say "I don't value your unique heritage and viewpoint."

I pray for a day when virtue signaling will end and true, God-fueled love for each other will reign.

I pray for a day when men like George Floyd will remain known only to his family, friend group, basketball playing buddies, and local church brothers and sisters and not to the entire world because of a tragedy that turns him into a hashtag.

I pray for this day.

And I know it is coming. 

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! - Revelation 22:20 (ESV)


Why I Will Only Hire an Associate Pastor/Ministry Leader Who Is Willing to Leave Our Church

The era of the church growth movement along with its structure of specialized ministry led to multi-staffed churches with numerous associate pastors, assistant pastors, age-graded pastors, ministry interns, directors of ministry. etc. over the years.

I am not saying these ministry positions are wrong. We have godly people serving in these and other positions at our church. In fact, I served as a youth minister, student pastor (same thing as a youth minister, but a more professional sounding title,) singles and collegiate pastor, and young married adults pastor prior to being called to serve as the senior pastor (or lead pastor, or better yet, just "pastor") of the church I currently serve. It was during these years as an associate I know God prepared, honed, and developed me to serve in the role I now have. Still, there are many days I feel unqualified for this pastoral role (not biblically unqualified...just a bit amazed that God would see fit to choose me to serve him this way.)

As years go by, ministry models for evangelical churches shift. Whether purpose-driven, attractional, event-oriented, emergent, missional, or any other trending term of the day, church leadership tends to always be looking for the next silver bullet for church growth and ministry. (By the way, there's no silver bullet. Daniel Im has written about this. Check out the book trailer here.

The Rise of Church Planting

For the past twelve years or so, we have seen a dramatic increase in the planting of new churches in America. Denominational mission agencies, like our North American Mission Board (NAMB), have strategically shifted to enable planters to relocate to urban settings and fast-growing areas for the purpose of increasing the churches in areas where the numbers of unchurched or de-churched continues to increase. NAMB is not alone. Numerous other groups have been and are planting churches. Planters are responding to God's call to leave the comparative safety of the known church culture of home and relocate their families to areas that cause many church members and family members to say "Why would you do that?" 

I won't go into all the reasons church planting is needed today. There are many stories and statistics showing how God is using this era of church planting for his glory.

Where Do We Get Planters?

As a pastor of what is now termed a "legacy church" (that means we are an older, established church that has been in the same community for decades) I have sought to lead our church to not only be supportive of church planting, but to be a sending church raising up men and women to go. At some point, the Great Commission has to be more than theoretical.

Lightstock_1866_medium_david_tarkington

I wish I could say we have batted 1.000 doing this, but ... it has been a learning process. We have sent out some planters and families who are serving the Lord faithfully. These are incredible stories of long-term ministry and we remain partnered and engaged with them. There are others we have met and come alongside for a season.

Staffing the Church Differently

One of my pastor friends who served in a Virginia church years ago led me to think more strategically about church planting and the concept of sending planters. This was years prior to NAMB producing the Send Network and before I had ever heard of Acts29, ARC, Vision360 or any other church planting movement. 

My friend told me he would not hire an associate pastor (e.g. worship pastor, student pastor, teaching pastor, etc.) to serve on staff with him unless that man was willing to leave the church to either start a new church or help start one.

My first reaction was "What?!?"

Why would I respond this way? Because my life experience in church was very traditional. I knew that churches hired staff members intending they remain on staff at the church for years. If at any time, a staff person left the church...even in good standing...it would only be to go to another church (most often after a series of secret interviews without letting the pastor know,) in another city, to serve in a similar role but with better pay.

But, to hire someone expecting them to leave to pastor a new church...in a nearby community perhaps, much less the same one, was unheard of. That only happened when churches split. At least that was my understanding and experience.

Oh, how things change. That crazy idea from my pastor friend has proven to be biblical, right, and good for the kingdom. In his case, the result has been a number of new churches in the same area of Virginia, as well as other communities throughout the world (thanks to God calling those stationed to nearby military bases being transferred to other areas and starting new churches.) 

Is Everyone Called To Church Planting?

I mentioned in a meeting yesterday that not everyone is called to church planting. At that point a church planter in the meeting said "I think they are."

I thought about that and...I think he's right.

While not everyone is called to move to a new church plant, I do believe that in order to be Great Commission Christians, we are all called to church planting, to the expansion of God's church throughout the world, even in areas where some in the community say "We have enough churches around here."

The truth is that we do not have enough churches. We may have more churches than Starbucks and gas stations in some communities, but there truly is no region where there are enough churches. How can I say this? Because I know that there are still unsaved people everywhere. While the church does not save them, God has always and will continue to use his church through the power of the Holy Spirit to draw people to himself. 

So, I have shifted my thinking. 

I believe now, as my friend did years ago, that every associate pastor and ministry staff person at our church must be willing and ready to leave our church in order to help plant and start new churches. This is much different than being ready to leave to go to another church with more programs and better pay (but that happens, too.) 

Gone are the days when an associate pastor will be hired with the expectation he remain in the position for decades. He may remain there, but he must be willing to abandon that particular area of ministry for where God calls.

However, it must be noted that just because someone in an associate position wants to be a church planter, it does not mean he should. That's where the value of assessment and long-term strategic planning comes in. These do not supersede the call, but I know God has used these tools to help men secure and solidify where and if God is calling to plant a church. 

Frustration in ministry is not the best determiner for a change in ministry.

What This Means for the Church

It means that church members need to understand that ultimately every pastoral staff member is called by God and affirmed by the church to serve. If, or when, God calls that associate pastor to step out in faith to plant (or assist in planting) a new church, he must be free to do so (pending wise counsel and clear assessment.) Ideally, the new church plant led by the former staff member will be supported and provided for by the church where he previously served.

Healthy churches plant churches.

Healthy churches send planters.

Healthy churches support their planters with prayer, people, and provision.

Healthy churches look upward and outward more than inward.

Our church has not "arrived," so we are not necessarily the best model for doing this well. Yet, we are now doing more than just talking the talk. I have instructed every staff person in our church that at no point do I see their position here to be their finish line. It could end up being the last place of serving in full-time ministry for some, but the willingness to go must never be erased. It must never be squelched. 

It may mean that a beloved staff member leaves for a new work. It may mean that some faithful church members go with him to help plant the new work. It may mean that, if needed, another person is hired to do the work previously done by the planter. It may mean all of this and more. It likely will. And this is good.

Kingdom work supersedes our kingdom work (little "k"). 

