"Gospel-Driven Ministry" by Jared C. Wilson - Book Review

There are a few authors who are on my "buy the book as soon as it is available" list. Jared C. Wilson is one such author. His books focusing on the gospel and specifically on church and ministry leadership are golden. Most recently, he has released a book titled Gospel-Driven Ministry: An Introduction to the Calling and Work of a Pastor. At first, I thought this may be a restructured or rereleased version of his book The Gospel-Driven Church. It is not. This book is focused more on the qualifications of the pastorate and the focus on gospel-centrality in ministry. (BTW - The Gospel-Driven Church is a must read as well.)

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I mentioned recently to some peers that Wilson's latest book is one I wish I had been able to read decades prior. The insight into the joys and challenges of pastoral ministry is so valuable. However, to be honest, even if this book was available a few decades prior, and even if I had been given it by a trusted pastor, and even if I had read it...I likely would not have been able to digest the depths of truth offered in needed and beneficial ways. The arrogance of my youth would have left me with a book full of highlighted phrases and healthy insight, but most likely not as impactful in my life and ministry as needed.

Nevertheless, I now have a stack of these books in my office. I have the honor of working with many church planters and new pastors in my city. Often over coffee or when meeting with one of these young men I give them a copy of Jared's book along with instructions to read, highlight, and think deeply on the insight offered. I am believing these men are more mature in their walk and less arrogant than I was at their age. I also have come to grips with the reality that I have shifted into the role of "older pastor" whom others believe may have some wisdom to offer. I may not have wisdom...but I do have a listening ear...and a free book by Jared C. Wilson.

What I love about Jared's writing is his clarity and boldness in declaring truth while also inviting the reader into his own stories of victory, pain, and pastoral calling. Jared writes about authentic situations and not just about ideal circumstances. He has a way of explaining the very true, challenging, fulfilling, and at times painful realities of serving as a pastor of a church while also seeking to be a godly husband, father, and friend. He reminds the pastor reading that church life is messy at times, but so very worth it as God is glorified when the gospel is central. I find myself reading through the book and pausing to say "Yep, that's true." It may not be new news, but it is comforting to know that the issues I face are not special, but are similar to what all pastors face (though certainly the context and circumstances may be unique.)

This book is a good read for all Christians, but a must-read for pastors and ministry leaders. The practical insight offered through easily understood story-telling, with real-life illustrations and stories remind the pastor/shepherd that ministry faithfulness is less on doing everything, but trusting that Christ has already done everything.

Being driven by and centered on the gospel is freeing and Wilson's writing is a breath of fresh air in an age of church-centered stress.

Here are just a sampling of quotes that I highlighted as I read Gospel-Driven Ministry. They're "tweetable" but ultimately are worth more than likes on a social media post. The wise will take these to heart:

  • "A call to pastoral ministry is the inclination to conform one's desires and direction to the aspiration of shepherding a church. it must not simply be a desire to preach." (p. 17)
  • "The pastorate is not a right or an entitlement. The pastorate is a sacred stewardship reserved only for the qualified, called, and commissioned men." (p. 24)
  • "If we do not preach Christ from the text, we are not preaching a Christian sermon." (p. 37)
  • "Ask yourself this: Could this sermon be preached in a synagogue? A Mormon temple? A Jehovah's Witness kingdom hall? Each of these religions affirms the moral uplift of the Scriptures. Each of them uses the Bible to make inspirational, spiritual points about doing god to others and honoring God. But the one thing that we have that they do not is the gospel. It is the gospel that chiefly distinguishes Christian preaching from unchristian preaching." (p. 65)
  • "Do not preach an illustration in search of a text." (p. 95)
  • "The heart of ministry is a heart that doesn't see people as the interruption to your ministry, but sees the interruptions as the ministry." (p. 121)
  • "Worse than an unfeeling, uncaring pastor is a sullen, whiny, sad-sack pastor." (p. 145)
  • "Be transparent. Be honest. Don't just share the what; explain the why." (p. 160)
  • "It may sound noble and godly to keep convenience store hours, but it's a fast track to physical exhaustion and gradual resentment of the flock." (p. 201)
  • "I used to think pastoral ministry was about helping people live. Then, I learned it was actually about helping people die." (p. 217)
  • "You are not ready to shepherd until you have been spiritual discombobulated by the gospel and essentially reconstituted by the gospel." (p. 226)
  • "Christian ministry is the overflow of the mystery of God in Christ coming to bear on your soul and, through yours, on the souls of others." (p. 227)

Certainly, it is clear by now. I highly recommend this book. Buy it. Read it. Highlight it. Thank God for the insight. Then, give a copy to another pastor or ministry leader. They will thank you for it.

And...in case you, like me, are now one of the "seasoned pastors" in your community. Read the book. Put it on your shelf. Then, in about a year, take it off the shelf and reread it. You will thank Jared for this.


Teenagers Need More Than the Coolest Youth Group In Town

A few weeks ago I was asked to lead one of our local junior high school's Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) huddle. 

What I love about these young people is that once they determined that being an athlete on a school-sponsored team was not required for attending the huddle, they began inviting fellow students and have played around with an alternate name for the club. While still officially a Fellowship of Christian Athletes huddle (and approved by FCA as an official group) these students will say that the "A" can mean athlete, academician, artist, or just anybody. To be honest, I like the name "Fellowship of Christian Anybodies."

I asked them to list some of the issues their fellow students were facing. We focused on the "other students at school" in that it is often easier for the students to share their own struggles when it is seemingly focused on what others may be facing. Believe me, everyone in the room knew exactly what we were talking about.

Every generation of teenagers has had their issues, their struggles, and their challenges. Just being a twelve to fourteen-year-old in a public school brings overwhelming challenges. Yet, this group shared things that were on such lists years prior.

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As the students began to share, the list grew longer and sadder. Here are just a few of the items I wrote upon the whiteboard as they shared.

  • Pressure to vape
  • Pressure to drink and do drugs
  • Pressure to have a "significant other"
  • Family issues
  • Struggles with being adopted
  • Parents divorcing
  • Bullying
  • Grades
  • Pressure from parents (to play sports, be in band, be on a travel team, keep good grades, get into the college of choice, get a boyfriend/girlfriend, etc.)
  • Gender confusion and identity (LGBTQ+)
  • Sexual pressure
  • Etc.

Many of these items have been issues for decades, but some are moving up the list to be more prominent now. Others, like vaping, were not issues in years past because they did not exist. The stress of performance partnered with parental pressure and peer bullying is huge, and not only in-person, but also, if not more so, online and through social media platforms and oft-used apps by students.

I then asked the students what the answer was to all these issues and in typical fashion, from students who state they are Christians, "Jesus" was the answer given.

He is. He always has been.

Then I asked, "But do Christian students–those who have surrendered to Christ as Savior and have been transformed by the Holy Spirit–deal with these issues, too?"

Their eyes opened wider and it was an "a-ha" moment for many of them. They knew the answer was Jesus because in Sunday School, at youth group, at camp, and in most every evangelical youth gathering in our churches today they are taught he is. It is not that the answer is more than Jesus. It is not, but the realization that even being a Christian does not make them immune to such pressures seemed like a revelation to them. 

