Well I headed north, to Ontario, Canada. Maybe not the far ends of the earth, but definitely a good jaunt for a girl from Florida.
For the next two months I will be hanging out with the people of Starting Point Church. This church plant just celebrated their two-year anniversary in February. The church currently meets in a community center each Sunday morning at 10:30am. They focus on those who do not consider themselves to be “church people.”
What does that look like?
When you order a refill to your water at Montana's Restaurant, this is what they bring you.
It’s a church, right? Don’t the people know what they are getting into when they show up? Well, maybe. I presume they understand the word "church" and what that all entails, but this strategy is working. Starting Point is reaching the “unchurched.”
The service looks and feels like church as we know it. They have greeters that hand attenders programs as they enter. They have refreshments and coffee in the back. They begin the service with a welcome from staff and a few songs, a video, announcements, offering, a few more songs, and then the pastor stands (or sits) behind a table and talks for about 30 to 45 minutes. There's even time following the service to talk with the pastor or ask him questions.
It looks like church, sounds like church, smells like church, and feels like church. So, how does this church reach unchurched people? It doesn’t make sense.
I mean, that’s how church has always looked to me. Maybe there were a few differences in the past - like the offering being at the close of the service rather than the beginning and there was that historically awkward time at the close of the services where we stood together, held hands and sang a song together. Sometimes we even had prayer together while holding hands and then at the "Amen" we squeezed each others hands as the cue that we were done.
So how do you look like a church and reach people who don’t like church?
Well, here is my answer (just my opinion.)I think it has to all do with the people. As some may know, the church is not a building. The church is (or should that be "are"?) the people of God. News Flash… The Christians!! We are in a world, like it or not, where relationships are key. There are no more Tuesday night visitation nights, no more handing out light bulbs door to door in an attempt to advertise the church programs, going door to door handing out pictures from your churches fall festival photo op.
It’s all about the coffee dates and small groups.
It’s about you.
It’s about me.
We cannot just invite people to church and think that will do the job. Church is church, regardless where you are. We reach the unchurched by going to them. We must love people. We must be friends with others, even others who are not followers of Christ. It sounds so simple, but it's still a challenge. We are to love God and love people. . .and love people enough to introduce them to God.
Regarding church here in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) is that if people do go to church, they more than likely attend a Catholic church. There are very few evangelicals or Baptists, particularly. Many here grew up in the Catholic church. There are many Catholic schools in the area as well. So, Starting Point Church is a church for people who do not go to church. Though it may still looks like church to me, it looks very different to those who have never been to church or only have traditional, orthodox religious services in their history.
Regardless the look of the service and/or the style of music, the church is people coming together as one in Christ, to grow in Christ, to serve Christ, and to engage with others for the sake of Christ and His kingdom.
Please pray for the Starting Point Church family and our leaders (Pastor Mike & Tanya Hauser and leaders Neil & Kaytee Jimenez.) Though it is an exciting adventure of new beginnings it also can be quite stressful. God is and has been doing amazing things through this church plant in Burlington, Ontario. We know the best is yet to come, eh?
Over the past week, in the aftermath of the tragic murders in Charleston, South Carolina, there has been much debate over the public display of a flag that holds much history and essentially creates division in our nation. Politicians and pundits as well as religious leaders and concerned citizens have made statements and decrees about the flag and what it represents. Intelligent people on both sides of the issue have taken to the blogosphere and the internet to state their case. Businesses have removed any items with the emblem upon it. My thirty-year-old high school yearbooks now seem offensive. (Our mascot was the Rebel and a certain battle flag was displayed throughout our school.)
Eddie Gilley, the Baptist Collegiate Ministries Director at the University of Florida, wrote a poignant article about this. You can read it here.
Another Controversial Flag
There is another flag that also creates division in our nation. This one, however, is not receiving the same level of ire and mandates.
This flag is also being hoisted on flagpoles owned by government entities. The rainbow flag, a symbol of the LGBT community and the public statement of "pride" during official gatherings and ceremonies is being waved highly today in Washington DC and in other communities throughout our nation.
Today will be marked as a key date in our nation. For some, it will be a day to celebrate annually. For others, it will be a day of annual lamentation.
The 5-4 Supreme Court Ruling
For months this day has been anticipated. Futurists stated that it was inevitable. The church has been positioning for a response, while others have prepared celebrations. The court has effectively instituted a redefinition of the 14th amendment with today's ruling that says states must allow same-sex marriage.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, in writing for the majority stated, "No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they once were."
Each of the four justices opposed to the ruling wrote their own dissents.
Justice Antonin Scalia called the decision a "threat to American democracy."
Chief Justice John Roberts, in his dissent stated, "If you are among the many Americans—of whatever sexual orientation—who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today's decision. Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal. Celebrate the opportunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it."
Once the ruling was announced, the news media and pseudo-news media began pushing stories out regarding the decision and its ramifications. Those in support of the decision are celebrated as loving and accepting and progressive.
Those in opposition to the ruling are categorized as haters, wrong-minded, sexually prejudiced and "on the wrong side of history."
This is no surprise and yet, today we live in a different America than we did just 24 hours ago.
I have received numerous text messages, questions on social media and through email and from friends and acquaintances regarding this announcement.
The first thing we should do is that which we have been doing (or at least should have been doing) - PRAY.
We know that prayer is needed. We know this intellectually, but for many prayer has been anemic for years and when it is little more than a blessing over a meal or a request to heal all the sick people and "be with" everyone we know, there is need for true prayer.
Pray for guidance and discernment.
Pray for peace in the midst of the cultural shift.
Pray for the love of God to reign within us so that while not affirming sin, we may truly love those with whom we disagree and especially those who live opposed to the Gospel.
The Challenge to Come
While many who self-identify as LGBT have no desire to become a poster-child for same-sex marriage or public fights, there are some who promote the #LoveWins theme but are overwhelmed with hate and hurt. Some will seek to be married in the local church buildings and churches will have to make decisions that will likely draw legal action.
There will be some churches (and already are) who will gladly open their doors and will even officiate same-sex weddings.
There are also many, like our church and those under my leadership, who will refuse to host such a wedding or perform a ceremony. Whether a church's by-laws declares their right to refusal, the lawsuits will inevitably come. It is in these days that capitulation will happen in many "churches." This is unfortunate.
We Never Were Culturally Accepted
Today's ruling is shocking to many. There is a false belief that Christianity (true biblical Christianity) was at one time culturally accepted as the norm and highly regarded. I do not discount that history affirms a more accepted morality as proposed by the Bible was more common in the past, but the reality is that the world has been opposed to the Gospel since the day that the Enemy tempted Eve and Adam. Today's ruling is a reminder of this truth.
Panic is not the response needed. Knee-jerk reactions are not needed, either. The church may get smaller as the culture slide continues, but we have always known that this is a narrow road we travel and the broader influence for the Gospel always comes from a narrower footprint.
So, we pray. We pray for God's name to be hallowed and for His Kingdom to come, here as well as in heaven. We pray that we will hear his voice and follow His commands. We pray for those far from God to be broken to the point where they respond to the lure of the Gospel.
That is our hope, not the Judicial, Legislative or Executive branches of our government or any other entity.
