On Death and Why We Hate Using That Word

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

On Funerals

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

On Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus died because sin requires it.

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

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

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

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

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

__________

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


So That's Why They Asked That Question - Pastoring a Church Healing From Sexual Abuse

*(JUNE 21, 2019) EDITED BASED ON INFORMATION I DID NOT PREVIOUSLY KNOW. APPRECIATE THOSE WHO BROUGHT DETAILS TO MY ATTENTION.

THE INFORMATION IN THIS ARTICLE REFERENCES A STORY FROM OVER THIRTY YEARS AGO. THE STORY REFERENCED IS PART OF THE PUBLIC RECORD. THE PERPETRATOR WAS ARRESTED AND WENT TO PRISON. HOWEVER, THERE ARE MANY VICTIMS STILL SUFFERING FROM THE ABUSE SO NAMES ARE NOT USED IN THIS ARTICLE. 

______________

Twenty-five years ago I began serving as the youth pastor at our church. I had gone through the search process with the church. I was finishing up my final semester at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and was very excited about the possibility of being called to serve on a church staff, especially in a state I had never even visited prior. I had phone conversations with search committee members and the pastor. I was flown to the city to see the community, the church, and discuss possibilities of joining the staff. When the time came for the committee to present me to the church body, my wife joined me. We met with church members, students, and spent time in homes with key members and those involved in the youth ministry. 

I met with the church membership in an afternoon session where questions would be asked. I had tried to prepare myself for this portion of the interview, but with an open mic, there are often questions that seem to come from left field. I shared my personal testimony. I shared my philosophy of ministry. I then began to answer questions. 

One of the other staff members had previously warned me that I may get some questions related to sexual issues. 

Um...okay. I had not had a class at seminary where this type of questioning was covered. The staff member informed me that one or two church members had asked him some interesting questions like this when he was hired and that I should be prepared. 

"Okay," I thought. This must be normal.

The question was asked about our marriage. It was a question regarding intimacy in our marriage. I answered quickly, likely as my face reddened, and said something about "I love my wife and we have a new baby...so...yes, we know what intimacy is." 

Next question.

Fast forward a bit. The church voted. I was called to be the next youth pastor. I would go home to Texas, finish seminary, and following graduation move to Florida. 

I was loving the challenge of leading a youth ministry with more members than most churches I had ever attended. I was learning and seeking to lead well. I was setting up meetings with parents and reaching out to them. I told them "I am not a parent of a teenager. You are. You love your children more than I can and I want to help you as best I can. I will be your advocate and resource." 

It seemed biblical and right. This was part of the philosophy of youth ministry that I held. 

After a few months, one of the youth parents told me that he did not trust anyone with the title "pastor" or who held a seminary degree. I was surprised and felt this was going to be an awkward conversation. Then he said that after getting to know me and as he served as a leader in our ministry, he believed I was God's man for this role and that he was glad I was here. Whew!

It was a few months later and another, similar conversations occurred. I could not figure out what had led these people to distrust pastors and especially youth pastors. My predecessor was a good man. He was a godly leader, a faithful husband, father, and a seminary graduate. He was and continues to be a friend. Following a season serving at another church, he has come back to ours and remains a faithful member. I soon realized that he was not the one they distrusted. He was not the problem at all. This distrust went back years prior.

At one point after a short time into my service here, we were entering into a new building program payoff and fund-raising effort for newer facilities. We were tasked with visiting all the church members on the roll. (I don't recommend these visits, by the way.) I met some members of the church who hadn't attended in years, but being a Baptist church, their names were still listed on the roll. I don't remember the person's name, but I do remember the visit. He was cordial, but clear. He had an experience at our church - well, his child did - and he was not ready to come back (much less commit to a building program.) 

What Was Going On?

I eventually discovered the story. 

Back in the 1980s, while I was still in high school in Texas, the church here in Florida was growing and thriving. The youth group was huge and reaching many students at the local school. The leader was a charismatic (personality, not theologically) person who was able to reach and connect with students. There were ski trips and events and other things that drew in the students. They did not, however, do many events, camps or activities with other Baptist churches.

The church had a house in the parking lot that became the youth building. This was the norm for many churches doing youth ministry in the 1980s. 

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Photo on Visualhunt.com

Then, the story broke. This sad, dark chapter in our church's history was made known. The secrets were discovered. Families were torn apart. Students were revealed to be victims. The one with the pastoral title was the victimizer. 

I won't go into details, but suffice to say that in an era prior to online searches, internet news stories, and instant information access, our church was facing a reality that had to be dealt with immediately and clearly. 

I was not here. No one on pastoral staff when I was called here in 1993 was here either. Most current church members were not here at that time. Those who were do not talk openly about it. 

Why Bring This Up?

As a pastor of a Southern Baptist Convention affiliated church, we are talking openly and clearly about the reality of sexual abuse in our churches. Our votes at our annual meeting last week in Birmingham will go down as an important first-step to bring transparency, clarity, justice for victimizers, and healing for victims of sexual abuse in the church.

In our little story of shame, it was revealed that at least two other Baptist churches discovered similar acts being done by this same staff person upon students in their fellowship when he served there. However, rather than calling the police, these churches did what so many others have done over the years. They released him from his duties and let him go to find work elsewhere. In other words, they passed the buck and washed their hands of the story, letting others deal with it. In their passive dealings with the issue, for whatever reasons given (protecting the name of the church, protecting the victims, the family of the victimizer, fear of lawsuits, etc.) they became complicit in the sins perpetrated upon other young people.

That's why I bring this up.

Last Sunday I preached on the role of the father. I mentioned that some fathers try really hard, but are not leading well in the home and therefore leave their children spiritually void or worse.

I then took a sidebar, so to speak, and briefly addressed those who have been abused by their fathers and others (even pastors.) I mentioned forgiveness to be biblical and needed. I also referenced Romans 8:1 which states that there is "no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus." I affirm that verse, as I do with all Scripture, but made clear that the verse does not state that there are no consequences for sin. 

That, I fear, has been the ignored reality for many churches and Christians when addressing physical and sexual abuse. 

At that moment, from the pulpit I stated to our congregation,

"For the victim, we want to help. We want you to feel safe. We desire to walk with you through the very painful and needed areas of healing. We're still trying to discover how best to do that."

Then I said,

"To the victimizer, we want you to know that Christ loves you too and that you need to repent and receive the forgiveness for your sins. We also want you to know that you need to go to jail. We want to make sure that happens." 

It was quiet at that point.

Now I Know

I know now why that question was asked in my interview twenty-five years ago. I was not here in the 1980s. I have brothers and sisters in Christ who were. God has brought great healing to our church. The police were called, but apparently not by our church leadership (and for that we were wrong), but by a parent of a child and another person in the community that had learned. It seems that the church leaders were focused much more on potential liability and harm to the brand (of the church) than for the healing of victims. This was a perception by some. Sadly, it may be the case in that many churches have shown this to be the initial (if not only ) focus. Thankfully, the truth was made known. Truth is always right.

The accused was convicted and went to prison. Sadly, I am pretty confident that our church did not provide the healing place needed for all the victims. 

I also believe, based on what I have heard from some, that it was not because we did not want to. It was because we did not know how to do so. I am not sure we know how now. What I do know is that those who were hurt still carry scars. Some have remained in the church (if not ours) and are faithfully serving the Lord. Some may have pushed these stories back so far in their history as to not have to deal with them. I apologize if this has reopened wounds you thought were healed.

For others ... well, I don't know. I fear there is a group of fifty-year-old wounded people out there who have abandoned the church because a wolf entered the sheep pen and did great harm. For those, I am deeply sorry and I pray you will receive the help and healing needed that only God can provide.

The Caring Church

Like many pastor friends of mine, I am not content with just offering lip service to an initiative that can be perceived as simply a reaction to news articles. I believe the issue of healing and hope for those victimized by sexual abuse is a gospel issue. That's one reason we have signed up for the Caring Well Challenge and encourage other churches to do so as well. That is not enough, I know. However, it is a start.

Rather than have a dark chapter that no one speaks of, perhaps we can learn from the past so as not to ever repeat it.


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

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

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

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

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

Bad Southern Baptists

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

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

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

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

No Rose-Colored Glasses

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is the SBC done for?

I don't believe so.

The decline is real.

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

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

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Photo by Todd Robertson

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is the Gospel...above all.


Maneuvering Through the Politics of the Age Without Embarrassing Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Political Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

Do You Not Care?

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

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

Praying for Leaders, Regardless of Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For me.

But for some, it did. 

Grace, Mercy, and Pointed Responses

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

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

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

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

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

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

Platt and the President

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

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

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

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

Was it a photo op? Likely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pastors - Stay Focused

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

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

__________

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

 

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

You see why these statistics are a bit muddy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Grieving Over Lostness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barriers to Truth

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

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

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

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

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

When truth is compromised, lostness goes unaddressed.

Comparative Analysis 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, be prepared to tell.

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

________________

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Great Thing About Youth Ministry Then...

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

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

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

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

The Regrets...

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

One ear mickey mouse

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

- WHEN YOUR YOUTH GROUP FUNCTIONS AS A PARACHURCH MINISTRY -

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Family-Equipping Model

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

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

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

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

It Is A Hard Sell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, at what cost?

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

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

_____________

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


A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to Hell

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo credit: ChrisGoldNY on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC

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

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

Funerals for Lost Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________

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

 


The Gay Kid in Your Church May Think You Hate Him

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

The Moral Revolution and the Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Is More Than a Same-Sex Marriage Issue

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

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

The LGBTQ+ People In Your Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hating the Church 

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

Berk
Photo credit: Texas Monthly - Sept 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Hated By the Church

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

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

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

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

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

Love and Affirmation Are Not Synonyms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________

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


When Your Youth Group Functions As a Parachurch Ministry

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

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

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

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

Youth Group Experiences*

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

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

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

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

"You're not joining the youth group."

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

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

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

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

The Virtual Parachurch Ministry

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

Yet, none of these groups are the church. 

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

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

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

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

Why Is This a Problem?

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

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

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

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

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

_____

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


Remaining Faithful When There Are No Victories

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

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

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

Whitney
Dr. Donald Whitney - picture by Hibernia Baptist Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For pastors and church leaders, this word is vital. 

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

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


The Risk of Pastoring in a Culture Saturated With False Teachers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discernment, Not Self-Righteousness

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

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

The Risk

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

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

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

It's risky.

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

There's a Greater Risk

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

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

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

_____

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

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

 

American Gospel - Trailer 1 from Transition Studios on Vimeo.

 


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

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

New-Church-Launch
The Intersection - Newport, NC

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

Believing In Church Planting

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

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

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

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

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

You're Planting Where?

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

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

It's a legitimate question.

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

Not Every Person Will Get to Heaven Through Your Local Church

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

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

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

We truly are better together.

However, Not Every Church Plant Is Your Partner

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel Hollis

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

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

Hollis
Hollis Co./Rachel Hollis

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

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

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

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

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

For Hollis, salvation is found in ourselves:

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

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

On staying home with her kids, Hollis says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow yourself. No apologies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hollis writes,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Is This a Good Book?

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

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

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

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

Yet, the question was clear and needed.

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

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

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Photo on VisualHunt.com

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

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

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

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

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

Things I Check

  1. THE AUTHOR'S CREDENTIALS

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

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

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

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

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

One Other Thing...

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

Happy reading.

___________________

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


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

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

The story is wonderful in so many ways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps the Most Difficult Part of the Prodigal Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

What About the Dad?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With that, I watch and wait. 

Trusting God. 

Everyday.

I pray that you can do that as well.

_____________________

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


Confessions from a Gossip

They say confession is good for the soul. 

