Believe the Victims!

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

Eyes to See and Ears to Hear

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

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

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

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

I originally included these sentences (regrettably):

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

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

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

This dear sister shared the insight clearly this way:

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

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

Sadly, There Is More To Come

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

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

Consequences Remain

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

Is God's grace enough for these criminals?

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

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

I believe this.

I also believe this...

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

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

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

We Must Believe the Victims

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

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

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

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

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

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

God's Voice to the Sexually Assaulted

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

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

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

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

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

We Must Do The Right Thing

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Church Must Do More To Protect Its Most Vulnerable

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Evil Does Not Get a Pass

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

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

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

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

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

What the Local Church Must Do

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

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

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

What About Small Churches, Church Plants or Replants?

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

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

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

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

A Good Resource

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


The Politicization of Abortion

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

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

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

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

The Latest on Politicized Abortion Talk

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

 

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

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

The Story Continues

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

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

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

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

Life matters. All human life. At all stages. 

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

 

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


Maps Not Menus - The Discipleship Shift Our Church Must Make

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sadly, most church members do not recognize this.

Cheesecake-factory

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

Just like our church. 

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

And, we're guilty as well.

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

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

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

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


Forgive Us Father For Pretending That Abortion Is a Political Issue

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

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

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

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

My View on Abortion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abortion As Politics

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

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

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

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

The conversation ended. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Evil of the New York Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Is the Church to Do?

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

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

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

We Must Confess Our Sin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

__________

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What To Remember When Crisis Hits 

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

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


We Must Pray for Other Churches in Our Community

Do you love your community?*

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

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

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

The church-saturated community

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

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

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

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

But what about those churches who do? 

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

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

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We should pray for other churches because...

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

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

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

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

_____________________

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

 


When Your Church Hires the Wrong Pastor

I heard from a church a few states away last week whose pastor is leaving. He's moving on to another place of service. No issues there. However, in this case, the tenure of this pastor was challenging, to put it nicely. I won't get into the details, but one church member stated in a conversation "How did we miss so badly in calling him?"

To be clear, in many cases after a new pastor is called to serve in an established church there comes a time when some, hopefully not many, in the church start to question leadership style, direction, personality, etc. In some cases, the pastor is the needed person, called by God for that church. In other words, in these cases, God brings his man into his church to reclaim the church for God's glory. This requires a man with a clear calling, a missional outlook, a loving spirit, a mix of patience and urgency, the heart of a shepherd, thick skin, and a wife who can handle criticism, and children who are strong enough to weather the harsh things said about their father.

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Photo credit: Chris Yarzab on Foter.com / CC BY

In these instances a long tenure is needed and decades later, the historic review of the church's health is often keyed to the moment the church called this man as pastor.

But what about the bad hire?

It's true. There are times when it becomes clear that the person hired as pastor or as a member of your church's pastoral/ministerial staff is not a good fit. In fact, to be clear, there are times when it was wrong.

There are various reasons for such a hire and more than can be covered in this post. But, in my experience, here are some of the reasons a bad hire happens.

1. The pastor/minister was never truly called by God for the position.

I have talked to numerous men who have felt the calling to preach. I have asked how they have discerned such and at times, the clarity of the call is overwhelming. At other times, it simply seems that the individual is frustrated in his current job, not feeling fulfilled, and sits in the congregation watching the pastor or other ministry leader and thinks "I could do that." While that may be an impetus used by God to draw a man into pastoral ministry, it often is little more than a desire for personal fulfillment partnered with frustration of current status in life. 

Charles Spurgeon spoke much on the calling to pastoral ministry, holding it high and of value. One of his most famous statements about the call is as follows:

If any student in this room could be content to be a newspaper editor or a grocer or a farmer or a doctor or a lawyer or a senator or a king, in the name of heaven and earth, let him go his way; he is not the man in whom dwells the Spirit of God in its fullness, for a man so filled with God would utterly weary of any pursuit but that for which his inmost soul pants.1

While it is clear that many pastors would have and have done well in what has been classified as "secular" work by some, Spurgeon's quote goes to the heart of the calling. If a man could live content and fulfilled as a Christian, evangelizing the lost, discipling others, and doing so in the marketplace, then do so. However, if the calling of God is to shepherd the church, serve him in the capacity of an overseer, pastor, or elder, then by all means, that man is to do so.

The sad reality is that some men see the pastorate as nothing more than just another job. It is not. It cannot be. 

2. The pastor/minister is simply seeking a religious job and platform.

This reality is more and more prominent in the age of the celebrity preacher. Churches fall prey to this when seeking to call/hire a man to lead them. The danger is in lumping the good, qualified, popular pastors with the ones who are little more than attention seekers selling themselves with just enough Jesus added on to be dangerous (if not heretical.) 

In the recent 9 Marks podcast "Pastors' Talk" episode 69: On Pastoral Calling featuring Mark Dever, Brad Wheeler, and Jonathan Leeman, the men candidly discuss the concept of calling. You can listen to the full podcast here.

Dever is questioned by the others regarding some who seek to serve and why some should be rejected. He states:

The guy who keeps telling me he’s called to preach but isn’t making any opportunities to share the gospel likely isn’t called. He’s just waiting for someone to give him a platform. He likely just wants a religious job.