So, I'm now a conscientious objector to a ruling put into place today. The 14th Amendment has been redefined and I lament the reality of what this means.
There's Another Flag
So church, stand firm. Stay focused. Remember the mission.
We stand under another flag or banner and it's not the one that is pledged at Vacation Bible School, but one named Jehovah Nissi.
And Moses built an altar and called the name of it, The LORD Is My Banner. Exodus 17:15 (ESV)
During David Platt's first year as President of the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board, there has been a noticeable effort of refocus and clarification of mission and a strategic attempt to partner with our North American Mission Board and local churches for the propagation of the Gospel.
At the annual SBC meeting this week in Columbus, Dr. Platt present the annual report for the IMB. In this, he addressed critical remarks and overstated media reports regarding some policy changes within the IMB. What began as a report, became a sermon. For this, I am grateful and when Dr. Platt concluded, there were no questions offered. This is a significant moment, perhaps missed by many, within our family of churches.
May God continue to bless our missionaries globally and the leadership of our International Mission Board.
Here's Dr. David Platt's "report" in its entirety. Yes, it's worth ten minutes of your time. . .
I am currently in Columbus, Ohio, gathering with thousands of family members (that's what it feels like) at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. I have been to numerous denominational meetings such as this in the past, but this year, there is a different feel.
I call it a meeting with family members, for that is what it truly is. Baptist brothers and sisters from throughout the land gather together and reconnect with old friends, worship together, make decisions that will impact many through policy affirmations. Like many families, we also grimace at some things said and done by others in the family. It is like being with others over a holiday and then the crazy uncle shows up. We love him, but we never know what he's going to do or say. Every family has that guy. Our SBC has those as well. And, if you can't figure out who he/she may be. . . it may be you.
A "REALITY SHOW"
Since I categorize our SBC meeting as a family gathering, in some ways it has become like the families featured on television reality shows. There is a sense of trying to just be family, but always knowing that the cameras (or in this case, the national news media as well as bloggers, Tweeters and Facebook posters are in the room as well. . .just watching and waiting.)
Personally, I am glad these guests are in the room, either physically or virtually, in that I believe God uses these avenues to ensure we (Baptists) stay on focus, in "witness-mode" and loving to all, even though we cannot be and will not be affirming to all.
On the heels of headlines that bemoan (or celebrate) the decline of evangelicals in America and statements in op-eds like this one have found places in national media outlets.
As Southern Baptists gather Tuesday for their annual summer meeting, gloom hangs over the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. (Thomas S. Kidd & Barry Hankins, The Washington Post)
While the reality is that numbers in Baptist life, such as membership and baptism, are in decline, I have not sensed an overwhelming sense of gloom in our gathering based on this. Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research continually reminds us that "facts are our friends." It's true. The scorecard that has been used for decades in SBC life has been flawed from the outset and while we all know the numbers we have seen in the past were never truly accurate, as Dr. Al Mohler stated at a Baptist21 gathering, "We've never really trusted our numbers, but we bragged on them when they worked for us."
This is true.
Yet, in the midst of facing the facts of these numbers, this convention meeting has become one of purpose - a purpose beyond denominationalism.
Dr. Ronnie Floyd has been touring the nation and using social and traditional media outlets to emphasize the need for prayer among Baptists and all evangelicals in our nation. At the outset, a pastor emphasizing prayer sounds uneventful or, honestly, not impactful. The sad reality is that when a SBC meeting adjusts its schedule and shifts traditional sermons, business and other events to open up a prime, evening session for prayer it becomes newsworthy.
More Than a Meeting About Same-Sex Marriage
The Pastors Conference began on Sunday evening and with winsome truth presented by pastors throughout Sunday and Monday, the Spirit of God was challenging messengers (this is the Baptist term for those from local churches who have been elected by their churches to represent them at this gathering) in ways that was needed and still needed so that we may lovingly engage a culture with the hope of the Gospel without fear or hatred.
The news reports have been focused on Dr. Floyd's message on Tuesday morning where statements regarding the nation's proclivity of endorsing and promoting same-sex unions were addressed. For the average reader of the news, one would think that all Southern Baptists do is talk about LGBT people in our families and cities. While these issues must be addressed, this was not the "Anti-Gay SBC Meeting" so many have stated it to be. To be clear, there has been no waffling on the biblical truths and the religious liberties and pending Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage has been discussed in numerous venues throughout the week.
However, what is often not reported are the bigger stories and foundational Gospel elements that our family came together around. What has not been reported is the movement of the Spirit of God in a moment of declared repentance and reconciliation.
Some Notable Moments in This Year's SBC Family Gathering
These are moments that I deem as powerful and focus oriented. To be honest, some were moments where God may have spoken more clearly to me than others simply due to my personal journey of faith and the chapter of life where I nowreside.
Authentic unity among our mission boards - For years, our two mission boards (International & North American) have done great work, but have never truly worked strategically together. One of the first noticeable moments of unity was when I went into the Exhibit Hall and saw both IMB and NAMB exhibit booths next to each other, decorated similarly, one giving away coffee mugs and the other giving away samples of coffee, while missionaries from both agencies wore similar shirts. Now, that may seem superficial to some, but it's a message that was heart loud and clear. Throughout the week as Drs. David Platt & Kevin Ezell spoke to groups together, their camaraderie was apparent and the reality became even more clear - these guys are working together. For those outside the SBC family, this doesn't mean much, but for the family members, this is HUGE. . .and wonderful.
Powerful Sermons - I did not hear every sermon presented this weekend at the Pastors Conference and Annual Meeting, but I did hear most. These godly men have obviously prayed for weeks in preparation for their moment to present the Word. None took it lightly. No sermon was bad (in the sense one can grade a sermon) and all were valuable. Of those that "rang the bell" for me regarding challenge and conviction, I must say that my brother from Jacksonville, H.B. Charles, Jr., Dr. Russell Moore and Pastor J.D. Greear's messages resonated loudly.
James MacDonald & Harvest Bible Chapel are now Southern Baptist - There was rumor that James would make an announcement during his sermon on Monday night. I told a friend "He's joining the SBC." Now, I had no idea and do not know James personally, but when he made his announcement, it looked like I was in the know. Ha. Nevertheless, this is a big story. Now, there are some who are not fond of James and Harvest and may not be happy they are now part of the family, but then again, there are Baptist churches who have been in the fold for decades that others aren't too fond of either, so that's irrelevant. What this does show is that a significant church leader in our nation with influence among many churches has stated that the mission and the doctrine of the SBC is valuable and viable and he wants to be a part. So. . . just like that, we now have a new church in the Chicago area (with others throughout the land in the network.) I'm not sure we count that as a new church plant, though Kevin Ezell may try to do so (That's a joke for those who struggle with written sarcasm.)
Send Network Luncheon - Over 2,000 people gathered to eat a soggy sandwich and some powerfully powdered BBQ chips at the Send Network Luncheon. This was a huge gathering and yet, it was basically a large crowd seated in a room watching Platt and Ezell talk about reaching the world for the Gospel, and to enjoy seeing Platt squirm when Ezell asked loaded questions and told jokes on his behalf in front of the crowd. It became clear that Platt and Ezell would make a great touring comedy duo, with Platt playing the straight man and Ezell telling the jokes. (BTW - the use of the term "straight man" is a comedy term that has no connection to the current LGBT discussion that many think Baptists cannot stop talking about.)