That's what "they" say.

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

It is most difficult.

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

The Prayer Request In Disguise

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

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

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

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

The Sinfulness of Gossip

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

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

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

This being said, I must confess.

My Sin

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

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

Here's the problem.

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

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

The Needed Confrontation

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

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

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

My Imperfections Revealed

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

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

Why Tell This?

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

Oh man. I thought this was done.

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

So, I confess today...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forgiveness Is Freeing

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

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

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

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

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

I ask that you will forgive me as well. 

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


Believe the Victims!

The Houston Chronicle article published on Sunday, February 10 has become the focus of conversations among pastors, denominational leaders, and church members. It should be. A severe sadness comes over me as I read through the article. To be honest, anger swells up as the stories unfold, especially in the video testimonies linked in the story. I am angry that those who were victimized are often portrayed as "asking for it" with "it" obviously being inappropriate touching or the sexual acts performed on the victim. In many of the cases revealed in the story, the victims are children and teenagers. Yes, this makes me even more angry. Righteous anger? I hope so. I believe so.

Eyes to See and Ears to Hear

I am not a victim of sexual abuse. Therefore, I do not view the stories or hear the testimonies as one who has experienced the attacks first-hand. As a child I was approached by a relative who attempted to harm me sexually, but apparently my screams out in the backyard and my subsequent telling of the approach to my parents squelched any further attempts. For this I am deeply grateful. Looking back, it was a closer call than I knew as an eight-year-old. Yet, the clarity of that moment of fear remains in my mind these forty plus years later.

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Photo credit: Nick Fuentes on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA

I am not comparing my brief experience to the very real sexual abuse suffered by others. What these victims of abuse have experienced is so horrendous and sinful. I will not attempt to say "I understand" because to do so would insult those who have walked in this shadowy valley.

Not being able to relate directly to abuse in this way does not give me or any other pastor or Christian a pass. In an article I posted early on Sunday morning highlighting some practical steps that may help churches protect their congregants and avoid becoming an easy target for sexual predators I included two sentences intended to be helpful, but actually were harmful.

I originally included these sentences (regrettably):

Unfortunately, some will be lying just to gain attention. That always seems to happen with stories such as this. Yet, most will be telling true stories.

My intent was to focus on the reality that the vast majority of those who are victimized and share that with leaders and those in authority are telling the truth. Yet, as was shared with me in a very kind and instructive way by a woman who had been victimized in the past, this statement when read by someone who has been abused actually sounds like the exact opposite of my intention. 

Please understand that I am not excusing what I wrote and stating that "Well, you didn't understand." I am actually lamenting and repenting of adding those two sentences. Regardless my intent, the wording was wrong and hurtful.

This dear sister shared the insight clearly this way:

I think your intent might have been to suggest these are the exceptions.  But the fact that you feel the need to put this caveat in, speaks loudly to victims that they might be accused of lying.  This is one of the reasons why victims don’t tell.  They are terrified they will be considered one of the “some.”   In truth, estimates of false accusations of abuse/sexual assault sit at between 2-8%.  Studies don’t normally take into account what is called “unfounded accusations” where there is some evidence of inappropriate behavior that does not rise to the level of criminal.  When you consider the fact that that many more cases of abuse and assault occur which are NEVER reported – some say as many as an additional 40% -  I believe the % of actual incidents where women lie about it hovers around 2%.  This is very small.  Not insignificant, yet small.  And not worth even mentioning in response to the Houston Chronicle article.  I think when you go to the trouble to point out that some lie, it quickly silences women who might have a story to tell.  A story that you need to hear.  Some of those women are in your own congregation.

She is right and I am so thankful for this correction. I have since deleted the two sentences I highlighted above for these reasons.

Sadly, There Is More To Come

The Houston Chronicle article from Sunday was just Part One. Part Two was published today. The third part is coming soon. I cannot say I am looking forward to reading them, but I must. To ignore the reality of these sinful actions is to discount the harm done to the victims.

As more and more stories come to the surface, accusations will come from victims. Some will share their stories that occurred decades prior. Time heals all wounds they say, but we know that is not true. Only God can heal these wounds. The tragedy is that some in the church will discount the viability of these accusations. This must not happen. This will actually keep many victims from seeking help, healing, and restoration. The church must not fail in this.

Consequences Remain

I just watched a video clip from the Houston Chronicle where a senior adult man in prison shares his version of the sexual account that landed him in jail. His victim was a preschool-aged child. He was her "church man" and according to the video testimony of the child, touched her in inappropriate ways numerous times. The most appalling moment in the clip was when the man, Mr. Livingston, says "I feel like the victim." Fortunately, the television we were watching this on as a church staff is new, so I didn't throw anything at it, but the feelings of anger and frustration at this statement boiled within me. 

Is God's grace enough for these criminals?

Yes, I do believe the perpetrators who have committed these heinous crimes are redeemable through the grace of God. I know that the blood of Jesus covers all sins. Yet, I differentiate between the terms "consequences" and "condemnation." In the cases where the Christian criminal confesses his/her (it seems to mostly be men in these cases, however) God's Word rings true.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9 (ESV)

I believe this.

I also believe this...

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Romans 8:1 (ESV)

Throughout my ministry I have discovered that many apparently believe the words "condemnation" and "consequences" are synonyms. They are not. The crimes revealed in these stories are not minimal. They are not things to be taken care of simply in the church through counseling or church disciplinary processes. The consequences of such crimes require outside investigators to be involved. The allegations must be taken seriously. When criminal activity is discovered and verified, the consequences are jail time or whatever the courts decide. This cannot be swept under the rug, dealt with in a church committee, and handled as has been the case far too often. <TWEET THIS>

The church who simply fires an abuser, knowing he/she will simply join another church, possibly serve in leadership again, likely to do similar things is not only complicit but culpable.

We Must Believe the Victims

It seems that victims are often not initially believed. They are shamed for daring to accuse a man of God or church leader of such actions. 

These victims need to be believed. They need to be loved (with appropriate showings of biblical, godly love.) The enemy is at work and as one of our ministers on staff said a few weeks ago, "The Enemy seeks to destroy God's church and God's people. He doesn't do it from the outside. He often joins the church and does so from the inside."

To minimize the voice of the victim is to ignore the fullness of the gospel. Christ stated...

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4:18-19 (ESV)

"To set at liberty those who are oppressed" means much, but do not discount this message of healing and freedom of those who are enslaved to sin, even the sin of others. The good news of the gospel is that Christ hears, cares, and redeems. He can set free those who have been victimized by others claiming to represent God. He can heal.

Speaker and author Beth Moore has been very transparent about her past and has shared things online and through social media that speaks of the shaming and fear of sharing from a victim's perspective. She is just one voice, but one that is heard by many. Her words are wise and should be heeded in this case. 

God's Voice to the Sexually Assaulted

Dr. Katie McCoy writes a wonderful article on Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary's Biblical Women site. Click here for the full article. She states this so clearly...

And consent is the key factor here. When we hear from women (and men) who have been assaulted or abused, many share how they froze when it happened. They didn’t know what to do. They were shocked. They couldn’t move. They couldn’t even scream. And they couldn’t understand why. In the aftermath of trauma, so many survivors wonder if they did something wrong.

God’s Law comes to their defense and expels this false shame. The issue was not how she expressed her lack of consent. The issue is that she did not consent. And therefore, God declared she was innocent.

There’s one more thing about this law we need to see: The woman was believed on the basis of her testimony. Biblical law sides with the woman and defends her innocence, despite the lack of witnesses. The woman’s testimony was enough to charge her assailant with the crime. This law not only found her blameless, but also permitted no inference that she was at fault for the attack. In other words, the problem was not that she had done something to be assaulted; the problem was that a man assaulted her.

The woman was believed on the basis of her testimony! Yes, this is key and must be remembered. Whether women, men, or children, the testimony must be heard with intent to believe and discern. Sometimes, this is lacking.

We Must Do The Right Thing

The fear of some is that the Southern Baptist Convention and member churches will overreact due to these stories and set in motion things that are not best. Others fear a lack of response. I have heard both and my response is that an overreaction is better than ignoring reality and not reacting at all. 

Twitter responses of what everyone "needs" to do are everywhere. Those in the SBC leadership are tasked with responding properly. Local pastors must face the reality that regardless what is done at the upper levels (an improper term, I know, due to our Baptist polity, but referencing things done at Executive Committee, state convention, and national convention levels) proper steps must be taken in the local church to protect the flock. The emphasis must be heavily on the safety and protection of the most vulnerable rather than on simply protecting the name of the local church and its leaders and volunteers. It truly is a "both-and" scenario, but this must be clearly understood.

If the church simply implements procedures and processes to protect itself as an organization (or its leaders only) the victims of abuse will continue to be marginalized and deemed less important or not-believable. The shame will continue. Procedures will be in place, but healing and help and proper responses will not occur.

The church exists for the glory of God. We must do that which he leads us to do in this case and in all others. To do the right thing is to do the holy thing. To do the holy thing is to do the biblical thing. To live biblically and holy will bring glory to God. His glory is for our good, as individuals and as his church.

God has not been glorified by the ignoring of offenses. He has not been glorified by the shaming of victims. He has not been glorified by the excusing of sinful actions. He never has been. He never will be.

May God be glorified through his church today. Doing the right thing requires being in right relationship with God through Jesus Christ. 


The Church Must Do More To Protect Its Most Vulnerable

I was made aware a few weeks back that a series of articles would soon be printed at The Houston Chronicle related to sexual abuse within Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) churches. That article was released today online and in print. It is now being shared and soon will appear in the "trending" column of numerous social media sites and apps. Not unlike the clergy sex scandal that impacted the Roman Catholic Church in years past (and does still) and the December 2018 exposé of sexual abuse in various Independent Fundamental Baptist churches printed by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, this series of stories reveals a dark side in the American church.

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I just completed reading part 1 of the story (parts 2 and 3 will likely come out later this week) and like other SBC pastors and church members, my response is grief and sadness for the victims and frustration for those who were never brought to justice. Yet, I also understand that while calls for a response and a denominational fix have been given for years, the nature of church autonomy (as addressed briefly in the article) puts the SBC in a unique position as compared to other denominations. Nevertheless, denominational polity is not something that will concern most readers of the story. For those who are victims of such abuse, it shouldn't. 

Past SBC officers and leaders, as well as local church pastors, ministers, and volunteers are quoted and featured in the article. I so appreciate J.D. Greear, our current SBC President and Lead Pastor of The Summit Church in North Carolina for his clearly articulated responses and steps taken to address these issues. His tweet on Saturday affirms this.

 

I do not have a role in denominational leadership regarding policies and responses, but I believe that current leadership needs not only our prayers, but support as they seek to respond well, within the bounds of their authority. We must do all we can to help churches and denominational entities better respond to victims and survivors of past atrocities, protect current members and attendees of our churches, educate and implement safety guidelines for leaders, all while not abandoning our calling and commission to glorify God and make disciples of Jesus Christ. (These are not mutually exclusive, by the way.)

As a local church pastor, I have the responsibility to ensure we are doing everything we can to keep our most vulnerable members and attendees safe. When I came to serve at my current church as a youth pastor in the 1990s, I was made aware of a dark chapter in our congregation's history related to sexual misconduct by former leaders in a prior decade. That history was not given to me during the interview process and was only discovered months after moving into my new role at this church. Once I heard, it helped me understand a number of the rules in place for leaders as well as some of the side-eyes I received in public when introducing myself as the youth pastor at the church. In our case, I am glad to say the church responded well. They did not simply sweep the issues under the rug, or allow the victimizer to simply go to another church. These were dark days at the church, and while prosecution and jail time for the convicted occurred, the victims remained (and remain) scarred.