May we see more churches planted by legacy churches. We all say that churches plant churches. It's time for more churches to actually do this rather than leaving planters out there on their own hoping to land on their feet. 


The Price May Be Right, But the Agenda Is Wrong

The year 2020 is definitely not proving to be what many anticipated on January 1. Just to add to the odd and disappointing stories we seem to be getting daily, we now have "The Price Is Right" promoting the culture of death.
 
A decades-old game show that was known for big wheel spins, 70s era stage decorations, a yodeling cardboard mountain climber, encouragements to spay and neuter your pets, and the phrases "Come on down!" and "A NEW CAR!" is now promoting the culture of death and the normalization of drag queen culture through a special where RuPaul was guest and approximately $100,000 was donated to Planned Parenthood. (More here.)
 
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Photo credit: Digitas Photos on Visualhunt / CC BY
 
Like you, it seems like any time anyone or any show promotes anything that can be divisive a group of online angry protestors arrive ready to share their displeasure publicly. Social media normally blows up for a day or so as people publicly vent. In most cases, I just keep scrolling down my timeline trying not to get sucked into the latest online rant.
 
Maybe I should have done so today.
 
Instead, it seems I am joining the group of online public ranters. Why? Because the culture of death and acceptance of abortion as simply a woman's choice continues to find its way into otherwise unrelated stories, reminding me that to be pro-life requires continued diligence and prayer.
 
You (the collective you, as in "you all" or "y'all" depending where you live) have the freedom to watch whatever you choose on television or streaming service, but can we please retire this oft-stated question and statement?
 
"Can't we just watch a show for the entertainment value? Not every show has an agenda, right?"
NOPE.
 
The truth is that every produced show making it on air has an agenda. Every prerecorded presentation has an agenda. How do I know this? Because as human beings, we ALL have agendas. I do not disagree with every agenda, by the way. In fact, I have an agenda every time I preach on Sunday. 

It Is About the Worldview

Worldviews exist. They matter greatly. They are the lenses through which we see the world. The biblical worldview sees through the lens of biblical revelation and truth. The challenge is to remove the glasses naturally given to all that view things only through a cultural worldview. The cultural lenses provide a view that filters everything through our own experiences, our own beliefs of how things should be, and what we desire to be true.

A person’s worldview is immensely important. As believers in Christ, we find that our spiritual battles play out where worldviews draw lines.

Norman Geisler speaks of how a worldview not only determines how we live, but how we die.

The truth is that a worldview is like colored glasses; it colors everything at which we look. It is a grid through which one views all of life. As such, it helps form our thoughts, values, and decisions. The tragedy is that most people do not even know what their worldview is, how they got it, and how important it is in their lives.1

How we get our worldview speaks of the authority we follow. Dr. Danny Akin states that there are four sources of authority that mold and shape our decision-making and way of life:

  1. Reason (I think)
  2. Experience (I feel)
  3. Tradition (I have always done)
  4. Revelation (God says in his Word)

These authorities (often more than just one) will govern how we live.2

As for "The Price Is Right," I'm not calling for a boycott. It is just a TV show. Outside of stay-at-home pandemic requirements, I have not watched or been able to watch the daytime version for years. Regarding the special that aired this week - I chose not to watch. I am not sure boycotting something I do not watch is really effective.
 
Yet, I do believe strongly that the culture of death disguised as women's health care promoted by Planned Parenthood is something to speak against. The agenda that seeks to normalize the drag-queen culture and all that comes with it also stands in opposition to biblical truth.
 
Agendas are everywhere and the agenda of infanticide as simple choice continues to permeate our culture. 
 
I'm reminded of the children's song I learned so many years ago "Be careful little eyes what you see... Be careful little ears what you hear..." The song is pretty weird, but the sentiment is clear. What we see and hear impacts what we believe. Worldviews matter and they are developed daily through what is seen, heard, and believed. 
 
On this game show, the price may be right for the Rice-A-Roni, but the subtle (and not so subtle) messages regarding culture are wrong.
 

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. Colossians 2:8 (ESV)

 
_________
           1Gary W. Phillips, William E. Brown, and John Stonestreet, Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview, 2nd ed. (Salem, WI: Sheffield, 2008), vii.
 
           2Daniel L. Akin, Christ-Centered Exposition: Exalting Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2019), 148.
 

"The Gospel According to Satan" by Jared C. Wilson - Book Review

I'm slowly working through the stack of books in my home office that I intended to read during the COVID-19 quarantine. Let's just say that I struggle to find the time to read as much as I would like, even when it seems I should have more available time.

I recently completed Jared C. Wilson's latest book The Gospel According to Satan. Apparently, there are half a dozen books available with the same title on Amazon, covering a variety of subjects that could be considered Satan's gospel, so be careful when ordering your copy of the book. Get the one with the cover below and this subtitle "Eight Lies About God That Sound Like the Truth."

Gospel satanWilson is an accomplished writer with numerous books focusing on the Christian life, church, theology, and more. Prior to the release of The Gospel According to Satan, our church staff read The Gospel-Driven Church together (a recommended read for any pastor or church leader.) This led to numerous healthy conversations regarding the focus of church ministries and the need to continue shifting away from the easy draw of "attractionalism" as a church marketing tool.

The title and cover of his latest book is intriguing. As one who grew up in the 1980s, this initially seemed like it could be a Ronnie James Dio song (or maybe a Stryper song for those in the church youth group?")

While the title could lead one to believe this is a deep dive into spiritual warfare or demonology, it is not as some would think. It is about the lies of the enemy. There are clearly points related to the demonic lies that permeate our world, but Wilson's book delves into what some may say is the subtlety that characterizes the one who first said to God's image-bearers "Did God really say...?"

Wilson states early that the writing of this book was spurred after the publication and popularity of William Paul Young's book Lies We Believe About God. I had almost forgotten about Young, most well-known as author of The Shack (not recommended by the way.) Young's faulty theology sounds like other heresies that have arisen throughout the centuries. As Tim Challies stated in his review of Young's book, "There is barely a chapter in the book that does not do damage to one or more precious doctrines. " (full review here on challies.com)

Thus, Wilson began putting together the outline that would eventually become The Gospel According to Satan. Wilson carefully deconstructs a number of well-known and oft-stated "truths" about life and God. These statements are not reserved for those outside the church, but have even crept into the current evangelical lexicon and when stated enough by those who claim to be children of God, eventually are believed by many to be true. 

