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Posts from April 2019

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.

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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. 

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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."