As the Houston Chronicle story unfolds and spreads, many will likely come forward throughout the nation with stories of abuse, victimization, and harm. While some who hear will respond "Why now, after all those years?" the facts remain that wrong was committed. Despite the many years of silence (most victims likely do not want to talk about anything such as this) healing for the victimized and proper responses from the churches are still needed.

Evil Does Not Get a Pass

Tweets are popping up related to this news story quickly from pastors, leaders, church members, as well as those opposed to the church. Dr. Malcolm Yarnell of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary is strongly stating that we must not ignore these issues. He tweets "Evil does not get a pass" and he is correct. 

We must be quick to address sin. We often are when it impacts others and when the sinners are not in our camp. It is much more difficult to do so when the sin is revealed and it is clear that a friend, brother or sister in Christ, or fellow denominational or church member is involved. Yet, not unlike Nathan when he was called to address David's sin, we must speak up as well.

Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. (2 Samuel 12:7 ESV)

Steps have been made at SBC denominational levels to seek to address the issues. While these steps may not seem to be much, they are more than we have had in the past and our denominational servants need our prayers for wisdom and clarity as they move forward. The reality of local church autonomy remains and should remain. Yet, autonomy does not mean that each church has the right to be associated with local associations, state conventions, or even the full SBC. 

While our denominational servants will continue to work to address this reality, it is the local church body that must not ignore the issues of sexual misconduct and protection of members and attenders.

What the Local Church Must Do

A short list of steps will fall short, but for many of our churches, a list such as this is a good starting point for protecting the most vulnerable in the church as well as the leaders and volunteers of the church. Ultimately, these wise steps are needed so that God's church will not be marred by ignored sin.

  1. BACKGROUND CHECKS - You would think this would be a no-brainer, but for many of our smaller and older congregations a background check is a new concept. For decades, many churches have sought to find volunteers to serve with preschoolers, children, and youth. In most churches these are the most difficult positions to fill and therefore, whomever volunteers gets the job. This cannot be. It does not matter that Mrs. So-And-So has been a member for years and loves the kids. If the church does not have completed background checks (up-to-date, not one and done forever) on file for all adults who work with minors in any capacity, the church will be liable. While there is a financial cost to having these done, the fact is this cannot be ignored. The cost is much higher to NOT have these done. I'm not speaking only of financial costs here. Of course, background checks only reveal those who have already been caught doing things wrong, so this cannot be the only step.
  2. NO CLOSED-DOOR COUNSELING - Pastors and church leaders are called upon to counsel church members for various reasons. I actually had the door to my office removed and replaced when I was called to be the Lead Pastor. The original door had no window. Therefore, if I was in my office with someone else, there was no way for one of our secretaries or other church leaders to walk by and glance inside to ensure everything was okay. Counseling sessions should not be done alone in the church or elsewhere without opportunity to be viewed by others. Remove the potential for question by ensuring others can see you meeting. The meeting contents can remain confidential (unless abuse or self-harm is revealed and then it must be reported to the authorities) but the meeting must be known by others. If a counselee refuses to meet because there are windows in the door or because others can see that they met with you, that meeting does not need to happen. That sounds harsh, but the risk is greater than the help you may provide. In some cases, another needs to be in the counseling session as well. This could be your spouse or another staff member.
  3. NO ADULT LEADERS ALONE WITH CHILDREN - This is the "rule of two" or better yet "rule of three." An adult leader (male or female) alone with children provides no protection against allegations. This protects the leader against possible false allegations. When adults are not left alone with children and vulnerable young people, they are less likely to do something questionable or in worst-case scenarios, sinful and criminal.
  4. NO MARRIED COUPLES ALONE IN CHILDREN'S LEADERSHIP - This is a challenging one. For years, churches have found it easier to get Mr. and Mrs. John Doe to serve together in a preschool class. However, legal counsel has informed me that this is not viable. Since spouses cannot be forced to testify against each other, the church opens itself up to accusations and problems unless there is another adult in the room with the couple who lead. This becomes a huge challenge in that churches must now find three viable adults to serve in one class, rather than just two. Still, the cost is worth the effort. 
  5. NO ADULTS SHARING HOTEL ROOMS WITH MINORS ON MISSION TRIPS OR CAMPS - Years ago, this was not considered an issue, but it should have been. No adult should ever share a hotel room/cabin/tent with a minor in your church on a trip. The only exception is if the minor is the child of the adult. 
  6. NO DOUBLING UP STUDENTS IN HOTEL ROOM BEDS - In the past, to keep costs down on trips that required hotel stays, youth pastors would do the "four to a room" cost that would put two teenagers in a bed each in a hotel room. While some would say this is no big deal, we have shifted from allowing it. It means our trips cost more, but then again, the cost of an accusation or an issue is greater.
  7. CHURCH-WIDE TRAINING - If ensuring that our children and teenagers are protected is important, it is vital that all volunteers, leaders, and church members are aware of policies and practices to ensure safety. Programs such as MinistrySafe and others provide such training.
  8. POLICIES MUST BE MADE AND FOLLOWED - The church should have written policies regarding what must and must not be done regarding background checks, training, expectations, etc. The policies do not have to be super detailed -  but should cover reporting procedures when abuse is suspected. When an accusation of crime occurs, law enforcement must be involved. The fear of bad PR must not keep the church from reporting potential crimes. Not every accusation is criminal (i.e. He looked at me funny, etc.) but those that involve potential inappropriate touching, texting, emails, etc. or threatening actions must not be ignored.

You may not agree with all these, but I would ask you to consider the alternative of being overly safe. We actually have more things in place, things that many other churches are doing as well, such as computerized check-in and check-out with photos of children in our weekly small groups. This is to help ensure that only authorized individuals may pick up children and check them out of our preschool and children's groups. We have also developed an ERT (Emergency Response Team) that serves at our weekend services to provide medical help and safety for those on campus if a need arises. The benefits far outweigh the costs.

What About Small Churches, Church Plants or Replants?

The larger the church, the more resources are available to implement such protections. However, church plants and smaller churches need these elements in place as well, if not more so. For those who are predators, the smaller church with little or no safety measures in place become prime targets for victimization. Church planters are often seeking to get started and stay viable and new leaders are sought, but even in the planting stage, short-cuts must not be taken. For the church plant and replant, the sending or sponsoring church can (or should) help in the background checks (these are not free) and safety protocols and procedure implementation.

For the replant or revitalization church with a sponsor church, the replant pastor can rely on the sponsor church pastor to be the strong voice and implementer of such policies. Why? Because in many of these churches no children's worker has ever had to have a background check. This can create problems for the campus or replant pastor if he seeks to make the 75-year-old nursery worker who has served for 55 years take a background check to continue serving. The sponsor church pastor can be the "bad guy" (or the voice of reason) for those who must now do things differently.

For the church planter, rely on your sending church. If you don't have a sending church...get one.

Oh, and lead pastors, what you require of others, you must do as well. You cannot be above the policies or requirements regardless of your tenure, degrees, or status in the church or denominational community. You don't need "Nathan" coming to visit.

A Good Resource

There are many good resources out there for churches, and more will be released in the coming months, I'm sure. One book that would be a worthy addition to your library and helpful in creating policies is Deepak Reju's On Guard: Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse at Church.


The Politicization of Abortion

I wrote on January 25 of the changes to law in New York regarding abortion (Read Here). My contention is that the taking of infant lives (whether inside the womb or outside) is sinful and abhorrent. When the Supreme Court presented their landmark decision on Roe v. Wade in 1973, the dividing lines between pro-life and pro-abortion citizens grew wider and more distinct.

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Photo credit: Scott Smith (SRisonS) on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

The Supreme Court in 1973 was led by Chief Justice Warren Burger. The final tally was 7-2 in favor of allowing women to have legal abortions under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment. Since everything is politicized (even the supposed non-partisan courts) many may be surprised to note that of the nine justices ruling on this case, six were nominated for the seat by Republican Presidents, and three by Democratic Presidents. The two dissenting votes were from Byron White, nominated by President John F. Kennedy, and William Rehnquist, nominated by Richard Nixon. 

While I hold to my statement in the previous post that abortion is not a political matter, but ultimately an issue of morality and a matter of the heart, it is undoubtedly true that abortion has become a political tool for decades. Therefore, a candidate's belief regarding legalized abortion has become a make or break for many voters.

The Latest on Politicized Abortion Talk

As many of you likely know by now, a bill was proposed by Delegate Kathy Tran (D) in Virginia earlier this week. Suddenly, a delegate not known nationally was thrust on the national stage when the video of the Virginia House began to trend. In the clip, she is questioned about her bill that would change the state requirements regarding third trimester abortions. She has since stated that she misspoke regarding some of her answers, but is not backtracking on her desire to see abortion rights expanded in the state. I've posted the video below:

 

The video of Delegate Tran was viewed online and on various media venues many times. The divide in the nation was clear regarding responses to the clip. To be clear, many responses (on both sides of the Pro-Life issue) were hateful, rude, and very personal regarding either Delegate Tran, or others who disagree with one's viewpoint. 

As a follower of Christ, I vehemently disagree with Delegate Tran's bill and the language used. I disagree with her because I disagree with the concept that abortion is simply a reproductive rights issue. I disagree because I believe that life begins at conception. I believe the Word of God speaks to that. I believe that human beings are image-bearers of God. That being said, I also believe that Delegate Tran is an image-bearer of God. I do not know her. I do not know if she believes in God at all. Nevertheless, she bears His image, as do all human beings. Yet, I disagree with her. Strongly. But I cannot and will not stoop to degrading her through hateful speech. That is not God-honoring.

The Story Continues

Once Delegate Tran's video started trending, the Governor of Virginia was asked his opinion. Governor Ralph Northam (D) served our nation in the US Army as a doctor. Following his time in the military and prior to seeking public office, he was a pediatric neurologist. The question posed to him on a radio show regarding third trimester abortions and Delegate Tran's proposed bill seems to have taken the Virginia story to a higher level of viral status. The interview was an "Ask the Governor" piece on WTOP Radio that lasted almost an hour. Questions were on numerous issues throughout the show that did not trend or were not deemed interesting by most viewers outside of Virginia. However, when questioned about Delegate Tran's bill, the trending began. Here's is the full interview, with a starting link at the question on abortion:

Now, with politics being what it is, there are various "re-clarifications" being made, statements regarding viability, choice, number of physicians affirming an action, women's rights, disenfranchisement, and the like. This is not surprising. It happens all the time. It happens with just about every political issue, especially in America's greatly divided political culture where politicians often seem more like reality show stars (some were, I know) and everyone watching is just waiting to see who wins immunity, who gets voted off, who earns head or household, or other such analogy.

When it comes to life, as Christians we must be careful not to allow the politics of the day to sway our understanding of biblical truth. It is the Word of God that is our authority. For the pro-life Christian, it must not be simply an agenda item for the next election, but a heart-felt stance, founded on God's Word and Truth, that sees all human life (from conception until death of a long-lived senior adult) as valuable and worth speaking up and standing up for. The culture of death that permeates our nation is expanding. We are suffering for this. We will continue to do so. 

Since we are swimming in the political pool right now on this issue (that is more than a political one,) I will share a clip from Senator Ben Sasse (R) of Nebraska regarding these recent issues. I believe Senator Sasse is correct in his assessment, not because he's a Republican man, but because his statements actually align with a biblical worldview that treasures life.

Life matters. All human life. At all stages. 

For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. Psalm 139:13-16 (ESV)

 

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ps 139:13–16). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.