I know this guy. He has appeared in my ministry at different times. Unfortunately, in my immaturity, I have often given opportunities that should have never been given.

We have dealt with these as well in our network's church planting assessment weekends. A discerning heart often picks up on statements and desires that lean more toward this version of self-promotion than to biblical pastoral ministry.

While the church calling a man may be enamored by the potential celebrity status intent on competing with the church down the street, the result is often an unhealthy ministry led by an uncalled minister who does more harm than good. And ultimately, God is not glorified.

3. The wife is not called.

What? Isn't it just important that the man surrender to the pastoral call and go?

Uh...no.

Here's a little nugget from the Pastors' Talk podcast that speaks clearly to this. Let's say the man feels called and is sharing this with his wife. Dever asks about the very real questions that couples in ministry deal with. In this example, it is the man speaking to his wife. In other examples, the godly wife knows her husband is called to more, but he resists. We all know those as well. But in this case, 

  • How does the husband convince his wife that it is okay to be poorer than they would be otherwise? It may mean resigning from a high paying job and moving out of the nice, gated community in an intentional down-sizing to serve. 
  • How does the husband convince his wife that it is okay to be the object of more criticism than she would be normally? I know some who have greatly struggled and even slowed or stopped a move to full-time ministry simply due to an aversion to this role of "pastor's wife."
  • How does the husband convince his wife that it is okay to live more publicly with all the kids than she would have to normally?

The calling of a pastor (and since I'm a complementarian, I am speaking of a man in this role) is not divorced from the calling of his wife. Maybe I shouldn't use the word divorce - that brings up an entirely other, needed discussion. 

Simply put, I agree with Brad Wheeler in the podcast:

If the Lord has called the man, he has called his wife.

Conversely, if the Lord has not called the wife, he has not called the husband.

Yes, it's a package deal.

4. The Lead Pastor is overly enamored by having men called from his ministry.

Ouch. This one hurts, but it is true and reveals a bit of idolatry. 

It is a great thing to have men and women surrender to ministry in the church. It is honorable and celebratory to have them do so under your leadership as pastor. However, there is this reality that all too often occurs in churches. The lead pastor is loved. He has faithfully preached, taught, and shepherded the church. God has used him well and many are coming forward to surrender to ministry.

Yet, some of those who come are not called.

They want to be on staff. 

They want a title.

They want to live the preacher life (or at least the version they see from the congregation), but they are not qualified. They are not called. They have been given another role.

It's not a downgrade. In these cases, the individual is called to evangelize and disciple, as all Christians are. They are in the marketplace, in the schools, in the workforce. They are on the frontlines. They are called, but not biblically qualified to pastor or serve as an overseer. Yet, they are given a position. They are given a title. Why? Because the lead pastor is excited that someone would come forward under his ministry to do so. 

Yet, it's a disservice to the individual and as will always be revealed, to the church.

The danger is when that unqualified individual is given a position to which he has not been called, the ramifications are serious. Ultimately, he will likely either quit, fold under the pressure, or have to be dismissed. At any rate, that family is hurt (he, his wife and children) and the church. Shame sets in. Embarrassment occurs. Even anger results. 

In some cases, the person is done with church, because it is very hard to go from being listed on the website and bulletin as a minister to just sitting in the congregation again. Sometimes, the person just goes to the church down the street or in the next community over. Either way - the rift is real. 

And it always comes back to harm the church and the lead pastor.

There are numerous other reasons why the wrong person is in a pastoral position.

The question is, "How does the church survive this?"

Sadly, some do not. If the church has a man in pastoral leadership who has done more than just preach poorly, become arrogant, or hurt people's feelings, the harm may be lasting. In some cases, sexual sin, affairs, and even abuse occurs. Our church dealt with this long before I joined the pastoral staff in 1994. The senior pastor at the time led the church to hire me as student pastor. It was about a month after arriving I was told by him and others in the church that three youth pastors prior, a sexual crime had been committed by the man with the title. The senior pastor at the time apparently resigned later for his own indiscretion. 

It's been over thirty years now and while most in our community have no idea of those days (and I'm thankful for the senior pastor who called me to his staff and the immediate previous youth pastor who was able to serve with distinction before moving to another church) the scars of past sins in our church remain.

While these were the most heinous offenders, others over the years have come and gone. Good guys, but wrong hires.

Not all. Believe me, God has blessed us currently and in the past with godly, called men and women to serve in ministerial leadership positions. 

At times, I'm certain some in our church have wondered if I was a poor hire. Most of those are now members at sister churches in the community. 

God's church survives these moments not by forming another committee to go "find the right guy this time" but by grounding itself in the gospel and in prayer. God loves his church and he always calls his man to serve as he desires. The church must be prayed up (that's a church phrase we use, right?) and discerning, knowing that God never leads to the wrong man.

As for the pastors/ministers/directors of ministry serving at your church now - pray for them and their families. Be their defense in prayer. Even the right ones can be tempted and are. 

If (when) there is a vacancy in the position, depending on your church polity, prayerfully consider the points above before putting another in the role. 