The lies of the enemy began in Eden with the "Did God really say...?" question as mentioned prior, but also fall under the categorical accusation that "God is holding out on you." Wilson goes to these as the main plays in the enemy's playbook and and helps the reader see that the deception is so subtle that many well-meaning Christians find themselves doing just as Adam and Eve did by believing lies that that comprise this "gospel" according to Satan.

The chapters are titled as follow:

  • LIE #1: God Just Wants You to Be Happy
  • LIE #2: You Only Live Once
  • LIE #3: You Need to Live Your Truth
  • LIE #4: Your Feelings Are Reality
  • LIE #5: Your Life Is What You Make It
  • LIE #6: You Need to Let Go and Let God
  • LIE #7: The Cross Is Not About Wrath
  • LIE #8: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

These lies likely sound familiar. The challenge is when you read one of these lies and think "What? I say that all the time. I'm not sure that's a lie." Thus...the need for the book. 

Wilson cuts no corners on relaying the depths of biblical theology and doctrinal soundness in refuting these lies. Yet, when reading his book it seems as if you're sitting across a table at a coffee shop discussing these things with the author. This ability by a writer is definitely a skill to be admired, and perhaps a gift. As Wilson dissects the aforementioned lies, there is no condescension offered to the reader. This is the loving invitation to see how that which is commonly believed by many actually stands at opposition to the true gospel.

Wilson's transparency regarding personal thoughts, challenges, and issues appear throughout the book. By the end of the book, you feel as if someone who loves the Lord dearly actually loves you as well (even if he never has met you) simply because you too are an image-bearer of God.

The lies are shared as life-or-death warnings, and truly they are. 

This book will be the next one our staff reads together. This time, it won't be a focus so much on the shifting away from a church ministry process, but a focus on the subtle shifts away from gospel truth that we all re susceptible to believe.

I highly recommend the book and am glad it was near the top of my stack of quarantine books.


A Young Black Man Is Killed in Brunswick and I Am Angry, Grieved, a Bit Ashamed, and Convicted

The video hit social media yesterday.

I saw it on my Twitter feed, not knowing the story. 

I hit PLAY. 

And, then I sat in silence.

"What did I just watch?"

"Is this real?"

"Wait...this wasn't for some YouTube crowd-funded movie? This wasn't a promo for a television show? This wasn't a 'filmed on an iPhone' television show like the latest episode of 'All Rise'?"

THIS REALLY HAPPENED!?!

IN BRUNSWICK, GEORGIA?

Yes. It did. It happened to a young man named Ahmaud Arbery.

Screenshot 2020-05-06 13.14.52

Just a short drive north of where I live in Jacksonville?

What?!? Oh my! 

I then watched another update online. I saw the 9-1-1 transcripts of the calls made by the shooters and then realized this video was not made two days ago. It was filmed in February! Two months ago.

And then...well... I became angry, grieved, a bit ashamed, and convicted.

Angry

I am angry that in 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic that has changed so much in regards to social interaction, where the normal banter and noise we hear has paused just a bit while we are being told by a bevy of politicians, leaders, and celebrities that "We're all in this together," that the murder of a young man in a south Georgia community could happen as it did. I am angry that this happened, much less in broad daylight, on a neighborhood street, by those seemingly desiring to take justice into their own hands. 

I fully concede that I do not know the full details of the story. I don't believe many do.

What I do know is what has been reported through numerous media outlets (from various perspectives.) The end result is a young black man was gunned down while jogging through a neighborhood. The reasoning given was that he was believed by those with the guns to have been one who had burgled some homes in the community. Regardless, even if he did (and I am absolutely NOT saying that he did) this apparent vigilantism is criminal. 

Now a young man is dead.

A family grieves. 

Friends are hurting.

And "We're all in this together" fades to the back as the Enemy pulls out a card he has played since sin he entered the human story. A card that caused hurt, pain, division, and death in our nation for decades. A card that reminds us of the most heinous self-inflicted wound of our national identity. A card that categorized some people as fully human while others were considered only three-fifths human. A card that tells us all that the game may not have changed as much as we thought or hoped.

Some call it the "race card." 

It's a tool of the Enemy and if it were truly a playing card, the number on it would be 666.

I am angry. I pray it is a righteous anger.

I am angry that two months have gone by with what appears to be very little done regarding justice and due process of the law. While I understand the wheels of justice move slowly and precariously (especially during a pandemic,) two months in this situation seems too long.

Grieved

I grieve because a life has been taken. I grieve because I have been with families when notifications of loved ones deaths have been delivered. I have been with police officers after deadly incidents have occurred. I have seen the realization in the loved one appear when the message "I'm sorry to inform you that..." has been delivered. I grieve because I imagine how the family of Ahmaud felt when notified of his death.

I grieve because an image-bearer of God is dead.

I grieve because we live in a culture where a report of a young black man being killed can be shared on the news and many immediately think "Well, it was probably gang related," or "He was where he shouldn't have been," or "I bet he had a terrible family life," or some other stereotypical excuse as we scroll to the next story without ever contemplating the reality that these responses are sinful.

Certainly, there are young black men killed in situations where these descriptors are true (as well as young hispanic, latino, asian, and white men) but we (meaning me) all too often find ourselves going to these explanations for the untimely deaths of the often unnamed young men. This reveals that as a nation, as Americans, as individuals we have not grown as much as we had hoped, or perhaps as has been declared by some.

I have African-American friends who are having conversations with their children that I never felt the need to have with mine. Young black men on our local high school basketball teams that I know come to mind today. I know these young men personally. I know their families. They young men have so much potential for their lives, as do their teammates with varying degrees of melanin in their skin and differing cultural heritages. Yet, I wonder if these black young men, or their parents, are more concerned today about them running through their neighborhoods to stay in shape during this off-season than they were three days ago? Are they more concerned than the parents of white young men? I am certain they are.

This grieves me.

A Bit Ashamed

Why would I be ashamed?

What do I have to do with this story in Brunswick, Georgia?

I am ashamed because when I first heard of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery on the news back in February, I did not pay much attention to the story. The local news ran the story here because of our closeness to the city, but I don't live in Brunswick. I drive through Brunswick when traveling north on I-95. That's about it. I did not know Ahmaud Arbery or his family. 

I did not have the stereotypical thoughts about Arbery's killing when first hearing the story. Sadly, I just did not think much about the story at all. 

Perhaps I am guilty of being desensitized to stories of violence in our world. I pray this is not true, but the evidence reveals it may be.

