Our Church Turns One-Hundred Years Old

First Baptist Church of Orange Park (where I have the honor of serving as pastor) was founded on May 1, 1921. The church was initially started after Mrs. Carrie Clarke began leading a children's Bible study on her front porch (that house is located across the street from our church facility in the Town of Orange Park's "Clarke House Park.") We have had a few buildings in our history and actually were located in the older part of town for decades until land was purchased and the church was relocated "on the other side of the tracks." This was a strategic and significant move.

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The first paid pastor of our church was a student at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida. Today it takes about an hour and a half to get from DeLand to Orange Park. Back then there were no interstates or highway systems as we have now, not to mention the many bridges over the rivers. The pastor would drive up on weekends to preach at First Baptist two Sundays each month and would drive to First Baptist Church of Jacksonville Beach for the other two Sundays. 

We have had a rich history here at First Baptist Church. Numerous men have served as pastor. I was informed about a year ago that I was the longest tenured pastor First Baptist has ever had. That just didn't seem right. Surely I hadn't been in the lead pastor role that long. I did some research and discovered it is true. I have served as senior pastor since August 2005. Prior to that, I served from 1994-2005 as Student Pastor and Single Adult Pastor. 

I know we have some great men who have served as pastor here at First Baptist. I had the honor of knowing Pastor Carroll Kendrick. He served here about forty years ago. He may have been one of the smartest men I have ever met. He was always very kind, gracious, and encouraging to me.

When the church called me to serve on staff, Dr. Allen Harrod was serving as pastor. He served for over fourteen years (making him the second-longest tenured pastor.) For me, coming right out of seminary, moving to this great unknown area of ministry in a state I had never even visited was a bit daunting. Yet, Dr. Harrod and his wife Joyce were so welcoming to my wife Tracy and me. We knew this was where God had called us. As the years go by, I am more and more thankful for the faithfulness of Dr. Harrod. Under his leadership our church healed from some very challenging times. We also made the very needed steps to affirm the inerrancy of God's Word in our teaching and preaching. The greatest systematic growth of FBCOP occurred under Dr. Harrod's leadership as he led us to build our current worship center, music suite, educational wing, gymnasium, and office complex. Integrity is always needed in the position of pastor and Dr. Harrod proved to be a consistent man of integrity, always seeking to lead the church as he felt God was leading him, in accordance to God's Word.

As I read through more of our church's history, there are some exciting and amazing moments that show how God was blessing and using FBCOP for his glory. Men and women surrendered to ministry and were sent out from our church to the field. Some served in pastoral roles. Others as missionaries. A number of churches were launched and new church plants supported over the years. There are many victories in our story where God alone gets the glory and credit.

Sadly, there are also stories where some in leadership positions abandoned God's lead and actually caused great harm to the cause of Christ and to his children. While these instances occurred many decades in the past and long before I ever visited Florida or was even out of high school, the facts are these very dark chapters exist. We know many were hurt and for that we are so very sorry. In fact, on occasion I encounter some who are actually facing PTSD in their own lives due to trauma from the past that came from our church. I have sought to minister to these now adults and express my very real and great concern and love for them. In many cases, it is clear that God has healed them (though the scars remain) and in others, the healing is still needed. While those moments of sinful disgust and mistreatment (BTW - the violators have been dealt with through legal processes) are certainly part of our story (and cannot be ignored) they thankfully do not define the work of God in Orange Park through First Baptist Church at large. The enemy would love for FBC to have folded in those days, but for the grace of God and those seeking to follow his lead, we remain.

This is not a moment to congratulate ourselves for surviving to our one-hundredth anniversary, but a time to thank God for his goodness, his grace, his mercy, and for having his hand upon us all these years. 

I am very thankful to be serving the people of First Baptist as God's servant. I know I will not be the last pastor this great church has, but for this moment he has seen fit to allow me this role. So, as we look back over our one-hundred year history, I cannot help but be thankful while simultaneously asking God "What's next?"

The days ahead are exciting. I pray that we continue to look up and look ahead to glorify God well as First Baptist Church of Orange Park and prepare the way for the next generation and the ones to come after that.


Cancer, Christians, and What the Church Can Do

In our local church we have had what seems to be our fair share (if not an overabundance) of members who have been diagnosed with cancer over the years. The "prayer list" seems to always have names of men, women, and even boys and girls at times, who have been diagnosed with the dreaded "C" word.

Even though I have not personally been diagnosed with the disease, I have had family members placed under that cloud. I imagine everyone reading this knows someone who has had, or currently is, fighting cancer. 

As I write this, there are four women in our church who are front and center in my mind as they are on their own journeys of treatment for their cancer. Their loved ones have sought prayer. Their children are worried. They are super strong women, but even their strength is sometimes tested to the breaking point as they work through their chemotherapy and other treatments. 

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Photo by Olga Kononenko on Unsplash

The men in our church have faced their share of cancers as well. Each story is unique and yet as they go through their own personal journeys, a fraternity of sorts develops of those who have been down the road before. 

Thankfully, we are in an age where many cancers are treatable. Many have great success with recovery. One of our dear sisters shared with me last week that for the first time in many years, she has been declared "cancer free" as the doctor said her cancer is in a state of dormancy. This is nothing less than miraculous as even the doctors did not expect this in her journey. She was smiling from ear to ear giving God praise for the day, and every day to come. Certainly the disease and treatments over the years have taken their toll on her body, but her spirit is strong and I was reminded of God's goodness and grace at that moment. 

Not everyone gets such a report, but God remains faithful. 

While that may not sound encouraging, it truly is. 

The Fear That Follows the Shock

The initial shock of being diagnosed with cancer must seem overwhelming. I imagine that following the shock, there is often a wave of fear tinged with anger that hits. At least that is what I have been told. In a church culture that often reminds believers that they should not fear but have faith, even the strongest of Christians wonders how that is possible when the diagnosis is given.

Leslie Schmucker, a cancer survivor and believer, wrote a guest column about her journey with cancer for Desiring God. In her article (full article here), she states...

Just because we feel some measure of fear does not mean we have no faith; it just means that our faith isn’t perfect yet. Our temporal flesh is broken and weak, and God knows that. That’s why he “gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). As we look to God in faith, his Spirit gives us strength to act from an eternal perspective and to resist cowering in our temporal frailty.

These are good words for those fearing the road ahead and then fearing that that fear is nothing more than lack of faith and therefore, sin. Fear and faith are not necessarily polar opposites. Fear leads to the opportunities to faithfully receive strength that cannot be mustered within oneself.

Don't Waste This Moment

Desiring God is the ministry of John Piper. Piper's transparency through his own battle with cancer has helped him minister well to other believers going through their own cancer journey. Of his most poignant writings on the subject is titled "Ten Ways Not To Waste Your Cancer." If this were written by someone like me who has never faced cancer first-hand, it would sound idealistic and even offensive, but coming from one who was diagnosed and faced the very daunting reality of cancer, it gives clarity. It is truthful and hopeful.

I'll just list the ten points here, but encourage you to click here for the full article by Piper with insight from David Powlison (who also faced his own cancer.) 

  1. You will waste your cancer if you do not believe God designed it for you.
  2. You will waste your cancer if you believe it is a curse and not a gift.
  3. You will waste your cancer if you seek comfort from your odds rather than from God.
  4. You will waste your cancer if you refuse to think about death.
  5. You will waste your cancer if you think that "beating" cancer means staying alive rather than cherishing Christ.
  6. You will waste your cancer if you spend too much time reading about cancer and not enough time reading about God.
  7. You will waste your cancer if you let it drive you into solitude instead of deepen your relationships with manifest affection.
  8. You will waste your cancer if you grieve as those who have no hope.
  9. You will waste your cancer if you treat sin as casually as before.
  10. You will waste your cancer if you fail to use it as a means to the truth and glory of Christ.

Piper's pamphlet, as well as audio recordings, of Don't Waste Your Cancer are available on Amazon here.

If you find Piper's insight encouraging, or just challenging, take the time to listen to him here as he speaks of the truths he faced when the diagnosis was given:

What's a Church To Do?

When the church is viewed as little more than a club for the community to join so that good deeds may be done in the neighborhood, the concept of "church family" will never be experienced. If that is the case, then when crises or challenges such as cancer hit, the one battling the disease will not view their church as a place of respite, hope, and strength.

Since a church family is comprised of the redeemed, we are much more than a team. We are more than a club. We are more than a community group. We are family. In fact, as the redeemed, we are closer than blood relatives. We are united in the Spirit as one. We will hurt when one family member hurts. We will grieve when even one grieves. We will celebrate as one when victory is experienced.

Sadly, many never truly see their church family this way and some never will have such an experience of oneness. Perhaps this is due to the heightened individuality partnered with the desire not to go too deep with others that many of us have? Maybe it is just our sin nature at work? Whatever it is, much is lost to the individual Christian when there is no faith family to come alongside in times of trouble.

There is the tendency in many churches to share all the needs, issues, and illnesses with others as part of the "fill out the prayer list" time in groups, but to do little with the list once it is created. FYI - just because it is called a "prayer list" does not mean people are actually praying. That is not a shot. It's a confession.

We have our commission. There is no denying that we must make disciples as we go. We know we are to be on mission here, there, and throughout the world. We must. We also understand the very real calling to evangelize those who are far from God. These are not debatable. These are commands. When it comes to the greatest commandment, there is no argument that loving God is essential and that loving people is commanded. Yet, we may at times be guilty of loving those we have yet to meet more than those in our own church family.

To face outward only as a church may be called evangelistic and mission-minded by some, but leaves care for those within the fellowship undone.

To face inward only as a church may be called discipleship by some, but leaves the command to go ignored.

Therefore, when a brother or sister in our family is diagnosed with this horrendous "C" word, the church must respond. Maybe it will be the creation of a "Meal-train" online or a "GoFundMe" account to help cover financial hardships. Serving our loved ones in very practical ways are helpful - whether it be mowing their lawn, taking care of their kids, sending ready-to-eat meals to the home, or any other very such thing. And...if you say "Call me if you need anything" just realize they likely will not call. So, seek to find the need and fill it without waiting for the call. There are very real and tangible things that can and should be done. They are good and right to do.

However, the coming together as loving family members to pray must be paramount. Prayer is not our last resort. It must be our first response. Our intercession for the health of our loved ones is key.

We Must Pray

Pray for healing? Certainly.

What if healing does not come? Don't stop praying.

Our prayers will lead us to a healthy and strong understanding of the sovereignty of God. The God who loves deeply, is never wrong, heals fully, and provides completely desires the prayer of his children on behalf of his other children.

The humbling aspect of prayer is not only what our brothers and sisters facing cancer need, but what we all need. Every Christian in the family of God–every member in the local body–should know what the carpet in their room smells like due to being on their faces in prayer before the Lord.

Cancer has hit in the past.

Cancer has just been revealed in someone's present.

Cancer will be diagnosed in the present.

Treatments will be coordinated and handed out and those seeing to the treatments and applications of such should be lauded, appreciated, and prayed over. 

Those who are walking the cancer journey must be loved deeply by their church family. They must know this.

They need to be more than a name on a "prayer list." Love them well. Serve them honorably. Walk with them along the journey. And, get to know the smell of your carpet as you intercede for them. I will be.


"Gospel-Driven Ministry" by Jared C. Wilson - Book Review

There are a few authors who are on my "buy the book as soon as it is available" list. Jared C. Wilson is one such author. His books focusing on the gospel and specifically on church and ministry leadership are golden. Most recently, he has released a book titled Gospel-Driven Ministry: An Introduction to the Calling and Work of a Pastor. At first, I thought this may be a restructured or rereleased version of his book The Gospel-Driven Church. It is not. This book is focused more on the qualifications of the pastorate and the focus on gospel-centrality in ministry. (BTW - The Gospel-Driven Church is a must read as well.)

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I mentioned recently to some peers that Wilson's latest book is one I wish I had been able to read decades prior. The insight into the joys and challenges of pastoral ministry is so valuable. However, to be honest, even if this book was available a few decades prior, and even if I had been given it by a trusted pastor, and even if I had read it...I likely would not have been able to digest the depths of truth offered in needed and beneficial ways. The arrogance of my youth would have left me with a book full of highlighted phrases and healthy insight, but most likely not as impactful in my life and ministry as needed.

Nevertheless, I now have a stack of these books in my office. I have the honor of working with many church planters and new pastors in my city. Often over coffee or when meeting with one of these young men I give them a copy of Jared's book along with instructions to read, highlight, and think deeply on the insight offered. I am believing these men are more mature in their walk and less arrogant than I was at their age. I also have come to grips with the reality that I have shifted into the role of "older pastor" whom others believe may have some wisdom to offer. I may not have wisdom...but I do have a listening ear...and a free book by Jared C. Wilson.

What I love about Jared's writing is his clarity and boldness in declaring truth while also inviting the reader into his own stories of victory, pain, and pastoral calling. Jared writes about authentic situations and not just about ideal circumstances. He has a way of explaining the very true, challenging, fulfilling, and at times painful realities of serving as a pastor of a church while also seeking to be a godly husband, father, and friend. He reminds the pastor reading that church life is messy at times, but so very worth it as God is glorified when the gospel is central. I find myself reading through the book and pausing to say "Yep, that's true." It may not be new news, but it is comforting to know that the issues I face are not special, but are similar to what all pastors face (though certainly the context and circumstances may be unique.)

This book is a good read for all Christians, but a must-read for pastors and ministry leaders. The practical insight offered through easily understood story-telling, with real-life illustrations and stories remind the pastor/shepherd that ministry faithfulness is less on doing everything, but trusting that Christ has already done everything.

Being driven by and centered on the gospel is freeing and Wilson's writing is a breath of fresh air in an age of church-centered stress.

Here are just a sampling of quotes that I highlighted as I read Gospel-Driven Ministry. They're "tweetable" but ultimately are worth more than likes on a social media post. The wise will take these to heart:

  • "A call to pastoral ministry is the inclination to conform one's desires and direction to the aspiration of shepherding a church. it must not simply be a desire to preach." (p. 17)
  • "The pastorate is not a right or an entitlement. The pastorate is a sacred stewardship reserved only for the qualified, called, and commissioned men." (p. 24)
  • "If we do not preach Christ from the text, we are not preaching a Christian sermon." (p. 37)
  • "Ask yourself this: Could this sermon be preached in a synagogue? A Mormon temple? A Jehovah's Witness kingdom hall? Each of these religions affirms the moral uplift of the Scriptures. Each of them uses the Bible to make inspirational, spiritual points about doing god to others and honoring God. But the one thing that we have that they do not is the gospel. It is the gospel that chiefly distinguishes Christian preaching from unchristian preaching." (p. 65)
  • "Do not preach an illustration in search of a text." (p. 95)
  • "The heart of ministry is a heart that doesn't see people as the interruption to your ministry, but sees the interruptions as the ministry." (p. 121)
  • "Worse than an unfeeling, uncaring pastor is a sullen, whiny, sad-sack pastor." (p. 145)
  • "Be transparent. Be honest. Don't just share the what; explain the why." (p. 160)
  • "It may sound noble and godly to keep convenience store hours, but it's a fast track to physical exhaustion and gradual resentment of the flock." (p. 201)
  • "I used to think pastoral ministry was about helping people live. Then, I learned it was actually about helping people die." (p. 217)
  • "You are not ready to shepherd until you have been spiritual discombobulated by the gospel and essentially reconstituted by the gospel." (p. 226)
  • "Christian ministry is the overflow of the mystery of God in Christ coming to bear on your soul and, through yours, on the souls of others." (p. 227)

Certainly, it is clear by now. I highly recommend this book. Buy it. Read it. Highlight it. Thank God for the insight. Then, give a copy to another pastor or ministry leader. They will thank you for it.

And...in case you, like me, are now one of the "seasoned pastors" in your community. Read the book. Put it on your shelf. Then, in about a year, take it off the shelf and reread it. You will thank Jared for this.


Teenagers Need More Than the Coolest Youth Group In Town

A few weeks ago I was asked to lead one of our local junior high school's Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) huddle. 

What I love about these young people is that once they determined that being an athlete on a school-sponsored team was not required for attending the huddle, they began inviting fellow students and have played around with an alternate name for the club. While still officially a Fellowship of Christian Athletes huddle (and approved by FCA as an official group) these students will say that the "A" can mean athlete, academician, artist, or just anybody. To be honest, I like the name "Fellowship of Christian Anybodies."

I asked them to list some of the issues their fellow students were facing. We focused on the "other students at school" in that it is often easier for the students to share their own struggles when it is seemingly focused on what others may be facing. Believe me, everyone in the room knew exactly what we were talking about.

Every generation of teenagers has had their issues, their struggles, and their challenges. Just being a twelve to fourteen-year-old in a public school brings overwhelming challenges. Yet, this group shared things that were on such lists years prior.

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As the students began to share, the list grew longer and sadder. Here are just a few of the items I wrote upon the whiteboard as they shared.

  • Pressure to vape
  • Pressure to drink and do drugs
  • Pressure to have a "significant other"
  • Family issues
  • Struggles with being adopted
  • Parents divorcing
  • Bullying
  • Grades
  • Pressure from parents (to play sports, be in band, be on a travel team, keep good grades, get into the college of choice, get a boyfriend/girlfriend, etc.)
  • Gender confusion and identity (LGBTQ+)
  • Sexual pressure
  • Etc.

Many of these items have been issues for decades, but some are moving up the list to be more prominent now. Others, like vaping, were not issues in years past because they did not exist. The stress of performance partnered with parental pressure and peer bullying is huge, and not only in-person, but also, if not more so, online and through social media platforms and oft-used apps by students.