The Cooperative Program Stage - In the Exhibit Hall, there's a small stage set up between the IMB and NAMB booths. This is the Executive Board's CP Stage where interesting interviews and frank discussions about polity, future and mission take place. Hosted by different denominational leaders throughout the day, these discussions are worthy of a small stand-up audience.
Free Stuff - Numerous booths throughout the Exhibit Hall offering pens, T-shirts, books, coffee mugs, and candy means pastors become little kids for a couple of days, holding out their free Guidestone bags and basically "Trick or Treating" from booth to booth. Keep up the free books and coffee mugs. These are a pastor's favorite things.
Not Your Traditional SBC - I was impressed and encouraged by the attendance this year, especially in a city that requires most messengers to fly to in order to attend. The racial and generational diversity evident in the room was exciting to see. Ted Traylor told us to wear blue jeans on Tuesday and Russell Moore said we need more tattoos in the SBC. Maybe those were shocking statements, but it's hard to imagine hearing that from the stage a decade or two ago.
The Two Most Impactful Moments
The Prayer Gathering
Tuesday night's prayer gathering was promoted well. Yet, to be honest, I went in like many of my friends (who were honest with me) expecting . . . well, little. Yes, I confess this sin of low expectation. I confess that I was tired and wondered if it would be worth me staying for this event. . . for I sometimes bristle at "Christian events" that seem to exist just for the sake of being an event.
I knew I needed to do so.
The prayer meeting began and we sang. I would say worship began, but that doesn't necessarily begin just because music starts. Worship did begin shortly after I joined in with the singing. I asked God to speak to me, one of thousands in a room that was much more full than I anticipated (again, I repent of my sin of low expectations.)
One by one, prayers were offered. We followed Dr. Floyd's lead, but it was clear that Dr. Floyd wasn't really the one leading this. God had entered the fray and had taken control.
I prayed with a group sitting near me. I had never met them before, but I believe, as I told them, that God had placed us near each other in the room so that we could unite in prayer.
We prayed with and affirmed the prayers of brothers and sisters around us and on the stage. Prayers of confession were voiced. Prayers of repentance were offered. Prayers of reconciliation between the races were stated - this was more than a resolution. Prayers of pleading - asking for healing of our families, for our children, for our nation, for our culture, etc. were placed before God. Prayers for our leaders, for President Obama (YES! Baptists prayed for the President. We asked forgiveness for not doing so and for ignoring the biblical mandate.)
We prayed as we sang.
And we believe.
We believe that prayer works and that God hears our prayers.
We contemplated the reality of the "If. . . then" prayers and realized that God may not doing the "then" portions because we have not been obedient in the "if" portions.
Was this just a meeting? Well, it could be for some, but that's their choice. I believe this is not the end-game, but the beginning.
The Missionary Commissioning Service
Together, IMB and NAMB, under the direction of Dr. Ezell and Dr. Platt, respectively, led out in a commissioning service for missionaries and churches (yes - the local churches) who have said "Yes! We will go!"
I was sitting alone in the crowd, but with family as the stories of individuals and couples were shared. Details on the lostness of our world were presented. I was challenged by the strong word given by Dr. Platt regarding the reasons we must be sent and be sending.
I was brought to tears as I thought of the stories before me. Missionaries pictured on the screen were sitting in the crowd. When their names and photographs appeared on the screen, they stood up, holding a Lumio book lamp in their hands, and it became clear - these people are doing the hard things and doing so because they must.
They are the light of the world taking the Light of the world into the darkness and we are sending them. Therefore, we are going with them.
It was powerful. It was amazing. This was more than a simple prayer and a passport.
At the close, under the direction of Dr. Platt, we were challenged to celebrate these who say "YES" more loudly than we cheer for our favorite football team. How can we cheer louder for those who play a game that doesn't matte for eternity than for the God who is sending out his ambassadors into the darkness for a task that holds eternity in the balance?
Why Come To These Gatherings?
In the past, people would come to the SBC Annual Meeting to watch or be a part of the latest argument or fight. There are some pretty nasty chapters in our story. Yet, today, even with disagreement from some we find ourselves as Stetzer stated on Monday, experiencing more peace in the family than in recent years.
This is significant, especially in a culture that will continue to marginalize and maybe even criminalize some of the biblical and moral stances we must take.
We are a family (crazy uncle and all) and God has seen fit, in His grace, to let us in on His great story.
That's why I come. This is my family and our Father has much for us.
We all seek validation. There's no one who is immune to this desire. Validation comes from many sources. Unfortunately, many of the sources we often go to for such validation as a man, a woman or even as a good Christian person, are flawed. Because we often seek validation from sources other than the only One who can offer a pure and holy version, we find ourselves performing or behaving in certain ways just to hear "Good job" with the hopes that this form of validation will suffice.
But it never does.
As human beings, both men and women, we have been created in the image of God. This is foundational in understanding the power of identity and validation. Our story starts with God, is about God and ends with God.
"Identity is not something that falls on us out of the sky. For better or for worse, identity is bestowed. We are who we are in relation to others." - John Eldredge & Brent Curtis
We (humanity) have struggled with our identity and proper validation since that fateful day in the Garden of Eden when the liar offered this thought to Eve and Adam - "The God you love. . .he's holding out on you. You cannot trust him."
That lie has permeated our existence ever since.
The enemy isn't creative, and therefore, uses the very same strategies over and over and over again. Solomon was right in so many levels when he declared there to be "nothing new under the sun."
When Bruce Jenner revealed his transformation into Caitlyn a couple of weeks ago, the response was incredible. He is not the first man to declare himself dissatisfied with his gender. He is not the first man to make changes needed to be identified as a woman. He is just the one to do so in this age of the "perfect storm" of gender identification, celebrity worship, sexual "tolerance" and political activism.
Now, in a story that many would say is unrelated, Rachel Dolezal, the President of the NAACP's Spokane chapter has apparently been "outed" as white. The issue is not so much that Dolezal is white, but that she has presented and promoted herself as a mixed-race, black woman for years.
While Jenner's life details have been made available for the public since the 1970s, Dolezal has been known only to a small demographic. No more. Her story is now the lead story on most news and entertainment networks. (I smell a Lifetime movie in the making.)
It Is The Same Story
So, how are Jenner and Dolezal connected? They likely have never met. The Huffington Post and other media outlets are doing all they can to ensure these two stories are not connected. Their personal stories are vastly different. . . yet, the same.
Their stories are stories of identity. They are stories of validation sought.
How do I know? I know because this is my story, too. No, I'm not a black man living as a white man. Neither am I a woman living as a man (or a man desiring to live like a woman.) I, like these two have sought validation for years. I seek identity.
Just like you do.
Jasmine Holmes recently wrote of this on a blog post for Desiring God She stated:
The gospel shows us not only the root of our dissatisfaction with our place in the world — the sin that separates us from our Father (Isaiah 59:2) — but also the cure for that bitter root (1 Corinthians 15:57). We were created in God’s image, for his glory (Genesis 1:26). That image includes male and female, as well as the beautiful display of diversity that we see in all four corners of the world.