I am a bit ashamed because I did not pray for this family at the time I first heard the story. 

Then, when I saw the video yesterday, I was ashamed that this happens in our nation (and just a short drive up the interstate) and it takes a video like this one to awaken many to the realities of such race-centered violence.

"Oh you're playing the race card, huh?" Nope. It's already been played and I addressed that earlier.

Convicted

Here's what I do know – I know I do not know what I can do. 

I really don't.

Yet, I am convicted as a Christian, a pastor, husband, father, and grandfather...that to do or say nothing is not an option.

This is not the time to debate theory.

It is not appropriate that only black pastors and leaders speak out.

In case you did not know, I do have mirrors in my home. Every time I pass by one I see my reflection. That means I know very well, as one of my good friends and church staff members, who also happens to be African-American jokingly told me once "You are very white." (It is a joke...and I am very white, so that's why we can laugh about it.) One of the challenges of being very white is not being able to fully understand what my brothers and sisters of color experience. 

I know that nothing will bring Ahmaud back.

I also know that responding to this apparent vigilante violence with more vigilante violence leaves everyone hurting, grieving, and many dead. So, that is not the answer.

But, to ignore this story (sadly, one that gets categorized as the latest in a long line of such) is not an answer either.

I encourage my Christian brothers and sisters to pray for each other, pray for the city of Brunswick, pray for the law enforcement officers, for the grand jury to be convened, for the ones who are shown on video to have killed the young man, for their families, and for the clear racial divide the remains in our nation to be eradicated by the grace and power of God.

This is bigger than the coronavirus pandemic, for this pandemic has been spreading for centuries. The only vaccine for this hateful, self-centered, race-dividing evil is God – not the white man's God, not the black man's God, not the brown man's God, not the Americanized God, not the politicized God...all these are man-made idols and truly should have a lower-case "g" in the name. The only cure for the darkest of sins is the redeemer and rescuer, Jesus Christ. May we declare him clearly, live for him wholly, and show our love for him as we love our brothers and sisters well.

One of my African-American pastor friends reminded me of a quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. These words should resonate at this time for all.

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Church, we cannot be silent as the enemy continue to roar as a devouring lion in our midst.

Sinners act like sinners, but the children of God must stand together in these dark days. 


A Call To Prayer for Our SBC Seminaries

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every aspect of our lives. I am reminded daily when I receive updates and prayer requests regarding the health challenges and hospitalizations of church members, the reported deaths of those in our communities and families, and the varied other challenges related to employment, education, and relational health. The list is extensive.

As a Southern Baptist pastor, I receive updates regularly from leaders in our local association, state convention, mission boards, and other denominational offices and entities. I appreciate the information and am thankful for the men and women serving the Lord and our churches in these offices and entities.

Our Seminaries

We have six excellent seminaries as Southern Baptists. These schools have served Southern Baptists well for many years. There have been challenges, changes, restructuring, and shifts throughout the years. Today we have six seminaries providing solid, biblical, doctrinally-sound guidance for men and women called of God into ministry. In addition to graduate level degrees, some offer undergraduate degrees in their respective colleges.

When COVID-19 forced most all schools to close and shift to online, distance-learning only, our seminaries made the proper adjustments. Yet, the challenges remain.

Dr. Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS,) recently published an article delineating the changes made at SBTS in order to continue offering courses, degrees, and provide for staff and students. The changes were difficult and unexpected by many. Nevertheless, these are unexpected times (from a human perspective.) Click here for article.

It is my great concern for each of our seminaries at this time. While some see this as an opportune time to critique unnecessarily our seminaries and the men chosen to lead our institutions, I believe our needed and primary response as faithful believers and Southern Baptists is to pray for these men and the health of our schools.

These are our schools. 

Last Sunday (April 26, 2020) was a day on the denominational calendar emphasizing our Cooperative Program (CP.) I am so thankful for the CP and the faithful, generous giving Southern Baptists have historically shown.

As a graduate of two of our seminaries (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary - 1993, and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary - 2018) and pastor of a church with staff, church planters, and missionaries with degrees from each of our six seminaries, I am so thankful for the education provided and the resources available through CP.

Call to Prayer - Beginning Friday, May 1 at 11am EDT

Pastors praying for seminary presidents copy

Some will say "Who are you to call Southern Baptists to prayer?" Well...no one, really. Just a pastor believing that God desires we do this. Perhaps (and there's a really good possibility of this) he just wants me to pray for these men more intently. Nevertheless, I would like more to join me.

I have contacted the presidents of each of our seminaries and have asked individual local church pastors who are either graduates of each seminary or closely connected to join me on a Zoom call for a time of pastoral prayer for our seminaries and the presidents.

I will be premiering these prayer videos each weekday, beginning Friday, May 1, 2020 on our church's YouTube channel, Facebook page, and Twitter account. These clips will be shareable and I hope that many other Southern Baptists will join us in prayer each of these days for about fifteen minutes.

Why Do This?

Like others, I have been thinking about all the ways our church and others have been impacted by the pandemic. In the midst of this forced pause for many, I see God at work. I am not fearful. I am just praying for wisdom for decisions I must make as the pastor of the church and the leadership I must offer, as the under-shepherd of this flock. It can be overwhelming, especially if I slide into relying on my own ingenuity, ideas, and thoughts. 

In other words, I know I need wisdom and I cannot generate that. It is a gift from God. I know I lack wisdom in this area. I have never pastored during a pandemic (and neither has anyone else I know.)

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. - James 1:5 (ESV)

Thankfully, I know brothers and sisters who are praying for me. In addition to my request for wisdom, others are interceding as well. 

I know there are other denominational entities and conventions across the nation and world needing our prayers. I know there are other leaders needing prayer. We need to pray for them as well. This call to prayer is not meant to elevate one group over another. It is just that having one staff person set to graduate from Southeastern in May and others looking to move toward getting degrees in the future, our schools continue to come to my mind.

I truly enjoyed and benefited from my years in seminary and appreciate all who poured their lives into ensuring we have these schools and that they are worthy places to recommend others to attend.

When I reached out the seminary presidents, I explained that I was simply a local pastor desiring to initiate a time of prayer for them and the schools. I need wisdom in these days. I know they do as well. I asked local pastors to lead simply because I believe in the local church and know these pastors love these seminary presidents and seminaries and have blessed by them personally.

I also assured each pastor and president that the only agenda for these meetings was prayer. Nothing more. Nothing less. No critiques. No trolling disguised as prayer. No puffing up. No putting down. Just prayer for wisdom and encouragement. 