I then asked the students what the answer was to all these issues and in typical fashion, from students who state they are Christians, "Jesus" was the answer given.

He is. He always has been.

Then I asked, "But do Christian students–those who have surrendered to Christ as Savior and have been transformed by the Holy Spirit–deal with these issues, too?"

Their eyes opened wider and it was an "a-ha" moment for many of them. They knew the answer was Jesus because in Sunday School, at youth group, at camp, and in most every evangelical youth gathering in our churches today they are taught he is. It is not that the answer is more than Jesus. It is not, but the realization that even being a Christian does not make them immune to such pressures seemed like a revelation to them. 

The bell rang. We prayed. They then went to begin their school day.

More Than Lock-Ins and Pizza Parties

As I was driving to the office following this meeting, I began to think about the youth ministry God blessed me to lead for many years here at our church. We filled the room weekly for our Wednesday worship. We would load the buses for trips to the beach, the theme parks, youth camps, and special concerts and events. We held DiscipleNow Weekends in homes where over one-hundred students paid to go "deep" in Bible study with guest leaders over a weekend. We held lock-ins (the absolute worst event ever devised for youth groups–designed to eradicate all sane adult volunteers in student ministry, IMHO) and concerts, game nights, competitions, movie nights, work days, matching T-shirts mission trips, and every other thing created by youth pastors in what I see now as the "golden age of big group youth ministry."

I planned these events. I enjoyed them. We saw thousands of teenagers over the years attend and many make life-changing, eternal decisions for Christ. 

These were good days.

But...there was always something missing. I could not put my finger on it at the time, but I knew we were just a degree or two off in our mission and our focus.

Perhaps it was the trickle-down effect of the church growth movement?

Perhaps it was the pressure to create the best youth experience in the city?

Perhaps it was always feeling the need to out-do the church down the street, or even worse, the youth event we held the previous month?

Hindsight is 20/20

I know young adults (and not as young as they think adults) now whom I was blessed to serve as youth pastor, who are walking with the Lord. They are serving him and his church. They are leading their own children well. Some are even serving in full-time ministry. There are many whom are considered co-laborers for the sake of the gospel.

Yet, there are many others who walked out of the church building after receiving the free book (they never read) and the "ConGRADulations" CD of Christian music when we recognized them as high school graduates. They seemingly left the version of faith they claimed to be true, impactful, life-changing, and important, back in the youth room, or in that dusty box of high school memories in their parents' attic.

I heard the very real issues and concerns shared by the group of teenagers I had the honor of meeting with last week. I think about the immensity of what they face. In many cases, their parents or guardians are feeling similar pressures. I know this is true because of the emails, texts, and direct messages I receive almost weekly from parents or guardians hoping I can give them practical, step-by-step answers for some of the most grueling issues their teenagers are facing. 

The answer is still Jesus. He always will be, but as these parents are recognizing, the very real and important need for growing as a disciple is not something that can be outsourced to a youth minister or a Sunday school teacher.

When I served as a youth pastor, I was satisfied living in my silo of youth ministry. I talked with and resourced parents as best I could, but ultimately, I was engaged with reaching teenagers. I would say that my intent was to reach them for Christ (and it was) but sometimes, it seems I was focused on reaching them for my youth ministry. Ultimately, we had hundreds of teenagers who joined a youth group, but never joined the church or God's family. Lost teenagers wearing Christian t-shirts was common.

This is changing as our church has moved to a model of student ministry (as well as preschool and children's) called Family Equipping (read more here.) The focus is less on the young person and more on equipping parents and guardians to be lead disciple-makers in their homes. Those who understand the value are praising this shift.

Others who simply long for their teenagers to be part of a large youth group so they can make great memories and do all the things their parents did a couple of decades earlier do not like this. Some have left our church. They have found other churches who provide the very same type of ministry that was so prevalent in the golden age. These are not bad churches. They are wonderful and God is using those ministries for his glory. It is just that they are functioning under a different model. I pray for them and their impact for the kingdom.

Since hindsight is 20/20, I now know that when our church functioned under such a model, we did a disservice to families and students. We settled for good, when God was calling us to better.

The bottom line is that teenagers who are struggling with their sexuality, their gender identity, the pressures to perform, the temptations to vape and other things, the stresses of family breakdowns, and the host of other things that end up on a whiteboard at a junior high school do not simply need the world's greatest pizza party, a sub-par event with dumbed-down inspirational "talks," matching t-shirts, or just someone to sit by in the church service.

They certainly need Jesus, but they also need a roadmap for next steps in their journey of life. Not only that, they need a guide to help them take those steps. Ideally, those guides are their parents. In some cases, they must be another (such as Paul became for Timothy.) 

It is essential that we equip believers well, for this generation and the ones to come.

May we never be guilty of outsourcing discipleship that is commissioned to us.

Oh, and by the way, I am not opposed to pizza parties, youth camps, mission trips, and DiscipleNow Weekends. I think these are all valid, good, and helpful. As for lock-ins though...they are of the devil, so no love for them.


What In The World Is Going On In The SBC?

Our denomination is unique from other groups that fall under that designation. In fact, Southern Baptists are not actually a denomination by the full definition of the term. This is due to the autonomy of Baptist churches and the organization our cooperative network of churches that includes an annual convention, state conventions, and associations. This is much different from mainline denominations with boards, presbyteries, bishops, and hierarchical organizations. Click here for a bit more detail on the organizational structure of the SBC.

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While Southern Baptists have long been known as people of the Word, mostly conservative in theology, and focused on missions and evangelism and creators of the wonderful concept known as the Cooperative Program, it remains true that there are chapters in our collective history that are not ones we like to revisit. This is not unlike our own local church, and every church older than a decade within our convention. In fact, even the founding of the SBC was not a high point of our work, being that it was ultimately due to the desire to send missionaries who were slave-holders to the field, excusing the sin of slavery. Yet, God has redeemed that and Southern Baptists have since repented for such actions (though continual and ongoing work on loving our brothers and sisters well is needed.) I won't rehash the history here, but it is worth reading. I recommend the books Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention by Dr. Jarvis Williams and Dr. Kevin Jones and The SBC and the 21st Century by Dr. Jason Allen, President of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

It was back in the late 1970s and early 1980s that a concerted effort to turn the tide of liberal theology was put in place within our denomination. This has been called "The Conservative Resurgence" by those who prevailed. I am thankful for this movement to affirm the inerrancy of Scripture and the effective shift of repositioning our seminaries toward biblical fidelity.

Over the years, some in our SBC family have become frustrated at "the way things are going." This is true for all organizations, so we are not immune. There are blogs and sites set up that hash out all these issues. Some have legitimate concerns. Others, it seems, are sadly positioned to continually stir the pot.

Recently I received an email from one of our church members with honest, concerned questions about our SBC. Based on reports of creeping liberalism, racial division, doctrinal issues, and more, he was asking some specifics and wanting to know what was happening and if we are about to disband or become defunct.

I answered his questions as honestly, clearly, and specifically as I could. I certainly am concerned about the future of our convention, but I do not believe we are headed to a place of heresy under current leadership as claimed by some. However, I do believe we are at a place now defined by disunity and anger.

Perhaps this is nothing more than a great distraction?

Some state it is a moment of reckoning. They are focused on calling out brothers and sisters in Christ (claiming it is in love, but sadly not showing such.) Some have created a sub-network within our convention as a movement of reform or correction. I will not be leading our church to join group for I do not believe it to be necessary, needed, or helpful.

We now find ourselves in a place (well, it is similar to a place previous Baptist leaders and church members have been in the past - just change the issues and names) where if you claim to be friends...or worse yet, aligned with Pastor A, you cannot be friends with Pastor B. 

It's ridiculous. 

I actually have friends within our denominational family who would be considered to be in different camps (or networks.) No, I don't agree with all of them and they likely do not agree with me on all things, but I do know this...each desires to see the lost come to Christ, the church to be faithful, and God to be glorified. You know what? That could be unifying, if we would let it.

There are stories that seemingly come out weekly regarding the latest problems with Southern Baptists. Some are verifiable. Others are as accurate as the latest shopping center tabloids (do they still print those?) Yes...it is a mess. Certainly, we have issues. Absolutely, biblical fidelity and conservative, faithful, doctrine matters. Our statement of faith, the Baptist Faith & Message (2000) is good. We affirm it. It is not inerrant as only Scripture is, but it reveals what we as Southern Baptists (or Great Commission Baptists) hold to be true from Scripture.

So, my answer to my brother and member of my church is...

"We have not abandoned our doctrinal beliefs. We hold to the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture. We believe the Great Commission...though we are not seemingly making disciples as we should. We believe the Great Commandment...though we are apparently not loving others very well. I believe repentance is needed. I believe unity is the desire, but not unity for unity's sake. We must be unified in the calling to proclaim the gospel clearly, to live holy, to be the ambassadors for Christ he has called us to be. Unity in other items simply leads us off-course and keeps us off-course."

With all the confusion, frustration, name-calling, positioning, sub-networking, etc. that has recently occurred, knowing that a growing tidal wave about to hit the beach (apparently, our beach is in Nashville and the wave is scheduled to hit in June at our annual meeting) I am so thankful for my brother-in-Christ and our SBC President, Pastor J.D. Greear and the message he brought this week to the SBC Executive Committee. Not every Southern Baptist approves of the work J.D. Greear has done as our president. I do approve and I believe he has been placed in this unique position for such a time as this. Rather than simply reinterpret what God led Greear to preach, I encourage you to take the time to watch his message yourself. The link is below. (The video below is Greear's message edited from the full plenary session found at the SBC website. The full plenary session is almost three hours long and the original video is found here. I only edited to pull Greear's message from this for quicker viewing.)

Friends, our convention is not perfect. Yet, I believe we have been blessed beyond what we deserve. God has redeemed us for a greater story. Be encouraged. If we can avoid the distractions that pull us from our calling, we will be known as Great Commission Baptists not because we chose a new alternate title for our denomination, but because we are focused, united, together for the sake of the gospel. 

Better days lie ahead. Let's press on.


The Ravi Zacharias Scandal & the Danger of Creating Celebrity Christians

I will often get questions from church members, even those on staff, regarding the feasibility of using a curriculum item or teaching series by certain teachers. This has seemingly multiplied as more and more pastors and teachers have shifted from the "Good to listen to" list to the "We won't use that material." In some cases it is due to doctrinal errors. Yet, some are due to overt, revealed, moral failure.

The most recent, and perhaps the most frustrating among evangelical leaders, has been the revealed sinful actions of Ravi Zacharias. For years, Zacharias had been celebrated as an accomplished apologist in the church. His gatherings at public universities where he would debate atheists and take questions from students have been viewed by millions. His soft-spoken demeanor and intelligent way of engaging in these venues with what appeared to be true care and love was unique. I enjoyed his teachings and viewed numerous clips such as these. I have also read his writings and books.

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Photo credit: lausannemovement on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

A couple of years ago I had a meeting with the general manager of a local Christian radio station. This station has faithfully presented great preaching and teaching over the airwaves in our community for decades. We had hosted a fiftieth anniversary celebration for them a few years back and we were discussing another community gathering sponsored by the station. One of the potential speakers they were talking with was Ravi Zacharias. At this point, I mentioned that there were some stories circulating about Ravi and they may wish to look into those before booking. The stories were floating around on the internet and being shared on social media, but by and large, they were not known (or were being ignored) by most Christians.

The stories were concerning, but they had been refuted by Ravi and most people just believed the man whom they saw as a purveyor of truth and therefore viewed the accusers as just seeking money or notoriety. 

Grieving the Death of Ravi

Ravi Zacharias had been ill for a while and in May 2020 he died. There were many who mourned his death and postings asking for prayer for his family members were flooding the internet. This was a time of grief and I, as well as many others, were sad that he had died, was praying for his family, and wondering what the next phase of his ministry (RZIM) would be.

Grieving More Deeply at What Has Been Revealed

It has been almost a full year and more and more stories of Ravi have come to the surface. The ministry had called in an independent investigating team to see what these stories held. The truth of the one who built a ministry declaring the truth has become known.

Years of sexual sin has been admitted by the ministry after reviewing the evidence. There are many stories now covering the issues. Here are some...

His ministry (RZIM) posted a well-written and clear open letter. Click here to read.

The Crushing of Idols

Ravi was gifted a platform and he used that well, when it comes to his teaching. Yet, it seems he also used that well when it came to victimizing others. Ravi Zacharias was a celebrity evangelist. He was...dare I say "idolized" by many. This truth even comes out in some of the stories revealing that dark side. Idolatry is a terrible, abhorrent thing.

I have heard many sermons on the sin of having idols.

I have not heard many on the dangers of becoming an idol.

In this case, the celebrity (even posthumously) has fallen. The idol that many held has been crushed. Even more tragic are the responses I read and hear from Christian brothers and sisters. 

"There but for the grace of God, go I"

Well-meaning Christians brothers and sisters respond to the stories as they continue to be revealed, but often the responses are little more than salt in the wounds of the victims. Clearly, in this age of #MeToo and #ChurchToo and even #SBCToo, there are women (and men) who have been victimized sexually by those in authority (in religious authority) and to read and hear the tepid responses by so many causes some to relive their own pains of abuse.

Certainly, we are all susceptible to the sins of the flesh, but that does not minimize, must not cover up or sugar-coat, the years of intentional, strategic, well-thought out sexual abuse at that hands of this man. There are victims. That means Ravi was the victimizer.

"It's their words against his"

I read this in a comment online. In this case, it is much more than that. RZIM has confessed the accusations are true. They have stated after the investigation that they believe these accusations. Here, in the ministry leaders own open letter it states, "We believe not only the women who made their allegations public but also additional women who had not previously made public allegations against Ravi but whose identities and stories were uncovered during the investigation."

"It's not fair to accuse him after his death"

It is fair. Why? Because the ramifications of his acts remain. Victims are still alive.

"Even David sinned sexually and remained king"

Ravi Zacharias is not King David. The stories are both tragic. They are both evidence of the power of sexual sin and lustful desire, but it is not right, nor helpful to just lean into David every time we see a leader fall. David is not to be our model. Christ alone is.

"I just won't believe it"

This is the kicker. This comment was posted on the Baptist Press's Facebook page under their article on the subject. Responses to this person's comment were strong, and mostly in love. The "I just WON'T believe it" was emphasized. This is a statement of willfully ignoring the facts of sinful (and in this case criminal) acts simply because you do not wish the story to be true.

Perhaps this is the logical result of evangelicals declaring "Fake News" to everything in the mainstream media that is offensive, perceived to be skewed, and certainly written from a non-biblical worldview. Yet, just because a story says the opposite of what we wish does not make it false. 

"I just WON'T believe it" is akin to "I choose my own truth" and that, my friends, is not what Scripture teaches.

How Many More?

Ravi's failure has become just another in a long list of previously respected Bible teachers and leaders we will no longer affirm in our church.

It is disheartening at a minimum when reading of Ravi and others. It is also a clarion call to the church to ensure that we never elevate a man or woman whom we really, really like into a position that is reserved for Christ alone. 

Sadly, there remain many who are guilty of similar sexual abuse acts within the church. In most cases, they are not celebrity pastors. They are not heads of international ministries. They are not well-known outside a small community. They have abused and continue to do so. In some cases, they just shift to another small church where they begin again, leaving victims in their wake who wonder where God was, where he is, and why the church puts up with and seemingly excuses such.

In my denomination (Southern Baptist Convention) there has been a call for a database churches could access to discover such stories. Under the banner of autonomy, that has yet to be set up. Since I am simply a pastor of a local church, I am likely unaware of all the legal ramifications and issues that may make something like this untenable. Yet, I also pastor a church that has a tragic story in our history. In our case, the abuser was hired after doing the same at a previous church. I think it's time we figure out how to make such a clearinghouse work. Otherwise, we will have more Ravi stories, but sadly...more will remain unveiled and the hurt will continue.

"I just don't want to believe it...but it is true. God help us."


What Burdens You?

Last year a book titled Younique: Designing the Life that God Dreamed for You by Will Mancini, Dave Rhodes, and Cory Hartman was published. Mancini and his team are well-known among pastors and church leaders for their practical, easy to comprehend, and contextual works on church leadership, vision development, and contextual engagement. Books such as Church Unique and the recently published Future Church have proven and are proving to be very helpful to many pastors and ministry leaders.

Younique is a book focusing not on the organization or organism known as the local church, but on the individual Christ-follower seeking to live obediently and abundantly (that's how Christ defined our lives as Christians.) I do recommend the book as a whole, but in this post, I want to address one element that Mancini and team reveal.

The Passion Funnel

There is much presented in the book about personal giftedness, interests, and calling. I won't get into the details of each as Mancini's group - Future Church Company is available for consultations and will gladly provide such training for churches and leadership teams. 

Life funnelHowever, in reading about and working through a cohort with other leaders on this subject, the concept of the Passion Funnel continues to resonate with me. To best understand, picture a funnel (duh...thus, the name.) At the top, think of FIVE THINGS THAT INTEREST YOU. These are things that you enjoy doing. At first, you may try to overly spiritualize these things, but think more broadly (and yes, I know ultimately, everything is spiritual, but work with me here.)

You have your five interests. They could be things like: fishing, reading, watching sports, playing board games, collecting coins, etc. These are your hobbies, the things you enjoy doing in your free time.

Now, slide down the funnel a bit to the next level.

Think of THREE OR FOUR THINGS THAT EXCITE YOU. These would be things that give you energy. These are things you look forward to doing. 