It's an old revival cliche, but it's true. We all have a "God-shaped void within us that can only be filled by Him." Another way to say it is this, "We all seek to hear our Father say 'Well done. You matter to me. I love you.'" The Father has stated this so clearly through the gospel. Jesus is God's validation to us. Yet, we often cannot, or do not, hear that declaration.
The Same Old Lies
The enemy is strategic. He's still throwing the lies toward humanity, "You can't trust God. He's holding out on you." When we believe that, we cannot hear the truth. And we seek to fill the gaps with whatever we can.
We seek validation.
We seek identity.
Since God alone can offer these, when we miss him, we create our own identity. We become satisfied with weak validation. We become posers.
When Mitzi Miller, former editor for Jet & Ebony magazines, was interviewed about the Dolezal story for National Journal, she made this profound statement:
It’s ridiculous and ironic. Again, I go back to the suspicion that something was really messed up in her life and she had to find a way to cope. Adopting another identity and creating a life out of it was her answer.
As you know, most news stories remain front-and-center for about two days, then everyone just goes about their lives, until the next story comes up to create headlines and social media trends. Yet, those who are part of the story will not be able to just turn the page. How this one ends is yet to be determined, but Miller honed in on the real issue, I believe.
It is not about race.
It is not about gender.
It is about identity.
It is about missing the validation from the author of the story.
As the Father spoke of the Son at his baptism - "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased," so we long to hear that validation as children of God. We can through Christ. It is not easy to hear that still, small voice in the midst of the screaming culture, but it is there.
God's validation of us is not the same as his affirmation of our actions. Sin grieves the heart of God and we carry that burden, but thanks be to God that we have been redeemed through Christ and no longer are identified by our sin. (Now, that previous statement is for children of God - those who have surrendered to Him and now have the right to call him Father.) So many Christians struggle with this. Even in the world of church and religion, we often pose - seeking validation from pastors, other Christians or church members or maybe denominational leaders.
We must be careful to remain focused. Christianity is not simply behavior modification. It is heart transformation.
So, when you hear these stories of confused people seeking to "find themselves" or attempting to change things in their lives to enable them to live as the person their mind identifies them as, pray for them and remember. . .we have all been there. The poser lives, but doesn't have to.
That's the beauty of the gospel - life in exchange for death. Authentic identity in exchange for the masquerade. Validation in exchange for accusation.
Identity is bestowed. Our true identity is bestowed by the Father. . .and he does not make mistakes.
But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. John 1:12 (ESV)
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27 (ESV)
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. Colossians 3:1-3 (ESV)
The news media has been reporting what they declare to be the decline of Christianity in America. It seems the latest Pew Survey (this is the name of the research group, not a survey of number of pews in your church. . .though that survey probably exists somewhere) reflects this reality by showing the growth of the "Nones" (those with no religious affiliation, and the decline of mainstream Christian denominations and groups with the greatest decline being with Mainline Protestant affiliations.
Is The Sky Falling?
The simple answer is NO. The church will not fail, even if buildings close and denominations lose traction. Some churches should close. Some denominations, based upon unbiblical and ungodly choices will decline. . .and should. And, the reality is that as the culture swings further away from biblical morality, those churches who continue to stand firmly on the Word of God and seek to love Him and others well, will likely be marginalized by a culture that cannot understand.
This is not unique to the United States, nor is it unique to our time in history.
Nevertheless, as Ed Stetzer pointed out in an op-ed for USA Today. . .
While it should be noted that evangelicals' share of the overall U.S. population dropped by 9 percentage points over the last seven years based on denominational affiliation, the percentage of U.S. adults who self-identify as evangelical or born-again rose from 34 to 35% over the same period of time. Don't miss that: More than one-third of Americans call themselves evangelical.
And despite what many are saying, evangelicals are attending church more than ever. The latest (2014) General Social Survey found that in the last two years of the study a greater percentage of evangelicals are attending church than in any other time of the last 40 years. Currently, 55 percent of evangelicals attend church at least nearly every week.
This is part of the growing "evangelicalization" of American Christianity in which the church in the U.S. is increasingly taking on the attributes of evangelicalism. According to Pew, half of all Christians self-identify as an evangelical or born again.
The Old Scorecard
I have read the books on missional movements and engagement. I have led conferences on the paradigm shift that must take place within local churches in order to honor God and engage a lost culture. I get it. The scorecard has changed. Yet, even though I know this. . .it's difficult not to default back to that which I have always known.
I like scorecards.
There, I said it. I actually like scorecards.
When I was a kid going to Cincinnati Reds games, I'd take a pencil and, at least for the first few innings, keep score on the provided scorecard program page. It kept me interested in the game and since baseball seems to be the sport that focuses most on statistics, I felt like I was in the know.
As a kid, I would play baseball, basketball and even soccer (just one season - we lost every game except the one I missed. I figured out then that soccer wasn't my sport.) I have a few trophies from those years, but they were for winning. Even as a kid, the score mattered to me. I know we now live in the "everyone gets a trophy" age where the score isn't even kept in certain situations. I get it. I understand the reasoning, but I also know this - the league may not keep the official score for the kids' sports, but most every parent in the stands knows exactly what the score is.
We like scorecards.
Why? Because we like to win.
That's a message for another day.
Nevertheless, another scorecard of sorts was released today. This one is from Baptist Press and reveals the state of Southern Baptist Churches in our nation, supposedly. I read the article and did what everyone I know does when they see these lists and charts. I went to my state (Florida) to see how we have done financially, church number-wise, number of baptisms and all other indicators. Then, I looked at where were were in relation to other states, which is crazy because Florida Baptists aren't part of a sports league. It's not like we are competing against Georgia (we beat them in baptisms, by the way) or Tennessee (we beat them in baptisms, too) or Texas (that's unfair, they have two conventions and more teams. . . uh, churches). You see, this can be really unhealthy.
Click Image to View Larger Version
Here's what every Baptist pastor knows about SBC statistics as provided by State Conventions - they're flawed. This is not really anyone's fault. It's the nature of the autonomous church. These statistics are built upon numbers provided by churches, as they choose to provide them, to the state conventions. Some churches keep lousy records. Others are meticulously anal when it comes to numbers. Some provide data. Others do not. Therefore, even with our best working on this, the numbers are never going to be 100 percent accurate.
Do Numbers Matter?
Yes, numbers matter. Sometimes, numbers can be used by God to spur us on to better service. If a community is growing exponentially and the church lives in a silo, the numbers on engagement with the community may show a need to do better.
The reality is that there are likely many small churches who are better engaged and more missional than comparatively larger churches.
Baptisms are perhaps the best indicator we have of life change, yet that is likely a flawed number as well.
There's no ignoring the reality that people were counted when the church gathered in the New Testament. Even prior to the institution of the church, when Jesus would enter a town, perform miracles, teach the people, etc. someone was counting the number of those in the crowd. It was apparently so important that the numbers attending were listed in Scripture.
A Better Scorecard
Though the old scorecard will likely remain for years, another element must be added (or used as a replacement for some of the items counted now) and that is the number of "sent" Christ-followers. For years, we have counted the gathered. Yet, I cannot help but remember Christ's instructions for his followers to pray that the Lord of the harvest would send out more workers.