The bell rang. We prayed. They then went to begin their school day.

More Than Lock-Ins and Pizza Parties

As I was driving to the office following this meeting, I began to think about the youth ministry God blessed me to lead for many years here at our church. We filled the room weekly for our Wednesday worship. We would load the buses for trips to the beach, the theme parks, youth camps, and special concerts and events. We held DiscipleNow Weekends in homes where over one-hundred students paid to go "deep" in Bible study with guest leaders over a weekend. We held lock-ins (the absolute worst event ever devised for youth groups–designed to eradicate all sane adult volunteers in student ministry, IMHO) and concerts, game nights, competitions, movie nights, work days, matching T-shirts mission trips, and every other thing created by youth pastors in what I see now as the "golden age of big group youth ministry."

I planned these events. I enjoyed them. We saw thousands of teenagers over the years attend and many make life-changing, eternal decisions for Christ. 

These were good days.

But...there was always something missing. I could not put my finger on it at the time, but I knew we were just a degree or two off in our mission and our focus.

Perhaps it was the trickle-down effect of the church growth movement?

Perhaps it was the pressure to create the best youth experience in the city?

Perhaps it was always feeling the need to out-do the church down the street, or even worse, the youth event we held the previous month?

Hindsight is 20/20

I know young adults (and not as young as they think adults) now whom I was blessed to serve as youth pastor, who are walking with the Lord. They are serving him and his church. They are leading their own children well. Some are even serving in full-time ministry. There are many whom are considered co-laborers for the sake of the gospel.

Yet, there are many others who walked out of the church building after receiving the free book (they never read) and the "ConGRADulations" CD of Christian music when we recognized them as high school graduates. They seemingly left the version of faith they claimed to be true, impactful, life-changing, and important, back in the youth room, or in that dusty box of high school memories in their parents' attic.

I heard the very real issues and concerns shared by the group of teenagers I had the honor of meeting with last week. I think about the immensity of what they face. In many cases, their parents or guardians are feeling similar pressures. I know this is true because of the emails, texts, and direct messages I receive almost weekly from parents or guardians hoping I can give them practical, step-by-step answers for some of the most grueling issues their teenagers are facing. 

The answer is still Jesus. He always will be, but as these parents are recognizing, the very real and important need for growing as a disciple is not something that can be outsourced to a youth minister or a Sunday school teacher.

When I served as a youth pastor, I was satisfied living in my silo of youth ministry. I talked with and resourced parents as best I could, but ultimately, I was engaged with reaching teenagers. I would say that my intent was to reach them for Christ (and it was) but sometimes, it seems I was focused on reaching them for my youth ministry. Ultimately, we had hundreds of teenagers who joined a youth group, but never joined the church or God's family. Lost teenagers wearing Christian t-shirts was common.

This is changing as our church has moved to a model of student ministry (as well as preschool and children's) called Family Equipping (read more here.) The focus is less on the young person and more on equipping parents and guardians to be lead disciple-makers in their homes. Those who understand the value are praising this shift.

Others who simply long for their teenagers to be part of a large youth group so they can make great memories and do all the things their parents did a couple of decades earlier do not like this. Some have left our church. They have found other churches who provide the very same type of ministry that was so prevalent in the golden age. These are not bad churches. They are wonderful and God is using those ministries for his glory. It is just that they are functioning under a different model. I pray for them and their impact for the kingdom.

Since hindsight is 20/20, I now know that when our church functioned under such a model, we did a disservice to families and students. We settled for good, when God was calling us to better.

The bottom line is that teenagers who are struggling with their sexuality, their gender identity, the pressures to perform, the temptations to vape and other things, the stresses of family breakdowns, and the host of other things that end up on a whiteboard at a junior high school do not simply need the world's greatest pizza party, a sub-par event with dumbed-down inspirational "talks," matching t-shirts, or just someone to sit by in the church service.

They certainly need Jesus, but they also need a roadmap for next steps in their journey of life. Not only that, they need a guide to help them take those steps. Ideally, those guides are their parents. In some cases, they must be another (such as Paul became for Timothy.) 

It is essential that we equip believers well, for this generation and the ones to come.

May we never be guilty of outsourcing discipleship that is commissioned to us.

Oh, and by the way, I am not opposed to pizza parties, youth camps, mission trips, and DiscipleNow Weekends. I think these are all valid, good, and helpful. As for lock-ins though...they are of the devil, so no love for them.


The Ravi Zacharias Scandal & the Danger of Creating Celebrity Christians

I will often get questions from church members, even those on staff, regarding the feasibility of using a curriculum item or teaching series by certain teachers. This has seemingly multiplied as more and more pastors and teachers have shifted from the "Good to listen to" list to the "We won't use that material." In some cases it is due to doctrinal errors. Yet, some are due to overt, revealed, moral failure.

The most recent, and perhaps the most frustrating among evangelical leaders, has been the revealed sinful actions of Ravi Zacharias. For years, Zacharias had been celebrated as an accomplished apologist in the church. His gatherings at public universities where he would debate atheists and take questions from students have been viewed by millions. His soft-spoken demeanor and intelligent way of engaging in these venues with what appeared to be true care and love was unique. I enjoyed his teachings and viewed numerous clips such as these. I have also read his writings and books.

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Photo credit: lausannemovement on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

A couple of years ago I had a meeting with the general manager of a local Christian radio station. This station has faithfully presented great preaching and teaching over the airwaves in our community for decades. We had hosted a fiftieth anniversary celebration for them a few years back and we were discussing another community gathering sponsored by the station. One of the potential speakers they were talking with was Ravi Zacharias. At this point, I mentioned that there were some stories circulating about Ravi and they may wish to look into those before booking. The stories were floating around on the internet and being shared on social media, but by and large, they were not known (or were being ignored) by most Christians.

The stories were concerning, but they had been refuted by Ravi and most people just believed the man whom they saw as a purveyor of truth and therefore viewed the accusers as just seeking money or notoriety. 

Grieving the Death of Ravi

Ravi Zacharias had been ill for a while and in May 2020 he died. There were many who mourned his death and postings asking for prayer for his family members were flooding the internet. This was a time of grief and I, as well as many others, were sad that he had died, was praying for his family, and wondering what the next phase of his ministry (RZIM) would be.

Grieving More Deeply at What Has Been Revealed

It has been almost a full year and more and more stories of Ravi have come to the surface. The ministry had called in an independent investigating team to see what these stories held. The truth of the one who built a ministry declaring the truth has become known.

Years of sexual sin has been admitted by the ministry after reviewing the evidence. There are many stories now covering the issues. Here are some...

His ministry (RZIM) posted a well-written and clear open letter. Click here to read.

The Crushing of Idols

Ravi was gifted a platform and he used that well, when it comes to his teaching. Yet, it seems he also used that well when it came to victimizing others. Ravi Zacharias was a celebrity evangelist. He was...dare I say "idolized" by many. This truth even comes out in some of the stories revealing that dark side. Idolatry is a terrible, abhorrent thing.

I have heard many sermons on the sin of having idols.

