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.

 

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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.

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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.)
 
13066109683_ca2c784c98_b
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.

Planning-plan-adjusting-aspirations-concepts-ideas

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.

Lonely-woman-human-person-alone-leave

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.

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

Not Everyone Is Online

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

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

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

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

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

Connecting with Offline Members

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

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

Still, not everyone jumped on board for various reasons.

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

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

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

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

Dial-A-Sermon

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

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

This is much better than Dial-A-Joke!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

You have likely seen the headlines...

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

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

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

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Photo credit: Peggy2012CREATIVELENZ on Visualhunt / CC BY

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

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

The Non-Trending Pastors 

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

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

Certainly, things have changed. 

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

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

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

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

Press On 

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

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


"The Loneliness Solution" 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.

Virus

Bigger Is Not Necessarily Better

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

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

Getting Smaller

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

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

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

Online Fills the Gap

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

Streaming Is Not Just for Large Churches

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

Other Considerations - A Silver Lining

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The respectful Christian is an obedient Christian. 

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

Romans 12:14-18 (ESV)

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

The same is true today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, they might listen if we respect them.2

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

Apologizing For and Excusing Other Believers

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

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

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

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

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

____________

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

         2Clark, 81.

 


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

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

A Sports Loving City

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

Enter: The Jaguars

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

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

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

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

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

Another London Game?

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

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

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

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

Passion in the City

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

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

Passion for the City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Must Love Our City

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

It is home. 

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

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

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

We love our community. 

We love our city.

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

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

We must. 

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

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

Do we love our city this much? We must. 

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

 

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


Why We Continue to Plant Churches & Partner with Church Planters

I am not a church planter. 

Most of you probably know that. 

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

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

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

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

It Seems Like a Trend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Cannot Afford to Plant Churches

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

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

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

We Cannot Afford NOT to Plant Churches

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

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

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

I believe that new churches reach more people quickly.

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

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

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

I believe multiplication is better than addition.

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

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

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

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

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

But it is worth it.


The Potential Church Member May Struggle with Your Membership Process

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

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

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

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

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

Easy Membership Leads to Difficulty

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

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

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

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

Membership Classes and Covenants

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

Some, however, still did not like it. 

The Concept of Covenant Membership

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

I understand that fear.

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

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

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

Opposition to Membership Classes

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

The most common is:

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

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

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

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

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

That's not legalism. That's loving.

Membership Interviews

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

What will happen in the interviews?

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

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

Expectations of a member will be also presented.

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

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

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

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

You Want to Join Our Church?

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

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


The Awkward Encounter with a Former Church Member

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what do I do?

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

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

Awkward, but not bad.

Membership Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leeman continues:

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

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

My Responsibility to "My" Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back To The Awkward Encounter

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

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

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

The Awkwardness Will Likely Continue

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Planters

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

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

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

So I said it.

And, it bears repeating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep the main thing the main thing.

4. Don't overpromise and underdeliver.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Don't forget us.

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

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

We forget to contact our planters.

We forget to pray for them regularly.

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

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

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

And the planter family feels so very alone.

The Three "P"s

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vital Questions

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

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

 

__________

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, there are others.

The Flag

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

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

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

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

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

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

What About the Pledge?

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

One that many grew up reciting is this:

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

Another version is:

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

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

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

There is no definitive pledge to the Christian flag.

Why a Flag?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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