Maps Not Menus - The Discipleship Shift Our Church Must Make

For years I have lamented the overly full, consumer church member appeasing, busyness creating church calendar at our church. For other pastors out there of established churches, you understand exactly what I mean.

In fact, I wrote about this a few years ago and, of course, nothing much has changed. We still have a large white-board calendar on the wall of our conference room. We keep the company that makes Expo Dry-Erase Markers in business. We are doing much...but not doing well.

I was talking to a friend earlier this week who lives in the panhandle of Florida. As many of you know, our panhandle was hit severely by a hurricane in the fall of 2018. The panhandle may not be in the news cycle any longer, but our friends will continue to clean up, rebuild, and recover from this devastating storm for months, if not years.

My friend is an associate pastor at a church in the panhandle and he shared that one of the silver-linings of storm recovery is that his church had to totally erase their ministry calendar, scale down, and begin again with a clean slate. The energy and focus of the pastors on staff has been rejuvenated as well as those who are members of the church. They've begun to refocus their efforts to not simply fill the calendar again to get back to "normal" but to only do that which is needed and right for the health and growth of the church and members.

A hurricane or natural disaster can and does cause this, but we shouldn't have to wait for such dire circumstances to force us to do that which is needed and right.

I was listening to a podcast from September 2018 featuring Pastor Robby Gallaty of Long Hollow Baptist Church in the Nashville area. Robby is known for his solid preaching and teaching and mostly for his focus on disciple-making. His discipleship pathway has been implemented at Long Hollow, and subsequently copied by numerous other churches. He affirms this in that there truly are no new ideas. Even Robby's, as he revealed, has roots in the ministry of historic pastors and church leaders, not to mention the Scripture primarily.

Nevertheless, at our staff meeting last Tuesday, I frustratingly shared with our leadership team my concerns about our church's effectiveness in fulfilling the Great Commission and Great Commandment.

We do many good things. We're engaged well in our community. We are actually, for the most part, embodying the missional strategies spoken of years ago. Yet, in our efforts to effectively make disciples...we are falling short.

Sadly, most church members do not recognize this.

Cheesecake-factory

Gallaty used a reference in the podcast that clarified some things for me. It's not new news, but something I needed to hear again. He used the illustration of the Cheesecake Factory menu. We have a Cheesecake Factory in Jacksonville and my wife and I have eaten there on occasion. The food is good, the cheesecakes are great, but the menu...is overwhelming. According to the website there are over 250 items on the menu available. When you are handed the menu, you notice the waiters and waitresses have to wear those back-braces like employees at The Home Depot due to the weight of the book. It would take about three days to read the entire menu, so it's best to preview it online before arriving at the restaurant. Okay, the book isn't that large, but there are over 250 items on it. It does take a while to make your choice. They have almost everything on it.

Just like our church. 

We have a menu of ministries and in this era of consumer Christianity, we find it easier to add more ministries in an attempt to keep people from leaving the church to join the new one down the street, or the one with greatest new promo pieces and ministry options for the kids or other family members. When trying to reach the unchurched, even more ministries are added. We're not alone - others do this too. Just take a look at the churches in your community. Look at their websites, social media pages, promo videos, and images of their smiling members sharing how great the church is. It's all good, but church shopping looks more like Amazon.com than it should. 

And, we're guilty as well.

It's not that these ministry options are not good. Some of them are needed and helpful in helping create and grow disciples of Jesus Christ.

It's just that we, like many churches, do not clearly provide the needed map for disciple-making. We provide a menu. Telling a Christian to just pick a few good items off the ministry menu is not enough to make a disciple. When the discipleship pathway is not intentional, the pathway is broken, not used, or viewed as little more than a theme for a series, but not a strategy for life. 

So...here's the challenge before us - we need to get rid of the menu and provide a map. And, like any good GPS, continue to upgrade the map so that we are wise in our strategies of Christian health. Otherwise, we will end up where we are today with a busy calendar, a menu of ministries, a competitive nature regarding other churches, and feeling fulfilled that we have made church members...while not making disciples.

We're a work in progress. I'm sure you and your church is as well. So, let's pray together for this. May we make the shift, be strategic about it, fulfill the Great Commission, and be the church that brings glory fo God alone.


Forgive Us Father For Pretending That Abortion Is a Political Issue

There is no subject more divisive in America than that of abortion. The issue of abortion is more divisive than immigration laws, the potential building of a wall, social justice issues, and on a much lesser note, whether the Saints were robbed in their NFC Championship game (they were, by the way.)

As you know, in 1973 a landmark Supreme Court case made abortion legal in all fifty states. The Roe v. Wade case stated that any state law that banned abortion (except in the case of the health of the mother) was unconstitutional. This decision was seen as a huge victory for those who had been at various times called pro-abortion, pro-choice, or pro-reproductive rights. Regardless the nomenclature, the court decision resulted in a major shift in American politics and created an even more-defined line between people regarding abortion.

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Photo on <a href="https://visualhunt.com/photos/beach/">VisualHunt.com</a>

Since that time politicians and political parties have taken sides. Party platforms were developed and affirmed that delineated where said party stood on such issues. In a very simplistic way of looking at this, the Republican party became the pro-life party while the Democratic party became the pro-choice (a politically correct term used rather than pro-abortion) party. Yet, it should be noted that just because a party platform states one thing or the other, not all members of such party adhere to or agree with all elements. In other words, there are pro-choice Republicans and pro-life Democrats. As former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill is remembered as saying "All politics is local." 

My View on Abortion

My belief on abortion is that it is wrong. It is not God's desire. I believe the child exists at conception. I believe that every human being is made in the image of God. I'm not the first to declare this and I'm sure those who are opposed to my beliefs are prepared with pushback. 

Regarding Abortion As an Option to Save the Life of the Mother

It was former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, MD who said in 1980:

Protection of the life of the mother as an excuse for an abortion is a smoke screen. In my 36 years in pediatric surgery I have never known of one instance where the child had to be aborted to save the mother’s life. . . . If, toward the end of the pregnancy complications arise that threaten the mother’s health, he will take the child by inducing labor or performing a Caesarean section. His intention is still to save the life of both the mother and the baby. The baby will be premature and perhaps immature depending on the length of gestation. Because it has suddenly been taken out of the protective womb, it may encounter threats to its survival. The baby is never willfully destroyed because the mother’s life is in danger.1

The goal of any doctor, seeking to fulfill his/her Hippocratic Oath, is to "first, do no harm." 

However, if the argument is that the child is not really a child prior to birth (or at least in the first trimester) then no harm is being done if the fetus (child) is aborted.

There's a good article on this issue at the St. Joseph PRC's website here.

There are other issues for women related to rape, incest, and criminal behavior resulting in an unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. While the intent of this article is not to delve into every instance, it is the church's responsibility to help women who find themselves in such horrendous situations, not only when there is a pregnancy involved, but at all times. 

Abortion As Politics

The political lines were drawn when Roe vs. Wade was decided. The challenge has been due to the fact that our judicial system actually created a federal law by defining state laws related to abortion unconstitutional.

Prior to the 1970s, abortion was not the political divider that it has been since. When Ronald Reagan ran for President against Jimmy Carter, abortion became a talking point. The Washington Post ran an article in April 1980 titled "Reagan Is Favored By Anti-Abortionists." It was true and since then, the Republican party has sought to wear the pro-life tag for political purposes.

A few years ago I had a conversation with a family member who differs from me on just about every political, religious, and moral issue. After stating his preferred political views on a number of issues touted by current candidates, I asked "What about abortion?"

The answer was short, but clear, "There are more issues than abortion."

The conversation ended. 

Yet, it is true. There are more issues than just the abortion one. That is what makes politics even more muddy nowadays than ever. The current political climate is resulting in a greater divide within the church and the Christian community, as well as throughout the nation. 

Yet, the question remains, "What about abortion? What about the lives of unborn boys and girls? What about the lives of women with unplanned and unwanted pregnancies? What about the value of God's image-bearers at all ages?" 

The question of abortion cannot be side-stepped. It cannot be ignored. It cannot be hidden under the banner of the latest terminology that seeks to make it sound simply like a viable health option (i.e. reproductive rights.)

Sometimes, in the divided world we live in, to state one's support for the lives of unborn babies gets one categorized as anti-woman, or anti-health, or something else like that. It is a challenge to be sure.

For Christians, for pastors especially, silence on abortion is not really an option.

By the way, if we claim to be pro-life, we had best be pro-life at all stages, not just at the beginning point. The care for the elderly and the ill is not to be ignored. The church cannot simply be pro-baby and not be pro-adoption, pro-foster care, and pro-everything else that has to do with healthy, biblical families. Pro-life is for new life and sustained life.

The Evil of the New York Law

The word "evil" is often overused today. Politicians use it to describe other nations or corrupt dictators in order to gain attention or make a strong point. I use the term sparingly, but here to describe something that is so perverse, so anti-God, so anti-holy, the embodiment of all that is godless and wrong. The term is properly used when describing the new law in New York.

The new law in New York, called the Reproductive Health Act, signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday, January 22, 2019, seeks to safeguard rights enacted by the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. This law is little than a reaction or response to the now right-leaning U.S. Supreme Court and the fear that this court may overturn the 46 year old decision. 

Prior to January 22, the law which had been on the books in New York, only permitted abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy if the mother's life was at risk. This new law shifts the section of state law regarding abortion from the penal code to health statues. It also expands who is legal to perform abortions. 

This update to the law had been pushed by abortion-rights activists for years.

What the law does beyond what has already been explained, is significantly expand abortion rights and removes protections for women and children. Since abortion is no longer covered by the criminal code, the legal term "homicide" can no longer be used. Prior, under Section 125.00 of the penal law "homicide" was defined as "conduct which causes the death of a person or an unborn child with which a female has been pregnant for more than twenty-four weeks." This language has been removed when related to unborn children.

Most notably, this law allows for late-term abortions. The law now allows for licensed health-care practitioners to perform abortions as they see fit, using their "reasonable and good faith professional judgment based on the facts of the patient's case" within twenty-four weeks from commencement of pregnancy.2

The impact of this law is dire. It grieves me.

What Is the Church to Do?

Well, I guess we could get angry and do interviews on news channels, write articles and maybe blog about it. But, that's been done (and I'm doing that now) but that's not the answer. 

Prayer is absolutely our first response. Prayer for the women with unplanned pregnancies. Prayer for the babies in the womb. Prayer for the babies who are born but cannot stay with their mothers. Prayer for Christians to advocate for and become foster-parents and adoptive parents. Prayer (and support) for the crisis pregnancy centers throughout our communities. Prayer is something we have done and must continue.

Practically, we have to continue, if not more clearly now than in the past, to declare the biblical worldview regarding life. This means that we must somehow remove the lenses that view life and our American experience in other ways. 

We Must Confess Our Sin

The church (and I'm speaking of the definitively pro-life Christians and church attenders) must continue to speak for life. However, sometimes we fall into a trap believing that the answer to the abortion issue in the United States is solely dependent on elected officials, political parties, and court decisions. Those all matter, to be certain. They all are important. They're just not the most important.

That is our sin - putting our trust in politicians, government, and policy-makers rather than God.

Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God. Psalm 20:7 (ESV)

Yet, we know and affirm the biblical mandate to submit to governing leaders.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Romans 13:1 (ESV)

We must acknowledge that no political or governmental leader is in place other than by God's desire. That is a very difficult concept to hold, especially when certain leaders, by their words, actions, or inactions, are clearly, vehemently opposed to God and biblical truth (and I'm speaking of those from both major parties.)

Yet, that does not change the reality of God's sovereignty.