The next level down are the TWO OR THREE THINGS THAT DRIVE YOU. What are the things you must do? These are those things that get you up in the morning. They energize you. They make the day seem shorter and feel productive.

Now, for the bottom of the funnel. This is the ONE THING THAT BURDENS YOU. This is not what gets you up in the morning, but what keeps you up at night. This is not something that creates unholy worry or anxiety, but that which God has placed within your unique design that others just may not have. Even other brothers and sisters in Christ may not resonate with that which burdens you. It often is a challenge or a quest. This burden is your holy discontent. It is the calling that reveals God's love for you, your love for him and others, and your answer to why you were born when you were, where you were, and why you have been placed by God where you are now.

This is the burden that keeps us from just existing and waiting out our days on this earth. It motivates us to live full and abundantly as Christians for God's glory and the impact for his Kingdom.

What burdens you? 

For me, the overwhelming lostness in our community and throughout the world keeps me up at night. This is expressed in my great concern for the families who are struggling, for the marriages that are failing, for the children who are questioning truth. 

Thankfully, God is not relying on me. I am relying on him. He has created us in his image for his glory and has called, commissioned, and placed us where we are.

As our church's leadership team discussed our unique individual designs this past week we realized (or more likely remembered) that God has not created us as clones, but as unique works of art with glorious differences all for his glory. This is not a reality simply for pastors or ministry leaders.

Imagine what God's church would do if every Christ-following image-bearer within the body lived fully from their uniquely created and redeemed heart, recognizing that which burdens them (and knowing that is part of God's design as well,) and prayerfully following God's calling within their own heart, family, community, and ultimately the world. 

Don't get stuck in the funnel. That opening at the bottom of the funnel is strategic, so that as you live in community, you do so in a healthy, God-glorifying, other-impacting way.

_____________

This concept and more are explained much better and in more detail in the book Younique: Designing the Life that God Dreamed for You by Will Mancini, Dave Rhodes, and Cory Hartman. I highly recommend it. Click the title of the book to secure your own copy. 


What If You Received a Letter From Your Church About Your Giving?

A few years ago I finally recognized that when young pastors are told to find mentors in the ministry who have served as pastors longer, who are older, presumably wiser, and have more grey hair (or... no hair) that I was now in the category of the older pastors rather than the younger ones.

I see questions posted online on forums or on other social media platforms from young pastors wondering if something they are dealing with is "normal." Sometimes, there are questions presented such as "Do you think it is wise to _________?" referencing things that may seem logical, right, not unbiblical, but may cause controversy.

Yesterday,  young pastor messaged me a question. He was referencing some of my online posts, sermon clips, blog posts, etc. I have known this young man for quite a while and he serves a church located in another state, but in the same denominational tribe as ours. His question (paraphrased) was "How is this thoroughly gospel-centered messaging playing in your church? I imagine your demographics are similar to ours but you do not seem to be pulling any punches. I’m curious as to the impact with your people." I was so thankful for this question.

I answered initially with one word - longevity.

I have been serving as pastor at my church since 2005. Prior to that, I served seven years here at the same church in an associate pastor role. In other words, I have been here a long time. That does not give me permission to just say or do anything. However, longevity does help build trust. When a pastor is trusted, even if not agreed with regarding certain decisions, the opportunities for caring speech, seasoned with grace, and leading with intention occur.

Of course, the grace of God's people is incredible as well and not to be minimized. These wonderful people I have the privilege to pastor love well, serve gladly, and have shown me much grace over the years. An outspoken pastor needs a gracious church.

That being said, speaking truth and leading well are not things to be pushed to the back burner. 

There are times when I'm preaching when I say things that were not actually typed in my notes. These off-the-cuff statements must not to be unbiblical, unloving, or outside the theme or focus of the sermon. Yet, sometimes when I say such things, I leave those in the congregation (and often others on our staff...as well as my wife) saying "Did he really just say that?"

What I Said About "The Letter" 

Two Sundays ago, in my sermon focusing on generous giving and the fact that healthy Christians should be generous Christians, I spoke of the work of the church and the funding for missions and ministry that gifts from covenant church members provide. I mentioned tithing, but even in that, did not speak of it as a dogmatic rule in that I understand the Old Testament requirement for such giving by the Jews and the New Testament calling to live generously (meaning...it's not measured by a ten-percent amount. In other words, God desires one-hundred percent of our lives, not just a portion.) Nevertheless, I did not denounce the tithe. I believe it is a great start for generous giving and in my life, it has always been considered a minimum, not a maximum.

Mail-newsletter-home-mailbox-hiring

I then mentioned that our church may send a letter to those covenant church members who previously were on record as systematic, regular givers to the ministry of our church, but have most recently not been giving.

I didn't stay on that subject. It was not in my notes, but I did say it. 

Maybe I needed an older pastor to get counsel before saying it?

Nevertheless, a few members asked "Are you really going to send out a letter?" 

Some believed that many members would leave our church if such a letter were sent.

Other stated that what they give to the church is private and therefore, no one should know what they give.

Still others were wondering that since I stated from the stage that I do not know how much any individual church member gives, how could I know who should receive such a letter.

What Such a Letter Would Say

Rather than stir up something unnecessarily, let's look at what such a letter may say.

Here is some background on this. Our leadership team was meeting and discussing upcoming sermons and the topic of generous giving and this sermon came up. One of our pastors recalled when he and his wife were in seminary and they received a letter from the church where they were members. As is often the case in seminary, funds were tight and they had not given recently (for a period of time) as they had initially and had covenanted with their church to do.

Here is what his letter (well actually an email) stated:

Hey there,
 
I hope you are doing well. I think you probably know this, but in case you don't—one of the ways we try to hold church members accountable to the church covenant is checking in with members who have no recorded giving for an extended period of time.
 
We don't have any recorded giving for you for some time, so I wanted to touch base.
 
If you have been faithful in this area of our church covenant but have chosen to give cash anonymously, please just let me know that. I don't need to know numbers or anything; just that you are fulfilling this area of the covenant.
 
If, however, this is not an area that you have been fulfilling, let me just encourage you to do so soon. Again, our covenant does not specify and amount, but only that we give "cheerfully, regularly, and generously."
 
If there is some hardship that would prevent you from doing so, or if you have some concerns about this commitment, I'd love to sit down and talk with you about it.
 
Grace and peace.
 
(P.S. - The latest report I have is from early May. If you have given since then, just let me know!)

As our associate pastor read this to our team, I was taken by the overwhelming sense of care and grace expressed in these words. This was not a letter from a church bent on padding its bank account. It was from a pastor at the church tasked with connecting and keeping up with church members.

The truth is that some would not like getting such a letter, for the reasons I mentioned above. So I asked our associate pastor how he and his wife responded. 

He said they greatly appreciated the letter and it opened the door for them to repent to God for not fulfilling that which they have covenanted to do, but also to share with the pastor the very real needs they were facing. 

This was not a "going to the principal's office" encounter, but a moment revealed by a "red flag" of no giving (after previously giving regularly) that showed the church and pastoral staff how to serve and minister to this family.

Answers to the Common Questions

Concerns raised are legitimate and here is how I responded to a church member when these were presented to me.

  • For the church member who may be offended and leave because they receive such a letter: The truth is they likely have mentally (if not physically already left.) This is sad, but the "offense" taken is not legitimately offensive. Now, if they leave the church angrily and join a sister church, then perhaps the new start will be great for them. Sadly, the sister church likely would need our prayer.
  • For the church member who states "My giving is private!": Certainly, that may be true if the church member gives his/her offering in cash or cashier's check, does not use envelopes with their name on it, or does not use online giving. It is not a sin to give anonymously. In fact, it is a good thing (remember the right hand-left hand teaching in Scripture?) However, if a record of contributions is needed each year for one's personal income tax returns, the fact is that someone knows that amount given. At a minimum, it is the financial secretary at the church. In many cases, it will be the person's accountant. Certainly, the IRS knows. Private? Not so much. Now, that does not give one permission or affirmation to brag about one's gifts to the church or to other charities. Boastful giving is prideful giving. Prideful giving is self-serving. Self-serving giving is sinful.
  • As for the pastor (me) not knowing what anyone gives, that is true. I choose to not know. I don't scour the giving records of church members. I don't look to see who may be giving regularly. I don't because I know me. I do not want to know. I said in the early service last week that I do not want to know because I do not want to give the stink-eye to certain members and elevate others. Giving generously is not the litmus test for faithfulness, but it is one of many indicators of a healthy Christian.

What If You Received Such a Letter?

How would you respond to such a letter or email. In our case, it would not come from me, because I do not know the giving record of our church members, but as I stated, our financial secretary does and those who work in that area of our leadership team do (or at least can find out.) 

Would you respond with "Who do they think they are?" or would you respond with relief and thankfulness?

There may be church members, part of your church family, who are struggling financially right now. This may be due to loss of job, cut wages, pandemic forced shutdowns, increased medical bills, or any number of things. We all know that many in our churches would be embarrassed that others know of their struggles. Yes, we know that we should be able to share truthfully and pray for one another, but alas, pride and potential embarrassment keep us from doing so at times.

So, look at it this way, if a faithful, covenant member of your church suddenly stops giving, serving, attending, etc. it may be a sign of a deeper struggle. We would be at fault for ignoring such signs. This must not be judgmental, but true familial Christian love and care.

Of course, letters, emails, and text messages are often received wrongly and read with the feelings of the reader, not the intent of the sender. So, perhaps a phone call or personal conversation would be best. 


Why Be a Disciple of Jesus Christ from Your Church?

Recently I have been listening and learning from other pastors, church leaders, ministry coaches, and those on our own church staff about some of the things that are essential to be a healthy church as well as a church with distinctive doctrinal beliefs and functions.

Will Mancini, Dave Rhodes, David Loveless, Carey Nieuwhof, Bob Bumgarner, and many others have been leading in strategic areas of church health and strategic disciple-making for years. These have been instrumental in my ministry (some I know personally and others only through their books and resources) most recently when it comes to navigating through the quickly changing church culture (thank you COVID) for current and future kingdom impact.

In today's leadership meeting with our church's staff, I took a question I first heard from Will Mancini regarding disciple-making. I shifted it a bit from Mancini's wording. This question led to fruitful discussion and more questions from our team. As we seek to be the men and women God has called us to be here at our church (First Baptist Church of Orange Park) the question led to clarity and, to be honest, some concepts we have previously not considered. So...here's the question:

Why would God want a disciple from our church?

In other words, what distinctive things that make our church unique provide value to being a disciple of Jesus Christ?

Lightstock_435493_medium_david_tarkington

If there is nothing uniquely offered by the fellowship and community that is our church family, then what advantage or benefit is there to being part of our local church family?

This is a challenging question, especially in the age of growing non-denominationalism and the increase of "nones" when it comes to church connection and identity.

Our church is Baptist. We are part of the Southern Baptist Convention. We hold to an understanding of doctrine that is uniquely Baptist. I stated in our meeting today that while we may apologize for the actions and words of some within our Baptist faith tribe, we do not apologize for adhering to the doctrinal truths that define us as Baptist. In our case, these are delineated in our confessional statement, the Baptist Faith & Message 2000.

These doctrinal beliefs are important and valuable, but as we see in our own church as well as across the denominational spectrum, there are members who do not know, and sadly in some cases do not care, the distinctive and long-held beliefs that identify ourselves as Baptist. This is true for churches of other denominations as well when it comes to their distinctive beliefs.

Doctrine Matters

Christians should be kingdom-minded, focusing on reaching the world for Christ, living as authentic believers, and being faithfully part of a larger story where God alone is glorified. However, some have landed in a "kingdom-0nly" focus where they have abandoned the distinctive truths that identify doctrinal uniqueness. In some cases, it has led to an anti-denominational belief that perhaps on the surface looks good, but may lead individuals to a very muddy understanding of doctrinally distinctive teachings. 

There are also those who are so arrogantly denominational (or arrogantly "my church only") that they will not see how anyone outside their church or declared faith tribe can truly be Christian. I have been asked "Do you think that only Baptists go to heaven?" My answer has been "No, I don't even think all Baptists are going to heaven."

The rise of fundamentalism in some cases has led to some churches and church members living in this category. The kingdom of God is therefore ultimately ignored while the little kingdoms of "our church" is elevated.

Mancini and Rhodes speak of a place where kingdom growth and focus is high as well as faith tribe (denomination or church) distinctive identities. This is a healthy place of gracious confidence.

The graciously confident believer can state, "We know we're not the only ones working toward kingdom growth but we're confident about what we bring to the table." This is a definition given by Mancini and Rhodes.

Hard Questions

So, as we look at our/your specific church, what are the distinctive beliefs and functions that make our/your church unique? What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus Christ from our/your church? What value does being part of our/your church provide the disciple? 

We are all called to love God, love people, and make disciples. That phrase is biblical, sounds good from the pulpit, and looks great on a tee shirt, but there is more the church must do in its disciple-making practice than just throw this tag-line out there.

We are taking a journey of faith together in our church that leads us to glorify God by being graciously confident in who we are in Christ. This is what each local church offers.

Does God desire more disciples from and through our/your church? Absolutely.

In our case, that means disciples who hold to the authority of the Word of God, reality of the Trinity, redemption through Christ alone, who is the Way, Truth, and the Life, priesthood of every believer, ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper as symbols of life and communion with God and our church family, and the opportunity to be part of a family equipped to glorify God by making disciples through redemptive communities.

Our unique calling is essential as is our adherence to the timeless doctrines of faith that identify us as God's children. In our case, this is declared in our alignment as Baptist Christians. 

Your church is to be a disciple-making church. So is mine. And it is vital we know why God would want more disciples from our church. This leads to kingdom-minded, biblically sound, graciously confident disciples who make disciples.


Pastoring In the Aftermath of the DC Riot

Early last week I read a news article that stated Iranian dissidents planned to attack the US Capitol Building on Wednesday, January 6. The threat was intercepted by air traffic controllers on Monday, January 4. Apparently, the motivation was retaliation of the 2020 killing of Iranian military leader, General Qassem Soleimani.

The threat was considered a fake, but nonetheless, the FAA notified federal law enforcement and precautions were apparently taken. 

As we know now, no air strike on the Capitol occurred on January 6, but an attack did occur. While the US Senate and House of Representatives were gathering to affirm the votes of the Electoral College, finalizing Joseph Biden's victory in the presidential race, a mob gathered in DC and eventually broke into the US Capitol. 

Capitol-washington-dc-government-building

As has been stated ad nauseam for  the past three days in the media, this is the first time such an infiltration has occurred in the Capitol since the British did so during the War of 1812.

Ideology & Theology

Like millions of other Americans, I watched the news reports on television and on social media. The images of people busting windows, breaking through doors, and sitting and standing upon the desks of elected officials caused great frustration for me. However, it was not the images of the Grand Poobah of the Water Buffalo Lodge, the man known as "Baked Alaska," or even "Big O" the Arkansan mail thief that were most disturbing for me. What caught my eye was the prominence of banners stating "Jesus 2020" as if Christ was running for office, and the numerous Christian flags appearing throughout the crowds.

I’ve written of the danger of wrapping the American flag around the cross in the past. This goes far beyond healthy patriotism. When well-meaning Christians continue to wrap the flag around the cross, eventually the cross is no longer visible.  

One's political ideology should be influenced by one's theology. Sadly, some tend to get this backward.

Pastors: Be Strong and Courageous 

To my pastor friends who led well during the election cycle of 2020 by continually reminding your church members to pray for those in authority over them (Romans 13,) register to vote, be good citizens, and vote with conviction as men and women whose biblical worldviews drive their ideological and political beliefs...get ready. I believe many pastors will face challenges due to the events of this week that will test our capacity to shepherd well.

What you may face...

Perhaps you were appalled at the events of January 6 and spoke out online and in conversations. I pray you were able to do so from a place of calmness and clarity. Even so, if you dared call out those who resorted to violence and the destruction of national landmarks or those you believe incited such actions, not everyone in your congregation will approve of your words. Some will be angry and may let you know via text, email, social media, or if you're really fortunate, about five minutes before you preach on Sunday.

No church of any size is politically homogenous, even if every member is registered as the same political party. There are differences and strong opinions held by many. Once you declare your opposition to a politician revered by others, you will be labeled. In the binary world we live in, you are either anti-someone or pro-someone. Most cannot fathom that you can be strongly opposed to an individual in your chosen party and still be vehemently opposed to the platform statements of the opposition party (or vice versa.)

If you dared make statements against things said or done by the crowd at the Capitol last week, there will be some in your flock who may accuse you of being pro-big government, pro-abortion, pro-LGBTQ activism, and any number of other things categorized as liberal policy which, based on your long-held biblical convictions and theological conservatism, you oppose. But...that won't matter. You will be labeled. 

In anger, some may ask your opinions of the Black Lives Matter riots that occurred last year. You may be asked what you think about Antifa. Some will wonder why you still use Twitter and didn't get a Parler account. Some will label you any number of things that are not part of your job description as pastor, much less descriptive of who you are as a Christian. You may be labeled things like liberal, snowflake, sheep (okay that one is biblical, but likely not how they are using it,) progressive, or any other currently trending insult term.

What is strange is that you haven't changed at all. The biblical conservatism and inerrancy of God's Word you held to last week is the same today. Your calling as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ has not been revoked. God has not shifted. Your love for him and others has not waned. Your love for your church is secure. Your desire to teach sound doctrine, love the unlovable, engage your community for the sake of Christ, and any other thing you have faithfully led your church to do and be remains.

Yet...you may be doubted now more than ever.