I am encouraged that many of our SBC churches are seeing this and entering into this story intentionally. Now, it's not new. For years, churches have sent missionaries globally. Churches would start "missions" in unreached areas. What must count today is what counted years ago. We are a sending church, part of a sending denomination. We must remain so.
Scorecards show where we're winning. . .and where we're losing. So, where's the win? The win is that even though the Enemy has called to the bullpen and seems to be throwing his biggest and best at the church, he will not prevail. We know the win is life-change. We know the win is transformation. We know the win is God being glorified. Let's all "live sent" for we have a great task before us.
And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:17-19 (ESV)
Years ago I led our church through a doctrinal study over the distinctives that define us as Baptists. In an age where denominational labels tend to offend or in some cases are avoided at all cost, there is value in knowing and understanding the doctrinal pinnings of one's church. This study led us through our doctrinal statement, known as The Baptist Faith & Message (2000.)
Article I of our statement of faith reveals our understanding of the inspiration and value of the Bible. The article expresses this as follows:
The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God's revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.
As we dug into this teaching on the value of Scripture, it becomes confusing to some, especially in the English-speaking world, as to which version of the Bible should be used. There are some who believe the only valid version to be read, studied and preached is the Authorized King James Version. While I am not one to discount the value of the tried and true KJV, primarily because I grew up, like many of you, reading and memorizing passages from this version. It's a beautiful version and yet, it is often hard to follow due to the changing vocabulary and different meanings of English words from the 1600s to now. As an American with friends from Great Britain, I find that phrases we use have vastly different meanings to them, and vice versa.
Some have asked why there are so many modern English translations. The simple answer relates to money. Each publishing house tends to own the rights to its own modern translation. Therefore, since Biblica owns the rights to the very popular New International Version, it stands to reason that Broadman & Holman would rather own it's own version for publication, as would Crossway and other publishing houses.
Yet, it is more than a business decision. Sometimes, there are decisions made by translators that seem less connected to history or the oldest documentation and more to swaying with the cultural shifts of the day.
A movement has continued to grow that seeks to delete all masculine references to God throughout Scripture. On the surface, this may seem to be insignificant.
"It's more inclusive," some would say.
"It's less offensive to those who have difficult relationships with men, especially their earthly fathers," is declared by others.
So, in this age where gender and sexuality are the unavoidable subjects through the media and the amoral revolution continues to occur, I find myself going back to a previous teaching on the value of Scripture and the use of non-gender neutral versions. (The original post from January 2011 may be read here.)
A number of churches are also intentionally moving away from using gender-specific terms. This was printed in a church's bulletin recently and ended up on Twitter. I wish I could say I am surprised, but this is little more than the next step down a slippery slope.
Why Does Gender in the Bible Matter?
It is my assertion and belief that gender matters in life and therefore within the Bible. Regarding Bible translations, it matters at a deeper level than most realize.
In an article posted a number of years ago by Wayne Grudem and Vern Poythress and The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (full posting here,) the writer touches on some of the most common translation questions and issues:
In Greek the word aner usually has the sense of husband or man (male human being).3 Until recently, English translations included the male semantic component in translation. But the new gender-inclusive translations show some changes.
In Acts 1:21 Peter discusses the replacement of Judas: "Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men (aner) who have been with us…" (New International Version [NIV] 1984). But in the New International Version Inclusive Language Edition (NIVI 1996) and in the New Living Translation (NLT 1996) "men" becomes "one of those" (NIVI) or "someone else" (NLT). The change is theologically significant because it no longer conveys in English the Greek evidence that Peter did not think that a woman could be an apostle. In Acts 20:30 Paul warns the elders at Ephesus about false teachers: "Even from your own number men (aner) will arise and distort the truth…" (NIV). Indirectly Paul indicates that the elders were all men. This theologically significant detail drops out in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV 1993), NIVI, and NLT.
The common thread in the verses above is that they all involved situations where males were examples of larger principles. This is not to denigrate females, for both male and female are made in God's image, unique and special. It was, however, descriptive of the role of the men within the early church.
Another translation issue revolves around the Hebrew word 'ish.
Consider the translation of 'ish. It almost always means "man." It can be used in idiomatic constructions with the sense "each one" (e.g., 1 Chron. 16:3, Job 42:11). The main problem is that gender-inclusive translations eliminate male marking in other passages where they have no lexicographical warrant.
Consider Psalm 1:1, "Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers" (NIV). NRSV, NIVI, and NLT change it to read, "Blessed are those who…," or a similar phrasing. The change from singular to plural produces a description that is "less specific…, less easy to visualize." Moreover, with the singular, the reader tends to picture a single man standing against a multitude of wicked people, sinners, and mockers.
After reading Psalm 1, sensitive readers know that it offers the "man" as a representative, an ideal, for men and women. The principle applies to many. But the starting point is the picture of one, and that one is male. The semantic component as well as grammatical gender is present for the original readers.
The gender-inclusive translations simply eliminate this semantic component. They contain a formulation that expresses the general principle of equity, and that is part of the point. But they drop one aspect of the meaning, by not expressing the subtle interplay between a male representative on the one hand, and a general principle applying to both men and women on the other.
The writer speaks of the more traditional usage of the word man to describe the entirety of the human race. This, now is not considered politically correct or tolerant.
The biggest issue in removing gender from Scripture is the elimination of the word he.
How do we treat generic "he" in English? Matthew 16:24-26 says, "Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?'" (NIV)
The verses contain several occurrences of generic "he," referring back to "anyone." Some people find this usage distasteful, so the NIVI eliminates it: "Those who would come after me must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for me will find them. What good will it be for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul? Or what can you give in exchange for your soul?" Singulars are converted to plurals, third person "he" becomes second person "you."
Meaning Is Warped
The arguments for eliminating gender is both explicit and implicit. There's no neutral ground in this movement for neutrality. The most dangerous issue is when the meaning of Scripture is warped from poor translators. Though some declare that "all translation is interpretation" the end result is the justification of already held beliefs when seeking affirmation. In other words, it fuels the fire of those who are set on their beliefs, and then seeking to find a verse or passage that affirms their already held beliefs. If the verse is taken out of context, so be it.We've seen this done numerous times. If the verse is mistranslated, all the better. Why? Because the truth in these cases is not that Truth is sought, but justification. This is a dangerous slide.
John 14:23 in the NIV reads, "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him." The NRSV reads, "Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them."
The NRSV substitutes plurals for the generic singulars found in Greek and in the NIV. But this results in an unintended ambiguity in the product. The last clause, "make our home with them," has a plurality of people, "them," combined with a single dwelling place, "our home." Conceivably, it might mean that the Father and the Son make a home with each person. But it might also mean that the Father and the Son make a single home with the plurality of people together. That is, they come and dwell with the church corporately. This latter interpretation is closer to the surface or more "obvious" than the first, since it responds to the difference between the singular "our home" and the plural "them." Such a thought of corporate dwelling is genuinely biblical (see 1 Cor. 3:10-15, Eph. 2:22). But it is not the thought found in the Greek text of John 14:23. Both the Greek and the NIV picture the Father and the Son making a dwelling with each person, not with the church corporately.