Everyone needs a Barnabas every now and then.

So, please share the schedule and join in prayer. If you cannot join at the time when the prayer videos premiere, join at a time that works for your schedule. 

I believe in the power of prayer. I also believe that for me, at least, I sometimes talk more about prayer than I actually pray. So, by scheduling these prayers, I will do more than just talk about prayer for these men, I will intercede on their behalf. I hope you will as well.

Prayer for our Seminaries & Presidents Schedule:

These prayer videos will premiere on the following days:

______________

This call to prayer is not something scheduled by any denominational entity. It is a grass-roots call to prayer for our men leading our seminaries. Praying for every staff member, student, and family connected to our seminaries. I am thankful for these men being willing to join me online for this time of intercession. 


"Reset" by David Murray - Book Review

Burnout.

It is a concept that most men, regardless of vocation, understand.

We have all heard the warnings. We have heard, and even likely repeated some of the statements related to pacing oneself better for health living.

  • We know that we cannot continue "burning the candle at both ends." 
  • No one wants "He worked too hard for things that don't really matter" on their tombstone.
  • Climbing the ladder of success is fruitless when you realize years later the ladder was leaning against the wrong wall.
  • Success in life is not success when family is sacrificed.
  • "I wish I knew then what I know now" is a tragic theme for one's life, especially when you really did know then what would have helped now.

All these and more are true statements that I have heard, read, repeated, and even used in teachings of men's conferences and Bible studies.

Like many men, I agree with these realities while I continue to push harder, faster, forward...falsely believing that these are great concepts, but not things that affect me.

Then, all the sudden, you have a few more years (decades) behind you and you realize that to have a maximum number of years ahead requires some wise readjustments, or as David Murray calls, a reset.

David Murray's book Reset was published by Crossway in 2017. It is one of those books I purchased  a year or so ago. I placed it on my shelf in my office and categorized it on Goodreads as "Want to Read." 

David Murray (PhD, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) is professor of Old Testament and practical theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He is also a counselor, a regular speaker at conferences, and the author of Exploring the Bible. David is married to Shona.

Reset

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to change all our schedules, I went to my office at the church and gathered some books to bring home for some intentional pandemic reading. I have a stack of over twenty, but this book just stood out. I read the sub-title "Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture" and knew this was the time to slow down and check out Murray's book.

Have you ever read a book that seemed to be a bit too personal? I mean, it is as if the author is prying, going places you didn't expect? That's what soon was realized as I worked through Reset.

Repair Bays for Men

Murray takes the reader through a series of "repair bays" that bring to mind a garage not unlike those on the renovation television shows designed to take a beat up, classic car and return it to its former glory. The imagery works, for what man of a certain age does not long for the days when joints didn't ache, muscles weren't strained, hair was not grey (and actually was still attached to one's head,) and feeling "ten-feet tall and bullet-proof" were the norm?

This book is not some fluffy, surface-level, pop-psychological self-help guide. 

Murray goes to scripture to express and define ways that men often get off track, even when doing good or godly work. 

As Murray takes the reader through his repair bays, he writes not as one who looks down from the ivory tower simply giving opinions on how to live better, but as one who personally faced physical health issues related to stress and overwork as well as other man-made speed bumps. Therefore, his insight is from one who is on the journey as well, who has experienced the need and value of a reset and has helped other men do the same.

There are numerous passages and paragraphs that I highlighted in this book. Here are just a sampling of some that resonated with me:

Be cautious about seeking advice from someone who stands to lose if you need to slow down. (p. 44)

 

God put a special curse on men's work (Gen 3:17-19) to make sure that our idolizing of work would never fully satisfy. (p. 48)

 

(Regarding the need to rest and sleep well) What I do instead of sleep shines a spotlight on my idols, whether it be late-night football, surfing the internet, ministry success, or promotion. (p. 55)

 

Pastors seem to think that "Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work" (Ex 20:9-10) has an asterisk (*unless you're a pastor, in which case you must work seven days a week.) (p. 99)

 

Some men struggle to accept changes in their identities when they age, change jobs, experience ill health, or retire. (p. 120)

 

Remember, it's rarely one extra big thing but the addition of lots of little things that tends to overwhelm us, because it is much more difficult to say no to the little things. (p. 137)

 

The joy of the journey depends so much on who's riding with us. (p. 157)

These are just some of the clear statements that make this book a must-read for men, especially pastors. Yet, here is a warning–don't read this book just to complete another book. It is always a goal of mine to finish a book. In most cases, that is not a problem at all. I love to read and I love to complete a good book. Yet, in this case the intent of Reset is not just to be able to move the book from the "Want to Read" shelf on Goodreads to the "Read" shelf (though I did that.) The insight and steps needed to actually slow down, reset, and spend some needed time in the repair bays are vital.

I recommend Reset for my friends, pastors, and any men finding that they're running hard and fast, but fear they may be doing little more than running on fumes (i.e. burning out.) 

The book is available wherever you purchase books. The link for purchasing from the publisher, Crossway, is here

David and his wife Shona have also written the book Refresh: Embracing a Grace-Paced Life in a World of Endless Demands with women in our fast-paced culture in mind. It is available here.


"Don't Just Do Something, Stand There" - A Needed Reminder for Pastors During a Pandemic

The quote "Don't just do something, stand there" is an obvious play on words and meant to grab your attention.

This quote has been attributed to Dwight Eisenhower, Lewis Carroll, and even Clint Eastwood. For those interested in where the quote originated, click here.

As one of many pastors seeking to lead well during the current pandemic, I am facing totally new and challenging questions and circumstances. I know there are many facing much more than me, so I'm not seeking pity or putting myself in a category I do not deserve. I join a few weekly pastors meetings online and have found great insight and encouragement from my brothers.

I also join a few other ministry meetings online for times of prayer and insight. I have noticed something that is starting to be a trend.

Lightstock_78070_medium_david_tarkington

In the effort to do the right thing, many pastors (I'm one of them) are continually asking "What do I do next?" Often more things to do are determined based on what others are doing, or some great idea that worked elsewhere. 

There are certainly things to do.

There are churches to lead.

There are sheep to be shepherded.

That was true prior to the pandemic. It still is.

Yet, in this season where our churches are not functioning as we did prior, where online is now our default setting, where questions about how to restart and when hover over every pastor, there is something I have noticed missing.

Rest.

Sabbath.

Doing something by doing nothing.