The privilege of living in our democratic republic is that we have the freedom to state our opposition to certain laws, practices, and declarations without fear, as is the case elsewhere around the world. 

In this case, opposition to the recently passed law in New York does not eliminate or weaken our understanding of Romans 13:1. It also allows us to live by conviction as Christians, holding to the trust in God alone.

Church, we cannot remain silent on this and other issues. As long as Christians stand on the sideline waiting for others to speak up, the bystander effect will continue to reign. This is the effect that occurs when a situation is played out in front of a crowd and though many in the crowd desire to do something, no one does...just waiting for another to step up.

We must step up and speak up otherwise, we perpetuate what Edmund Burke is noted as saying:

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

__________

1C. Everett Koop, M.D., as told to Dick Bohrer, in Moody Monthly, May, 1980. Reprinted in Bohrer’s book here: http://dickbohrerbooks.com/DownloadFiles/Opinion-8.pdf

2Joe Carter. Explainer: New York Removes Barriers to Abortion, ERLC, January 25, 2019. https://erlc.com/resource-library/articles/explainer-new-york-removes-barriers-to-abortion


Crises Will Come to Your Community. How Do You and Your Church Respond?

There are some things that God has brought to mind in our church over the past week. These are things not tied to programming or ministry events, but out of a response to a community crisis.

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Photo credit: neil cummings on VisualHunt / CC BY-SA

You see, last week a story ran on our local news stations regarding a crime committed in the Mayport area of our city (Jacksonville, Florida.) A young man robbed an internet cafe, then escaped from the facility with police in pursuit. He ended up in a neighboring community where he was running through yards, jumping fences, and eventually found a back door open (the screen door was closed due to the nice weather) at a home where he entered, kidnapped the elderly man who lived there, then stole the resident's vehicle. A high-speed police chase developed with the suspect in the driver's seat and the elderly man in the backseat. At a speed in excess of 100 miles per hour, the driver ran over two police officers, leaving them in critical condition and after a PIT maneuver by a pursuing officer, the vehicle crashed, leaving the driver and the kidnapped victim gravely injured.

This is an amazingly terrible story and when I saw it on the news that day, I was shocked.

Later than afternoon I received a phone call from our campus minister at Oak Harbor Baptist Church (OHBC), Brian Hoffman. OHBC is a revitalization we are leading at a small, fifty-year-old church in the Mayport community. We have been working and partnering with this congregation for almost three years. Brian asked if I had seen the news and then told me that the gentleman who was kidnapped was Louis Reese, one of our deacons at the church who has been key to our ministry and revitalization efforts.

I was shocked and a flood of emotions came over me. I know that whenever a story like this hits the news that it represents real people in very real circumstances. However, like most people who read trending news stories or who actually watch local broadcasts, there are always other stories presented and the impact of the initial one often fades as commercials and others are shared.

In this case, it was clear that this story would not fade away for me. It would not disappear, at least from the minds of the OHBC church members, the neighbors and friends of Louis in his subdivision, or the officers and family members impacted. The family of the suspect would be viewing this news story closely as well.

Since last Wednesday when this occurred, we have held a prayer meeting, under the guidance of our campus minister, Brian. We have given interviews with numerous media outlets to get the word out regarding the prayer and the online giving option available where we are collecting funds for our church member and the two officers who were injured. Many in the community have joined us in this journey. We have sought to keep those informed of the latest updates as we asked for prayer for Louis and all involved.

Sadly, on Tuesday of this week (January 8) our brother and deacon Louis Reese died. His body was badly injured and after valiant work being done by the doctors and nurses of Memorial Hospital in Jacksonville, God brought Louis home. We are deeply grieved and yet, so very hopeful. We know where Louis is. He is in no pain. These are not simply religious sounding "funeral words" to help the living cope. These are truths based on the goodness and grace of God and of Louis's surrender to Christ as his Lord and Savior. It was Louis who stated his desire to see many in the Mayport community come to know the Lord as he himself had through the ministry of God's church at Oak Harbor Baptist. Though he never dreamed that these circumstances would possibly lead to that, we are confident that God's message of hope and salvation is being proclaimed through the life and legacy of Louis Reese.

As we now plan a funeral service for our loved one, we are reminded of his desire that Christ alone be honored. What a legacy! What a lesson for his church (OHBC) and His church throughout the world. 

What To Remember When Crisis Hits 

  • Don't Waste Your Crisis - Years ago John Piper wrote a book titled Don't Waste Your Cancer. This was written as he was undergoing treatment for the disease and has been a helpful resource for many who have faced similar trials. In our case, we know that the tragic, evil, and seemingly random events of last week have impacted many in our city. Through these difficult times, God provides peace, hope, and help. To ignore this reality is to ignore an opportunity to live out one's faith and to let others see the hope we have in Christ. This is not easy and this is not an opportunity for the church to grandstand or take advantage of circumstances. It is, however, a time "such as this" when the church must firmly and clearly, even through grief, present the fullness of the gospel. 
  • Your Church's Address Is Not An Accident - It was just a few years ago that OHBC was at a point of crisis regarding survival. After months of prayer and meetings with other churches and associational leaders, hard decisions were to be made. This is not uncommon among many of our smaller churches in America. The glory days of ministry are often gone and the realization of next steps often leads to either a revitalization or replanting effort, or sadly in some cases, the dissolution of the church and sale of property. OHBC is located in an area with great need. There are two large schools next door (an elementary and a middle school.) There are two large trailer parks nearby. There are numerous subdivisions of homes and a large number of duplexes and multi-housing facilities as well. The Navy base is just a few miles away. There is a large military and civil service population nearby. While there are other churches in the region, there is no church on the road where OHBC is within such close proximity to all these people. It is no accident that OHBC is located where it is - in the middle of a "field" where the "harvest is ready." Sometimes, we long for the people who used to live near us and in so doing, program and do ministry for a people group that no longer exists. OHBC is positioned to minister to many who now are living in fear due to the criminal activity that made the news, struggling to know what to do next, and have many questions related to faith, among other things. This is true for every church plant (even those who didn't get into the property they initially desired) and established church (even those who are placed in a community that has changed dramatically.) We must remember that we are where God has planted us, for his glory and the good of his church and the community surrounding it.
  • Crises Will Come, Be Prepared to Respond - No one looks for a crisis moment. You shouldn't. Yet, they happen. In small towns, rural areas, and big cities there are moments when things occur that thrust the community out of its "regularly scheduled programming." This may be a storm, a tornado, a hurricane, or some other natural disaster. It may be a closing of a factory or a base leaving many fearful for their economic future and stability. It could be a crime, such as we have experienced. The fact is we live in a broken world. Sin has infected all of creation from the moment of Adam and Eve's betrayal to God and his commands. Yet, we do not live as those without hope. We do not believe God to be good only when everything in our lives is going according to our preferences and plans. We do not worship a God who performs for us. We lives surrendered to a God we do not deserve to know personally, but can through Jesus Christ. In the crises, we hold tight to this faith, showing and sharing with others that all else falls apart when the world is falling apart. Christ alone, our hope in crises. Our hope and salvation. The crises will test your theology. You can pass the test. That's God's desire.
  • Have a Public Voice, But Be Clear and Hopeful - There are many religious people who have found the microphones over the years during moments of crisis. Some seek to bring attention to themselves. Here are my recommendations when giving interviews and speaking to the public at these times:
    • Have One Voice - Whether it is the Lead Pastor of your church or another designated spokesperson, have one person speak to the media from the church. This allows for clarity and a solid, concise message.
    • Share Hope - Crises are difficult, thus the name. There's a flood of responses and emotions that come from fear, anger, worry, etc. Don't minimize these. Address them. Share that you have them as well, but always be clear that hope is available and it is found in Christ. You don't have to preach a sermon, but a clear, focused, quick message of hope that comes from Christ is needed. Don't forget that.
    • Provide a Press Release - If possible, and the crisis is something where many are seeking an interview or a statement, provide a written press release that can be emailed or faxed (yes those still exist) to the news media and reporters. This allows the words to be thought through, clear, spelled correctly, with information on follow-up if need be. There is an acceptable format for such and it would be wise to use that. Click here for a good template and example (don't forget the hashtags at the bottom - that's protocol, not decoration.)
    • Stay On Target - When interviewing, especially with various outlets about a story, you need to realize that you will be talking to people who are doing their job and also competing with the others doing the same job in order to get the story, a different take on the story, or a unique perspective. Be careful to stay on target with the information you provide. If there are medical issues, don't respond to those questions. If there are legal issues, don't respond to those questions. If there are questions about the person's past or relatives, don't go there. These questions are common and will come. Be wise. Stay on the story of the moment. In our case, it was about praying for the health and recovery of our loved one and the officers injured. Remember, whatever is said will be aired, printed, and posted online. In most cases, you're speaking for the church, not the family, neighbors, etc. This is vital to remember. 
    • Don't Overstep - As stated in the above point, you are speaking for the church. Unless the family has designated you or your church's representative as their mouthpiece, do not speak for them. Don't post updates or events related to the crisis online (especially if it is related to a person, not a natural disaster, etc.) without approval of family members or those impacted. No one wants to learn the latest family update from an online post rather than from a family member.

We are continuing to journey through this crisis as a church family. We are hopeful and confident in Louis's eternal home and the legacy he leaves. Please join us in praying for his family as well as others who have been so greatly impacted by these events. May we be viewed by our Heavenly Father as a church that responded well, brought Him glory, and provided good to our world.


We Must Pray for Other Churches in Our Community

Do you love your community?*

For some, the fact you live where you do was decided by someone other than you. Perhaps your employer moved you to the place you live? Maybe you relocated to help family members in need? Some of you were born where you currently live, but upon conception, you were not consulted regarding where home would be.

For others, you strategically chose to live where you currently do. You may have no family nearby, but love the area and through a series of circumstances, you relocated to your current place of residence.

Every community has things to love about it as well as things that would never make it on the Chamber of Commerce's website or promotional brochures. Yet, as a Christian, there is wisdom in seeing one's current home as something God has intentionally orchestrated for his glory and our good.

The church-saturated community

Living in the Jacksonville, Florida area, I am fully aware that what we deem as normal here is not for most of the nation and world. Jacksonville is known for many things - the Jaguars, the Navy, the railroad, beaches, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and for having more churches than stray dogs. There are some noted legacy churches in our city. There are also a number of newer, quickly-growing non-denominational megachurches. Somewhere between the handful of large established and large new churches are dozens and dozens of churches with varied histories, legacies, community presence, and health. For instance, there are just over 200 Southern Baptist churches in our city. Add to that the churches of other denominations and those with no affiliation and you can understand what I mean.

With this many churches it is no wonder that comparisons and competitiveness develop among church bodies and pastors. The sin nature remains.

As the new year begins, I am seeking to change the perspective of competition and fear of other good churches that often creeps into our church body and even among staff (me included.)

If we truly love our community, we (the Christians) must be more strategic and focused on what truly matters. Could it be that God has placed all these churches, of various sizes and contextual makeup, throughout the city for something bigger than just the growth of any one church body? Could it be that this growing city has been strategically marked by God with his children and his church for his glory? I know there are many organizations that are church in name only. I understand that not every group that has "church" on its sign preaches the gospel and affirms biblical doctrine. I get that not all "churches" have the same goal in mind.

But what about those churches who do? 

It may be too much to call all the pastors together for some large city-wide project. I have been to those meetings in the past and to be honest, I don't like them. They often end up with too many men and women in a room trying to determine the pecking order of importance while the project or event for the city becomes the primary focus, rather than the movement of God that was initially declared to be the focus. 

I believe pastors and church leaders should intentionally, strategically, and declaratively pray for the other churches in their community. 