I have not heard many on the dangers of becoming an idol.

In this case, the celebrity (even posthumously) has fallen. The idol that many held has been crushed. Even more tragic are the responses I read and hear from Christian brothers and sisters. 

"There but for the grace of God, go I"

Well-meaning Christians brothers and sisters respond to the stories as they continue to be revealed, but often the responses are little more than salt in the wounds of the victims. Clearly, in this age of #MeToo and #ChurchToo and even #SBCToo, there are women (and men) who have been victimized sexually by those in authority (in religious authority) and to read and hear the tepid responses by so many causes some to relive their own pains of abuse.

Certainly, we are all susceptible to the sins of the flesh, but that does not minimize, must not cover up or sugar-coat, the years of intentional, strategic, well-thought out sexual abuse at that hands of this man. There are victims. That means Ravi was the victimizer.

"It's their words against his"

I read this in a comment online. In this case, it is much more than that. RZIM has confessed the accusations are true. They have stated after the investigation that they believe these accusations. Here, in the ministry leaders own open letter it states, "We believe not only the women who made their allegations public but also additional women who had not previously made public allegations against Ravi but whose identities and stories were uncovered during the investigation."

"It's not fair to accuse him after his death"

It is fair. Why? Because the ramifications of his acts remain. Victims are still alive.

"Even David sinned sexually and remained king"

Ravi Zacharias is not King David. The stories are both tragic. They are both evidence of the power of sexual sin and lustful desire, but it is not right, nor helpful to just lean into David every time we see a leader fall. David is not to be our model. Christ alone is.

"I just won't believe it"

This is the kicker. This comment was posted on the Baptist Press's Facebook page under their article on the subject. Responses to this person's comment were strong, and mostly in love. The "I just WON'T believe it" was emphasized. This is a statement of willfully ignoring the facts of sinful (and in this case criminal) acts simply because you do not wish the story to be true.

Perhaps this is the logical result of evangelicals declaring "Fake News" to everything in the mainstream media that is offensive, perceived to be skewed, and certainly written from a non-biblical worldview. Yet, just because a story says the opposite of what we wish does not make it false. 

"I just WON'T believe it" is akin to "I choose my own truth" and that, my friends, is not what Scripture teaches.

How Many More?

Ravi's failure has become just another in a long list of previously respected Bible teachers and leaders we will no longer affirm in our church.

It is disheartening at a minimum when reading of Ravi and others. It is also a clarion call to the church to ensure that we never elevate a man or woman whom we really, really like into a position that is reserved for Christ alone. 

Sadly, there remain many who are guilty of similar sexual abuse acts within the church. In most cases, they are not celebrity pastors. They are not heads of international ministries. They are not well-known outside a small community. They have abused and continue to do so. In some cases, they just shift to another small church where they begin again, leaving victims in their wake who wonder where God was, where he is, and why the church puts up with and seemingly excuses such.

In my denomination (Southern Baptist Convention) there has been a call for a database churches could access to discover such stories. Under the banner of autonomy, that has yet to be set up. Since I am simply a pastor of a local church, I am likely unaware of all the legal ramifications and issues that may make something like this untenable. Yet, I also pastor a church that has a tragic story in our history. In our case, the abuser was hired after doing the same at a previous church. I think it's time we figure out how to make such a clearinghouse work. Otherwise, we will have more Ravi stories, but sadly...more will remain unveiled and the hurt will continue.

"I just don't want to believe it...but it is true. God help us."


What If You Received a Letter From Your Church About Your Giving?

A few years ago I finally recognized that when young pastors are told to find mentors in the ministry who have served as pastors longer, who are older, presumably wiser, and have more grey hair (or... no hair) that I was now in the category of the older pastors rather than the younger ones.

I see questions posted online on forums or on other social media platforms from young pastors wondering if something they are dealing with is "normal." Sometimes, there are questions presented such as "Do you think it is wise to _________?" referencing things that may seem logical, right, not unbiblical, but may cause controversy.

Yesterday,  young pastor messaged me a question. He was referencing some of my online posts, sermon clips, blog posts, etc. I have known this young man for quite a while and he serves a church located in another state, but in the same denominational tribe as ours. His question (paraphrased) was "How is this thoroughly gospel-centered messaging playing in your church? I imagine your demographics are similar to ours but you do not seem to be pulling any punches. I’m curious as to the impact with your people." I was so thankful for this question.

I answered initially with one word - longevity.

I have been serving as pastor at my church since 2005. Prior to that, I served seven years here at the same church in an associate pastor role. In other words, I have been here a long time. That does not give me permission to just say or do anything. However, longevity does help build trust. When a pastor is trusted, even if not agreed with regarding certain decisions, the opportunities for caring speech, seasoned with grace, and leading with intention occur.

Of course, the grace of God's people is incredible as well and not to be minimized. These wonderful people I have the privilege to pastor love well, serve gladly, and have shown me much grace over the years. An outspoken pastor needs a gracious church.

That being said, speaking truth and leading well are not things to be pushed to the back burner. 

There are times when I'm preaching when I say things that were not actually typed in my notes. These off-the-cuff statements must not to be unbiblical, unloving, or outside the theme or focus of the sermon. Yet, sometimes when I say such things, I leave those in the congregation (and often others on our staff...as well as my wife) saying "Did he really just say that?"

What I Said About "The Letter" 

Two Sundays ago, in my sermon focusing on generous giving and the fact that healthy Christians should be generous Christians, I spoke of the work of the church and the funding for missions and ministry that gifts from covenant church members provide. I mentioned tithing, but even in that, did not speak of it as a dogmatic rule in that I understand the Old Testament requirement for such giving by the Jews and the New Testament calling to live generously (meaning...it's not measured by a ten-percent amount. In other words, God desires one-hundred percent of our lives, not just a portion.) Nevertheless, I did not denounce the tithe. I believe it is a great start for generous giving and in my life, it has always been considered a minimum, not a maximum.

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I then mentioned that our church may send a letter to those covenant church members who previously were on record as systematic, regular givers to the ministry of our church, but have most recently not been giving.

I didn't stay on that subject. It was not in my notes, but I did say it. 

Maybe I needed an older pastor to get counsel before saying it?

Nevertheless, a few members asked "Are you really going to send out a letter?" 

Some believed that many members would leave our church if such a letter were sent.

Other stated that what they give to the church is private and therefore, no one should know what they give.

Still others were wondering that since I stated from the stage that I do not know how much any individual church member gives, how could I know who should receive such a letter.

What Such a Letter Would Say

Rather than stir up something unnecessarily, let's look at what such a letter may say.

Here is some background on this. Our leadership team was meeting and discussing upcoming sermons and the topic of generous giving and this sermon came up. One of our pastors recalled when he and his wife were in seminary and they received a letter from the church where they were members. As is often the case in seminary, funds were tight and they had not given recently (for a period of time) as they had initially and had covenanted with their church to do.

Here is what his letter (well actually an email) stated:

Hey there,
 
I hope you are doing well. I think you probably know this, but in case you don't—one of the ways we try to hold church members accountable to the church covenant is checking in with members who have no recorded giving for an extended period of time.
 