But, maybe it is not so strange?

Maybe this is what we should expect–the enemy seeking to destroy God's church, not primarily through the elimination of free speech on social media (yes, this is a problem,) not through the bifurcation of the American people, not from laws that will seek to censor biblical preaching (yes, this is a huge problem as well and seemingly coming,) not from threats without, but from within.

And it has always been this way.

Pastor, continue to lean into God and his Word. Trust him. Pray for your flock. Be strong and courageous and speak words of truth. These days may not be easy. In fact, they will not be. We are called to be unified, but our unity centers around Christ. I encourage you to not forsake the truth for a false sense of togetherness. Be humble. Be gentle. Be patient and bear with one another. 

Be strong and courageous.

Regardless what happens in Washington DC, God remains who he always has been and always will be. He is sovereign. He is King of kings, Lord of lords, and you are his child called to serve him by shepherding his flock. I'm praying for you and for your church. I ask that you pray for me and the church I serve as well.

Ephesians 4:1-6

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Eph 4:1–6). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

 


Becoming a Healthy Church Takes More Than a Resolution

Last Sunday, I preached the sermon for our church's in-person and online gathering from my home office. The new year begins with a two-month sermon series on the the doctrine of the church. The irony of preaching the first sermon in a series titled "Healthy Church" from home due to being quarantined did not escape me. (Last week we had a positive COVID-19 test in our household so we are in quarantine.) 

Preaching via video is not my preference and had we received our COVID test results earlier, I likely would have asked one of our associate pastors to preach last Sunday's message. Nevertheless, God used our gathering (in-person and online) to set the table for a series of messages calling for collective and individual change as we corporately seek to be a healthy, multiplying, church.

Healthy Church HD Screen

There have been many books, articles, and sermons written on what it takes to be a healthy church. We are highlighting just a few characteristics over the next two months, knowing there are many more designators of health within the body than we will be able to cover on Sundays. 

In our series, we are highlighting the following attributes of health for the church:

  • The Healthy Church Prays Expectantly
  • The Healthy Church Gathers Intentionally
  • The Healthy Church Preaches Boldly
  • The Healthy Church Gives Generously
  • The Healthy Church Serves Gladly
  • The Healthy Church Worships Truly
  • The Healthy Church Loves Unconditionally
  • The Healthy Church Equips Strategically
  • The Healthy Church Lives Authentically

For the final message of the series, we have Jared C. Wilson preaching on what it means to be a Gospel-Driven Church and to live authentically in the fellowship of faith.

The challenge to remain healthy is not unlike the physical challenges we face individually. Many are making resolutions to exercise, eat healthier, and to do healthy things. These are good, but we all know that to become and remain healthy requires more than a quick fix. It takes time and effort, but the results are worth it. The same is true for the local church.

We Need More Healthy Churches

I am praying that local churches will take needed steps in 2021 to become and remain healthy. This will require more than a theme and graphic for Sunday mornings (we have both a theme and a graphic, so I'm not saying don't do this.) It begins with prayer, with total submission to God, and just as disciple-making is not instant, so too is healthy church living. We must remember that health is not determined by the size of the church, the notoriety of the pastor, or the number of unique ministries offered.

To my pastor friends seeking to lead well during this era of the pandemic–stay the course. I am praying for you. We are seeking not to lead our churches back to whatever is defined as  "normal" but toward what is defined as biblical.

Hang in there. Lead well and know that you are not alone in this endeavor.

 

_________

Resources

Mark Dever has written an excellent book titled "Nine Marks of a Healthy Church." It is a great place to start in evaluating and leading the local body well. Yet, even Dever admits there are more than nine marks to what it means to be healthy. May God reveal what you and your church need at this juncture in order to be strong, healthy, God-glorifying, and multiplying.


You Might Be a Consumer Christian If...

Jeff Foxworthy has made a living off one joke. The "You might be a redneck if..." joke launched his career and he has done very well, to say the least. 

My friend Mike Williams has done stand-up comedy in churches for years and he had a set where he copied Foxworthy's model, but gave it a Baptist identity. I still remember some of his punchlines.

You might be a Southern Baptist if:

  • Your pastor's name is written in dry-erase marker on the sign out front.
  • You ever bummed a cigarette off a deacon.
  • You have never sung the third stanza of a hymn.

There are more, but these are the ones I remember.

It was earlier this week as I began reading a new book by Will Mancici titled Future Church. This book, along with his others Church Unique and God Dreams should be read by all church leaders. It clarifies some things about the American church and how we are structured that need to be addressed. As Mancini and co-author Cory Hartman were working on this latest book and moving toward publication date, the pandemic hit. As I read now, it is clear that the revelations given by Mancini and Hartman are not only timely but essential for the local church today.

Upper and Lower Room Churches

I won't go into all the details of what the authors are defining. You would need to get the book for the nuts and bolts of all this. However, the concept of Upper Room and Lower Room churches is so essential I will try to summarize it here.

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People who go to and stay at a local church (we'll talk pre-pandemic era) often do so for one of four reasons (in addition to the Holy Spirit's lead.)

These are:

  1. Place - the location of the church building or gathering is important. For some, the building holds memories (the sacredness or "sacred cow" syndrome) for the members. Often these are of bygone days when great spiritual moments occurred in the life of a person (where they were saved, where they met their spouse, where they were baptized, etc.)
  2. Personality - the pastor is not only an initial draw, but that which keeps people coming. How many friends of yours tweet or post graphics featuring their pastor and comments or phrases he said during a sermon? He's engaging. He's funny. He seems to care. Then...if he leaves a percentage of attenders drift away as well. Oh, it may not be the lead pastor either. In some cases, it is the associate pastor of the designated "most favorite ministry program" who is the draw. That leads us to the next element.
  3. Programs - whether it is AWANA, the women's Bible study, the senior adult trips, the youth group, or any other such ministry or program, these draw many people. These are not bad, but they certainly are not the fullness of what church is or should be. Think of these programs as entry ways or onramps to the church. Sadly, some tend to stand in the entry, or park on the onramp. You know how frustrating that can be, especially if you are behind them. Lastly...
  4. People - the people are the church, right? Yes and no. The people who are Christians make up the church and it is the people gathered who are the church. We (all of us) are relational beings and that means we need others. Even introverts who secretly want to live as hermits actually need others to be healthy and obedient to all the "one anothers" of Scripture. What happens is even in open groups, a tendency for perceived "us four and no more" develops. Why? Not because we do not like others, but that we are like Lego pieces and all our connections are snapped together with no room for others (thanks to Larry Osborne for that illustration.) Mancini states, "When people get their identity from friendships at church, they resist the proverbial open chair." (Future Church, p. 27)

Mancini and Hartman reveal that these four elements of church connectedness and church growth are part of the lower room. They are the most easily accessed areas (if you picture a house with a lower floor and an upper floor.) Yet, it is the upper room where the church's vision, mission, and disciple-making strategy is cemented. The challenge we all face is moving those from the lower room to the upper room. It could be said that Jesus had thousands in the lower room of his ministry (remember the crowd who received free food from Christ) and at one key moment only 120 in the upper room (a literal upper room in Acts 1:15.) 

The clarity in this illustration helps me in understanding some of the challenges and realities we now face in the local church. The pandemic is revealing much of this, not creating it. Like other pastors, I have decried the growth of the consumerism in the church (while confessing that much of our programming and structure actually fuels this reality.) Now, I see that most people are not intentionally desiring to be consumer Christians. It may simply be that they are just enjoying the lower room and have never been led to the staircase leading to the upper room.

But beware, consumer Christianity is so very easy.

Consumer Christianity and the Lower Room

So, as I seek to help brothers and sisters with a bit of self-diagnosis, here are some things that may reveal you have slid into consumerism (and this is no joke)...

You might be a consumer Christian if, (since the pandemic hit):

  • You haven't watched your church's online service in its fullness.
  • You long to get back to "normal" so you can take the kids back to the fun mid-week program at your church.
  • You haven't joined a Zoom or online group with others in your church family.
  • Your Sundays have been filled with other activities and you aren't sure you will adjust your calendar to attend post-pandemic.
  • You have "attended" numerous other churches online and like the music at Church A, the preaching at Church B, and the events of Church C. You basically created a buffet church (it's the Golden Corral of Christianity...let that sink in.)
  • You haven't prayed with other believers.
  • You haven't partaken of the ordinance of the Lord's Supper with your church family (and you never thought about that until you read this.)
  • You use the pandemic as your reason excuse for not gathering as the church, but have gone to grocery stores, restaurants, shopping centers, the zoo, theme parks, ball games, and other places where crowds are gathering (without as many guidelines as your church has put in place for safety.)
  • You don't miss the church.

Consumer Christianity has been manufactured well in our nation. The church growth movement that fueled the offering of ministries and events as custom-fitted, marketable religiously-themed items not only left many people in the lower room of what should be the healthy church, but left them with many others people (thousands even) so that it felt normal.

This cancerous, sinful, short-sighted church strategy does not make disciples, but only creates fake disciples (thanks to Mancini for that term.)

So, you may discover that you have found a nice, comfortable sofa in the foyer of the lower room of church. It's comfortable, but does not transform lives. 

But this is not an easy shift.

I am shaken by Mancini's revelation on this. He says "The bottom line is that I underestimated the power of the Lower Room. Its gravitational pull is not the tug of a minor moon. but the force field of a black hole." (Future Church, p. 35)

The good news is that no one has to remain in the lower room. While the lower room is not bad. It is not unChristian. It is not evil. It simply is not enough. It is not the fullness of church. When the lower room is all there is, consumer Christianity reigns. No one has to settle in to consumer Christianity. That is not the way.

It is time to move up to the Upper Room. Praise be to God, he has removed many of the items that left many settling for religious God-stuff, with no transformation and ultimately...no maturation as a Christ-follower (and for some, a revelation of a non-existent relationship to God through Jesus Christ.) Repent. Come home. And...come on up.


Why Pastors Desire Celebrity Status (Knowing They Shouldn't)

There are instances in pastoral leadership when we must admit that even though we know certain things are not best for the church or the path to disciple-making, we do them anyway. 

For instance, most gospel-focused pastors I know clearly affirm how the growth "consumer Christianity" has negatively impacted the church in our culture. Yet, even knowing and stating this, we often continue to develop ministries, services, and programs that actually feed the consumer mentality. I am not saying that all ministries and activities should cease, but rather than leading contextually and biblically, it just becomes easier to provide a buffet of "church stuff" hoping the already attending continue to attend (and give) and that some unchurched may begin, while shoving strategic, relational disciple-making to the back burner. This is not a shot at other pastors and churches. it's a revelation from my own mirror.

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Another circumstance that many consider to be a modern-day result of social media and celebrity culture is the rise of the "celebrity pastor." Even the title sounds icky and though there is no biblical office for "celebrity pastor" the position nevertheless exists in our culture today. 

Though many consider this to be a modern-day trend only, Carey Nieuwhof reminds us in an article he posted a number of years ago that this has been the case since the beginning of the church. Remember the church members who liked Paul more than Apollos and so on? Nieuwhof even clarifies that not everything is a negative when it comes to celebrity pastor status, but the dangers are very real (Full Article Here

Rise of Celebrity

Even prior to the advent of social media and trending stories, memes, and posts, some pastors became globally known and impacted the lives of thousands, if not millions. For instance, even years after his death I still hear how the life and ministry of Billy Graham has impacted many personally. 

Yet, it seems within the last twenty years or so a new, fast-growing trend of celebrity status hit the American church. Pastors were platformed (many never sought it) and found themselves as influencers and community impact leaders in very positive ways. In addition to the clearly defined false teachers (hucksters) of the prosperity-gospel who fleece congregants and television viewers of funds for personal gain, some well-intentioned, theologically-sound preachers and teachers began to be raised up.

Names became well-known among Christians and church leaders. Conferences were held. Teaching was offered. Video series were developed. In some cases, bands and worship teams were developed to promote the brand (oh...and God too.) I began to see pastors and young Christian leaders name their children after such celebrity pastors. 

While I have a number of books on my shelves written by some of these men, I often wondered how long they could ride this wave of status. I confess that I should have been praying for these men while reading their books and listening to their sermons.

The Inevitable Fall

Whether celebrity status was desired or not, many found themselves no longer simply shepherding the flock in their local church, but managing a global brand of marketable Christianity. 

It is 2020 and far too many of these men who were filling stadiums, doing book tours, sitting on the couches on secular talk shows, and promoting their brand online have fallen. 

It is tragic.

Churches have closed. Others have fired leaders. Some sadly have resorted to legal action against brothers and sisters. Those presumed to be godly have been exposed to be mean-spirited. Church leaders who excused wrong actions and attitudes for years have finally addressed the elephant in the room.

Some leaders private, unbiblical sexual activities have been exposed. Marriages have ended. Children have suffered. Families have divided. The collateral damage is immense.

Even some leaders who are now deceased are having their previously hidden sinful actions revealed. 

Sexual abuse has happened far too often (BTW - when it occurs once, it is far too often) in churches. Sexual abuse victims have been shamed in attempts to keep the ministry's brand viable and marketable.

Those who found themselves riding high now wonder where their fans are.

Why, Then Would Pastors Want This?

There is something about the heart - you know, the sinful, self-focused, self-loving heart that we all have within us. The longing we have for being loved reigns. The desire to be applauded is real. The jealousy that rises when we see others whom we deem to be less talented and less articulate being idolized and platformed in our industry (in this case, in American Christianity) occurs all too often. 

Fleeting thoughts of "It would be nice to be leading a church that size, to be preaching at a conference like that, to be a best-selling author doing book signings, to be an internet influencer, to be a 'cool pastor,' to be sought, to be elevated, etc." come into the minds of many. 

Full transparency - I've had these thoughts, too. I have them far too often.

Even knowing how the Enemy loves to prop up those proclaiming the gospel just to tear them down does not convince us to be content.

What To Do?

I guess that really is the answer. Our contentedness, our joy, our ministry must be solely found in Christ. (BTW - we know this...but we still fail too often) The longing to make a difference, to leave a legacy, to impact lives for eternity, is good. It is holy. Yet, it is the good that can often be perverted unknowingly. 

To live humbly, but boldly as Christ's ambassadors is the call. 

There have been many, many godly men and women throughout Christendom who were known in their day, influential in their era, are revered today years after their passing, and have been seen as legacy leavers for Christ's sake. In other words, being known by many is not a sin. In fact, as stated earlier, it is often God's design to make himself known.

What makes the difference is when the private life and the public life of the Christian leader match. The pastor seeking to live holy, striving to live generously, focusing on the gospel, and glorifying God in private must also do so in public (and vice versa.)

When the temptation to want to be known seeps in, we must repent and rely on God to keep us focused on him, on making him known, on glorifying him. We won't do this perfectly, and that's the joy (or struggle at times) of pastoring well. 

Pray for the Pastors 

Oh, and pray for those who are known, leading large churches and ministries, preaching truth, and seeking to impact the world for God's glory. Pray for them because if they fall...the impact will reverberate throughout the church, the community, and in some cases the world. 

Pray for the relatively unknown ones as well. The temptations are just as real. If they fall, others are impacted. It may be a smaller number of those impacted and hurt, but the ramifications are just as real.

I would love to never have to see another headline of a celebrity pastor's failure. 

Recommended Reading

There are many books written by godly leaders that address the challenges of pastoring and the temptations faced. Two that I recommend are by Paul David Tripp.

Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry and Lead: 12 Gospel Principles for Leadership in the Church


What I Wish I Knew Earlier About Planting Churches & Sending Church Planters

Church planting is considered trendy by some.

Church planting is a term that has become used greatly in the past decade or so, but in truth is not new. In fact, it is how the gospel has spread throughout the world, from city to city, community to community, and family to family since the birth of the church in the book of Acts. Church planting is so much more than a trend. If it is a trend, it has been trending for two-thousand years.

I am thankful for the men I know who are now planting churches and supporting church plants throughout our nation and world. Intentional and strategic church planting in regions and areas where local expressions of church are needed continue to happen. Our goal as a church and mine as a pastor has been to help identify the men God has called to this amazing task, to equip them, enable them, and encourage them as they serve.

Church planting is not easy. It is exciting and it always looks great on video clips and promotional pieces, but the daily grind can be very difficult. Many of the planters and families we serve with have expressed those moments of isolation, feeling forgotten by their sending church, ignored by supporters, and wondering if they may have missed God's call.

That is why encouragement and continued support is needed.

Knowing Then What I Know Now

As a pastor of a legacy church (a nice term used to describe an old church) I have sought to help church planters, and call out men in our own church family to lead the way in this endeavor for the past decade or so. It has been a learning experience for me. The good news is that we have families serving on the field now, exactly where God desires them to be, in other cities, states, and even nations. They are truly on the front lines of gospel service as they have answered the call of God.

As I review our church's history of church planting and preparing church planters, it is clear that all who have surrendered to this call and continue to serve in this capacity were blessed by God greatly and serve well due to many factors, in spite of our help. In other words, we did not know what we did not know, but if we had it to do over again, we (as a church and leadership) would be more strategic and intentional for the sake of our planters. In many cases, as I review each, it is clear that we may have been so enamored with the concept of planting churches and campuses that we did not rightly pray for and prepare those God placed before us.

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Sadly, we helped some step into planter positions who should never have done so (at least not as soon as they did.) As a Send Network Trainer, I now go through many weeks of teaching and study with local church planters that provide information and expose blind spots early on. This type of training was mostly unavailable or ignored in our past. Therefore, our campuses and plants suffered unnecessarily. 