Gender neutral Bibles weaken the Word. They represent poor scholarship at a minimum and the conformation to cultural sensitivities. Do the masculine pronouns really matter? I believe they do, but not because men are better than women or that we are insensitive to the plight of those who have had terrible experiences with men in their lives. They matter because they signify the deconstruction of God's Word which will inevitably end for some with a Bible that looks like Swiss cheese, with holes throughout and passages that only align with our previously understood realities.
The introduction of mainstream gender-neutral Bibles was little more than a foreshadowing of removing gender tags within the church (for some.) The cultural influence within the church is immense and while "neutral" may be the stated goal, "neutered" is the end result of a church that abandons the truth of God's Word.
RELATED: Interview with Dr. Mohler Regarding the Need for Christian Counter-Culture
Listing of Gender-Neutral English Bible Translations (Not a complete listing)
The information in this posting will likely only seem to matter to those in the state of Florida who are cooperating churches in the Florida Baptist Convention. However, I believe the implications of what is happening in the Florida Baptist Convention (part of the Southern Baptist Convention for my friends outside my denominational tribe) are far reaching and will catalyze change among other Baptist entities and even some groups other than Southern Baptists.
Last week, our State Board of Missions (full disclosure - I serve on this Board) voted unanimously to call Dr. J. Thomas (Tommy) Green, III as our new Executive Director-Treasurer (EDT) of the Florida Baptist Convention. If those titles seem confusing, suffice to say that Dr. Green will be the new leader of our state convention.
Dr. Green fills the seat vacated by Dr. John Sullivan, who retired after many years of faithful service to God and Florida Baptists.
Since Dr. Sullivan's announced retirement last year, the search committee that was formed has prayed and worked diligently to discover the man God was calling for this vital role. Over those weeks, numerous discussions have taken place between pastors, State Convention employees, and denominational leaders throughout the convention and some have shared their views via blogs and news articles.
Now, the day has come and Dr. Green will shift from his long-time leadership as pastor of First Baptist Church of Brandon to EDT. He is known and respected by many in our state, as evidenced by the unanimous call and the encouraging words being shared in different places.
There Will Be No Honeymoon
When a pastor begins serving in a new church, especially when it is a legacy church, there is most often a "honeymoon period" where the excitement is high and anticipation is great. These are good days and a time for adjustment, new leadership models and visionary exposition. However, when a leader steps into a new position and he is already known well (as is the case when an associate pastor is called to be lead pastor in a local congregation. . .or so I hear) there really is no "honeymoon." This is not a bad thing, but a reality of being known.
Dr. Green is known by all in the state convention and by many pastors throughout our state. Now that he is our new EDT, he is known by even more. His tenure at FBC Brandon was fruitful and God-centered. He has served in state elected positions numerous times and has been a solid voice for the Gospel and mission engagement throughout his community, the state and beyond.
A Bold Vision
There are terms we like as Southern Baptists. One is "bold" (anyone remember "Bold Mission Thrust"?) and another is "vision" (for without it, the people are unrestrained or perish, depending on your English Bible translation of choice.) Nevertheless, when Dr. Green was interviewed for the EDT position, he came with a plan and vision. It was more than a PowerPoint presentation. It was more than handouts with graphs. It was a prayer-covered vision that will drive our state convention forward in ways that have rarely been considered in the past.
With no disrespect to the plans implemented by past generations, the reality is that denominational work in this century looks differently. Whether voted upon or not, it is reality. The day when 90 percent of all Southern Baptist Churches looked identical within their buildings (same hymnal, same order of worship, same offering envelopes, same schedule, same bulletins, etc.) is gone. The joy is that while worship styles have changed, schedules have morphed and church meeting spaces have become more varied over the last few decades, the unchanging Gospel of Jesus Christ continues to change lives and we, His church, are privileged to be the avenue of choice by a sovereign God for sharing this truth.
Five years ago, the Florida Baptist State Convention voted to implement a financial shift relating to Cooperative Program gifts. The proposed 50-50 shift was deemed radical in that for the first time in our history, half of all receipts given to CP through Florida Baptist churches would go to the SBC while the remaining 50 percent would stay in the state. For the average church member, this was a foreign concept in that he/she likely had no idea how the funds were distributed. In most cases, many church members have no understanding of the Cooperative Program and how SBC churches cooperate for missions and ministry. I found this the case when a former member of my congregation accused me of having the Cooperative Program as my personal slush fund for gifting church planters and missionaries. I never had a slush fund before, but found it interesting that CP could be that fund. Nevertheless, that discussion is a posting for another day, but suffice to say, I was surprised at how few church members truly understood the CP. It was eye-opening and as pastor, I have to own that failure in communication and training.
After five years of moving incrementally toward 50/50, we are still not there and Dr Green has pledged to stop "kicking that can down the road" and with the ending of what has been deemed "shared ministry receipts" with the North American Mission Board (essentially, funds sent to NAMB and then returned to Florida to fund missions and pay staff) this assertion that we will be at this level of giving and generosity in our next budget is . . . well, bold.
More Generous Than 50/50
As Dr. Green was sharing of his vision for the state convention, he dropped a bomb in our State Board meeting that very few saw coming. He has committed to lead not to just be at 50/50 in next year's budget, but to be at 51/49.
What does this mean? It means that Florida will be the first state convention that will give away more funding than it keeps in state.
It's just one percent, right? Yes, but when you're speaking of millions of dollars, that one percent is significant. It's not just a symbolic shift, though there is much symbolism of generosity here, it is a tangible shift that will essentially change how we are staffed and how we function as a state convention.
One search committee member shared wisdom when he shared with the Board to not take this lightly. This man is fully on board with Dr. Green's plan, but his warning of change was well heeded. This is not just an idea. It is a plan and it will be implemented. Therefore, when change comes in future months, there should be no one saying "I never saw this coming."
Barbara Denman, writing for the Florida Baptist Convention and shared through our state news agency, The Florida Baptist Witness, shared the following from Dr. Green. . .
Adding that “strategy drives the vision,” Green pledged to go beyond an even 50/50 split of Cooperative Program funds between the national Southern Baptist Convention and the Florida Baptist Convention.
“I am proposing to you and will immediately begin the process with our State Convention team and with all of those who are part of the budget process to move us, not to a 50/50 budget, but to move us to a budget that sends more than we keep, to send 51 percent forward and to keep 49 percent in the state of Florida,” he said.
“We would be the first state convention” since the Great Commission Resurgence adopted by the SBC, Green said, “in a historic move and decision that stepped up and said, ‘We believe in reaching the nations for Christ.’ ”
To accomplish this, Green said his budget proposal will remove shared ministry receipts or negotiated funds from the Cooperative Program budget to represent a “true” 51-49 percent split.
“It may be that God would take a decision made by a state convention to demonstrate generosity in a way that has never been demonstrated before and [would] erupt an explosion of His grace and His glory.”
The ramifications of this shift are real. Employees at the state level know this. Pastors and State Board members understand this as well. Perhaps this shift alone is enough to validate my "no honeymoon" statement. Regardless, there is much hope in this shift.
It's More than a Money Issue
Dr. Green's vision is much deeper than a financial adjustment. His platform of growth features a strategy that will decentralize the hub of state work, regionalize staff and personalize mission with Directors of Mission and Pastors. He reemphasized an often stated truth that "churches plant churches" and as we seek to penetrate the darkness of our state and the world, a denominational focus on encouraging and equipping churches to replicate was received positively.