We don't have any recorded giving for you for some time, so I wanted to touch base.
 
If you have been faithful in this area of our church covenant but have chosen to give cash anonymously, please just let me know that. I don't need to know numbers or anything; just that you are fulfilling this area of the covenant.
 
If, however, this is not an area that you have been fulfilling, let me just encourage you to do so soon. Again, our covenant does not specify and amount, but only that we give "cheerfully, regularly, and generously."
 
If there is some hardship that would prevent you from doing so, or if you have some concerns about this commitment, I'd love to sit down and talk with you about it.
 
Grace and peace.
 
(P.S. - The latest report I have is from early May. If you have given since then, just let me know!)

As our associate pastor read this to our team, I was taken by the overwhelming sense of care and grace expressed in these words. This was not a letter from a church bent on padding its bank account. It was from a pastor at the church tasked with connecting and keeping up with church members.

The truth is that some would not like getting such a letter, for the reasons I mentioned above. So I asked our associate pastor how he and his wife responded. 

He said they greatly appreciated the letter and it opened the door for them to repent to God for not fulfilling that which they have covenanted to do, but also to share with the pastor the very real needs they were facing. 

This was not a "going to the principal's office" encounter, but a moment revealed by a "red flag" of no giving (after previously giving regularly) that showed the church and pastoral staff how to serve and minister to this family.

Answers to the Common Questions

Concerns raised are legitimate and here is how I responded to a church member when these were presented to me.

  • For the church member who may be offended and leave because they receive such a letter: The truth is they likely have mentally (if not physically already left.) This is sad, but the "offense" taken is not legitimately offensive. Now, if they leave the church angrily and join a sister church, then perhaps the new start will be great for them. Sadly, the sister church likely would need our prayer.
  • For the church member who states "My giving is private!": Certainly, that may be true if the church member gives his/her offering in cash or cashier's check, does not use envelopes with their name on it, or does not use online giving. It is not a sin to give anonymously. In fact, it is a good thing (remember the right hand-left hand teaching in Scripture?) However, if a record of contributions is needed each year for one's personal income tax returns, the fact is that someone knows that amount given. At a minimum, it is the financial secretary at the church. In many cases, it will be the person's accountant. Certainly, the IRS knows. Private? Not so much. Now, that does not give one permission or affirmation to brag about one's gifts to the church or to other charities. Boastful giving is prideful giving. Prideful giving is self-serving. Self-serving giving is sinful.
  • As for the pastor (me) not knowing what anyone gives, that is true. I choose to not know. I don't scour the giving records of church members. I don't look to see who may be giving regularly. I don't because I know me. I do not want to know. I said in the early service last week that I do not want to know because I do not want to give the stink-eye to certain members and elevate others. Giving generously is not the litmus test for faithfulness, but it is one of many indicators of a healthy Christian.

What If You Received Such a Letter?

How would you respond to such a letter or email. In our case, it would not come from me, because I do not know the giving record of our church members, but as I stated, our financial secretary does and those who work in that area of our leadership team do (or at least can find out.) 

Would you respond with "Who do they think they are?" or would you respond with relief and thankfulness?

There may be church members, part of your church family, who are struggling financially right now. This may be due to loss of job, cut wages, pandemic forced shutdowns, increased medical bills, or any number of things. We all know that many in our churches would be embarrassed that others know of their struggles. Yes, we know that we should be able to share truthfully and pray for one another, but alas, pride and potential embarrassment keep us from doing so at times.

So, look at it this way, if a faithful, covenant member of your church suddenly stops giving, serving, attending, etc. it may be a sign of a deeper struggle. We would be at fault for ignoring such signs. This must not be judgmental, but true familial Christian love and care.

Of course, letters, emails, and text messages are often received wrongly and read with the feelings of the reader, not the intent of the sender. So, perhaps a phone call or personal conversation would be best. 


Why Be a Disciple of Jesus Christ from Your Church?

Recently I have been listening and learning from other pastors, church leaders, ministry coaches, and those on our own church staff about some of the things that are essential to be a healthy church as well as a church with distinctive doctrinal beliefs and functions.

Will Mancini, Dave Rhodes, David Loveless, Carey Nieuwhof, Bob Bumgarner, and many others have been leading in strategic areas of church health and strategic disciple-making for years. These have been instrumental in my ministry (some I know personally and others only through their books and resources) most recently when it comes to navigating through the quickly changing church culture (thank you COVID) for current and future kingdom impact.

In today's leadership meeting with our church's staff, I took a question I first heard from Will Mancini regarding disciple-making. I shifted it a bit from Mancini's wording. This question led to fruitful discussion and more questions from our team. As we seek to be the men and women God has called us to be here at our church (First Baptist Church of Orange Park) the question led to clarity and, to be honest, some concepts we have previously not considered. So...here's the question:

Why would God want a disciple from our church?

In other words, what distinctive things that make our church unique provide value to being a disciple of Jesus Christ?

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If there is nothing uniquely offered by the fellowship and community that is our church family, then what advantage or benefit is there to being part of our local church family?

This is a challenging question, especially in the age of growing non-denominationalism and the increase of "nones" when it comes to church connection and identity.

Our church is Baptist. We are part of the Southern Baptist Convention. We hold to an understanding of doctrine that is uniquely Baptist. I stated in our meeting today that while we may apologize for the actions and words of some within our Baptist faith tribe, we do not apologize for adhering to the doctrinal truths that define us as Baptist. In our case, these are delineated in our confessional statement, the Baptist Faith & Message 2000.

These doctrinal beliefs are important and valuable, but as we see in our own church as well as across the denominational spectrum, there are members who do not know, and sadly in some cases do not care, the distinctive and long-held beliefs that identify ourselves as Baptist. This is true for churches of other denominations as well when it comes to their distinctive beliefs.

Doctrine Matters

Christians should be kingdom-minded, focusing on reaching the world for Christ, living as authentic believers, and being faithfully part of a larger story where God alone is glorified. However, some have landed in a "kingdom-0nly" focus where they have abandoned the distinctive truths that identify doctrinal uniqueness. In some cases, it has led to an anti-denominational belief that perhaps on the surface looks good, but may lead individuals to a very muddy understanding of doctrinally distinctive teachings. 

There are also those who are so arrogantly denominational (or arrogantly "my church only") that they will not see how anyone outside their church or declared faith tribe can truly be Christian. I have been asked "Do you think that only Baptists go to heaven?" My answer has been "No, I don't even think all Baptists are going to heaven."

The rise of fundamentalism in some cases has led to some churches and church members living in this category. The kingdom of God is therefore ultimately ignored while the little kingdoms of "our church" is elevated.

Mancini and Rhodes speak of a place where kingdom growth and focus is high as well as faith tribe (denomination or church) distinctive identities. This is a healthy place of gracious confidence.

The graciously confident believer can state, "We know we're not the only ones working toward kingdom growth but we're confident about what we bring to the table." This is a definition given by Mancini and Rhodes.

Hard Questions

So, as we look at our/your specific church, what are the distinctive beliefs and functions that make our/your church unique? What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus Christ from our/your church? What value does being part of our/your church provide the disciple? 