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We should pray for other churches because...

  1. We serve one God. This is pretty simple isn't it? We're on the same team. For those holding to biblical fidelity, focused on the gospel, and intent on making disciples, we must realize the incredible blessing of not having to reach our city or community alone. When one church grows, the church grows. Your church is not your church. It's God's.
  2. Our community makes no distinction between churches. This is a broad statement and I know that those in your community likely do know the difference between the large church with money and many ministries for kids and teenagers and the small one that does not have the same resources. Yet, more than likely, most in your community do not know, or care to know, that each local body is autonomous and unique. For your community, if one church fails, it's as if all of them fail. If one church has a moral issue, all the churches are stained. Therefore, it is not good to see the pastor at the church down the street fail. You may not agree with him. You may not like his personality, but if he fails, you fail. When one hurts, the entire body (and that extends outside the walls of your local church family) hurts. When your church is known for not liking the others in town, you perpetuate the already believed lie that Christians hate others, even their own.
  3. Our jealous hearts need healing. The jealous, comparative, and competitive nature that develops between churches and church leaders is deadly (Song of Solomon 8:6, 1 Corinthians 13:4, Philippians 2:3, James 3:14-16, Proverbs 14:30.) One of the best ways to melt away the jealousy and competitiveness that rises when other churches seemingly are doing better is to first, repent and second, pray for the other churches and their leaders to thrive.
  4. This helps our community. So you love your community? Sure you do. Then, realize that having a variety of healthy churches throughout the community is good. What if the church-saturated community becomes a gospel-saturated one? This can happen when the church serves well together, for God's glory. The fringe benefit of honoring and glorifying God through obedient worship and service is that the community is blessed.
  5. This glorifies God. Paul instructed Timothy and the church as a whole to pray for others, especially those in leadership positions (1 Timothy 2:1).  We even see in the book of Acts where one local church collects funds for another in need. This love for other fellowships should not be just historical, but common today. God is honored when his children are united in him.

So, as the new year begins, make it part of your weekly worship services to pray for other churches in the community (and throughout the world.) I would recommend praying for one church by name each week. Pray for the pastor by name. Many in your congregation may know the church and pastor. Some are likely former members of said church. 

If other churches do the same, then be comforted in knowing you and your local body of believers are being prayed for as well.

Just imagine a new year where the biblically-centered, gospel-focused, doctrinally-sound churches in your community and city stand together for more than the growth of their individual kingdoms. 

_____________________

*I am writing from a western, American evangelical perspective and realize that there are many people throughout the world who have no choice but to live where they do and have no options for relocating. I also understand that the "church on every corner" that is a reality for many American towns and cities is not the norm. Therefore, the call to pray for other local churches expands to praying for the global church for all.

 


The Difficulty of Being a Single Adult in the Church

About fifteen years ago, prior to being called as the Lead Pastor at our church, I had the honor of serving as our Single & Young Married Adult Pastor at our church. This was following my initial stint as Student Pastor. During that time, I learned much. Mostly, I learned how much I did not know regarding ministry to and with those who were categorized as single adults in our church.

For many current evangelical churches in America, the single adult ministry often is forgotten or deemed unimportant. While that may not be stated aloud, the lack of focused ministry to and with those who are unmarried proves otherwise. Even if not intended, this appears to be what is experienced by the unmarried believers in the church family.

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Recently, I was leading our deacon ordination council interviews with prospective deacons. One young man is newly married (within the past two years) and I asked him point blank "How difficult was it for you to serve faithfully in the church as a single man?" The question had nothing to do with the ordination interview. That was complete. It was simply a question that had been on my mind recently. His response was not unexpected, nor shocking. He stated, "Very difficult." 

His response was centered around the fact that many, if not most church programs and activities tend to be promoted with "family" or for those who are married.

Years ago one of our senior adult men (married for decades and wife still alive) asked me why we even had a single adult ministry. His question seemed odd, if not a bit offensive at first, but as I discovered, came from a sincere desire to understand. The last time he could have been categorized as a single adult was right after high school. He remains happily married and did not know why those who were unmarried would not feel comfortable in a couples' class.

The truth is some do feel comfortable with others, regardless of the marital status of others. Yet, the fact remains that not all do.

While our church is intent on ministering to and with families, leading parents to be lead disciple-makers in their homes, the reality is that while unintended, some who are not married feel left out. Some have expressed that it is like being the friend of the high school student with a boyfriend and being invited to go to the theme park with them. It can be enjoyable, but you end up sitting behind the happy couple on the roller coaster, or even worse, in the "Tunnel of Love."

Why is it this way in the church?

Writing as a man who has been married to the same woman since I was twenty years old, some may view my responses and analysis here as uninformed or disconnected. Yet, as a pastor called to lead a congregation into the fullness of God's teachings and minister to those who have been segmented into ministries based on age, gender, and marital status over the years, I hold a heavy responsibility to do my best for all who are part of our church family. 

Without doing an extensive survey, but simply talking to people who are single, and having served in pastoral ministry for almost thirty years, here are some things that seem to be making it so difficult to be an engaged (not engaged to be married, but engaged strategically in ministry), faithful single adult believer in the local church. Of course, there are exceptions and varied other things that could be listed as well. Feel free to add to the list in the comments.

1. There's a post-high school and college gap in the church.

If your church has a vibrant, strong student ministry - that is wonderful! Some churches even have a strong collegiate ministry. But, what about when a person makes it through those ministries that include events, mission trips, camps, conferences, Bible studies, and more? If your church is like most, many have couples classes and small groups for adults. These are good. But...what about the adult who did not get married in college or even has a significant other at this point? This gap is real and what many have discovered is that these ministries for youth and students tend to have designated pastors or ministers leading them. The youth pastor is the go-to person for teenagers. There may even be a collegiate pastor. Yet, the lack of designated leadership for the single adult ministry post-high school and college often leaves a large demographic with no where to land. 

Even if the church is not large and there are no designated pastors or ministers, the gap is still felt. Some single adults who desire to be married find in the smaller church that they stand alone in what well-intentioned, but wrong friends and parents claim a "small pond" and thus, the single adult is encouraged to go elsewhere to find a prospect for marriage.

This concept of "finding a prospect" leads well into the next point.

2. Singleness is often viewed as a stage of life to survive.

It may not be intentional, but whether from parents, grandparents, other family members, or those in the church, offhanded comments like "When are you going to get married?" often come across negatively. 

Rather than viewing singleness as a stage to survive and get through until you find that perfect someone, could it be the church should elevate those who are living faithfully to the Lord as single adults. Perhaps even honoring their faithfulness as Paul alluded to in his letter to the church at Corinth.

So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better. 1 Corinthians 7:38 (ESV)

This is not a shot at the married, but should be viewed as it is intended, as an affirmation for the single believer.

Often in the church, this affirmation is absent. One pastor of a neighboring church told me years ago when referencing his single adult ministry that "There are some who are single for a season and others who are single for a reason." While that statement could be taken well, if intended to affirm the "reason" as being for the calling of God, this pastor actually was speaking in a demeaning manner of those who apparently just couldn't get it together and find a spouse. That is wrong and in the age of the easily offended, that statement should offend.

In an article featured in Relevant Magazine, Preston Sprinkle states the following truths regarding the subtle and not-so-subtle anti-singleness message in the church:

Much of this anti-singleness message saturates the air of our churches, sometimes with words, other times with actions. The message is usually it is subtle and unintended. But single people hear it loud and clear: You’re incomplete until you get married and have at least two kids. (But if you have more than four, then people think you’re weird again.)

Just ask any post-college single person at your church how they feel. Ask them if they feel like they are valued, honored, respected, loved and invited into the lives and homes of other families of the church. Ask them if they are ever made to feel incomplete by off-handed comments (“Why aren’t you married yet?”) or sermon illustrations that always draw from parenting. Ask them how they felt on the weekend that the church was away at Family Camp.

The fact is, marriage is a small blip in our existence. We’re all born single and called to steward our singleness for the first 20-30 years of our life. Many people will be called out of singleness and into marriage and then called to steward their marriage to the glory of God. But us married folks will be single again, in this life, whether through divorce or death of our spouse. And then we’ll spend eternity with God as single persons once again. (Full article here.)

3. Marriage has become an idol

This is a difficult topic. Marriage between a man and woman is ordained by God. It is good and is even used as an illustration of Christ's relationship with his church. It is honorable. It is holy. Yet, as with all good and godly things, there is the potential for marriage to become one's idol. The family unit has also become this for many in the American church.

It's difficult because the church actually, unintentionally, propagates this opportunity for false worship.

One woman declared:

What truly should be addressed in church is the idolatry of marriage. So many singles (well, for women) feel as if they can’t be on mission until they get married. (from article here)

When thriving as a Christian is equated to being married and having children, these great and godly elements of life are elevated to places they do not belong. 

This does not mean the church should avoid ministry to the married. In fact, with the divorce rate so high and marital issues between believers continually present, ministry to and with pre-married and married couples must continue. The godly marriage takes effort. No one drifts toward that reality.

Yet, alongside a strong ministry for those who are married, a vibrant, intentional, gospel-focused ministry with single adults must happen as well. Otherwise, the multi-faceted church intent on "being all things to all people" for the sake of reaching some, ignores a large demographic in the community.

4. We join ministries, not the church

The American church has been impactful for generations, but throughout the twentieth century an industrial model of business entered into the church. The programmatic structure became expected and helpful. It was beneficial for many as children's, student, age-graded, and gender-based ministries developed. The development of single adult ministry emerged as it was discovered the gap existed.

Even now, we understand that programmatic division, while helpful with age-based learning stages, often leaves many on the outside looking in when they cannot find where they fit.

The church's focus should not be built on a demographic study or gender focus, but solely on the Word of God. This may seem contradictory to the premise that single adults should be ministered to and with, but while I do believe a focused ministry for the unmarried (with or without children, never married, divorced, or widowed) is vital, I strongly believe that single adults should not be relegated to a satellite ministry that seems to orbit the church. I believe the same for student ministry and others. God ordained the church. We are called to unite together as his church locally for his glory and our good. If a person simply joins a ministry (regardless the demographic attached) they and the church find themselves disobedient to God's call. How many teenagers in our churches really were never called to unite with the church and fall under the shepherding leadership of the lead pastor, but simply joined a youth group and hung out with a youth pastor? Yeah - that hit a nerve, right? It's the same for any ministry.

5. The return on investment is not high enough

Oops. That's hitting too close to home, right? 

This is a sinful reality among many churches, but let's call it what it is. If a church seeks to grow, increase membership, and along the way increase its budget, the best option is to focus intently on family units. Create a ministry for mom and dad and the kids. It's a higher return. 

The single adult will have one income. It may be lower (not always the case) than the married adult. The activity in ministry is going to be limited to just the one person, rather than an increase in children's, youth, men's, and women's ministry. When it's all about numbers, the one becomes less valuable than the ninety-nine. So much so that often the one is left to fend for himself and ultimately will disappear from the fellowship.

What is the answer?

The answers will be varied, but it begins with the realization that all these issues and more are not only present, but prevalent in many of our churches. To ignore a large portion of the population is to simply say, either overtly or covertly "You don't belong." 

The answer likely has nothing to do with hiring a single adult pastor. It likely isn't to elevate a programmatic ministry model as the answer either. Yet, it begins with a passion to see all people come to Christ and thrive as part of the local church.  

Not every adult is called to be married. Yet, every Christian, married or single, is called to God and equipped for service within his church. 