Scott Ball, writing for the Malphurs Group lists "Ten Deadly Church Planting Mistakes" in a blog post. It is a hard read because I recognize a number of mistakes I have made in the past with our planters. 

The ten mistakes are:

  1. Not going through assessment
  2. Planting without a coach
  3. Launching too quickly
  4. Leading without a team
  5. Launching too small
  6. Relying too heavily on outside funding
  7. Neglecting solid assimilation plans
  8. Installing local governance too quickly
  9. Waiting too long to implement a leadership pipeline
  10. Neglecting the process of strategic planning.

These are delineated in the blog post here. Some of these seem basic, and they are. Yet, in the excitement and joy of planting something new, often a few of these items are left to the wayside, only to be discovered to be needed and important later. Sadly, often too late.

Church Planting Goals

It is important to have vision and clarity when it comes to planting a church, but it also must be understood that there are times when our vision for a new work will help launch a church, but not sustain. In other words, the vision may seem set in stone, but after a year or so of engaging a community, attempting to grow disciples, and be the church needed in a community, that vision may change. 

Anson McMahon, lead pastor of Emmaus Church near Atlanta shared his thoughts on church planting and truths discovered in the journey here. One point that resonates with me is that as a pastor I must remember that Jesus knows what he's doing even when I often do not. 

To be flexible as a church planter and pastor is an understatement. It is required because change is the only constant (well, other than God) in the journey.

What Feels Like a Failure May Be a Win

We all want to win. Winning means accomplishing the task at hand well and doing so better than others. It's about crossing that finish line first. Yet, in church planting, what we often see as failure may actually be a victory.

It is not a failure to admit the plan is not working.

It is not a failure to shift focus.

It is not a failure to move to another area of ministry.

It may feel like failure, but it does not have to be.

Every church has a shelf-life. While the gates of hell will not prevail on Christ's church, the local body of believers gathered as church may change or shift over time. In fact, as is the case in our city, many will find their season of service coming to an end. This has been true in America for decades. We have seen it throughout Europe for centuries. The church of Jesus Christ prevails, but sometimes, the season of service of a local body in a specific place comes to a close. This should not be so that ministry ceases, but so the next chapter of gospel-centered ministry may flourish. 

As Baptists we are well-equipped in starting things like programs, events, ministries, or even church plants. We often do not recognize well when a season has ended. That is why some churches continue to have varied ministries attempting to function that were perfectly designed to reach and minister to a population who no longer exists. Thus the church lives under the banner of "We've always done this" wondering why there are no longer any positive results.

Sometimes a church plant (or a campus plant) served its purpose and has impacted a community well. A healthy church plant will shift from "plant" status to "church" status and engage as an autonomous family of believers. Yet, sometimes this does not happen. There are numerous reasons. Sometime blame must be placed at the foot of leaders. Sometimes this is due to outside impacts that leaders have no control over (you know, like a pandemic or increased facility rental costs.) 

Regardless, the church and leaders must seek to learn from each experience. It is too easy to allow bitterness, negativity, and feelings of failure to grow. 

I have seen churches and planters ignore or avoid church planting assessment. In such instances, problems have arisen in leadership that could have been addressed prior to the launching. When these issues arise months after the launch, the damage may be so severe the entire plant ceases.

This grieves me. Especially because it is avoidable.

Did You Plant a Church Or Just a Service?

This is something that I fear often creeps into our journeys of church planting. If the church plant is intended to reach an unchurched community by engaging one-on-one in the neighborhood, offering Bible studies, relationships, worship encounters, and the fullness of church to an area void of such, it means more must be done than just relocating a group of faithful servants to a new facility.

In other words, if the church plant is little more than a worship service, you have not planted a church. You have just relocated a gathering of believers to a new building. That can be a great start, but it is not a church.

Tim Keller says it best (full article here) ...

You might be passionate about expositional preaching and having really good preaching, and so you want to start a church. But, if all you want is your own pulpit, that is a horrible reason to plant a church. There are plenty of other pulpits out there that you can go to, but don't plant a church just so you can have your own. Or if you're passionate about good liturgy or good music, don't plant a church in order to have that.  Instead, find a church that you can plug into and be a part of that because church planting is so much more than just having the desire or the ability to plan and to prepare for what makes a really good worship service. You are not an event planner; you're a church planter, and these are two very different things. Now, planning a good worship service is of course going to be a part of church planting, but for those of you who have just started church planting or are thinking about it, you are gonna be surprised by how little of your time is actually devoted to that.

If I knew then what I know now...

Like many churches who jumped on the latest iteration of church planting in recent years, we have enjoyed the journey. We have seen lives transformed. We have heard the gospel proclaimed by those who were more silent in their personal witness prior to the new work. We have seen righteous risks taken. We have seen communities changed and great, godly things have happened. 

It has been good.

Yet, we also acknowledge that there were times we ran too quickly, even ahead of our prayers and God-given vision and strategy. As a friend used to tell me "Good is the enemy of best" and we settled for good (with moments of great) but should have been wise enough to wait for best. 

The Future Is Bright

We still plant churches.

We still send church planters.

We hope to do this even more in our church in the coming years. In fact, we are praying to be the sending or supporting church for forty church planters by 2040. Some megachurches can do that in about six months. For us, it will take longer. This means we must do more than drop a few dollars in the mail to a planter every now and then. It will require more than sending a mission team to another city on occasion. It will require strategic prayer and planning to send, support, and sustain church plants in our city and beyond for the long-term. 

We are learning from our past. We are thankful for the lessons. We long to be wiser as we move forward. 

We are reminded that God has a mission. His mission has a church. We are that church. To God be the glory.

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. - Matthew 16:18 ESV


"It's 2020" Is No Excuse for Not Being Thankful

"It's 2020" has become the common response to anything and everything that has and is happening out of the ordinary and causing disruption in our pre-planned, surprise-free, "normal" lives. I get it. To state that this year has been challenging would be an understatement. While no year's schedule goes according to plan exactly, this year has been off the charts thanks to a mixture of words that begin with "p" – pandemic, politics, and protests.

It's 2020.

That's the response to "Why is this happening now?" or "This is not what I had planned," and even "Well...we're out of toilet paper again."

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It's 2020.

Even Christ-followers have fallen into a malaise (I've been wanting to use that word since the 1979 Jimmy Carter speech) that seems to have robbed many from the joy and abundant life that Christ proclaims we should be experiencing. Some have stated that this year seems like the longest in history. I understand that, too, but I checked. It's only one day longer than most years and that is simply because it is a leap year.

Church activities and events have changed. Online services have replaced in-person services for many (at least for a season) and prognosticators and survey takers are stating that many who attended church services in person with some form of regularity prior to March will never come back. That's a huge ball of discouragement for pastors and church leaders. 

But, it's 2020.

This year has produced challenges that have caught us off guard. Each person and family has had to pivot and shift to make things work best. That includes working from home, becoming homeschoolers, adjusting expectations, and seeking to understand what this new normal will be without being sucked into the latest conspiracy theories of global domination. 

Because it's 2020.

If I had a dollar for each person who told me things would get back to "normal" (meaning pre-March) after the election, I could fund Lottie Moon's Christmas Offering with record donations. Now we are a few weeks after the election and...in case you haven't noticed...nothing has changed. There are more guidelines in place for some. Some churches who just began in-person services are shifting back to online only. Fear is rising. People are still angry. And...now it's almost Thanksgiving and many are frustrated in our nation that guidelines and rules in certain areas are in place that will hinder their gatherings. 

Thankful? For what? It's 2020.

It is during times like this that Christians must seriously consider how to worship, how to be thankful, and how to trust God more. This is extremely difficult for western and American Christians who often elevate personal rights over submission to Christ.

Sometimes personal rights and freedoms (which I love, by the way) are used as weapons of the enemy to keep people from focusing on the main issues of life. Discernment is key for the Christ-follower. We must not stand on our independence to such a degree that we forget our total dependence on Christ. 

So, let's be thankful. Not because this year has been so much fun, but because nothing has occurred in 2020 (or any other year in the past or future) that God has not been Lord over. His sovereignty is not simply in place when things go according to our plans, for our ease, and for our immediate benefit. God is sovereign over all. He truly is Lord of lords and King of kings, and for this we must be thankful.

Paul gives Timothy and us a good reminder regarding contentedness and thankfulness.

But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. 1 Timothy 6:6-7 ESV

So give thanks with a grateful heart.

It's 2020 and God is not shaken.

He is sovereign over the calendar, over the pandemic, over the politics of the age, over the protests, and hopefully over you. 

Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;  for his steadfast love endures forever! 1 Chronicles 16:34 ESV


What the Pastor Is Expected and Obligated To Do

In most churches pastors are hired (called) and given a job description which lists expectations the congregation holds. Perhaps this is an example of current-era business practices and human resource strategies being "baptized" and brought into the church. I am not saying that is bad, but the job description (hopefully one centered on the biblical responsibilities and qualifications) often does not delineate the unspoken expectations of the pastor.

Those expectations are normally discovered by acts of omission (or perhaps commission.) 

We are beyond using the excuse "They didn't teach me that in seminary" in that pastor/shepherds do very many things not taught in seminary. Things that no class syllabus could lay out have occurred in every pastor's experience. 

For example, it may seem like no big deal to rearrange the furniture in a Sunday School class or to move a podium from one room to another where it could be better used, but when the pastor finds out that the podium was built by long-deceased Brother Buford and was meant to remain in his old classroom...a "special called business meeting" may be on the horizon.

Every pastor who has served for any significant length of time in a local church (whether an established church or a new plant) will have stories where he inadvertently crossed a line or stepped on a social landmine unawares.

There are  expectations that churches and Christians as individuals have for pastors that are truly biblical and should never be questioned, abdicated, or ignored. 

Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.  - 2 Timothy 4:2 ESV

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.  - Acts 20:28 ESV

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.  - Ephesians 4:11-12 ESV

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.  - 1 Peter 5:1-4 ESV

There are others, but the point is that Scripture speaks to the obligations, responsibilities, morality, and expectations of the one called out by God to serve as pastor in his local church.

Then, there are other expectations that are placed upon the pastor by well-intentioned church members. Not all expectations are bad. In fact, most could not be categorized as being unbiblical. There are many expectations that are little more than cultural or historical and while not actually spoken of or against in Scripture, if these items usurp the priority of prayer, Bible study, and preaching the Word well (allowing time for study) then the church could actually be piling on responsibilities designed not by God, but by others, that will actually harm the ministry by keeping the pastor tired, perpetually dissatisfied, absent from his family, and unprepared for the primacy of the role.

Hospital Visitation

For example, while visiting the sick in hospitals or those in nursing homes is not mentioned as a pastoral responsibility in those terms in the Bible, it is often the right thing to do (pending COVID restrictions.) It is actually the right thing to do for all Christians and not just a pastoral responsibility.

Counseling

Offering counseling is another good thing. It is even a biblical thing, but not the primary thing pastors must do.

Community Events

Being visible in the community at local gatherings, club meetings, prayer breakfasts, golf tournaments, board meetings, etc. are not necessarily bad, but if done in order to elevate self (or to elevate one's pastor) or to create some form of small-pond celebrity status...then, well, it is bad and likely sinful. They can also overwhelm a pastor's schedule keeping him from the primary call, by creating a full calendar of events that have nothing to do with the church or the call. 

Funerals

Preaching at funerals is expected by church members, though not a mandate in scripture. In fact, this has become a very important part of my ministry. As I serve the Lord in a church with many aging members, funerals have become far more regular on my schedule than I desire. Yet, these moments of gathering with family and friends, remembering a recently passed loved one, celebrating God's grace and mercy, and proclaiming the truth of the gospel allows for these moments that always interrupt our schedules to become holy pauses where God is glorified and the truth is declared.

Weddings

Then, there are weddings. I have had the honor of officiating many weddings over the years. Each one has been unique and each has presented a new set of questions to answer.

While much talk in Christian circles is about the fallout related to the Obergefell decision of the US Supreme Court a few years back making same-sex unions legal, I won't address the intricacies of that here as I have written about it previously. However, in case it is not known, I do not agree with the Supreme Court decision and I hold to the biblical definition of marriage being only between one man (born a man) to one woman (born a woman) for life in a covenant relationship.

I have been part of many Christian weddings where God was honored clearly and the worship experience truly occurred. They have been memorable, joyous, holy occasions.

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Nevertheless, some "Christian" weddings have shifted from being a ceremony where God was worshipped, where the union of man and woman was clearly expressed as an illustration of Christ and his church, and the crowd walked away knowing they had experienced holy matrimony (with an emphasis on holy) to being little more than an event designed to be remembered for the dress of the wedding party, the  venue, decorations, theme, Instagram hashtag, and the post-ceremony antics.

Weddings are Big Business

It is clear from "Say Yes to the Dress" to the renovations of old barns and farms into destination wedding venues, and even the influence of so-called reality shows such as "The Bachelor" and every "I married someone I just met..." show on TLC, that weddings have become big business. The show becomes more important than the vows for some and amazingly many are left scratching their heads when the shine has worn off and they realize they put far more energy and money into the wedding than the marriage.

It is painful to watch.

It is more painful as a pastor to know that at some level I may have allowed this to occur by ignoring the guidelines for marriage and steps needed to help a bride and groom wisely prepare and plan for their wedding and ultimately marriage.

Church members have expectations and they just presume that the pastor will officiate their child or grandchild's wedding, or maybe even their own wedding simply because he is the pastor and that is what he is supposed to do.

Over the years, I have made numerous mistakes when it comes to weddings. I have stood as the pastor, God's ambassador, calling a man and woman into holy matrimony, without preparing them for what the ceremony means and what is to come. Sometimes, I have done so because I knew this was my expected role. Other times, it was because I knew the people getting married and called them friends. 

Often guidelines are written to help keep future mistakes from being made. Therefore, we have set up some guidelines that provide guardrails for our pastors and ministers on staff. In fact, it gives them permission to say "NO" to a couple when they have been asked to officiate such a ceremony in order to provide a larger "YES" to helping them walk into a godly, biblical marriage.

Pre-marital counseling is a must and we utilize the "Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts" material by Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott. There are many other quality pre-marital counseling resources available and each pastor must deem what works best for him and the couple. The key is to ensure it is not rushed and serious evaluation and discussion occurs, always going back to God's role for husband and wife and his blessing upon the union. 

When do we say NO to weddings?

Well, this list is not in order of importance or all encompassing, but does provide some basics for our church's pastors when it comes to weddings. There could be lists for every segment above, but the wedding issue continues to be one that must be addressed, so here is a sampling of when we say "no":

  • When either bride or groom is a believer seeking to marry a non-believer. 
  • When the bride or groom have never attended the church, or any church.
  • When the bride or groom used to attend but haven't been active in years and just want the pastor or venue for the ceremony because "that's expected."
  • When neither the bride or groom is a believer. There really is no need to have a Christian wedding for non-Christians, though the opportunity to share the gospel must not be ignored.
  • When another pastor at the church the couple actually attends refused to officiate their wedding due to some biblical offense and the couple is only seeking some other pastor to fill the spot.
  • When the couple refuses to participate in multi-session pre-marital counseling.
  • When elements of the service actually make a mockery of God and his design (for instance, I refused a ceremony where the bride was going to wear a tuxedo and the groom was going to wear a dress because they thought it was "funny.")
  • When a couple is living together out of wedlock. There may be cases where the individuals are unbelievers who both recently surrendered their lives to Christ and allowances (temporary separation, quick counsel and private ceremony, etc.) are made. In these cases, the God-honoring aspects are clear. Yet, there are also cases where long-time church members/attenders just ignore these guidelines, move in together (the line is often "for financial reasons") and basically expect the pastor/minister to ignore the facts before him. 
  • When adultery has clearly occurred and repentance is absent.
  • When either the bride or groom is already married. Just wanted to clarify that for the fans of "Sister Wives."
  • For me...when I am not available. The truth is, I am most often available and while I may shift things at the last minute to speak at a funeral for a dear saint, I will not shift to accommodate a ceremony that just happens to be in the middle of a much needed vacation or other trip.

Grace Abounds

It should be noted that while we have these items that lead us to say "NO" that it is not a joy to say no to a couple. The hope is that this man and woman in love would be open to honest, heart-felt, biblical conversations with one of our pastors about the gospel, God's design for marriage, and how to honor him. Grace abounds and this must not be ignored. The wedding planning may just be a gospel conversation moment and should not be brushed off. The end result is that at times, "no" is still the answer from the pastor, but it is not to be offered as a legalistic response (there's no joy in being mean) but as a plea for holiness and trusting God.

Be Steadfast, Pastor

Pastor, there are always expectations placed upon you that seem to lie outside the job description. When you say "no" to a church member who has clear expectations for your presence, performance, or approval, you had best have a bigger "yes" ready. We don't say "no" just for the fun of it. The "no" is meant to drive people to a deeper, biblical "yes" and that is part of shepherding well. 

The wise shepherd will lead his sheep, but may have to yell "no" at them at times in order to protect them and guide them to safety and abundance.

Everyone has expectations of everyone else. Look to the Word first and hold fast to your calling. For the church member, do the same and pray for your pastor as he seeks to lead wisely and well. And...give him a break if he says no to officiating your kids' wedding or can't visit your neighbor's aunt in the hospital every week.


Christians, the Presidential Election, and Political Idolatry (Or...What Now That This Election Is Over?)

There are phrases that we say because we know we are supposed to say them.

These words give an appearance of understanding, right thinking, and maturity.