We are all called to love God, love people, and make disciples. That phrase is biblical, sounds good from the pulpit, and looks great on a tee shirt, but there is more the church must do in its disciple-making practice than just throw this tag-line out there.

We are taking a journey of faith together in our church that leads us to glorify God by being graciously confident in who we are in Christ. This is what each local church offers.

Does God desire more disciples from and through our/your church? Absolutely.

In our case, that means disciples who hold to the authority of the Word of God, reality of the Trinity, redemption through Christ alone, who is the Way, Truth, and the Life, priesthood of every believer, ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper as symbols of life and communion with God and our church family, and the opportunity to be part of a family equipped to glorify God by making disciples through redemptive communities.

Our unique calling is essential as is our adherence to the timeless doctrines of faith that identify us as God's children. In our case, this is declared in our alignment as Baptist Christians. 

Your church is to be a disciple-making church. So is mine. And it is vital we know why God would want more disciples from our church. This leads to kingdom-minded, biblically sound, graciously confident disciples who make disciples.


Pastoring In the Aftermath of the DC Riot

Early last week I read a news article that stated Iranian dissidents planned to attack the US Capitol Building on Wednesday, January 6. The threat was intercepted by air traffic controllers on Monday, January 4. Apparently, the motivation was retaliation of the 2020 killing of Iranian military leader, General Qassem Soleimani.

The threat was considered a fake, but nonetheless, the FAA notified federal law enforcement and precautions were apparently taken. 

As we know now, no air strike on the Capitol occurred on January 6, but an attack did occur. While the US Senate and House of Representatives were gathering to affirm the votes of the Electoral College, finalizing Joseph Biden's victory in the presidential race, a mob gathered in DC and eventually broke into the US Capitol. 

Capitol-washington-dc-government-building

As has been stated ad nauseam for  the past three days in the media, this is the first time such an infiltration has occurred in the Capitol since the British did so during the War of 1812.

Ideology & Theology

Like millions of other Americans, I watched the news reports on television and on social media. The images of people busting windows, breaking through doors, and sitting and standing upon the desks of elected officials caused great frustration for me. However, it was not the images of the Grand Poobah of the Water Buffalo Lodge, the man known as "Baked Alaska," or even "Big O" the Arkansan mail thief that were most disturbing for me. What caught my eye was the prominence of banners stating "Jesus 2020" as if Christ was running for office, and the numerous Christian flags appearing throughout the crowds.

I’ve written of the danger of wrapping the American flag around the cross in the past. This goes far beyond healthy patriotism. When well-meaning Christians continue to wrap the flag around the cross, eventually the cross is no longer visible.  

One's political ideology should be influenced by one's theology. Sadly, some tend to get this backward.

Pastors: Be Strong and Courageous 

To my pastor friends who led well during the election cycle of 2020 by continually reminding your church members to pray for those in authority over them (Romans 13,) register to vote, be good citizens, and vote with conviction as men and women whose biblical worldviews drive their ideological and political beliefs...get ready. I believe many pastors will face challenges due to the events of this week that will test our capacity to shepherd well.

What you may face...

Perhaps you were appalled at the events of January 6 and spoke out online and in conversations. I pray you were able to do so from a place of calmness and clarity. Even so, if you dared call out those who resorted to violence and the destruction of national landmarks or those you believe incited such actions, not everyone in your congregation will approve of your words. Some will be angry and may let you know via text, email, social media, or if you're really fortunate, about five minutes before you preach on Sunday.

No church of any size is politically homogenous, even if every member is registered as the same political party. There are differences and strong opinions held by many. Once you declare your opposition to a politician revered by others, you will be labeled. In the binary world we live in, you are either anti-someone or pro-someone. Most cannot fathom that you can be strongly opposed to an individual in your chosen party and still be vehemently opposed to the platform statements of the opposition party (or vice versa.)

If you dared make statements against things said or done by the crowd at the Capitol last week, there will be some in your flock who may accuse you of being pro-big government, pro-abortion, pro-LGBTQ activism, and any number of other things categorized as liberal policy which, based on your long-held biblical convictions and theological conservatism, you oppose. But...that won't matter. You will be labeled. 

In anger, some may ask your opinions of the Black Lives Matter riots that occurred last year. You may be asked what you think about Antifa. Some will wonder why you still use Twitter and didn't get a Parler account. Some will label you any number of things that are not part of your job description as pastor, much less descriptive of who you are as a Christian. You may be labeled things like liberal, snowflake, sheep (okay that one is biblical, but likely not how they are using it,) progressive, or any other currently trending insult term.

What is strange is that you haven't changed at all. The biblical conservatism and inerrancy of God's Word you held to last week is the same today. Your calling as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ has not been revoked. God has not shifted. Your love for him and others has not waned. Your love for your church is secure. Your desire to teach sound doctrine, love the unlovable, engage your community for the sake of Christ, and any other thing you have faithfully led your church to do and be remains.

Yet...you may be doubted now more than ever.

But, maybe it is not so strange?

Maybe this is what we should expect–the enemy seeking to destroy God's church, not primarily through the elimination of free speech on social media (yes, this is a problem,) not through the bifurcation of the American people, not from laws that will seek to censor biblical preaching (yes, this is a huge problem as well and seemingly coming,) not from threats without, but from within.

And it has always been this way.

Pastor, continue to lean into God and his Word. Trust him. Pray for your flock. Be strong and courageous and speak words of truth. These days may not be easy. In fact, they will not be. We are called to be unified, but our unity centers around Christ. I encourage you to not forsake the truth for a false sense of togetherness. Be humble. Be gentle. Be patient and bear with one another. 

Be strong and courageous.

Regardless what happens in Washington DC, God remains who he always has been and always will be. He is sovereign. He is King of kings, Lord of lords, and you are his child called to serve him by shepherding his flock. I'm praying for you and for your church. I ask that you pray for me and the church I serve as well.

Ephesians 4:1-6

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Eph 4:1–6). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

 


Becoming a Healthy Church Takes More Than a Resolution

Last Sunday, I preached the sermon for our church's in-person and online gathering from my home office. The new year begins with a two-month sermon series on the the doctrine of the church. The irony of preaching the first sermon in a series titled "Healthy Church" from home due to being quarantined did not escape me. (Last week we had a positive COVID-19 test in our household so we are in quarantine.) 

Preaching via video is not my preference and had we received our COVID test results earlier, I likely would have asked one of our associate pastors to preach last Sunday's message. Nevertheless, God used our gathering (in-person and online) to set the table for a series of messages calling for collective and individual change as we corporately seek to be a healthy, multiplying, church.

Healthy Church HD Screen

There have been many books, articles, and sermons written on what it takes to be a healthy church. We are highlighting just a few characteristics over the next two months, knowing there are many more designators of health within the body than we will be able to cover on Sundays. 

