The Risk of Pastoring in a Culture Saturated With False Teachers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discernment, Not Self-Righteousness

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

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

The Risk

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

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

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

It's risky.

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

There's a Greater Risk

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

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

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

_____

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

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

American Gospel - Trailer 2 - FBCOP from First Family on Vimeo.

 


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

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

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The Intersection - Newport, NC

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

Believing In Church Planting

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

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

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

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

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

You're Planting Where?

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

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

It's a legitimate question.

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

Not Every Person Will Get to Heaven Through Your Local Church

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

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

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

We truly are better together.

However, Not Every Church Plant Is Your Partner

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

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

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

 


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

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

The story is wonderful in so many ways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps the Most Difficult Part of the Prodigal Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

What About the Dad?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With that, I watch and wait. 

Trusting God. 

Everyday.

I pray that you can do that as well.

_____________________

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


Believe the Victims!

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

Eyes to See and Ears to Hear

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

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

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

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

I originally included these sentences (regrettably):

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

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

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

This dear sister shared the insight clearly this way:

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

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

Sadly, There Is More To Come

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

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

Consequences Remain

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

Is God's grace enough for these criminals?

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

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

I believe this.

I also believe this...

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

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

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

We Must Believe the Victims

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

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

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

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

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

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

God's Voice to the Sexually Assaulted

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

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

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

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

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

We Must Do The Right Thing

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Church Must Do More To Protect Its Most Vulnerable

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Evil Does Not Get a Pass

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

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

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

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

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

What the Local Church Must Do

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

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

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

What About Small Churches, Church Plants or Replants?

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

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

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

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

A Good Resource

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


The Politicization of Abortion

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

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

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

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

The Latest on Politicized Abortion Talk

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

 

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

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

The Story Continues

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

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

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

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

Life matters. All human life. At all stages. 

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

 

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


Maps Not Menus - The Discipleship Shift Our Church Must Make

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sadly, most church members do not recognize this.

Cheesecake-factory

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

Just like our church. 

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

And, we're guilty as well.

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

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

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

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


Forgive Us Father For Pretending That Abortion Is a Political Issue

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

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

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

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

My View on Abortion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abortion As Politics

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

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

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

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

The conversation ended. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Evil of the New York Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Is the Church to Do?

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

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

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

We Must Confess Our Sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

__________

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What To Remember When Crisis Hits 

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

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


We Must Pray for Other Churches in Our Community

Do you love your community?*

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

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

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

The church-saturated community

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

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

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

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

But what about those churches who do? 

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

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

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We should pray for other churches because...

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

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

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

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

_____________________

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