It is counter-intuitive to most pastors.

We serve understanding the urgency of evangelism and the need for discipleship. One pastor even told me "I cannot afford to rest. If I do, who will do this work?"

I shared with him, "If you don't rest, you won't be doing this work either." 

I should take my own advice, it seems.

As I have been reading David Murray's excellent book Reset, this portion on page 99 ended up being highlighted... 

Pastors seem to think that "Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work" (Ex 20:9-10) has an asterisk (*unless you're a pastor, in which case you must work seven days a week.) 

Guilty as charged.

There is still work to do.

There is still a local church to pastor. 

There are plans to be made (and remade, and revised, and reworked.)

Yet, there is still a God who remains sovereign, in control, never tiring (but took a Sabbath as well,) who has called you and me to himself and to his service.

For the Busy Pastor

Rest in Christ.

Trust God. 

Go take a nap. Watch a movie with your family. Read a book. Play a board game with your kids. 

Rest.

Remember, resting is not laziness or slothfulness. Those are sinful. Resting is not. Resting is not refusing to do anything. There are six days for work. Rest in Christ, who is our sabbath, but don't forget to take some real time during the week (check your calendar in case you forget what day it is) and relax. Take a breath - a deep one - and stop.

Don't just do something. Stand there (or sit there, or even push that recliner back) and worship God in the midst of this global pause. 


Our Church Restart Requires More Planning Than Our Stopping

When the coronavirus pandemic hit and stay-at-home orders began, our church did what most others did. We moved to online services only and canceled numerous mid-week gatherings and previously scheduled ministry events.

Our biggest concern was serving our Lord while ensuring our church members and neighbors were safe. 

We are now a few weeks into this stay-at-home structure. As we move forward in planning, pastors are communicating weekly, ideas are being shared, churches are helping other churches with technology and resourcing, and plans are being made for the return to face-to-face meetings for worship and Bible study.

Not Forsaking the Assembly

We are very glad that we have the technology available that allows us to meet online and host Life Groups through Zoom and other group video conferencing. Yet, we know that online-only is just an option, not our best plan. Two-dimensional gatherings will never measure up to being together, in the same room, singing together, studying the Word of God together, and fulfilling the commands of Scripture.

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. - Hebrews 10:24–25 (ESV)

So, we are preparing now for the day (not the "Day" mentioned in Hebrews 10, though we do prepare for that as well) it will be allowed and safe for the church to gather together in the same room.

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Our plans are tentative, with no dates assigned. These plans have some elements unique to our church that will likely be adjusted as days go by. Yet, we believe it best to put together a plan so that we are not making knee-jerk decisions in the days ahead.

It did not take long for us to shut things down at the church (just a few days.) Our restart is requiring much more preparation. We are praying for God's clear guidance in this.

I was able to join a meeting with dozens of other pastors in our region today. Our city network leader (Lead Missional Strategist Bob Bumgarner of the Jacksonville Baptist Association) shared with our group a template developed by Lone Oak First Baptist Church (Pastor Dan Summerlin) in Paducah, Kentucky.  The Executive Pastor at LOFBC, Hank Garner is the architect of this plan.

I want to ensure that all who read this article know that our plan was not initially created by our church, but inspired by this one developed by Lone Oak FBC. 

We have shared and will be sharing this four-phase plan with our entire staff, deacons, and church members. While there are many questions that will be raised regarding details, dates, and processes, we are stating that we do not have that information at this time. What we do have is a plan to move back, in phases, to what will become our normal schedule of ministry and worship as a church.

Regarding Plans

We believe it is wise to have a plan in place for our restart, but we do not believe our plan precludes God's clear lead. These plans have not been made in fear, but in faith that God is leading us every step through this journey.

So, we plan, in prayer, by faith, surrendered fully to God's lead.

For those interested, here's a copy of our four-phase plan. I'm sure numerous churches have similar plans available (I know of one in Kentucky that does, certainly) but if our tentative plan can be helpful for you, download it, copy it, use it.

A PDF and Word version of the plan are available for you to download and use.

Screenshot 2020-04-22 07.06.00 Download FBCOP Phased Restart Plan (PDF)

Download FBCOP Phased Restart Plan (Word)


"God, Where Are You?" - Lamenting During a Pandemic

Perhaps one of the most ignored disciplines or practices in the church today is the lament. Our music, at least popular Christian music, tends to focus on the celebratory, joyous, positive-thinking themes. While certainly there should be worship music that does so, to ignore the reality of hardship and struggle in the lives of Christians leaves some to view Christianity, as it is often presented today as little more than positive thinking, pop-psychological mantras of "speaking goodness" into being. 

Mark Vroegop has written an excellent article titled "The Danger of Neglecting Lament in the Local Church" on the Crossway blog here. In this article (and his book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy as well) Vroegop lays out the very real need for lamentation among the people of God.

As we live through the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, many are making statements regarding their circumstances and unfortunately, seem to be missing some very real truths along the journey.

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Human nature leads us to lamenting in days like this. Sadly, the lamentations that many share about the circumstances of "stay-at-home" orders and pseudo-quarantines in no way compare to the lamenting God leads his children toward for the sake of righteousness.

Christians are not to allow our circumstances to define our faith. Certainly our circumstances can impact our daily lives, challenge us, and create great difficulties, but they cannot define us. Christians too may call out to God during difficulty, seeking answers, help, and hope. This would be a lament that eventually edifies.

Apart from those in the medical field, ones serving on the front-lines of the pandemic, and those who have had loved ones die due to the coronavirus, most people are simply sitting at home hoping for "normal" to return. It is certainly human to desire to be able to do what one wants when one wants. These freedoms have provided us opportunities to live as we choose our entire lives (at least in the USA.)

Lamenting What We Have Lost

We lament because we are saddened. Based on what many social media posts are stating, we primarily lament over lost opportunities to celebrate special days, eat at favorite places, and be entertained as we choose, as well as others. 

It is certainly sad that high school and college graduations have been canceled.

It is sad that athletic competitions are not happening.

It is sad that restaurants are not open for dine-in.

It is sad that churches are holding online services only.

These and many other realities are truly sad. 

What I have discovered in my own heart has been the creeping feeling of boredom. I have heard others declare "We're so bored!" when asked how they are managing. Some are struggling to ensure their children are constantly busy and doing things. 

We (and I mean "we" including "me," not "we" meaning just "all you other people") are a people who idolize entertainment and activity. If busyness were a spiritual gift, we would excel in honoring God through our workaholism.

