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

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

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

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

The Great Thing About Youth Ministry Then...

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

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

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

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

The Regrets...

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

One ear mickey mouse

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

- WHEN YOUR YOUTH GROUP FUNCTIONS AS A PARACHURCH MINISTRY -

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Family-Equipping Model

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

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

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

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

It Is A Hard Sell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, at what cost?

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

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

_____________

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


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.


The Risk of Pastoring in a Culture Saturated With False Teachers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discernment, Not Self-Righteousness

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

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

The Risk

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

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

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

It's risky.

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

There's a Greater Risk

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

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

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

_____

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

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

 

American Gospel - Trailer 1 from Transition Studios on Vimeo.

 


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

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

New-Church-Launch
The Intersection - Newport, NC

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

Believing In Church Planting

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

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

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

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

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

You're Planting Where?

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

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

It's a legitimate question.

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

Not Every Person Will Get to Heaven Through Your Local Church

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

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

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

We truly are better together.

However, Not Every Church Plant Is Your Partner

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

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

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

 


"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.