As a pastor, I must be conscious of this reality and ensure that not every sermon illustration is about marriage or parenting - though many are from my own story, so I won't ignore them. I must ensure that when seeking those to lead in ministries, we are not only looking from a pool of married persons. I must lead biblically in all areas, focusing on the value we have as children of God to be bestowed by God alone and not elevated by whether an individual is married, single, divorced, widowed, or "it's complicated."


When Your Church Hires the Wrong Pastor

I heard from a church a few states away last week whose pastor is leaving. He's moving on to another place of service. No issues there. However, in this case, the tenure of this pastor was challenging, to put it nicely. I won't get into the details, but one church member stated in a conversation "How did we miss so badly in calling him?"

To be clear, in many cases after a new pastor is called to serve in an established church there comes a time when some, hopefully not many, in the church start to question leadership style, direction, personality, etc. In some cases, the pastor is the needed person, called by God for that church. In other words, in these cases, God brings his man into his church to reclaim the church for God's glory. This requires a man with a clear calling, a missional outlook, a loving spirit, a mix of patience and urgency, the heart of a shepherd, thick skin, and a wife who can handle criticism, and children who are strong enough to weather the harsh things said about their father.

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Photo credit: Chris Yarzab on Foter.com / CC BY

In these instances a long tenure is needed and decades later, the historic review of the church's health is often keyed to the moment the church called this man as pastor.

But what about the bad hire?

It's true. There are times when it becomes clear that the person hired as pastor or as a member of your church's pastoral/ministerial staff is not a good fit. In fact, to be clear, there are times when it was wrong.

There are various reasons for such a hire and more than can be covered in this post. But, in my experience, here are some of the reasons a bad hire happens.

1. The pastor/minister was never truly called by God for the position.

I have talked to numerous men who have felt the calling to preach. I have asked how they have discerned such and at times, the clarity of the call is overwhelming. At other times, it simply seems that the individual is frustrated in his current job, not feeling fulfilled, and sits in the congregation watching the pastor or other ministry leader and thinks "I could do that." While that may be an impetus used by God to draw a man into pastoral ministry, it often is little more than a desire for personal fulfillment partnered with frustration of current status in life. 

Charles Spurgeon spoke much on the calling to pastoral ministry, holding it high and of value. One of his most famous statements about the call is as follows:

If any student in this room could be content to be a newspaper editor or a grocer or a farmer or a doctor or a lawyer or a senator or a king, in the name of heaven and earth, let him go his way; he is not the man in whom dwells the Spirit of God in its fullness, for a man so filled with God would utterly weary of any pursuit but that for which his inmost soul pants.1

While it is clear that many pastors would have and have done well in what has been classified as "secular" work by some, Spurgeon's quote goes to the heart of the calling. If a man could live content and fulfilled as a Christian, evangelizing the lost, discipling others, and doing so in the marketplace, then do so. However, if the calling of God is to shepherd the church, serve him in the capacity of an overseer, pastor, or elder, then by all means, that man is to do so.

The sad reality is that some men see the pastorate as nothing more than just another job. It is not. It cannot be. 

2. The pastor/minister is simply seeking a religious job and platform.

This reality is more and more prominent in the age of the celebrity preacher. Churches fall prey to this when seeking to call/hire a man to lead them. The danger is in lumping the good, qualified, popular pastors with the ones who are little more than attention seekers selling themselves with just enough Jesus added on to be dangerous (if not heretical.) 

In the recent 9 Marks podcast "Pastors' Talk" episode 69: On Pastoral Calling featuring Mark Dever, Brad Wheeler, and Jonathan Leeman, the men candidly discuss the concept of calling. You can listen to the full podcast here.

Dever is questioned by the others regarding some who seek to serve and why some should be rejected. He states:

The guy who keeps telling me he’s called to preach but isn’t making any opportunities to share the gospel likely isn’t called. He’s just waiting for someone to give him a platform. He likely just wants a religious job.

I know this guy. He has appeared in my ministry at different times. Unfortunately, in my immaturity, I have often given opportunities that should have never been given.

We have dealt with these as well in our network's church planting assessment weekends. A discerning heart often picks up on statements and desires that lean more toward this version of self-promotion than to biblical pastoral ministry.

While the church calling a man may be enamored by the potential celebrity status intent on competing with the church down the street, the result is often an unhealthy ministry led by an uncalled minister who does more harm than good. And ultimately, God is not glorified.

3. The wife is not called.

What? Isn't it just important that the man surrender to the pastoral call and go?

Uh...no.

Here's a little nugget from the Pastors' Talk podcast that speaks clearly to this. Let's say the man feels called and is sharing this with his wife. Dever asks about the very real questions that couples in ministry deal with. In this example, it is the man speaking to his wife. In other examples, the godly wife knows her husband is called to more, but he resists. We all know those as well. But in this case, 

  • How does the husband convince his wife that it is okay to be poorer than they would be otherwise? It may mean resigning from a high paying job and moving out of the nice, gated community in an intentional down-sizing to serve. 
  • How does the husband convince his wife that it is okay to be the object of more criticism than she would be normally? I know some who have greatly struggled and even slowed or stopped a move to full-time ministry simply due to an aversion to this role of "pastor's wife."
  • How does the husband convince his wife that it is okay to live more publicly with all the kids than she would have to normally?

The calling of a pastor (and since I'm a complementarian, I am speaking of a man in this role) is not divorced from the calling of his wife. Maybe I shouldn't use the word divorce - that brings up an entirely other, needed discussion. 

Simply put, I agree with Brad Wheeler in the podcast:

If the Lord has called the man, he has called his wife.

Conversely, if the Lord has not called the wife, he has not called the husband.

Yes, it's a package deal.

4. The Lead Pastor is overly enamored by having men called from his ministry.

Ouch. This one hurts, but it is true and reveals a bit of idolatry. 

It is a great thing to have men and women surrender to ministry in the church. It is honorable and celebratory to have them do so under your leadership as pastor. However, there is this reality that all too often occurs in churches. The lead pastor is loved. He has faithfully preached, taught, and shepherded the church. God has used him well and many are coming forward to surrender to ministry.

Yet, some of those who come are not called.

They want to be on staff. 

They want a title.

They want to live the preacher life (or at least the version they see from the congregation), but they are not qualified. They are not called. They have been given another role.

It's not a downgrade. In these cases, the individual is called to evangelize and disciple, as all Christians are. They are in the marketplace, in the schools, in the workforce. They are on the frontlines. They are called, but not biblically qualified to pastor or serve as an overseer. Yet, they are given a position. They are given a title. Why? Because the lead pastor is excited that someone would come forward under his ministry to do so. 

Yet, it's a disservice to the individual and as will always be revealed, to the church.

The danger is when that unqualified individual is given a position to which he has not been called, the ramifications are serious. Ultimately, he will likely either quit, fold under the pressure, or have to be dismissed. At any rate, that family is hurt (he, his wife and children) and the church. Shame sets in. Embarrassment occurs. Even anger results. 

In some cases, the person is done with church, because it is very hard to go from being listed on the website and bulletin as a minister to just sitting in the congregation again. Sometimes, the person just goes to the church down the street or in the next community over. Either way - the rift is real. 

And it always comes back to harm the church and the lead pastor.

There are numerous other reasons why the wrong person is in a pastoral position.

The question is, "How does the church survive this?"

Sadly, some do not. If the church has a man in pastoral leadership who has done more than just preach poorly, become arrogant, or hurt people's feelings, the harm may be lasting. In some cases, sexual sin, affairs, and even abuse occurs. Our church dealt with this long before I joined the pastoral staff in 1994. The senior pastor at the time led the church to hire me as student pastor. It was about a month after arriving I was told by him and others in the church that three youth pastors prior, a sexual crime had been committed by the man with the title. The senior pastor at the time apparently resigned later for his own indiscretion. 

It's been over thirty years now and while most in our community have no idea of those days (and I'm thankful for the senior pastor who called me to his staff and the immediate previous youth pastor who was able to serve with distinction before moving to another church) the scars of past sins in our church remain.

While these were the most heinous offenders, others over the years have come and gone. Good guys, but wrong hires.

Not all. Believe me, God has blessed us currently and in the past with godly, called men and women to serve in ministerial leadership positions. 

At times, I'm certain some in our church have wondered if I was a poor hire. Most of those are now members at sister churches in the community. 

God's church survives these moments not by forming another committee to go "find the right guy this time" but by grounding itself in the gospel and in prayer. God loves his church and he always calls his man to serve as he desires. The church must be prayed up (that's a church phrase we use, right?) and discerning, knowing that God never leads to the wrong man.

As for the pastors/ministers/directors of ministry serving at your church now - pray for them and their families. Be their defense in prayer. Even the right ones can be tempted and are. 

If (when) there is a vacancy in the position, depending on your church polity, prayerfully consider the points above before putting another in the role. 

I believe and have been affirmed that I have been called by God to pastor. Yet, even in my affirmed calling, my old nature sometimes (all too often) rises up and leads me to say and do things that are not God's desire. In other words, I'm not the perfect pastor for this church, but I am the called one, by God, equipped and strengthened by the Holy Spirit for this task. As are the other godly men I know serving faithfully for the sake of the call.

__________

1Charles H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing, 2017), 47.


What Do You Know About That New Church Down the Street?

I was asked the question again recently. It was an honest question from a father whose daughter began dating a young man who attends  a newer church in our city. The church has grown quickly and has made it into the Outreach Magazine "Fastest Growing Churches" list. The name is unique and represents a departure from denominational ties. This is not unheard of and not a cause for concern necessarily. The growth has expanded to multi-site campuses with campus pastors in addition to video feeds from the main campus. The church's presence online and on social media is strong. Yet, we all understand the marketing model of the American church and thus, the question was asked.

"Pastor, what do you know about this new church in town?"

I've heard this over and over for many new and revitalized churches in town. Church members and neighbors are curious. In truth, the questions are often asked with a hint of skepticism. While a generation or two ago, the questions may have been about the non-denominational tag or the music style. Nowadays, those elements do not garner the concern. 

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Photo credit: yourfaithchurch on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

The questions now are about doctrinal integrity. Oh, the people may not use that term in their question, but ultimately they want to know if the new church is legit. 

"Is this church okay?" is what they're asking.

Of course, as the pastor of the church where I serve, the members seek my advice in these areas. I don't doubt other pastors have been asked the same questions about me, our church, and our campuses. Nevertheless, I have a responsibility to gracefully and truthfully answer the question.

In some cases, the answer is "I don't know." 

That is because I do not know. Go figure. I haven't attended a worship service there. I haven't met the pastor. I haven't been at any meetings with the pastor. I don't know them, and therefore, do not have enough information to give an answer.

However, in some cases, even without knowing the church or pastor personally, there is enough information online through sermons, doctrinal statements, theological beliefs, and social media postings to discern the primary teachings of the church, from the church.

As for music style or whether the church has stage lighting, a band, a choir, a wooden pulpit, a table, etc., I really don't care. I do care about what is (or is not) being taught regarding Christ, the Word, and the church.

Doctrine matters. 

It always has.

To be clear, I have a number of friends who are not Christians. I have friends who are Christian, but not Baptist. I have friends who are Baptist, but not Southern Baptist. I have friends who Southern Baptist, but not missionally focused. In other words, I actually do have friends and acquaintances who differ with me on issues of importance. I have even more that differ with me on issues that aren't that important.

Regarding these questions of validity when it comes to churches and those who claim to be called to preach, these are important. These are also things that will divide. Rightly so. 

In January of 2019, I will begin a doctrine series on Wednesday nights at our First Baptist Church of Orange Park campus. I will be dissecting some of the heretical doctrines of Christ that have existed for hundreds of years and how some of these have actually infiltrated the modern American (and non-American) church. 