I suggest we go to his Word for some perspective. Some solace. 

Removing Idols So We May Rest

Perhaps God has removed our idols for a season and is moving us to live out the words of psalmist "Be still and know that I am God." (Psalm 46:10)

I am convinced that elevating our boredom may be indicative of idolatry in our hearts. 

Sermons and devotionals in the thousands have been shared declaring the need for believers in Christ to love him well by resting in him. We are commanded to find our sabbath in Christ. He modeled the solitary moments of prayer and devotion throughout his life. 

Maybe introverts are better wired for this, but I doubt it.

Introvert or extrovert, we all tend to drift toward the idols of our hearts. Therefore, in this season of very real danger, of very real change, of very real challenge...we need to truly lament.

Lamenting and Worshipping Well

The circumstances we face are difficult, but not unique.

Regarding church attendance and public worship gatherings, many brothers and sisters have historically struggled and served faithfully in nations and under regimes where meeting together as local churches was difficult, to say the least. Many have and do meet in secret. Many are unable to be part of a "mega-church" by law and thus, some of the greatest church planting movements are taking place in the areas of the world where house-churches are the only options and once there is a group of larger than twenty, a new church must be planted.

To be clear, the easy evangelicalism we have experienced in our nation for decades is not the norm. It is the exception. Most Christians throughout history would "amen" that loudly.

There are stories of those who survived and suffered under pandemic circumstances throughout history. These pandemic stories had been mostly forgotten except for those who study history. More stories are being shared regarding the challenges the world (and church) faced in the early 1900s during the Spanish flu pandemic. We are reading more accounts of those who survived and witnessed plagues of old. These stories are not encouraging, but revealing.

To be clear - we are facing great challenges, but this is nothing new and not unique to us. 

Our difficulties, by and large, are not difficult (notwithstanding those infected and the aforementioned front-line community servants.) 

For Christians, our faith is being tested.

Our faith is always being tested.

As the church responds and as pastors, seek to minister well, we must be careful not to be, or seem to be, primarily concerned with our loss of regularly-scheduled church services, our loss of financial support, or worse - as little more than whiny vocalizers of political echo-chamber gripes that is so prevalent in our culture.

While some believers are moving quickly to enact the very best food distribution and face mask sewing groups in the community (which are good,) or seeking to organize students or adults in the church to be "on mission" thus, creating busy work disguised as mission work (don't get me wrong, mission and relief work is vital,) we must not miss what it appears God is doing.

What God Is Doing

I have heard many seek to proclaim unequivocally what they know God is saying and doing. 

I'm not attempting that. Yet, as as pastor who is praying and seeking God's lead through these days, I do believe he desires that I, and perhaps others, pause. Stop. Rest. Sabbath in him.

I do know he is drawing me closer to him.

I believe he is pointing me back to the teachings of Christ in Matthew 6 regarding anxiety and worry.

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

Matthew 6:33-34 (ESV)

Lament we should, but not for the loss of our comforts, but for the realities of life.

Lament removes motivational self-aware, self-centered, New Age-infused mindset statements that have permeated all venues in our society and allows us "to be real and to trust." (Vroegop)

If we avoid the reality of hardships in life, we rob believers of the biblical value and strength offered through a season of lamentation. 

God has slowed us. He has shifted our well-made plans for ministry and church-life. Every church's cool "2020 Vision" theme for the year has been forgotten. He is causing us to reconsider things long avoided, if not forgotten.

As we lament these circumstances, we are drawn to God for strength, for direction, for hope. 

Stop and Start

So, stop searching for the "end times prophecies" declaring this as irrefutable proof of Christ's imminent return. Rather, repent that you forgot that the end times began in 33 AD and we continue to await his promised return, without the need for modern-day prophetic prognosticators. Seriously, if we need sensationalized films and online gurus giving us prophecy snippets in order to live like we are in the last days, we may have more spiritual sickness within us than we knew. 

Stop parking yourself in the recliner in front of your favorite 24-hour news channel that does more to promote panic, worry, anxiety, and anger through entertainment disguised as news and loud-talkers promoted as experts than is helpful.

Stop being drawn into social media posts and comment threads that denigrate your neighbors and others under the guise of "community watchdog."

Stop complaining there is nothing to watch on television after you just binged another season of something on Prime or Netflix.

Stop complaining about having to be home with your spouse and children. Recognize that these days together may be a gift you are ignoring. And, if there are major issues within the relationships, pray for insight and seek help (even online through Zoom call counseling.) However, if abuse is happening in the home, pandemic or not, find a way out of that house.

Start lamenting in honest prayer to God, trusting his heart. 

"God, where are you?" is an honest prayer. Ask him. Recognize that he has not abandoned his children. He is where is eternally has been.

Start reading the Word daily. Contemplate the truths revealed.

Repent as God's Spirit leads.

Trust him today...and for the days to come.

The God who was Lord over your days of leisure is Lord of your moments of lament.

And don't worry about tomorrow.

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. Matthew 6:34 (ESV)


Preparing for the New "Normal" When Our Church Gathers Again (In Person)

You have likely heard it. You may even have said it during these days of the pandemic

"I can't wait until things get back to normal."

This is just my opinion, but I don't think whatever "normal" was for us prior to the coronavirus outbreak is the "normal" we will experience in the future. I am confident we will not just one day go back to gathering in large crowds at sporting events, shopping centers, grocery stores, or even church.

"Social Distancing" is now firmly set in our lexicon and will likely not go away.

Face masks will be worn by more people on a daily basis even after the concerns of a strong communicable virus are gone. 

We will see an increased usage of hand sanitizer.

Those stickers on the grocery floor telling patrons how far to stand from others will remain.

However, I do hope we see more toilet paper available on the store shelves again.

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"Normal" Always Changes

Many of us have seen norms change numerous times in our lives. 

For those old enough to remember the pre-September 11 world, we know that everything changed that day. Airports changed dramatically and instantly. Security increased. Full-body scanners were installed. Non-flying friends and family members were no longer allowed to sit in the terminal near the entrance to the planes. Things changed and the changes became normal.

That's just one example, and perhaps the most obvious.

Other things have changed over the years. Most are minuscule and end up becoming memes or social media posts where adults reminisce about how things used to be.

This time, the changes will be global. This time the changes impacts everyone equally. This includes the church.

Now Is the Time to Prepare for Our First Sunday Back

Like others, I am looking forward to our first Sunday back face-to-face as a church family, worshipping together as the assembly of believers. While I am very thankful for the technological advances we have that allow us to stay connected online, these online meetings and gatherings are not sufficient replacements for the in-person gathering of the saints.