The People Need a Vision
I am proud to say that I stood in affirmation of Dr. Green's selection as the new EDT. I heard his vision and talked with him over dinner last week briefly about the shifts to happen. It will not be easy. He knows that. Some are declaring that this change will bring many millennial pastors into or back into the fold of the Florida Baptist Convention. I'm not too sure about that. I do know this, millennials (and older guys like me) are drawn to be a part of stories bigger than self. There is a desire to be involved and engaged in causes that make Kingdom differences. A vision alone will not change anything, but an absence of a plan is a plan for nothing and I am encouraged that Dr. Green has his eyes wide open and is seeking to move forward.
Some will cheer for the changes. Others will jeer.
There was a call for unity at our meeting, but the truth is that unity is a choice of the individual. We must be unified for the Gospel's sake, willing to change methods as needed to ensure we are faithful to the calling and the season which God has given.
What Dr. Green Needs
Dr. Green needs our prayers and support. . .in that order. Prayer for clarity to ensure that he is hearing and discerning the voice of God. Prayer for his wife Karen, who as a pastor's wife has no doubt hurt with Tommy over the years and celebrated with him as well. This journey will be exciting and an adventure, but also painful at times and she needs our prayers as well as Tommy. Prayer that he'll abandon his fandom of the University of Alabama (Okay, just kidding.)
Support is needed as we journey forward. Dr. Green's plan will likely change as he moves through the new position. However, the basics as he laid out will likely not change much. In these areas, unless God reveals a better way, support (not blind support - even Dr. Green would push against that) is needed by pastors, staffers and Florida Baptist churches.
Someone told me last week that he doesn't see Florida Baptists as trailblazers nor as very influential. I differ with that assertion and truly believe that what happens in Florida will have a ripple effect throughout our denomination. My prayer is that it is a positive, godly, Gospel-centric ripple. I know that's Dr. Green's prayer as well.
There has been much change in our denomination over the past few years. Agencies, state conventions, associations and even local churches are seeking God's direction in how to remain salt and light in a culture that is speeding away from the Gospel. Yet, we know that God has not abandoned his church. He has not moved to "Plan B" for there is no such thing. These are challenging days, but I believe the best is yet to come.
To Dr. Tommy Green - be bold, be focused, be holy. We're in this together.
As a pastor I have the honorable task of walking with families through grief at the times of death. Funerals and memorial services are commonplace in a church with diverse ages in it's congregation. As I meet with family members to plan these services, I am asked often about the biblical view of cremation. This end-of-life option is considered more and more and those who follow Christ are seeking to know if this is a good or even acceptable option.
What Does the Bible Say?
The Bible gives no specific teaching about cremation. There are a few instances that many often reference when seeking biblical evidence one way or the other regarding this practice. Saul and Jonathan were killed by the Philistines and their bodies mutilated. The people of Israel then decided to cremate their bodies and bury their ashes (1 Samuel 31:8-13). Another story focuses upon Achan and his family who were cremated, but in this case after being executed for sinning against Israel (Joshua 7:25).
Cremation was practiced throughout the known world during biblical times, but not commonly by the Israelites or the New Testament believers. The cultural norm for these people at this time was burial in a cave, tomb or in ground. In many cases, the bodies would decompose and the remains were then placed in an ossuary (bone box) and buried in the tomb. This would have been the case with Joseph of Arimathea's tomb where Jesus was buried. At the time of Christ's burial, it was a new, unused tomb and therefore no ossuaries in the back area of other family members of Joseph.
Ultimately, there are no scriptural commands against cremation.
Cremation & the Church
For centuries, the majority of Christians have opposed the practice of cremation. There are various reasons given for such opposition. In the ancient world, the Greeks and Romans practiced cremation in that they believed in the immortality of the soul, but saw no value in the body. Hindus, even today, practice cremation as part of their belief in reincarnation. Of course, not all non-Christian religious groups cremated. The Egyptians went to the other extreme of mummifying the bodies of their dead and constructing elaborate tombs for the rich.
Timothy George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School wrote about the practice of cremation for Christianity Today back in 2002 (Read full article here.) He addressed the concerns early Christians had regarding the practice:
Why were Christians so concerned about proper disposal of the body? Here are four reasons: (1) The body of every human was created by God, bore his image, and deserved to be treated with respect because of this. (2) The centrality of the Incarnation. When the Word became flesh, God uniquely hallowed human life and bodily existence forever. (3) The Holy Spirit indwelt the bodies of believers, making them vessels of honor. (4) As Jesus himself was buried and raised bodily from the dead, so Christians believed that their burial was a witness to the resurrection yet to come.
Early martyrs were often burned at the stake, as we know. In the days of the early church, when cremation was associated with pagan rituals, burial was an option that separated Christians from the world, at least in theory.
But what about today? George continues. . .
But what about today? The first cremation in America took place in 1876, accompanied by readings from Charles Darwin and the Hindu scriptures. For many years, relatively few persons (mostly liberals and freethinkers) chose cremation. But that has changed dramatically. Only 5 percent of Americans were cremated in 1962; by 2000 it was 25.5 percent. In Japan, where burial is sometimes illegal, the cremation rate is 98 percent. The rise in cremations reflects many factors: concern for land use; the expense of traditional funerals; the loss of community and a sense of "place" in modern transient society; and New Age-type spiritualities.
While the weight of Christian tradition clearly favors burial, the Bible nowhere explicitly condemns cremation. Since 1963 the Roman Catholic Church has permitted cremation while "earnestly recommending" burial as the preferred mode of disposal. Billy Graham has noted (what Christians have always believed) that cremation cannot prevent a sovereign God from calling forth the dead at the end of time.
It is clear why many believers struggle in feeling comfortable with cremation. What we know, as stated above, is that any buried body will eventually decompose. Therefore, cremation isn't a strange or wrong practice for Christians. It does speed up the natural process of decomposition through oxidation. We know the children of God, the believers in Christ, will one day be resurrected. A new body will be given to each child of God (1 Corinthians 15:42-49). Throughout history, believers have died in various ways and have been buried in the ground, in caves, at sea and cremated. We know that God will have no problem whatsoever in the creation and redemption of His children's new bodies, so the state of the remains of the dead is unimportant.
In Michael Wittmer's book Becoming Worldly Saints, he speaks of the spiritual bodies and the resurrection. His points are well formed:
Whenever I speak on death and resurrection, someone usually asks whether it is okay to use cremation. I say it depends. We're not making God's job impossibly difficult when we choose cremation, because we know he will resurrect millions of people who have died in fires, been digested by animals, or decomposed all the way to nothing. It depends on our motive. We might choose cremation to honor the person. The proper way to dispose of an old flag is not to throw it in the trash but to burn it. Just so, we might cremate our loved one as the ultimate sign of respect. We might do it to save space (as is common in China) or money (as is common in West Michigan), and this is fine, too.
However, we should never choose cremation because we think the body of our loved one is unimportant. Their dead body is not merely the shell that once housed their true self. This is a Platonic, pagan view that I have argued against in this book. That body in the casket matters to enough to God that he has centered the entire Christian hope upon its resurrection. That body is a vital part of our loved one, and we should handle it as those who plan to see it again.