For instance, in an election year such as we have experience, phrases from Christians such as “God is in control” and “God is sovereign” have been stated, tweeted, shared, and expressed loudly. Additionally, there has been much said regarding the need for unity among Christians (especially Christians who actually attend the same church or are part of the same denomination.) While I hold that words matter, sometimes, they are sadly, apparently, just…words. Empty words.

This is proving to be true now in that many of the very same evangelicals who declared for weeks with confidence that God is King of kings, Lord of lords, remains on his throne, is never taken by surprise, and is in total control of this universe he created has somehow been defrauded, sidetracked, left behind, or mistaken.

Words Matter...Sometimes

In other words, “God is sovereign, except in this area of politics…apparently.”

Or maybe, “God is in control…except when things don’t happen the way I want.”

The Longest Tuesday

Last week was Tuesday. I mean it seems that the entire week was Tuesday. Election Day in the United States was supposed to be, as has been the case for years, the first Tuesday of November. Yet, and we all knew this would happen, the votes did not come in for all in a timely manner. There were varied allowances in certain states regarding mail-in ballots that has created a predicted conundrum (and for some a “conspiracy” comparable to what some consider LBJ’s 1948 fraudulent Senate run and the Chicago 1960 voting debacle.) Yet, on Saturday the Associated Press (as they have done since the 1840s) called the race for president for Joe Biden. As President-Elect, Biden has held speeches, press conferences, and put out statements regarding an agenda his administration will do.

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All the while President Trump and his spokespersons are refusing to concede, awaiting for answers regarding some filed lawsuits and questions hovering over vote counts and electoral college numbers.

So, what is the Christian to do?

What can we do?

Perhaps we could check back to some of the statements believers like us were making earlier in the year. Maybe revisit things like “God is in control” and “God is sovereign.”

Maybe.

That would be a good start.

In fact, it would be a great place to remain.

The marriage of evangelicalism and partisan politics has resulted in a strange mutation that actually elevates self while ignoring biblical Christianity. Whether red, blue, or somewhere in between, this is nothing more than idolatry. On one side biblically sound Christians have buddied up to prosperity hucksters and have harmed the church’s witness. On the other, some have willingly partnered with the culture of death and the moral revolutionaries to the elimination of a sound biblical witness. Sadly, churches found their membership divided, some choosing to walk away from their faith family over the rift. I fear we may suffer repercussions to our Christian witness for years.

Yet, knowing that words matter, I desire to lean into the aforementioned phrase that “God is in control” knowing that he was not surprised by the result of the election (or the coming result if anything is to change.) The mission of the church has not changed at all. The Great Commission was not revised. The Great Commandment was not amended. The gospel of grace has not been updated. God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

As for the idolators in our midst, rather than throw the stones at the easily identified ones who have sacrificed their witness on the altar of political power, I will look in the mirror. I realize that “there, but for the grace of God go I.” For this I confess. In fact, we all should. Whenever we place our trust in anything or anyone other than Christ, regardless how “Christian” it may be wrapped, it is still a form of idolatry.

Thank God he is sovereign, in control, gracious, and holy.

Thank God.


The Results Have Been Tallied. We Have Our Answer!

It's true. After a long night of watching prognosticators, spinmeisters, analysts, and pundits explain maps, coloring within the lines either red or blue, flip-flops on what things mean, frustrations, celebrations, and all that comes with this season...WE HAVE THE ANSWER!

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Photo credit: Joe Shlabotnik on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA


I know it's been a long year. People have been talking (behind face masks) about how everyone else should respond. Families have had arguments. Churches have even had divisions over this. Funds have been given to those who agree with the giver. Funds have been withheld from those who who disagree. Specialty advertising companies have raked in much, plastering names and logos on signs, stickers, banners, and any other items that can be branded.

People have stood in long lines. 

The postal service has worked overtime.

Civic duties have been fulfilled.

And now...thank God...WE HAVE THE ANSWER!

Today, this Wednesday after election day in our nation, it is clear. In fact, it is as clear today as it was yesterday and the days before. Amazingly, the answer has nothing to do with our nation.

The answer we have, the one many have been waiting to hear, is clear. And, we should be declaring it loudly today, with joy, with smiles on our faces, as victors.

Jesus Christ is still Lord.

He is still the Way.

He is still the Truth.

He is still the Life.

He is the answer. 

In this reality, his church, his children may rest. There are no doubts in God's sovereignty. Christians boldly may walk in him, trusting that the throne is not vacant, believing that the promises of the gospel are not watered-down. We have hope. We have lenses in our glasses that are so much better than those handed out by the political parties in our nation. Our worldview is not red, is not blue, is not green, or any other partisan color scheme. Our worldview is biblical and through the lens of Scripture we may see as God sees.

Love God well. Love people truly. Love people enough to introduce them to God.

Rest easy church.

We have the answer.


What Are Parents To Do When Their Teenager Stands Alone?

Three years ago we  began making the very strategic shift in our church from a simple age-grade programmatic model to an equipping model. This model is focused on equipping disciples within families with an emphasis on making disciples who make disciples (within the home.)

I have written on this before. One of the warnings for any church making the shift is the inevitable loss of families, members, and attenders who just do not understand the shift or plainly do not like the focus. In other words - count the cost. (I have written about this here.)

Often when there is such a shift in ministerial philosophy within a church, the real results of effectiveness are not known until months or even years later. Earlier today, I received this email from a church member with a teenage daughter. While the subject is a specific issue the daughter was facing in school, the celebration shared was that home-based discipleship with intentional family worship has led to the response celebrated by both mom and dad. I celebrate alongside them as God is glorified in this. 

Here's their story, with names removed...

It is 9:30pm on a Wednesday. Lunches are made. Homework is completed. Chores are finished—only to begin again in a few short hours. You gather the family together for a short nightly devotional and prayer. And then it hits you out of nowhere. That unseen spiritual attack at the moment when you are exhausted and weak, simply seeking refuge and rest. Putting away her studies and work for the day my daughter informs us that she is struggling with a school assignment and not because of its level of difficulty but its content. We pull up the assigned short story and are immediately shocked. The story is not even borderline pushing the limits—it is graphic. Not knowing who is reading this, I will not even give the author or title so as to not glorify what is basically soft-core pornography, nor do I want to put in the eyes of others what should never have seen the light of day. It is not art. It is not literature—and my wife and I are both language arts majors and educators. We taught Shakespeare with all of his innuendo. We taught Twain and Lee and the controversial language and race issues. We understand the dangers of censorship and are firm supporters of the First Amendment. However, this is in-your-face sex and violence and it has been put into my 15-year-old daughter’s eyes and the eyes of hundreds other young people. In just a few hours she will be told to continue reading the story and provide written answers to in-depth questions about its content.

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How do you respond? What do you do as a parent? As a student? Immediately we run the gamut of human emotion and response. Anger. How could this teacher think this was even remotely appropriate? We will be at the school to meet with the principal first thing in the morning. Frustration. Who approved this assignment? In a world that greatly struggles with domestic and sexual violence, why are our public schools increasingly pushing and glorifying it? Sadness. Why can’t our kids just go to school and be kids? At younger and younger ages our children seem to be bombarded with heavier and darker topics hidden under the guise of liberal arts education. Fear. If we speak out, will my daughter become the target of harassment and retaliation? Confusion. Maybe we are just overreacting. Is it really that big of a deal? Spiritual warfare at 9:30pm on a school night.

Surely other parents will be outraged, too? We put the kids to bed with instructions to pray for wisdom and then begin to discuss and reach out. It is late and we are met with this response and thought: It is not a big deal. The Bible is graphic. This is just a similar description of what was occurring inside and outside the Gates of Hell. We can’t put our kids in bubbles. We begin to waver. Yet this seems different. While the Bible does sometimes graphically describe man’s wicked deeds and ways, it is always presented as sin--man’s depravity pointing the way to the need of a Savior. Sin is never glorified. It is presented as exactly what it is: deadly and destructive. The story that my daughter read portrays it as pleasurable and life-giving. It is a lie being presented as truth. This is a big deal. It is an attempt to isolate, indoctrinate, assimilate, and confuse my daughter and others. As Christians we are called to be many things—light, salt, ambassadors. We are “beggars pointing other beggars to the Bread.” We are called to be set apart and stand for the “Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Augustine is to have once written, “Sometimes we must stand against the world for the good of the world.”

We end our evening with prayer—heartfelt and intimate. Our daughter may very well have to stand “alone” and it may come with a cost. The next morning, we instruct her that we stand with her if she is led to stand and refuse to complete the assignment. We assure her from Romans 8:1-2: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”

God knows her heart and we love her—no strings attached. I kiss her cheek and then watch her walk out the door with her older brother into the darkness of an early morning.

My heart is heavy and my wife and I begin to pray over her. Then come the texts. None of her friends will stand with her. She will be standing “alone.” She is afraid and is just going to do the assignment.

I get this at 7:06am: “I don’t know what to do.”

Those two voices: the Lord gently affirming her faithfulness and the world screaming for her conformity. We feel helpless. We want to rush to the school and fight for her. This is why families matter. This is why churches must equip families no matter their structure. Because when faith and life intersect, when spiritual attacks happen late on school nights, we must be prepared.

I text her back: “It is okay. Either way God loves you. He KNOWS your heart and He knows you are for Him. We love you. You do what God leads you to do. You are NOT alone!”

Fifteen long minutes go by and then we receive a picture of the assignment with her handwritten response:

Ms.______, I mean this in the most polite way possible but I cannot do this assignment. I think you are a fantastic teacher but this story goes against my morals and values. Some parts of this story are so straightforward and disgusting that I don’t feel okay reading it. Jesus died for us so I think I should not entertain what He died for. So I will take a zero for this or I would be happy to do another assignment. Thank you.

Tears well in my eyes. I am proud but I know this did not come from me or her mother. Paul continues in Romans 12:1-2: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Her Father in Heaven taught her well and she was ready for this test. As of this writing we have not received the teacher’s response but I know this: no matter the outcome my daughter has taught me something. She was not “ashamed of the testimony about our Lord” and displayed “a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (1 Timothy 1:7-8) While my first response was to fight in my power, she showed reliance on the Lord and His wisdom. She stood firm, responded in love, and glorified our Lord.

Families, Trevin Wax writes...

“In every age, the world implements strategies of isolation, indoctrination, assimilation, and confusion, and in every age, the church must resist with confidence and courage, trusting that our faithfulness will be a gift to the nations we know will one day bow before the world’s true King.” (article on TGC here.)

Begin today to prepare your children for the spiritual battles that lie ahead. Fight the temptation to isolate them or fight for them. There may be a time for that but be led by the Spirit through prayer and Godly wisdom. When your faith and life intersect, when spiritual attacks happen at 9:30pm on a school night, what will your children learn about your walk with Christ?

Sometimes you just need a reminder from God that the effort you are exerting to help parents be equipped to equip their children is worth it. Sometimes, as parents and guardians of children and teenagers, you just need a moment where God reveals the effort is making a difference.

Disciples making disciples–it's not a new idea. It just sometimes gets ignored or forgotten in our celebrity-focused, consumer-centered, attractional, event-oriented versions of church. But don't lose heart, equipping the saints (even those within our homes) is worth it. Better yet, through the Holy Spirit, we are empowered to do so.


The Pastor's Kid Responds to "The Pastor's Kid" and Other Stuff (Guest Post by Ashley O'Brien)

Ashley (Tarkington) O'Brien has read the book The Pastor's Kid:What It's Like and How to Help by Barnabas Piper and as a pastor's kid (my kid) she has written this review of, or rather a response to, his book. Yet, this is more than a book review, it is a wise discourse from one who grew up in the fishbowl known as the "pastor's family" and her perspective of how this impacted her view of God and the church. 

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I recently read the book The Pastor’s Kid: What It's Like and How to Help by Barnabas Piper. Barnabas Piper is the son of Pastor John Piper, known by many as the 33-year pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, founder of Desiring God ministries, author of numerous books, speaker at Passion Conferences and more. I initially saw the book advertised on my social media pages (apparently my pages know the occupation of my father...that's scary.)

I was interested on Barnabas’ perspective as a pastor's kid (for obvious reasons) and what he had to say.  I enjoyed the book and could relate to Piper's stories and understood how some would struggle under the identity of their father's title. I could also see how some would be benefited by the role as well. I talked to my brother about our experiences growing up in a pastor's home, just to get his perspective. We grew up in the same God-honoring home, were active in the same church and ministries, had many of the same influences in the church, but as teenagers and adults diverged into the two most common and opposite stereotypes of a being a "Pastor’s Kid" or "PK."

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This is not a picture of Ashley, but these look like church kids.

As my brother and I discussed points highlighted in the book, we concluded that our dad’s occupation and position as pastor of the church had little to do with how we were raised. What I mean is that we were not raised to be good PKs, but were raised to know the Lord, know about him, to love God, love people, love God's church, and become his disciples. We "grew up in church" as did many others, and were loved, taught, and prayed for by many in our church family. My brother and I concluded that none of those things would have changed if dad were not the pastor. In other words, we determined that our family simply was seeking to be authentic Christians and our upbringing was not any more Christian just because our dad stood on the stage and preached each Sunday. 

We agreed that due to dad’s position we were able to experience places and people that we would not have otherwise. So, we selfishly are thankful for that. Nevertheless, a negative aspect of being a PK would be the expectations placed on us by others. This is understandable, but a bit frustrating. Adults have expectations of children and teenagers, especially related to behavior. For any church kid, there are expectations and since the church is supposed to be family, there comes a collective expectation from "family" members and a heightened level of responsibility. 

Based on Piper's book, the concerns and issues experienced by a PK can actually be valid for any person who grew up with a church family. This is not a bad thing. It is just a reality. 

To the person who grew up in church and abandoned church upon entering adulthood, there are many reasons as to why that exit occurred. Statements like “That's my parent's faith. It's just not for me" or other similar reasons (excuses) are common.

Growing Up Is Inevitable

At some point, the church kid (not just the PK) grows up. It's unavoidable. The church kid has to graduate from the kids' ministry (or at least they should) and move up to the next level of age-graded ministry. Maybe this was the shift to the “cool” youth group (at least "cool" as it pertains to church youth groups.) In some churches this means gathering in a separate room designed by concerned adults seeking to create place where teenagers would feel welcome. Maybe it included the designated seats in big church where teenagers would sit together, rather than sitting with their parents. It is a rite of passage of sorts. Then comes the next step into "big" church–high school graduation. For the few who remain in the church, moving from the youth room with all the smoke machines, old couches, broken ping pong tables, loud praise music, pizzas, and games to the "boring big church" services is required. It is here that the music volume decreased, many people seemed disengaged, most didn't sing along with the music, and the music was not new or cutting edge (or at least it seemed the songs were strange versions of those performed by the youth band.) Church was now boring, it seemed. It was no longer fun. Gone was the weekly social hour where you could gather with friends during the middle of the week. No one was making you attend any longer. Friends moved away to college. Some stopped attending after receiving their free gift from the church during the high school graduation recognition. In fact, for many, that was the last time some former members of the youth group (at least some of them) were seen at church.  And you are tempted to walk away as well. Perhaps using the old excuse of “I am not being fed," but deep down knowing you just do not want to be fed what they are feeding you. You had rededicated your life to Christ many times, especially at youth camp, but now...church just isn't the same.

This isn't the biography of PKs only. There are many kids who grew up in the church who can relate because this is their story as well, whether they were a PK, a deacon's kid, a committee member's kid, or just a kid who went to church a lot.

We collectively nod our heads in agreement and think of all those fond memories of our childhood and teenage years. As adults, some of us become frustrated with the church. Some shop around for new churches, always seeking the newest experience (while actually being driven by an overwhelming sense of nostalgia resulting in a search for a Sunday experience that is basically an updated version of the youth worship at camps from years prior or the mid-week student gatherings of our high school years.)

Though I loved all the camps, mission trips, and pizza nights, I believe we may have unwittingly done a disservice over time. We created silos of ministry and rarely if ever integrated generationally. This led to an easy exit for active attenders upon high school graduation. Certainly, the individual has a choice. We cannot force anyone to remain in the church, but we must not put all the blame on the individual if the church as a whole never intentionally connected church family members beyond those of the same age or demographic. 

While Piper's book is focused mainly on his experiences as a pastor’s kid, it can easily relate to everyone who grew up as a church kid. 

Jeremy Noel is quoted in the book stating...

“Finding God was the greatest challenge. Being raised in an atmosphere where God was ministry, vocation and hobby makes it hard to be amazed by the gospel. Being raised where life is always about showing God to a group makes it hard to see God individually.”

At some point, the child has to own it. The now adult, former "church kid" must own their decisions and their relationship (or lack of relationship) with Christ and his church. Take responsibility. Noel's quote is real and reveals authentic challenges. It also explains why so many leave the church after high school. We can blame parents, teachers, and preachers…but, at the end of the day, when the now adult does not take ownership for his or her relationship with Christ, it falls on them. Children have to grow up. There is a needed graduation from the “fun” church and the “feed me” church that is built upon a consumer mentality.  

Barnabas Piper stated well...

“PKs (church kids) despite all these struggles cannot wallow in and bemoan them. Rather, we must own what responsibilities are ours; to honor Jesus, to honor our fathers and mothers, to love and support the church, and to go about our lives not as victims but as the redeemed. Grace is here for us all!” 

For the Pastors

To the pastors–love your children. Be willing to listen. Be a parent first, not always their pastor. Cheer for them at ball games (but remember who you represent so maybe don’t yell so much at the referee.) Don’t elevate your children in a way that they believe they are better than their church peers. They are surely the most important to you, but no one wants some little snot (sorry - I'm venting a bit) saying to his or her Bible study teacher “But don’t you know who my dad is?”