In our series, we are highlighting the following attributes of health for the church:

  • The Healthy Church Prays Expectantly
  • The Healthy Church Gathers Intentionally
  • The Healthy Church Preaches Boldly
  • The Healthy Church Gives Generously
  • The Healthy Church Serves Gladly
  • The Healthy Church Worships Truly
  • The Healthy Church Loves Unconditionally
  • The Healthy Church Equips Strategically
  • The Healthy Church Lives Authentically

For the final message of the series, we have Jared C. Wilson preaching on what it means to be a Gospel-Driven Church and to live authentically in the fellowship of faith.

The challenge to remain healthy is not unlike the physical challenges we face individually. Many are making resolutions to exercise, eat healthier, and to do healthy things. These are good, but we all know that to become and remain healthy requires more than a quick fix. It takes time and effort, but the results are worth it. The same is true for the local church.

We Need More Healthy Churches

I am praying that local churches will take needed steps in 2021 to become and remain healthy. This will require more than a theme and graphic for Sunday mornings (we have both a theme and a graphic, so I'm not saying don't do this.) It begins with prayer, with total submission to God, and just as disciple-making is not instant, so too is healthy church living. We must remember that health is not determined by the size of the church, the notoriety of the pastor, or the number of unique ministries offered.

To my pastor friends seeking to lead well during this era of the pandemic–stay the course. I am praying for you. We are seeking not to lead our churches back to whatever is defined as  "normal" but toward what is defined as biblical.

Hang in there. Lead well and know that you are not alone in this endeavor.

 

_________

Resources

Mark Dever has written an excellent book titled "Nine Marks of a Healthy Church." It is a great place to start in evaluating and leading the local body well. Yet, even Dever admits there are more than nine marks to what it means to be healthy. May God reveal what you and your church need at this juncture in order to be strong, healthy, God-glorifying, and multiplying.


You Might Be a Consumer Christian If...

Jeff Foxworthy has made a living off one joke. The "You might be a redneck if..." joke launched his career and he has done very well, to say the least. 

My friend Mike Williams has done stand-up comedy in churches for years and he had a set where he copied Foxworthy's model, but gave it a Baptist identity. I still remember some of his punchlines.

You might be a Southern Baptist if:

  • Your pastor's name is written in dry-erase marker on the sign out front.
  • You ever bummed a cigarette off a deacon.
  • You have never sung the third stanza of a hymn.

There are more, but these are the ones I remember.

It was earlier this week as I began reading a new book by Will Mancici titled Future Church. This book, along with his others Church Unique and God Dreams should be read by all church leaders. It clarifies some things about the American church and how we are structured that need to be addressed. As Mancini and co-author Cory Hartman were working on this latest book and moving toward publication date, the pandemic hit. As I read now, it is clear that the revelations given by Mancini and Hartman are not only timely but essential for the local church today.

Upper and Lower Room Churches

I won't go into all the details of what the authors are defining. You would need to get the book for the nuts and bolts of all this. However, the concept of Upper Room and Lower Room churches is so essential I will try to summarize it here.

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People who go to and stay at a local church (we'll talk pre-pandemic era) often do so for one of four reasons (in addition to the Holy Spirit's lead.)

These are:

  1. Place - the location of the church building or gathering is important. For some, the building holds memories (the sacredness or "sacred cow" syndrome) for the members. Often these are of bygone days when great spiritual moments occurred in the life of a person (where they were saved, where they met their spouse, where they were baptized, etc.)
  2. Personality - the pastor is not only an initial draw, but that which keeps people coming. How many friends of yours tweet or post graphics featuring their pastor and comments or phrases he said during a sermon? He's engaging. He's funny. He seems to care. Then...if he leaves a percentage of attenders drift away as well. Oh, it may not be the lead pastor either. In some cases, it is the associate pastor of the designated "most favorite ministry program" who is the draw. That leads us to the next element.
  3. Programs - whether it is AWANA, the women's Bible study, the senior adult trips, the youth group, or any other such ministry or program, these draw many people. These are not bad, but they certainly are not the fullness of what church is or should be. Think of these programs as entry ways or onramps to the church. Sadly, some tend to stand in the entry, or park on the onramp. You know how frustrating that can be, especially if you are behind them. Lastly...
  4. People - the people are the church, right? Yes and no. The people who are Christians make up the church and it is the people gathered who are the church. We (all of us) are relational beings and that means we need others. Even introverts who secretly want to live as hermits actually need others to be healthy and obedient to all the "one anothers" of Scripture. What happens is even in open groups, a tendency for perceived "us four and no more" develops. Why? Not because we do not like others, but that we are like Lego pieces and all our connections are snapped together with no room for others (thanks to Larry Osborne for that illustration.) Mancini states, "When people get their identity from friendships at church, they resist the proverbial open chair." (Future Church, p. 27)

Mancini and Hartman reveal that these four elements of church connectedness and church growth are part of the lower room. They are the most easily accessed areas (if you picture a house with a lower floor and an upper floor.) Yet, it is the upper room where the church's vision, mission, and disciple-making strategy is cemented. The challenge we all face is moving those from the lower room to the upper room. It could be said that Jesus had thousands in the lower room of his ministry (remember the crowd who received free food from Christ) and at one key moment only 120 in the upper room (a literal upper room in Acts 1:15.) 

The clarity in this illustration helps me in understanding some of the challenges and realities we now face in the local church. The pandemic is revealing much of this, not creating it. Like other pastors, I have decried the growth of the consumerism in the church (while confessing that much of our programming and structure actually fuels this reality.) Now, I see that most people are not intentionally desiring to be consumer Christians. It may simply be that they are just enjoying the lower room and have never been led to the staircase leading to the upper room.

But beware, consumer Christianity is so very easy.

Consumer Christianity and the Lower Room

So, as I seek to help brothers and sisters with a bit of self-diagnosis, here are some things that may reveal you have slid into consumerism (and this is no joke)...

You might be a consumer Christian if, (since the pandemic hit):

  • You haven't watched your church's online service in its fullness.
  • You long to get back to "normal" so you can take the kids back to the fun mid-week program at your church.
  • You haven't joined a Zoom or online group with others in your church family.
  • Your Sundays have been filled with other activities and you aren't sure you will adjust your calendar to attend post-pandemic.
  • You have "attended" numerous other churches online and like the music at Church A, the preaching at Church B, and the events of Church C. You basically created a buffet church (it's the Golden Corral of Christianity...let that sink in.)
  • You haven't prayed with other believers.
  • You haven't partaken of the ordinance of the Lord's Supper with your church family (and you never thought about that until you read this.)
  • You use the pandemic as your reason excuse for not gathering as the church, but have gone to grocery stores, restaurants, shopping centers, the zoo, theme parks, ball games, and other places where crowds are gathering (without as many guidelines as your church has put in place for safety.)
  • You don't miss the church.

Consumer Christianity has been manufactured well in our nation. The church growth movement that fueled the offering of ministries and events as custom-fitted, marketable religiously-themed items not only left many people in the lower room of what should be the healthy church, but left them with many others people (thousands even) so that it felt normal.

This cancerous, sinful, short-sighted church strategy does not make disciples, but only creates fake disciples (thanks to Mancini for that term.)

So, you may discover that you have found a nice, comfortable sofa in the foyer of the lower room of church. It's comfortable, but does not transform lives. 

But this is not an easy shift.