Then, at a date to be determined, we will show the new documentary titled "American Gospel." This film is strong, clear, and needed. 

We have secured the license to show this legally and will be presenting it at our different campuses and in some of our home groups. Below are a couple of the trailers for the film.

 

American Gospel - Trailer 1 from Transition Studios on Vimeo.

 

AMERICAN GOSPEL from Transition Studios on Vimeo.

So, what about that new church? Well, in this case, the church in question is solid. Their pastor preaches the gospel of Christ unapologetically. Their doctrine is biblical. Their mission and church planting focus is spot on. I'm glad to know they're in our city as we serve and work together to glorify God. This is for His glory and the good of our city.

As for some of the other churches in our city? Well, some are good. Others feature little more than spiritualized snake-oil salesmen selling a false gospel of prosperity and me-ism that takes advantage of those who are less discerning and hoping for God to perform for them. They fit into the categories exposed in this film and should be avoided.

"Would it be better for my friend or family member not to go to church anywhere rather than go to one of those churches? They are really positive and the music is great?"

That's a great question and my answer would be YES. It is better they not go anywhere than sit under someone teaching lies. Though, I would pray that they would follow the drawing of God's Spirit and come to Him and unite with a legitimate church that preaches the gospel, lives it out, and seeks to serve the Lord fully.

These are challenging times. In a city where there are almost as many churches as pharmacies, chicken restaurants, and gas stations, the wise person will test the teaching and seek God's lead regarding where to attend and serve.


Garth Brooks, Notre Dame, and Your Christmas Service at Church

Last night while the big game for the NFL was broadcast on NBC and Hallmark was showing yet another Christmas movie, a country music superstar came out of self-imposed semi-retirement. The Garth Brooks Stadium Tour has begun and the concert recorded in the rain at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana in October aired on CBS last night. The production quality of Brooks' concert was incredible. He has been known for his live shows since breaking onto the scene over two decades ago. While other country singers would stand behind a microphone in their starched Wranglers while playing guitar and belting out hits (George Strait, Alan Jackson, et. al.) Brooks would wear the wrap-around microphone that he must have either borrowed from Madonna or the Drive-Thru worker at Chick-fil-A, run around the stage or at times, pull a Bon Jovi and fly above the crowd. Brooks is an entertainer for certain.

Whether you like his music or not, there's no denying he has appeal for many. The stadium was packed. It was raining. It was cold. And while I know that post-production can do some pretty amazing things, based on tweets and reports online from those who were in attendance, plus what was seen on television, the crowd LOVED the show.

Photo credit: tncountryfan on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC

So, what does this have to do with anything related to church, Christianity, worship, or anything else spiritual?

While watching last night, I said to my wife "Brooks has the crowd in his hand. He's no evangelist, but he's evangelizing and the crowd is 'amening" their approval." I followed up with "If he asked people to come down front to make a decision, they'd come in droves." This was not a condemnation on crusades or the traditional "come down the aisle" moment in many churches. I was just noting that what we were observing in this very well produced event was something that we have seen in religious settings as well (albeit with fewer people in the crowd.)

My friend and pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Dean Inserra tweeted as the concert was completing:

 

Dean hit the nail on the head in this comparison.

Some of you reading will be upset that I, a Baptist preacher, may seem to be condoning the message or lifestyle promoted in Brooks' songs. Well, I'm not. However, I do know the words of many of the hits he played. I like some more than others. Yet, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who actually has a radio in their vehicle, an iTunes or Amazon Music account or who has been alive for the past twenty years or so who does not know at least some of the words to "Friends in Low Places." 

Christmas at Church

No I do not recommend singing "Callin' Baton Rouge" at your Christmas Eve service. Yet, I do find some insight from this event that was on television last night. Spurred on by Dean Inserra's tweet, I recommend the following to pastors who are trying to find ways to connect with their communities during this Christmas season.

  1. Plan Well. Every community is different, so know yours. If you don't...you have more issues than Chris Gaines. Presuming you know the people in your community, plan a service that will connect with them and allow them to not only feel welcomed, but encouraged that there is a God who loves them deeply. If your service is planned for church people, you will only connect with church people (yours and those who are members of other churches.) It's easy to plan a church service for church people. Don't.
  2. Preach Clearly. Christmas sermons are sometimes the most difficult for pastors, because we (pastors) all too often try to be really creative and end up missing the point. Jesus is the point. He always is. He always must be. The "birth of Jesus" story is known by many, but don't presume it is rightly known by the crowd in your building. Some view the story of the nativity as little more than than a holiday fairy tale or myth on par with the Rudolph, Frosty, and Grinch stories. (BTW - I like all those stories and even the Charlie Brown one.) BTW - just because it's Christmas, don't leave Jesus as a baby in a manger. Get to the cross. Preach the resurrection. A little Easter at Christmas is needed by all.
  3. Provide the Familiar. Sing songs that people have heard. Is it a sin to sing "Jingle Bells"? I say no. However, sing the carols that glorify the Christ. Don't skip or ignore those. People have heard them. Many know the words. They may just sing along. The words point to Christ. Christ is the point, remember? Sing about him. Worship him with these classics. It's possible. And, as we saw with Brooks' incredible show, you don't even have to have the very best singer in town on the stage leading. You do need to be able to lead people to sing, however. In the age of performance worship and having to present the latest pop-song worship chorus, many in the room are left watching and missing the opportunity to worship with song. Vicarious worship is not the goal. The best worship leaders are the leaders who worship.
  4. Present the Decision. Don't forget to draw the net (that's an evangelism term that refers to giving people the opportunity to respond) and express to all who have attended your special Christmas Eve or seasonal service that God loves them. He sent his son. He wants to know them personally and they can receive something more than a temporal gift wrapped in paper. Life is available. Whether you allow people to respond by calling them down front, offering them a moment to meet with you following the service, giving them a link on your app to click, or a number to text does not matter. There are numerous ways to give people the opportunity to respond. Just don't leave it left undone. Otherwise, you will once again evaluate your service with your staff and say "We had a good crowd, but we're not sure if anyone made a decision and therefore, have no way to follow up." Yep - we've done this way too often.

What you don't need to have an effective Christmas service is the production budget of Garth. Don't be who you're not and don't fret that you don't have unlimited resources for smoke machines, lighting, or other effects. If you have those things, that's fine, but those are not the point when the true focus is clear.

So this Baptist preacher learned something from a country singer with hits about drinking, cheating, dancing, and a false narrative about prayer while performing on stage with a man dressed as a leprechaun at a Catholic university. 

Weird.

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Photo credit: tncountryfan on Visualhunt /CC BY-NC


What Is Holy Sexuality? - A Review of Christopher Yuan's Latest Book

Years ago I met Dr. Christopher Yuan for the first time. I was at a denominational convention where he and his mother had a booth set up to promote their ministry and book Out of a Far Country: A Gay Son's Journey to God. At the time, I was intrigued by the brief introduction to them and their story. Little did I know that my wife and I would be experiencing similar circumstances when our son expressed to us that he identified as gay. It was during this time I contacted Christopher and invited him to speak at our church. All in our family were encouraged by his message of hope. Christopher shared his personal story along with his parents during our morning worship service. That evening he led two seminars related to Christianity, the church, and LGBTQ+ individuals. It was during his presentations that I first heard Christopher use the term "holy sexuality." He used the term in his first book as well. This term is more than just another evangelical buzzword. As Rosaria Butterfield has said, this term is "a concept that changed the paradigm of what it means to live out God's best for us."

Yuan book

Just a few weeks ago, I received an advanced readers copy (ARC) of Christopher's newly released book Holy Sexuality and the Gospel: Sex, Desire, and Relationships Shaped by God's Grand Story. I began reading and found myself highlighting phrases and paragraphs on almost every page. Dr. Yuan unpacks so much related to sexuality. While he addresses LGBTQ+ identifiers, his book is not focused solely on these. Sexual sin, whether homosexual or heterosexual is sin. Yuan states...

We cannot properly understand human sexuality unless we begin with theological anthropology. Anthropology, in general terms, is the study of humanity. Essentially, it's the human search to answer the important question Who am I?

All our thoughts and actions are influenced at some level by how we answer the question Who am I? This suggests a closer relationship between essence and ethics than many realize. The two inform each other. Who we are (essence) determines how we live (ethics), and how we live determines who we are.1

Dr. Yuan's solid emphasis on the gospel and identity as bestowed by God presents a firm foundation for the book. As an HIV+ man who had for years lived sexually promiscuous as a gay man, was a self-described partier and drug user, and eventually went to prison for dealing drugs, Yuan does not speak as one who views sin as superficial or overly-simplified. He writes and speaks as one who has been in the pit, experienced an undeserved rescue, and continues to live amazed at the grace and mercy offered from God. The main character in Dr. Yuan's story is not himself, but God. 

Some have declared Yuan's perspective on anthropology or ontology to be flawed. I have read declarations that he misuses data and scientific proof. Others who identify as LGBTQ+ see Dr. Yuan as a sell-out or a betrayer. The negative reviews of his books mostly feign to be intellectual analyses, but often reveal a personal vitriol against Dr. Yuan based on his current message and lifestyle.

Yet, for those who have actually read Yuan's writings (not just the two books here, but also his second book Giving a Voice to the Voiceless: A Qualitative Study of Reducing Marginalization of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Same-Sex Attracted Students at Christian Colleges and Universities) or heard him speak, it is clear that Dr. Yuan is not playing fast and loose with science, research, or historical aspects of biblical Christianity and sexual ethics. His revealed research and intelligent insight debunks any theory that he simply bases his beliefs on conservative, biblical talking points or Twitter-size hot-button phrasing. Does Dr. Yuan have a personal agenda? Absolutely. Every author does. Every Christian does. Dr. Yuan's agenda is not to harm others at all. His agenda is revealed in his writings clearly. It is simply to declare the message of the gospel well, unapologetically, without compromise, and fully in love. 

On a practical level, Dr. Yuan's latest book on holy sexuality should be read by any evangelical pastor seeking to minister well to those in the church or community desiring to better understand their LGBTQ+ friends and relatives without abandoning biblical fidelity. He addresses the reality of loving without affirming. For those who do not believe their friends or church families are impacted by this reality of culture, it is time to wake up. Many pastors would rather just not address these issues. Some who have done so end up doing more harm than good, that is certain. For pastors seeking to ignore the very real questions being asked by those self-identifying as gender fluid or any one of the many letters being expressed by the common LGBTQ+ identifier (or their loved ones) the fact is clear - you cannot remain silent. Your silence speaks loudly. 

Dr. Yuan's book is not only informational related to the biblical understanding of sexuality, but relatable, insightful, and practical. The included study guide provides real-life questions that can be addressed in small group studies. These all point to biblical answers and are firmly rooted in the gospel and a biblical worldview.

I agree with Rosaria Butterfield who stated in her review that this book is the "most important humanly composed book about biblical sexuality and godly living for our times."

I encourage every Christian with a loved one identifying as LGBTQ+ to read this book. I encourage every single adult Christian (heterosexual or same-sex attracted) to read this book to better understand the very real concept of holy singleness and holy sexuality. In addition to Dr. Yuan's clear and correct take on holy sexuality, his focus on the value and role of those whom God has called to singleness within the body of Christ is powerful and needed. He addresses head-on the idolatry that has overtaken some within the Christian church regarding the false elevation of marriage as essential for spiritual maturity.

Read This Book

There's more to unpack here, but for sake of space, I will end with "Read this book! It is needed and valuable."

The book is available at these sites and more: Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  CBD.

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1Christopher Yuan, Holy Sexuality and the Gospel, (New York: Multnomah, 2018), 9.