None of this may stir up issues for you or them initially, but it could be harmful in the long run. It can impact how your children view church and Christ. It will affect how they function as a teenager and adult when you are not there to tell them the right church answers or force them to be at church with you. Those outside the church do not care that their dad was a pastor (or they may have some unfair preconceived ideas about what that means.) Just remember that your children did not choose to be the child of a pastor or to be in the spotlight (even if it's just the spotlight of a local church.) They do not typically enjoy being illustrations in your sermon. Be sure to have a genuine conversation with your children about his or her decision to be a Christ follower. Do not doubt, of course, but understand that this decision could have been easily made due to the pressure and assumption that they should be a Christian simply because you are the pastor. Help your children make the decision to surrender to Christ as Lord their own, and not yours. Remember, God has no grandchildren. Be real with your children. If your child never sees you struggle or knows that you doubt at times, then they will feel as if they are not allowed to either. Allowing them to wrestle with their salvation or relationship with Christ and his church is healthy and all believers experience this. Offer up transparency and allow your children to ask you the hard questions so they may view their relationship with Christ and his church more real and their own. When their dad is supposed to be the “super-Christian” it is tough to be raw and real, especially when they feel they do not measure up.

For the PK

PKs–understand that your identity is not founded on what your father or mother do for a living. It is not what you excel at or how you look. As a child of God, your identity is solely found in Christ. The sooner you realize that, the sooner you will feel free from others expectations. Standing strong in Christ and his church and growing up to be a bold follower of Christ is truly what your Christian parents desire. God gave you the parents you were intended to have for a reason. So, appreciate them and love them, it is not easy being a pastor. It's not easy being a pastor's wife. And, we know, it's not easy being a pastor's kid either. But...who said this was supposed to be easy? That's just one reason we can rely on God and his grace. 


What the Church Must Do If Trump Wins the Presidency

It’s a presidential election year. The two major US political parties have just completed their respective conventions. However, the conventions this year were much different than those in the past. Thanks to COVID-19, the typical scenes of convention centers filled with hundreds wearing red, white, and blue ribbons, buttons, and the ever-popular, Styrofoam barber shop quartet hats (why are these still a thing?) cheering on their respective candidates was replaced with socially-distanced (for the most part,) online speeches, cheers (or boos) on social media, and more sound bites than in recent history.

Some have stated that now, more than ever, our nation is polarized. Perhaps, but as I have said before, we as Americans have faced polarization before. In fact, other than just a few times since 1776, we have experienced division more often than unity. Whether you hold to the narrative that the United States was created as a Christian nation, or simply a nation launched with a foundation of historic Judeo-Christian principles, God’s church and his children have played significant roles in the history and makeup of our nation.

This must continue to be the case.

November Is Coming, Regardless If We Are Ready

By November 4, 2020, the world will know (well, unless there is a recount or some other strange occurrence – it is 2020, so who knows?) whether Donald Trump or Joseph Biden will stand in front of the US Capitol Building, hand on Bible, taking the oath as the President of the United States. When this election is over, only those with a Pollyanna view of the world believe that everyone will accept the results maturely, peacefully, and with a bright outlook toward the future. Regardless who wins, it is likely that protests and demonstrations will occur, accusations of fraud will be leveled, and at least half the nation will lament with sackcloth and ashes while the other half celebrates.

Trump pence
Photo credit: VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Many Christians cannot fathom that other Christians (I use the term “Christian” not as a political designation or social designation, but as an authentic title for those who have surrendered their lives to Jesus Christ as Lord, have been redeemed by Christ’s blood, will be in heaven when they die, and are faithful to live biblically as covenant members of a local church) will have actually voted for their opposition candidate, a third-party candidate, or have left that block blank on the ballot. Yet, it will happen. It always does. Christians who voted one way will declare that those who voted differently to be heretics, unbelievers, and a variety of other things other than true Christians.

Issues matter. They matter immensely. Seeing the world from a biblical worldview is challenging, even for the long-time mature Christian. It is a continual challenge and each Christian must weigh issues, actions, news reports, speeches, political promises, and more from a biblical perspective. I’ll be honest, this is more difficult at times than putting together a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces upside down and no box lid to use as a guide.

Yet, we must.

Each election cycle, there are Christians who grieve the state of our nation when their desired candidate did not win the presidency. The feelings are not limited to national elections and opinions may even be stronger in the local contests.

Other than the one US President who won the election unanimously, our nation has always experienced post-election blues for a significant number or people.

What Must the Church Do If Trump Is Elected?

We must pray. We must pray for the President, his family, his Cabinet, and all who serve alongside him. Pray for God’s will to be done. Pray for the person to come to a personal saving knowledge of Christ. Pray.

I remember one local National Day of Prayer focus many years ago when a man I know was organizing which leader would pray for each designated person or group (President, Congress, Supreme Court, state leaders, etc.) He said to me, “I cannot pray for the President.” I was shocked. I asked why and he responded that he did not like the man and could not pray for him. At that moment, I realized this National Day of Prayer event was a waste. Why? Because the prayers were only for the liked, and not for the ones God had placed, by his divine plan, in the positions of authority.

I remember one person I met who came to church wearing black after the election that did not go as she desired. She stated she would wear black as a sign of mourning until we had a new President. I think the public mourning lasted about a week, or until all the black clothes were in the laundry.

Praying for someone is not an affirmation of everything that person says or does. Praying for our leaders, as Christians, is not something the church should vote upon. In fact, it should be our natural response as Christ-followers, regardless who is in leadership.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. – 1 Timothy 2:1-2 (ESV)

We also must pray for our nation, for whomever sits in the seat of executive power wields great influence and has much power, even in our system of checks and balances. The President influences by executive order, through the appointments of judicial officers, and by the signing of bills provided by the Congress. These are decisions and actions that will not only affect each citizen currently alive, but those yet to be born for years to come.

Prayer is not passive. It is an active response and in truth, a preemptive strike on evil and sin.

So pray for the President...even if you didn't vote for him and do not personally like him or his policies.

We must proclaim truth. Within our great experimental republic, we have not only the right, but the expectation to be Christ’s church in the public square. Whether it is speaking out against issues or laws that denigrate or eliminate life when deemed inconvenient, or items that perpetuate systemic practices that keep one people group at bay while another experiences more freedoms, Christians must be united biblically for the sake of the gospel and for the glory of God.

Speaking against atrocities must be preceded by speaking truth. The gospel is not meant to be kept secret and though the world may ignore, get angry, accuse, and push Christians aside, we must realize that our calling requires us, in love, to not remain silent.

Speaking truth means having the courage to speak when pressure is great, potential fallout is real, and when it pushes against the political narrative of the party in power (even if it is your declared party.) Remember, our allegiance is first to the Lord.

We must participate. What if Christians were united with each other as brothers and sisters in Christ rather than simply upon a designated political issue? What if participation as Christ’s church meant that believers actually sought unity that is provided in Christ? Unity in Christ will not occur naturally. We will not drift toward this. We must be active participants, as individuals and as local churches, for God’s sake, regardless who is in the White House.

Some say that there is too much water under the bridge, too many historic errors done in the name of the church, that we are too far gone. Yet, I go to Christ’s prayer in the Gospel of John and recognize that since then, he has been interceding on behalf of you and me.

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” – John 17:20-23 ESV

Apparently, Christ believes that we truly can be one in him.

So, after this election (and I would say, let’s not wait) the calling for Christ’s church is to remember that we are placed here as light in the darkness, to point others toward the One who is the Way, Truth, and Life. If we’re not careful, we may forget in the midst of political machinations, coronavirus updates, and daily reminders of protests, demonstrations, lawlessness, and death, that Christ is our King. He reigns supremely.

The winner in November will not change that.

So, pray, proclaim, and participate in unity for the sake of the gospel.

Our faith must solely be in the King of kings, Lord of lords. Christ alone. Living as citizens of His kingdom first must guide how we live here, and how we respond when everything does not go the way we desire.

By the way – I have posted this article twice, once with Trump in the title. Once with Biden. The articles are identical other than that. Why? Because I know some may read it based on who is listed in the title, but I believe the church’s response remains consistent regardless who wins.


What the Church Must Do If Biden Wins the Presidency

It’s a presidential election year. The two major US political parties have just completed their respective conventions. However, the conventions this year were much different than those in the past. Thanks to COVID-19, the typical scenes of convention centers filled with hundreds wearing red, white, and blue ribbons, buttons, and the ever-popular, Styrofoam barber shop quartet hats (why are these still a thing?) cheering on their respective candidates was replaced with socially-distanced (for the most part,) online speeches, cheers (or boos) on social media, and more sound bites than in recent history.

Some have stated that now, more than ever, our nation is polarized. Perhaps, but as I have said before, we as Americans have faced polarization before. In fact, other than just a few times since 1776, we have experienced division more often than unity. Whether you hold to the narrative that the United States was created as a Christian nation, or simply a nation launched with a foundation of historic Judeo-Christian principles, God’s church and his children have played significant roles in the history and makeup of our nation.

This must continue to be the case.

November Is Coming, Regardless If We Are Ready

By November 4, 2020, the world will know (well, unless there is a recount or some other strange occurrence – it is 2020, so who knows?) whether Donald Trump or Joseph Biden will stand in front of the US Capitol Building, hand on Bible, taking the oath as the President of the United States. When this election is over, only those with a Pollyanna view of the world believe that everyone will accept the results maturely, peacefully, and with a bright outlook toward the future. Regardless who wins, it is likely that protests and demonstrations will occur, accusations of fraud will be leveled, and at least half the nation will lament with sackcloth and ashes while the other half celebrates.

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Photo credit: Biden For President on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Many Christians cannot fathom that other Christians (I use the term “Christian” not as a political designation or social designation, but as an authentic title for those who have surrendered their lives to Jesus Christ as Lord, have been redeemed by Christ’s blood, will be in heaven when they die, and are faithful to live biblically as covenant members of a local church) will have actually voted for their opposition candidate, a third-party candidate, or have left that block blank on the ballot. Yet, it will happen. It always does. Christians who voted one way will declare that those who voted differently to be heretics, unbelievers, and a variety of other things other than true Christians.

Issues matter. They matter immensely. Seeing the world from a biblical worldview is challenging, even for the long-time mature Christian. It is a continual challenge and each Christian must weigh issues, actions, news reports, speeches, political promises, and more from a biblical perspective. I’ll be honest, this is more difficult at times than putting together a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces upside down and no box lid to use as a guide.

Yet, we must.

Each election cycle, there are Christians who grieve the state of our nation when their desired candidate did not win the presidency. The feelings are not limited to national elections and opinions may even be stronger in the local contests.

Other than the one US President who won the election unanimously, our nation has always experienced post-election blues for a significant number or people.

What Must the Church Do If Biden Is Elected?

We must pray. We must pray for the President, his family, his Cabinet, and all who serve alongside him. Pray for God’s will to be done. Pray for the person to come to a personal saving knowledge of Christ. Pray.

I remember one local National Day of Prayer focus many years ago when a man I know was organizing which leader would pray for each designated person or group (President, Congress, Supreme Court, state leaders, etc.) He said to me, “I cannot pray for the President.” I was shocked. I asked why and he responded that he did not like the man and could not pray for him. At that moment, I realized this National Day of Prayer event was a waste. Why? Because the prayers were only for the liked, and not for the ones God had placed, by his divine plan, in the positions of authority.

I remember one person I met who came to church wearing black after the election that did not go as she desired. She stated she would wear black as a sign of mourning until we had a new President. I think the public mourning lasted about a week, or until all the black clothes were in the laundry.

Praying for someone is not an affirmation of everything that person says or does. Praying for our leaders, as Christians, is not something the church should vote upon. In fact, it should be our natural response as Christ-followers, regardless who is in leadership.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. – 1 Timothy 2:1-2 (ESV)

We also must pray for our nation, for whomever sits in the seat of executive power wields great influence and has much power, even in our system of checks and balances. The President influences by executive order, through the appointments of judicial officers, and by the signing of bills provided by the Congress. These are decisions and actions that will not only affect each citizen currently alive, but those yet to be born for years to come.

Prayer is not passive. It is an active response and in truth, a preemptive strike on evil and sin.

So pray for the President...even if you didn't vote for him and do not personally like him or his policies.

We must proclaim truth. Within our great experimental republic, we have not only the right, but the expectation to be Christ’s church in the public square. Whether it is speaking out against issues or laws that denigrate or eliminate life when deemed inconvenient, or items that perpetuate systemic practices that keep one people group at bay while another experiences more freedoms, Christians must be united biblically for the sake of the gospel and for the glory of God.

Speaking against atrocities must be preceded by speaking truth. The gospel is not meant to be kept secret and though the world may ignore, get angry, accuse, and push Christians aside, we must realize that our calling requires us, in love, to not remain silent.

Speaking truth means having the courage to speak when pressure is great, potential fallout is real, and when it pushes against the political narrative of the party in power (even if it is your declared party.) Remember, our allegiance is first to the Lord.

We must participate. What if Christians were united with each other as brothers and sisters in Christ rather than simply upon a designated political issue? What if participation as Christ’s church meant that believers actually sought unity that is provided in Christ? Unity in Christ will not occur naturally. We will not drift toward this. We must be active participants, as individuals and as local churches, for God’s sake, regardless who is in the White House.

Some say that there is too much water under the bridge, too many historic errors done in the name of the church, that we are too far gone. Yet, I go to Christ’s prayer in the Gospel of John and recognize that since then, he has been interceding on behalf of you and me.

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” – John 17:20-23 ESV

Apparently, Christ believes that we truly can be one in him.

So, after this election (and I would say, let’s not wait) the calling for Christ’s church is to remember that we are placed here as light in the darkness, to point others toward the One who is the Way, Truth, and Life. If we’re not careful, we may forget in the midst of political machinations, coronavirus updates, and daily reminders of protests, demonstrations, lawlessness, and death, that Christ is our King. He reigns supremely.

The winner in November will not change that.

So, pray, proclaim, and participate in unity for the sake of the gospel.

Our faith must solely be in the King of kings, Lord of lords. Christ alone. Living as citizens of His kingdom first must guide how we live here, and how we respond when everything does not go the way we desire.

By the way – I have posted this article twice, once with Trump in the title. Once with Biden. The articles are identical other than that. Why? Because I know some may read it based on who is listed in the title, but I believe the church’s response remains consistent regardless who wins.


Celebrating Others Failures Is Not a Commendable Trait

Perhaps it is simply human nature?

Maybe it is the deeply held desire to feel good about oneself?

It could be that as long as we find someone else who is a worse person than we are, we deprives ourselves of acknowledging our own depravity?

The latest story that has trended throughout social media, become fodder for the mainstream media, and gets talked about over coffee by Christians and non-Christians alike began unfolding years ago. Then, last Sunday, a public statement made by a university president changed everything and . . . BOOM! More press releases. More stories. More accusations. More admissions. More denials. And ... I don't think the final layer of this onion has been peeled.

Thanks to the current state of politi-vangelicalism (I made up that word - a mashup of political and evangelical) that exists in our nation right now, to speak of any individual claiming, either willingly or unwillingly, a political or evangelical leadership title often either garners likes and shares or nasty statements. It is not that this is new, but with social media and instant news, it just happens quickly and more publicly now.

Thus, when Jerry Falwell, Jr.'s revelations of sinful indiscretions involving his wife, another man, and himself became more than rumors (at least some of them) and have been affirmed to be accurate, the flood of responses and shares began. 

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Photo credit: VisualHunt / CC BY

Some of a certain age are likening Falwell's revelation to those of the late 1980s involving prominent televangelists. Others are pointing to the power structures that not only allowed, but enabled such things to happen and continue happening for years. In the age of #MeToo and #ChurchToo, Falwell's story sadly becomes another of many.

Condemnation Aplenty

There are variations of responses appearing such as "Serves him right," "He's blaming his wife?" "He has no ethics," and "It's abuse of power, abuse of authority, abuse sexually, etc." 

Of course, there are others who due to their longtime support and views of the individual (or perhaps his father or Liberty University) blame it all on conspiracies, politics, anti-Christian groups, or any number of other people or circumstances.

Even Christians (and I'm not immune to this) often vent online when others fall. If we're not careful, we do more than vent. We actually may celebrate the downfall of others, especially those who claim to be followers of Christ as well.

But, celebrating the failures of others, especially those who at least publicly claim to be followers of Christ, is not the best, right, or biblical response. However, it is my most common response, but that does not make it right. Therefore, I read this verse in Proverbs and respond with repentance.

"He who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished." - Proverbs 17:5b (ESV)

Some Get It Right

Then, hidden deep within the comment thread on stories about Falwell, every now and then, we see things said that just do not get the likes or shares that others do. 

In the midst of this tragic, sinful, abhorrent reveal that continues to be shared, there are those who are clearly not excusing the sin, not seeking an avoidance of justice, are calling for repentance, and who actually believe consequences should be faced, but are...get this...stating that they are praying for ALL involved and seeking God in the midst of these people.

In today's culture of offering "thoughts and prayers" (which has become a punchline for jokes - and in the way that many use the term, it should be a punchline) some are truly offering God-focused, biblically-accurate, grace-filled, justice-seeking, consequence-acknowledging (YES - THERE MUST BE CONSEQUENCES), condemnation-removing (Romans 8:1), repentance-desiring, intercession for Jerry Falwell, Jr., his wife, their acquaintances, and all others involved either directly or indirectly with these heinous accounts now made public.