There will be a Sunday when the church meets once more in person. When will it occur? What will that look like? 

No one knows when, but we can begin to think about what it will be like.

I shared these points with our church leadership and membership this week. These are just thoughts that I have been working through, based on conversations with other pastors and ministry leaders. I know I am not the only one considering these things, but hopefully by putting some of these on a list, we can (or at least I can) be best prepared to lead well during the days of the new "normal."

Here are some of my thoughts regarding our church's first Sunday back (these will likely change somewhat)...

On the first Sunday back...

  • We will observe of the Lord’s Supper (we have not encouraged our church to partake as an at-home event during this time.) We will provide the elements of the juice and bread in pre-sealed cups with the wafers in the lid (view here) to ensure that no one in the room is touching the bread other than the church member partaking. It also provides a cover over the juice, just in case someone sneezes in the room. We will likely have the cups in the cup holders already in the pews with just a few on a table up front for distribution by our deacons.
  • We will likely NOT have Life Groups (e.g. Sunday School, small groups.) initially due to the size of our rooms and the numbers who normally fill them. The spacing between people will be needed and planning well for preschool, children, and senior adults are vital. Therefore, online groups will remain for most initially. This means that we will likely have a family integrated worship experience.
  • Our first Sunday back at our primary campus (our church facility) likely will not coincide with the first Sunday back at our extended campuses in the community that meet at the YMCA and an elementary school due to rented/borrowed facility space availability. Those churches that meet in schools or rented property have less control on their scheduling, so legacy churches may be in a position to offer their facilities for neighbor plants needing temporary space.
  • What we’re seeing and hearing now leads me to believe when groups are able to gather again, not every group will be able to meet, at least not for unlimited participants. More likely, it will be limited to groups of 200 or less. For some churches this will not be an issue other than the spacing required in worship centers. For our church, this means we will need to restart with multiple services and physical gaps in the building between people so they are not within six feet of others in the room. Families may sit together (they’ve been living together during the pandemic, so this is fine.) We will use every other pew or row so that no one is directly behind another. There will be no shaking of hands or greetings with hugs (or holy kisses.) It will be weird, but will show our members and guests that we understand recommended guidelines and are prepared.
  • Our ushers will likely be wearing face masks and opening entrance doors for everyone so no members or guests touch door handles.
  • We will not be distributing paper bulletins or programs initially so that we are not handing anything from one person to another.
  • My desire is that we have a full worship team and band, but we may have to have the members standing all over the stage and front of the room to provide safe distance. 
  • I desire to have baptisms that first Sunday back. These symbolic statements through the ordinance of baptism celebrate new life in Christ and we want the baptismal pool filled and ready. My prayer is that many are having gospel conversations now with friends and family members and that as God draws people to himself, we will see a great day of celebrating new birth in Christ.
  • On the first Sunday back, I will preach a sermon from the inerrant, infallible, immutable Word of God (just as I always have) with the assembly together in the room, celebrating God's goodness and grace, reliant on his strength, and fully surrendered to his will. This is a day, with my brothers and sisters together in the same room, I long to experience once more. In the meantime, God is no less good, no less gracious, no less strong, and no less sovereign. In that I rest each day.

All this could change (except for the last bullet point,) but these are my thoughts at this point.

Moving forward, our children's check-in stations will have to be reworked to eliminate the crowding around the computers. The computer mouse and touch-screens we use for self-check-in will have to be cleaned continually. We will also likely provide face masks for all preschool workers and others as needed.

Most of these things we never considered prior. 

The new "normal" may be strange, uncomfortable, and some may say unnecessary, but I believe that the church of Jesus Christ - you know that one the gates of hell will not prevail against - must be focused NOW on honoring him daily in our lives and prepared well to honor him together in the days ahead. All the points above (again, other than the last one) are nothing more than practical guidelines during this season, set in place so that our love for neighbor is clear, as we love our Lord and worship well.

If you have some other things you're considering for your first day back, please leave a comment below. I would love to hear and perhaps learn from you in this as well.


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

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

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

Vintage-communication-dialer-telephone

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

Not Everyone Is Online

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

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

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

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

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

Connecting with Offline Members

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

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

Still, not everyone jumped on board for various reasons.

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

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

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

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

Dial-A-Sermon

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

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

This is much better than Dial-A-Joke!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

You have likely seen the headlines...

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

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

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

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Photo credit: Peggy2012CREATIVELENZ on Visualhunt / CC BY

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

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

The Non-Trending Pastors 

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

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

Certainly, things have changed. 

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

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

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

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

Press On 

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

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


"The Loneliness Solution" by Jack Eason - Book Review

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

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

Loneliness

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

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

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

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

Not Just "Them"

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

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

The Problem Has a Solution

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

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

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

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

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

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


Confessions (and Repentance) of An Unintentional Plagiarist

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

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

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

My Unoriginal Thoughts

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

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

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

The problem wasn’t the focus of the article.

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

I was shocked. Then, shook.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unintentional or Intentional, Sin Is Sin

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

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

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

Did My Actions and Words Fix Things?

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

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

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

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

Be Mindful

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

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

Credit Where Credit Is Due

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

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

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


Encouraging Words and Insight for Pastors During This Pandemic

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

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

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

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A Devotional Thought on Fear

Dr. Paul David Tripp

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

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

Most of all, never stop fearing God.

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

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

A Prescription for Anxiety

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

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

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

(from Facebook)

What To Do In a Pandemic

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

Things Christians should not do in a pandemic:

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

Things Christians can do:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep Preaching the Word, Even if Not In Person

Dr. Jared C. Wilson, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

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

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

Steward Well

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

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

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

Sing Praises

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

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

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

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

Give Like Never Before

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

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

From Facebook video dated March 16, 2020.

Draw Close to God

Dr. Willy Rice, Calvary Church, Clearwater, Florida

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

Perspective

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

Gates of Hell > COVID-19.

Jesus' Church > Gates of Hell.

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

Revival Awaiting

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

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

A Heavier Workload For A Great Moment

JimBo Stewart, Pastor, Redemption Church, Jacksonville, Florida

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Bigger Is Not Necessarily Better

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

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

Getting Smaller

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

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

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

Online Fills the Gap

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

Streaming Is Not Just for Large Churches

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

Other Considerations - A Silver Lining

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

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

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

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

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

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

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