I am shaken by Mancini's revelation on this. He says "The bottom line is that I underestimated the power of the Lower Room. Its gravitational pull is not the tug of a minor moon. but the force field of a black hole." (Future Church, p. 35)

The good news is that no one has to remain in the lower room. While the lower room is not bad. It is not unChristian. It is not evil. It simply is not enough. It is not the fullness of church. When the lower room is all there is, consumer Christianity reigns. No one has to settle in to consumer Christianity. That is not the way.

It is time to move up to the Upper Room. Praise be to God, he has removed many of the items that left many settling for religious God-stuff, with no transformation and ultimately...no maturation as a Christ-follower (and for some, a revelation of a non-existent relationship to God through Jesus Christ.) Repent. Come home. And...come on up.


Why Pastors Desire Celebrity Status (Knowing They Shouldn't)

There are instances in pastoral leadership when we must admit that even though we know certain things are not best for the church or the path to disciple-making, we do them anyway. 

For instance, most gospel-focused pastors I know clearly affirm how the growth "consumer Christianity" has negatively impacted the church in our culture. Yet, even knowing and stating this, we often continue to develop ministries, services, and programs that actually feed the consumer mentality. I am not saying that all ministries and activities should cease, but rather than leading contextually and biblically, it just becomes easier to provide a buffet of "church stuff" hoping the already attending continue to attend (and give) and that some unchurched may begin, while shoving strategic, relational disciple-making to the back burner. This is not a shot at other pastors and churches. it's a revelation from my own mirror.

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Another circumstance that many consider to be a modern-day result of social media and celebrity culture is the rise of the "celebrity pastor." Even the title sounds icky and though there is no biblical office for "celebrity pastor" the position nevertheless exists in our culture today. 

Though many consider this to be a modern-day trend only, Carey Nieuwhof reminds us in an article he posted a number of years ago that this has been the case since the beginning of the church. Remember the church members who liked Paul more than Apollos and so on? Nieuwhof even clarifies that not everything is a negative when it comes to celebrity pastor status, but the dangers are very real (Full Article Here

Rise of Celebrity

Even prior to the advent of social media and trending stories, memes, and posts, some pastors became globally known and impacted the lives of thousands, if not millions. For instance, even years after his death I still hear how the life and ministry of Billy Graham has impacted many personally. 

Yet, it seems within the last twenty years or so a new, fast-growing trend of celebrity status hit the American church. Pastors were platformed (many never sought it) and found themselves as influencers and community impact leaders in very positive ways. In addition to the clearly defined false teachers (hucksters) of the prosperity-gospel who fleece congregants and television viewers of funds for personal gain, some well-intentioned, theologically-sound preachers and teachers began to be raised up.

Names became well-known among Christians and church leaders. Conferences were held. Teaching was offered. Video series were developed. In some cases, bands and worship teams were developed to promote the brand (oh...and God too.) I began to see pastors and young Christian leaders name their children after such celebrity pastors. 

While I have a number of books on my shelves written by some of these men, I often wondered how long they could ride this wave of status. I confess that I should have been praying for these men while reading their books and listening to their sermons.

The Inevitable Fall

Whether celebrity status was desired or not, many found themselves no longer simply shepherding the flock in their local church, but managing a global brand of marketable Christianity. 

It is 2020 and far too many of these men who were filling stadiums, doing book tours, sitting on the couches on secular talk shows, and promoting their brand online have fallen. 

It is tragic.

Churches have closed. Others have fired leaders. Some sadly have resorted to legal action against brothers and sisters. Those presumed to be godly have been exposed to be mean-spirited. Church leaders who excused wrong actions and attitudes for years have finally addressed the elephant in the room.

Some leaders private, unbiblical sexual activities have been exposed. Marriages have ended. Children have suffered. Families have divided. The collateral damage is immense.

Even some leaders who are now deceased are having their previously hidden sinful actions revealed. 

Sexual abuse has happened far too often (BTW - when it occurs once, it is far too often) in churches. Sexual abuse victims have been shamed in attempts to keep the ministry's brand viable and marketable.

Those who found themselves riding high now wonder where their fans are.

Why, Then Would Pastors Want This?

There is something about the heart - you know, the sinful, self-focused, self-loving heart that we all have within us. The longing we have for being loved reigns. The desire to be applauded is real. The jealousy that rises when we see others whom we deem to be less talented and less articulate being idolized and platformed in our industry (in this case, in American Christianity) occurs all too often. 

Fleeting thoughts of "It would be nice to be leading a church that size, to be preaching at a conference like that, to be a best-selling author doing book signings, to be an internet influencer, to be a 'cool pastor,' to be sought, to be elevated, etc." come into the minds of many. 

Full transparency - I've had these thoughts, too. I have them far too often.

Even knowing how the Enemy loves to prop up those proclaiming the gospel just to tear them down does not convince us to be content.

What To Do?

I guess that really is the answer. Our contentedness, our joy, our ministry must be solely found in Christ. (BTW - we know this...but we still fail too often) The longing to make a difference, to leave a legacy, to impact lives for eternity, is good. It is holy. Yet, it is the good that can often be perverted unknowingly. 

To live humbly, but boldly as Christ's ambassadors is the call. 

There have been many, many godly men and women throughout Christendom who were known in their day, influential in their era, are revered today years after their passing, and have been seen as legacy leavers for Christ's sake. In other words, being known by many is not a sin. In fact, as stated earlier, it is often God's design to make himself known.

What makes the difference is when the private life and the public life of the Christian leader match. The pastor seeking to live holy, striving to live generously, focusing on the gospel, and glorifying God in private must also do so in public (and vice versa.)

When the temptation to want to be known seeps in, we must repent and rely on God to keep us focused on him, on making him known, on glorifying him. We won't do this perfectly, and that's the joy (or struggle at times) of pastoring well. 

Pray for the Pastors 

Oh, and pray for those who are known, leading large churches and ministries, preaching truth, and seeking to impact the world for God's glory. Pray for them because if they fall...the impact will reverberate throughout the church, the community, and in some cases the world. 

Pray for the relatively unknown ones as well. The temptations are just as real. If they fall, others are impacted. It may be a smaller number of those impacted and hurt, but the ramifications are just as real.

I would love to never have to see another headline of a celebrity pastor's failure. 

Recommended Reading

There are many books written by godly leaders that address the challenges of pastoring and the temptations faced. Two that I recommend are by Paul David Tripp.

Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry and Lead: 12 Gospel Principles for Leadership in the Church


What I Wish I Knew Earlier About Planting Churches & Sending Church Planters

Church planting is considered trendy by some.

Church planting is a term that has become used greatly in the past decade or so, but in truth is not new. In fact, it is how the gospel has spread throughout the world, from city to city, community to community, and family to family since the birth of the church in the book of Acts. Church planting is so much more than a trend. If it is a trend, it has been trending for two-thousand years.

I am thankful for the men I know who are now planting churches and supporting church plants throughout our nation and world. Intentional and strategic church planting in regions and areas where local expressions of church are needed continue to happen. Our goal as a church and mine as a pastor has been to help identify the men God has called to this amazing task, to equip them, enable them, and encourage them as they serve.