Praying for Sinners Is Not Excusing Their Sin

I fear that all too often we wrongly believe praying for those who have done despicable things is excusing their sins. It is not.

Jesus prayed for those who put him to death on the cross. When he prayed "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" he was NOT saying "You know, it's no big deal what they have done. It's all good."

When Stephen prayed that God would forgive those who would soon put him to death by stoning, it was not weakness on display, but grief over lost religious people who acted in ways that dishonored God, put his name to shame, and hurt the cause of Christ. 

Terrible People Who Get What They Deserve

Some believe that Falwell's failures will negatively impact the cause of Christ for decades to come. I tend to believe that God is bigger than a university president, even one who led a university founded on biblical principles. God was not surprised when Falwell's failures became public. He knew when the sins happened. He knew when the sins would be made public. He also knows what will occur next.

As a Christian, I must confess, it is much easier to pile on the story and jump in on the "He is a terrible person and is getting what he deserves!" mantra. Truth be told - he is a terrible person and is getting what he deserves.

More than that, I am reminded that apart from the redeeming and gracious rescue by Christ in my life, I am a terrible person. So are you.

As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one." - Romans 3:10 (ESV)

You see, it is easy to feel righteous as long as you compare yourself to someone who is easily seen to be worse morally than others. 

But, what about when we compare ourselves to the one whom we are called to follow and be like? Compared to Christ, I am reminded daily that "but for the grace of God, go I." 

When it comes to Jerry Falwell, Jr., I have opinions. Just like you do. He should not be leading Liberty University (or any university.) I do not believe he should be platformed.

He would be wise to get off Twitter and to stay out of the public eye for a season (perhaps a very long one.) I pray that he seeks God personally, privately, and honestly. I am praying that he discovers the great relief of forgiveness offered to those who are in Christ and repent. I pray he does this for real, and not as a Christian publicity move. I pray for his wife to do the same.

I pray that they realize they are not too far gone for God's grace to reach.

I pray that somehow their marriage survives and that it is nothing like it was prior (according to his own admission and other reports) but that God heals them both. I pray for their family...and for those who are part of this story in other ways as well.

And, no, praying for them does not excuse sin. It does not minimize it either.

Can God fix this? Certainly. I know he desires to do so. God won't for the sake of "good PR" however. He will do so only for his own glory.

Oh...and pray for Liberty University. This is a new day for the school. They have needed new leadership for years. They now have it. Despite the past, the future can look bright - but it starts at the top.


When You Feel Like a Political Orphan

Welcome to 2020, the gift that just keeps on giving. Way back (about 3,000 days ago) on January 1, there was much optimism from many for this year. Of course, in the United States, we were just getting started in what we knew would be a stressful, if not entertaining election year. Then, we entered the pandemic, followed by racially focused protests, riots, murder hornets, and the upending of everything that was considered "normal."

But at least the political machines would keep moving. Whoo hoo!

I have always been a political junkie. I read biographies, watch historical documentaries, and stay up late viewing the returns on election day like some watch the Super Bowl.

The Worst Political Divide in US History

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Photo credit: Sean McMenemy on VisualHunt.com / CC BY

We are now entering the homestretch of election year 2020. The two major political parties in our nation are pulling no punches in addressing their base and the coveted "middle-of-the-road" voters. Attack ads have been the norm since...well, since perhaps the late 1700s. It just seems that it is worse now than ever. 

I have had conversations with friends who have stated as much.

They say things like, "We are more polarized in this nation than ever before in our history." I smile and usually respond with, "Well, maybe not. There was this little thing called the Civil War that seems to show that our nation actually was a bit more divided in the past than we are now." Then, I repent for being snarky.

When the conversations drift toward frustrations over presidential elections, perceived corruption, unqualified and unlikable candidates, political backroom machinations, and other similar things, I encourage my friends to go online and read a bit about the 1876 presidential election between Samuel Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes. I know other people don't tend to care so much about history, but it helps to gain a bit of perspective when we think our experiences are the worst in our nation's short history.

When You Merge Politics and Religion You Get Politics

Growing up in a Baptist church, I remember hearing pastors and church members share their positions on political matters. As a child, I did not pick up on them as quickly, but as I grew older, it became clear that the church was not devoid of political posturing, either by local candidates or those who became vocal evangelists every four years (not for their faith, but for their party of choice.) 

In the late 1970s and early 1980s the politically religious categorization seemed to truly solidify in the churches our family attended. Later, the polarity became more pronounced on pro-life issues. Within the evangelical world, party platforms became the litmus test for affirmation and the anti-abortion issue was paramount. It remains so. To be clear, I am pro-life, believing that life begins at conception, so this issue is a major one for me.

While the pro-life issue is a primary issue for most (those on both sides of the issue) there are other issues, platform statements, ideology, interpretations of the US Constitution, and integrity of candidates that drive many voters. Between the far-right and far-left contingencies is a middle group that may or may not be registered as a certain political party, but for decades has been the group candidates and parties target. In this middle group, as surprising as it may seem to some, are people who are redeemed by the blood of Christ, active in their Bible-believing, gospel-centric churches, committed to a biblical worldview, and seeking to live transformed lives for the glory of God and the good of themselves and their neighbors.

Yes, that means there will be someone in heaven with you (if you are a Christian) who did not vote exactly as you did for every election!

Vote Your My Values

The "Vote Your Values" theme has been used for years. There is even a website and group titled this focused on what is deemed "Judeo-Christian Values." I do not dislike this, but I must admit that when I want people to vote their values, I actually want them to vote my values. That is because I believe I am right. Do you know anyone like that?

Values matter to me.

As a Christian, I unapologetically care about issues from what I deem a biblical worldview. I see that there are numerous things that truly matter and no individual politician, or party lands well on all issues. That has always been true. I know that, but with the advent of social media and instant information through tweets and push notifications, it is more clear now than ever. 

Politically Homeless

What happens when you just do not like (that may be the wrong word...perhaps "line up with" or "approve" would be better) the only candidates available on the ballot? Like me.

Some choose to vote for a third party, knowing their selected individual has no real chance of winning, especially in national elections. In local elections, it is often true as well, but not always. To vote this way may be honorable, but results in others angrily stating "You wasted your vote! You're a bad American!" 

Lovely.

The concept of feeling "politically homeless" has popped up in numerous places recently. Those who dare to declare they feel politically homeless often are met with typically polarized responses of anger or approval.

Some of the tweets shared earlier this year resonate with me and echo the feelings that I and many Christians now have.

 

Being politically homeless, or a political orphan is not a bad thing (unless you're running for office.) Though I have been registered as a party voter in my state for years and at this point don't plan to change that, though I may at some point in the future choose to remove any party affiliation from my registration. I know, just by making that statement may lead many in my church to be offended, want to leave, actually leave, or worse...just stop viewing me as biblically sound. I may regret stating this publicly (but I doubt it.) 

Years ago, I made the decision to no longer put signs in my yard or political stickers on my vehicles. It is not that I do not have strong beliefs and leanings related to whom I will vote, it is more that I choose not to eliminate an opportunity to have a gospel conversation with someone simply related to politics. Kingdom work trumps political promotion. 

Some declare me to be too conservative to be progressive, while others say I'm too progressive to be conservative. 

I am conservative. I am very conservative, but unlike many I know what I seek to conserve. To be called progressive by some is interesting to me. It's not a term I would use, but nonetheless I have heard this. "Progressive" is like the term "contemporary" when defining a church's music style. One church's "contemporary service" is another's "traditional service." (FYI - just adding a drum set does not make you contemporary.) So, "progressive" not unlike many other terms is defined by the user more often than not. Some may even call me a liberal. Uh...no. That's ridiculous.

To be in the public eye, even as a local church pastor, is to be called things by some who do not truly know you and ultimately just don't like you (for various reasons.) 

Evangelistic...But Not Politically "Evangelical"

Words matter.

I actually like the word "evangelical" but I fear we may have to abandon it in coming years. I have found in conversations with others that outside the confines of what we had termed "evangelical Christianity" the term is believed by many to be a synonym of a political party. And...as stated earlier, when you mix religion and politics, you get politics. I wonder if the term "evangelical" will eliminate the evangelistic conversations from occurring in certain areas where we seek to make Christ known and increase his Kingdom. If so, we need another word and I am up for suggestions.

We must be evangelistic, fulfilling God's great commission and greatest commandment, even if we cannot call ourselves evangelical.

Be a Good American - Go Vote

I do believe it is not only our right and privilege, but our responsibility to participate in the electoral process in our nation. As flawed and broken as it may seem, it remains an amazing gift to the citizens of our nation. To forsake one's constitutional right to participate is wrong, in my opinion. So many around the world would love to have such a right.

As election day nears, and the signs accumulate on every street corner in your community reminding you that every single candidate is the only answer to the problems of our world, pray over whom God would have you support. Trust him with the process and even as a homeless, political orphan, let your voice be heard (even if silently at a voter's booth in your precinct.) It does matter. 

For whom should you vote? 

It may seem obvious to you. Congratulations.

It may be something you are wrestling over. Welcome to the club.

Pray. Seek God's lead. Trust him.

Then fill out that ballot or check that box. 

And after the votes are tallied...

Pray. Seek God's lead. Trust him.


Praise God.......for the Pandemic?!?

Let me make this clear at the outset, I know this coronavirus pandemic has left many people hurting in many ways. In no way am I minimizing the grief of those who have had loved ones die of COVID-19. Those who have lost their jobs, their businesses, and have been impacted in such drastic, negative ways are to be grieved with, cared for, and served well by the church during these days. I have written prior about not wasting the pandemic here

If we are not careful, not only will we (the church) waste the pandemic and what God is actually providing through this, we may find ourselves sitting on the sidelines simply hoping we can get back to a predefined concept of "normal" that just looks like the February 2020 version of church. 

There is a difference between not wasting a difficulty and actually praising God in the midst of it.

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Why Praise Him for This?

The simple answer is that as Christians we are to always praise God. You know...we're just supposed to do this.

Yet, that sounds like little more than a verse-a-day, sugary-sweet-religiosity, fake-it-til-you-make-it instruction. It doesn't make the answer wrong, but we may just need a reminder of the why.

David, the king, man after God's own heart, forgiven and redeemed one, and psalmist, continued to come back to God in the midst of the most tumultuous times of his life. Whether it was being hunted down by a jealous king, hiding from a deceitful son, battles with enemy nations, or struggles with his own lust and sinful actions, he would come to a point, followed by repentance, where he would praise God.

I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad. Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together! - Psalm 34:1-3 (ESV)

There are numerous other passages where the Holy Spirit inspired the writers to extol the need to praise and trust God in the midst of all difficulties. Here are just a few...

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. - Isaiah 43:2 (ESV)

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. - Romans 5:3-4 (ESV)

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. - Romans 8:18 (ESV)

We praise him in the midst of the pandemic because we know he is doing a great work (we may need to be continually reminded of this–those in the Scripture had to be reminded all the time, too,) which at this point is veiled from our view and our comprehension. To believe otherwise, is to ignore the sovereignty of God.

We Prayed for This?

You may be saying "I never prayed for a pandemic." Well, who would? But I know many believers who have been praying for years that revival and renewal would occur within the church and our communities. 

Additionally, many pastors, including me, have often looked at their church's calendar of ministry events, including Sunday gatherings, life groups, committee meetings, camps, mission trips, children's activities, youth activities, women's meetings, men's meetings, fellowships, choir concerts, etc. and have recognized that as years go by, more and more things get placed on the schedule, while few ever get removed.

Even ministries that were no longer effective, have outlived their shelf life, or were vital for a long ago season tend to remain in some form on the church's calendar. The cry "We've never done it this way before" regarding new ideas may be true, but just as true is the cry "We've always done this" as it relates to scheduled events.

Due to full calendars of ministry minutia, pastors and ministry leaders found themselves doing less ministry and more managing of events and activities. While these events and ministries are not necessarily bad and in many cases made for great memories while aiding in leading people to know Christ and live faithfully, they became sidebars of busyness that kept disciple-makers from making disciples.

The minutia of ministry management became the machine requiring constant monitoring and marketing.

So in addition to praying for renewal and a season of awakening and revival, we prayed for our church calendars. Okay, maybe it was just me praying. My prayer went something like this - "Dear God. Please lead us to a place where we can ensure the mission of the church remains paramount, that glorifying you is occurring, that we are faithful in reaching the lost, equipping the saints, and making disciples. Please release us from the overwhelming busyness that comes from just managing the organization of the church to the desires of all members based on what they want, what they grew up with, and what they desire their children to experience. Amen."

And...well...God answered.

Sometime in March 2020 he moved us, along with everyone else, into a moment of PAUSE. We stopped. "It was just temporary," we thought. "It will just be for a few days or at the most a couple of weeks," we hoped.

Now, we're over five months into this age of new rules, regulations, requirements, and suggestions. Churches, for the most part, are not gathering as they did in February. Most have found ways to move to online services. Some are gathering in person, but with strict regulations in place. Hardly any church is offering children's or preschool groups. Every church is suddenly a family-integrated one. There are some who meet in person with no guidelines, defying laws (deemed unjust by the church leaders) of their region.

It's a new day.

But you know what? Since we have all these new things to be concerned about, we're not worried about all those little events that used to be on the calendar.

Though it is definitely not how I expected, nor how I desired God to answer, he apparently has. We (our church staff) are continually looking at new, creative, safe, biblically-sound ways to gather, to educate, to comfort, to serve, and to equip our church members during these days.

While we make decisions now that are not always met with exciting approval by all church members (that's no different than pre-COVID,) we have been able to offer more clarity into why and how we do what we do (and ultimately for Whom we do things) for our church members. The calendar has been erased and I will continue to focus our efforts in such a way that we just don't try to re-fill it with all the pre-COVID events and activities.

If we are not careful, ministers and leaders of ministries (e.g. choirs, age-graded ministries, etc.) will default to just trying to get their one area of ministry back in place. This is a wrong-minded way of serving the church and we all must push against this natural desire. There is a bigger story playing out here.

As I heard from a friend earlier this week, it seems the church growth movement of the 1970s and 1980s (even with all its faults and miscues) led naturally to the missional church movement of the early 2000s. Being missional prepared us for this moment in church life. I'm not sure what we will call it. Will Mancini speaks of it as "Future Church" and quoting Reggie McNeal, this is the "The Present Future." 

I don't think the church could effectively serve in this COVID era apart from spending a season in the missional era. The jump from "church-growth" to current era is too hard, too challenging, too much for many. Those churches who never embraced missional living are suffering more now. The missional church shifts the focus from "the church has a mission" to "God's mission has his church." 

So, we praise God and thank him for the pandemic. Why? Because in this challenging and frustrating time, God has been and continues to equip his always prevailing church for his mission. His mission is not equal to filling our calendars with religious and churchy stuff, but in equipping the saints and making disciples who make disciples. 

Now, more than ever, your community needs your church...even if you can't meet in the building together.

Praying Normal Never Returns

I have had to tell friends, staff members, church members, and others numerous times over the past few weeks that "normal" is not returning, so quick pining for it. Those holding out for a return to "normal" are in for a rude awakening. The changes we have experienced have impacted us permanently. It is not unlike the differences in air travel in the US from pre-9/11 to post-9/11. While things have loosened and changed a bit over the years, certain changes have remained. They have become the new normal.

This means that for years to come, some will always wear face masks in public (even if not mandated.) Hand sanitizer will continue to sell well. There will not be a mass removal of plastic shields around cash registers in grocery stores and restaurants. The buffet restaurants may never return (this is not a bad thing.) And...most churches will continue to offer some form of online service and video-conference life groups (this is not a bad thing, either.)

Will You Pray?

Are you bold enough to join me in this prayer? Will you ask God to ensure your church never returns to the February 2020 version of "normal."

For God has paused us for a purpose.

He has shaken us from our complacency.

We must cease saying "Woe is us" and lamenting our changed state of normalcy and say "Praise God" that he is not only seeing us through this valley, but has us here for a greater cause.

Praise God for the pandemic. May all that we are suffering through be used for his glory and our good. May we love God well and our neighbors as ourselves.

 


When Yesterday Seems Better Than Today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Old Photographs

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

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

Bittersweet.

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

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

Then...there are others.

So many others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Is This a Concern Now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ouch.

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

Bittersweet.

But what about today?

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

What about today?

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

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

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

Don't throw away your old photographs.

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

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

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


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

Every pastor is dealing with this today. 

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

These are CONSPIRACY THEORIES.

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

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

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

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

Oh.

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

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

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

Conspiracies Abound Online

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

StetzerCheck Out Ed Stetzer's Podcast & Stories Here:

The podcast (Episode 33) is available here.

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

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

The Lies Just Keep On Coming

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

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

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

For instance...

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

These stories and more are shared ALL THE TIME!

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

The Biggest Problem with Christians and Conspiracies

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

Maybe.  

That's not the point.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perspective.

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


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

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

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

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

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

People will Fight Over Anything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe. 

Maybe it is something else.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missional Masks

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

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

I want to reach these people for Christ.

I want to reach the anti-maskers, too.

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

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

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

I hope you will, too. 

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hero Who Can Do Everything

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

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

He could do anything.

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

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

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

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

Even Superman Needs Counseling

Superman cover
DC Comics: Superman #23

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

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

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

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

When Superman Can’t Fix Things

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

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

Superman mad
DC Comics: Superman #23

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

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

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

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

Sometimes it seems that nobody understands.

Superman nobody
DC Comics: Superman #23

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

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

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

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

Superman moon
DC Comics: Superman #23

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

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

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

 

________________

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