We should also keep the ashes of our loved one together. When we scatter them across their favorite lake or patch of grass, we are unwisely depicting a pantheistic worldview in which humans are one with nature. We're not. We are uniquely made in the image of God, and we must preserve that honor even in death. When we place their urn in a cemetery or columbarium, we treat our beloved with the dignity that humans deserve. Ant that place becomes resurrection ground.
What We Must Focus Upon
Ultimately, what we as believers must focus upon, even in the midst of grieving the loss of loved ones is not how to dispose of our earthly bodies, but that one day our new bodies will be fashioned as Christ's resurrected body was. It is an eternal transformation and leads us to a deeper understanding why Solomon said it is good to go to a house of mourning at times (Ecclesiastes 7:2).
Last night marked the culmination of our young men's initiative called "REAL Manhood." Each Wednesday at two local junior high schools, male mentors who affirm our Statement of Faith, meet before school for a time of teaching, training and mentoring.
REAL Manhood is the mentoring initiative of Battle Ready Men, designed to lead young boys into an understanding of true, authentic, "real" biblical manhood. The journey is not complete in just a year, but as we meet regularly, we are able to reveal God's truth regarding the masculine journey. In an age and culture where gender differences are pushed to the back burner, totally ignored and most recently determined to be man-made and changeable, we "fight the good fight" for the hearts of these young men.
Over fifty junior high boys were decked out in tuxedos, complete with royal blue ties for the Lakeside Gators and green ties for the Green Cove Springs Cougars. Our ceremony took place at The Club Continental in Orange Park. Parents and family members squeezed into the room to celebrate the "knighting" of these boys as "REAL Men" and the beginning of their journey into authentic manhood.
The word REAL is a reminder of what a godly, biblical, authentic man is. He is a man who. . .
Expects the greater reward
This was our ninth knighting ceremony. The group has grown over the years. Founded by Principal John Green, there now are hundreds of alumni in our community and beyond.
The ceremony is unique. Junior high boys stand uncomfortably in tuxedos. Fathers and mentors recite words of affirmation and blessing. Family and friends record the ceremony and take photos. First year graduates are "knighted" with a sword symbolizing the Word of God and the journey that lies ahead. Then, a very special part of the ceremony occurs.
Two years ago we wrestled with what to do with the second year participants (Prior to that time, only 8th graders could participate. Our junior high schools are only 7th and 8th grades.) After many hours of prayer and discussion, it became clear that the most powerful moment in such a celebration is when a boy's father (or other designated male influence - grandfather, uncle, older brother, coach, pastor, mentor, etc.) presents a gift to the young man and speaks words of blessing upon him. We did not want to rob these men of this special role.
This moment has become the highlight for me.
The second-year participants select their presenter. In most cases, it's their father. In some cases, it's another man who stands in the gap when there is no dad or he's unavailable.
The blessing is public, in that it takes place before the crowd. The words of blessing are private - just between the two.
It is at this moment time seems to stand still. In a crowded room, these two men are alone with God and the blessing is bestowed. I'm sure some of the men aren't sure wha to say. In truth, most men were never blessed by their own fathers, so this is new for them. The awkwardness melts as words of "You have what it takes, son" and like phrases pour out upon the young man.
You see it in Genesis 27:30–38, where Isaac is blessing his son, and Jacob steals Esau's blessing and his birthright. Four times in those eight verses, Esau begs for his father's blessing, but it's never forthcoming. The Scripture says Esau always hated Jacob for that. The emphasis is more on the blessing than it is on the birthright.
The blessing always involves a hug and a kiss. Not the kiss of abuse, but the kiss of blessing—there's a vast difference. You can't force yourself on your child, but you can hug them and get close to them physically to a certain degree without embarrassing them or turning them off.
I found my kids love to be hugged and kissed. I grab my little girl by her ears and look into her eyes and say, "I love you, I bless you, I think you're absolutely terrific." That's easy with her because she's little and dainty. But I've got two boys, 280 and 290 pounds. One played pro ball, and both played college ball. They're 6'6", bench press 500 pounds, and are bigger than I am, but I grabbed that eldest son of mine recently and said, "I love, I bless you, I think you're terrific, and I'm so glad you're mine." His shoulders began to shake and his eyes filled with tears and he said, "Dad, I really needed that."
It's got to be said out loud. It's got to be stated. It's not like the lawyer that's getting a divorce and the judge says, "How often did you tell your wife you loved her?" and he replies, "I told her the day I married her and then never told her differently."
The blessing is also unconditional and continuous. If it's conditional, it's not love; it's a negotiation. I was in a prison in Texas recently where they've got 300 boys ages 10 to 15. These boys have committed every crime you can imagine. I asked the warden, "How many of these boys got a visit from their father in the past year?"
He said, "One, and he only stayed 15 minutes, got into a fight with his son, and stomped out mad." They're not fathers, because fathers hang with their kids no matter what. I know a lot of fathers that disown their kids because they go to prison. But it's got to be something that is continuous and unconditional in order to be a real blessing, in order to be real love.
Glass's ministry is in the prisons and he encounters many, many young men seeking the father blessing, and they do not even recognize what they're missing.
A kid who is searching desperately for a blessing will put himself in all sorts of contortions in order to get it. You see this in gangs. Kids get into gangs because they want to be accepted by a family. Most kids that get into gangs have no father relationship. So, as a result, they go into the gang, because the gang promises them that they're going to be part of a family. "I've got your back, and I'm going to watch you all the way, and I'm with you no matter what." They have these little teardrop tattoos. Have you seen them on a kid's face? Those little tattooed teardrops stand for some heinous crime they committed in order to get into the gang—the initiation fee. If I have to kill someone to get into the gang, I'll do it, because I need to feel that I'm part of a family. And only a father can make a child feel that way. A mother, by herself, has a hard time ever doing that. All those guys on death row love their mothers. It's their fathers they've got the problem with.
There is power in the father blessing. We saw this last night.
Yet, there are some young men with no father in their story. The Bible is clear that God is the Father to the fatherless and for these young men who have this gap in their story, God, in his providence and grace brings along real men to stand in the gap. It is in this story the mentor, teacher, pastor, coach or maybe another male relative can bring the blessing.
You Have What It Takes
The message to these young men is clear - "You have what it takes." Why is that so important? Because the world and the Enemy will shout at them for the remainder of their lives that they offer nothing and do not have what it takes. It's the continual barrage on the heart of men. Therefore, these young men, these REAL men, need to hear this and know this regularly.
This is Just the Beginning
The years to come for these young men are bright with promise and potential. Parents and loved ones have high hopes and pour into them with love and understanding. Our focus as leadership of REAL Manhood is to partner with these families and provide spiritual insight and spiritual truth that is needed for the journey.
I was moved when I received a note from one of my young men that featured a quote and a personal message. The quote was. . .
A mentor empowers a person to see a possible future, and believe it can be obtained." - Shawn Hitchcock
The personal message was a thank you for being a part in his journey toward manhood.
It's not an easy journey, but I'm continually reminded of this truth. . .
"It's easier to build strong children than to repair broken men." - Frederick Douglass