Church planting is not easy. It is exciting and it always looks great on video clips and promotional pieces, but the daily grind can be very difficult. Many of the planters and families we serve with have expressed those moments of isolation, feeling forgotten by their sending church, ignored by supporters, and wondering if they may have missed God's call.

That is why encouragement and continued support is needed.

Knowing Then What I Know Now

As a pastor of a legacy church (a nice term used to describe an old church) I have sought to help church planters, and call out men in our own church family to lead the way in this endeavor for the past decade or so. It has been a learning experience for me. The good news is that we have families serving on the field now, exactly where God desires them to be, in other cities, states, and even nations. They are truly on the front lines of gospel service as they have answered the call of God.

As I review our church's history of church planting and preparing church planters, it is clear that all who have surrendered to this call and continue to serve in this capacity were blessed by God greatly and serve well due to many factors, in spite of our help. In other words, we did not know what we did not know, but if we had it to do over again, we (as a church and leadership) would be more strategic and intentional for the sake of our planters. In many cases, as I review each, it is clear that we may have been so enamored with the concept of planting churches and campuses that we did not rightly pray for and prepare those God placed before us.

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Sadly, we helped some step into planter positions who should never have done so (at least not as soon as they did.) As a Send Network Trainer, I now go through many weeks of teaching and study with local church planters that provide information and expose blind spots early on. This type of training was mostly unavailable or ignored in our past. Therefore, our campuses and plants suffered unnecessarily. 

Scott Ball, writing for the Malphurs Group lists "Ten Deadly Church Planting Mistakes" in a blog post. It is a hard read because I recognize a number of mistakes I have made in the past with our planters. 

The ten mistakes are:

  1. Not going through assessment
  2. Planting without a coach
  3. Launching too quickly
  4. Leading without a team
  5. Launching too small
  6. Relying too heavily on outside funding
  7. Neglecting solid assimilation plans
  8. Installing local governance too quickly
  9. Waiting too long to implement a leadership pipeline
  10. Neglecting the process of strategic planning.

These are delineated in the blog post here. Some of these seem basic, and they are. Yet, in the excitement and joy of planting something new, often a few of these items are left to the wayside, only to be discovered to be needed and important later. Sadly, often too late.

Church Planting Goals

It is important to have vision and clarity when it comes to planting a church, but it also must be understood that there are times when our vision for a new work will help launch a church, but not sustain. In other words, the vision may seem set in stone, but after a year or so of engaging a community, attempting to grow disciples, and be the church needed in a community, that vision may change. 

Anson McMahon, lead pastor of Emmaus Church near Atlanta shared his thoughts on church planting and truths discovered in the journey here. One point that resonates with me is that as a pastor I must remember that Jesus knows what he's doing even when I often do not. 

To be flexible as a church planter and pastor is an understatement. It is required because change is the only constant (well, other than God) in the journey.

What Feels Like a Failure May Be a Win

We all want to win. Winning means accomplishing the task at hand well and doing so better than others. It's about crossing that finish line first. Yet, in church planting, what we often see as failure may actually be a victory.

It is not a failure to admit the plan is not working.

It is not a failure to shift focus.

It is not a failure to move to another area of ministry.

It may feel like failure, but it does not have to be.

Every church has a shelf-life. While the gates of hell will not prevail on Christ's church, the local body of believers gathered as church may change or shift over time. In fact, as is the case in our city, many will find their season of service coming to an end. This has been true in America for decades. We have seen it throughout Europe for centuries. The church of Jesus Christ prevails, but sometimes, the season of service of a local body in a specific place comes to a close. This should not be so that ministry ceases, but so the next chapter of gospel-centered ministry may flourish. 

As Baptists we are well-equipped in starting things like programs, events, ministries, or even church plants. We often do not recognize well when a season has ended. That is why some churches continue to have varied ministries attempting to function that were perfectly designed to reach and minister to a population who no longer exists. Thus the church lives under the banner of "We've always done this" wondering why there are no longer any positive results.

Sometimes a church plant (or a campus plant) served its purpose and has impacted a community well. A healthy church plant will shift from "plant" status to "church" status and engage as an autonomous family of believers. Yet, sometimes this does not happen. There are numerous reasons. Sometime blame must be placed at the foot of leaders. Sometimes this is due to outside impacts that leaders have no control over (you know, like a pandemic or increased facility rental costs.) 

Regardless, the church and leaders must seek to learn from each experience. It is too easy to allow bitterness, negativity, and feelings of failure to grow. 

I have seen churches and planters ignore or avoid church planting assessment. In such instances, problems have arisen in leadership that could have been addressed prior to the launching. When these issues arise months after the launch, the damage may be so severe the entire plant ceases.

This grieves me. Especially because it is avoidable.

Did You Plant a Church Or Just a Service?

This is something that I fear often creeps into our journeys of church planting. If the church plant is intended to reach an unchurched community by engaging one-on-one in the neighborhood, offering Bible studies, relationships, worship encounters, and the fullness of church to an area void of such, it means more must be done than just relocating a group of faithful servants to a new facility.

In other words, if the church plant is little more than a worship service, you have not planted a church. You have just relocated a gathering of believers to a new building. That can be a great start, but it is not a church.

Tim Keller says it best (full article here) ...

You might be passionate about expositional preaching and having really good preaching, and so you want to start a church. But, if all you want is your own pulpit, that is a horrible reason to plant a church. There are plenty of other pulpits out there that you can go to, but don't plant a church just so you can have your own. Or if you're passionate about good liturgy or good music, don't plant a church in order to have that.  Instead, find a church that you can plug into and be a part of that because church planting is so much more than just having the desire or the ability to plan and to prepare for what makes a really good worship service. You are not an event planner; you're a church planter, and these are two very different things. Now, planning a good worship service is of course going to be a part of church planting, but for those of you who have just started church planting or are thinking about it, you are gonna be surprised by how little of your time is actually devoted to that.

If I knew then what I know now...

Like many churches who jumped on the latest iteration of church planting in recent years, we have enjoyed the journey. We have seen lives transformed. We have heard the gospel proclaimed by those who were more silent in their personal witness prior to the new work. We have seen righteous risks taken. We have seen communities changed and great, godly things have happened. 

It has been good.

Yet, we also acknowledge that there were times we ran too quickly, even ahead of our prayers and God-given vision and strategy. As a friend used to tell me "Good is the enemy of best" and we settled for good (with moments of great) but should have been wise enough to wait for best. 

The Future Is Bright

We still plant churches.

We still send church planters.

We hope to do this even more in our church in the coming years. In fact, we are praying to be the sending or supporting church for forty church planters by 2040. Some megachurches can do that in about six months. For us, it will take longer. This means we must do more than drop a few dollars in the mail to a planter every now and then. It will require more than sending a mission team to another city on occasion. It will require strategic prayer and planning to send, support, and sustain church plants in our city and beyond for the long-term. 

We are learning from our past. We are thankful for the lessons. We long to be wiser as we move forward. 

We are reminded that God has a mission. His mission has a church. We are that church. To God be the glory.

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. - Matthew 16:18 ESV