I believe and have been affirmed that I have been called by God to pastor. Yet, even in my affirmed calling, my old nature sometimes (all too often) rises up and leads me to say and do things that are not God's desire. In other words, I'm not the perfect pastor for this church, but I am the called one, by God, equipped and strengthened by the Holy Spirit for this task. As are the other godly men I know serving faithfully for the sake of the call.

__________

1Charles H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing, 2017), 47.


What Do You Know About That New Church Down the Street?

I was asked the question again recently. It was an honest question from a father whose daughter began dating a young man who attends  a newer church in our city. The church has grown quickly and has made it into the Outreach Magazine "Fastest Growing Churches" list. The name is unique and represents a departure from denominational ties. This is not unheard of and not a cause for concern necessarily. The growth has expanded to multi-site campuses with campus pastors in addition to video feeds from the main campus. The church's presence online and on social media is strong. Yet, we all understand the marketing model of the American church and thus, the question was asked.

"Pastor, what do you know about this new church in town?"

I've heard this over and over for many new and revitalized churches in town. Church members and neighbors are curious. In truth, the questions are often asked with a hint of skepticism. While a generation or two ago, the questions may have been about the non-denominational tag or the music style. Nowadays, those elements do not garner the concern. 

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Photo credit: yourfaithchurch on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

The questions now are about doctrinal integrity. Oh, the people may not use that term in their question, but ultimately they want to know if the new church is legit. 

"Is this church okay?" is what they're asking.

Of course, as the pastor of the church where I serve, the members seek my advice in these areas. I don't doubt other pastors have been asked the same questions about me, our church, and our campuses. Nevertheless, I have a responsibility to gracefully and truthfully answer the question.

In some cases, the answer is "I don't know." 

That is because I do not know. Go figure. I haven't attended a worship service there. I haven't met the pastor. I haven't been at any meetings with the pastor. I don't know them, and therefore, do not have enough information to give an answer.

However, in some cases, even without knowing the church or pastor personally, there is enough information online through sermons, doctrinal statements, theological beliefs, and social media postings to discern the primary teachings of the church, from the church.

As for music style or whether the church has stage lighting, a band, a choir, a wooden pulpit, a table, etc., I really don't care. I do care about what is (or is not) being taught regarding Christ, the Word, and the church.

Doctrine matters. 

It always has.

To be clear, I have a number of friends who are not Christians. I have friends who are Christian, but not Baptist. I have friends who are Baptist, but not Southern Baptist. I have friends who Southern Baptist, but not missionally focused. In other words, I actually do have friends and acquaintances who differ with me on issues of importance. I have even more that differ with me on issues that aren't that important.

Regarding these questions of validity when it comes to churches and those who claim to be called to preach, these are important. These are also things that will divide. Rightly so. 

In January of 2019, I will begin a doctrine series on Wednesday nights at our First Baptist Church of Orange Park campus. I will be dissecting some of the heretical doctrines of Christ that have existed for hundreds of years and how some of these have actually infiltrated the modern American (and non-American) church. 

Then, at a date to be determined, we will show the new documentary titled "American Gospel." This film is strong, clear, and needed. 

We have secured the license to show this legally and will be presenting it at our different campuses and in some of our home groups. Below are a couple of the trailers for the film.

 

American Gospel - Trailer 1 from Transition Studios on Vimeo.

 

AMERICAN GOSPEL from Transition Studios on Vimeo.

So, what about that new church? Well, in this case, the church in question is solid. Their pastor preaches the gospel of Christ unapologetically. Their doctrine is biblical. Their mission and church planting focus is spot on. I'm glad to know they're in our city as we serve and work together to glorify God. This is for His glory and the good of our city.

As for some of the other churches in our city? Well, some are good. Others feature little more than spiritualized snake-oil salesmen selling a false gospel of prosperity and me-ism that takes advantage of those who are less discerning and hoping for God to perform for them. They fit into the categories exposed in this film and should be avoided.

"Would it be better for my friend or family member not to go to church anywhere rather than go to one of those churches? They are really positive and the music is great?"

That's a great question and my answer would be YES. It is better they not go anywhere than sit under someone teaching lies. Though, I would pray that they would follow the drawing of God's Spirit and come to Him and unite with a legitimate church that preaches the gospel, lives it out, and seeks to serve the Lord fully.

These are challenging times. In a city where there are almost as many churches as pharmacies, chicken restaurants, and gas stations, the wise person will test the teaching and seek God's lead regarding where to attend and serve.


Garth Brooks, Notre Dame, and Your Christmas Service at Church

Last night while the big game for the NFL was broadcast on NBC and Hallmark was showing yet another Christmas movie, a country music superstar came out of self-imposed semi-retirement. The Garth Brooks Stadium Tour has begun and the concert recorded in the rain at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana in October aired on CBS last night. The production quality of Brooks' concert was incredible. He has been known for his live shows since breaking onto the scene over two decades ago. While other country singers would stand behind a microphone in their starched Wranglers while playing guitar and belting out hits (George Strait, Alan Jackson, et. al.) Brooks would wear the wrap-around microphone that he must have either borrowed from Madonna or the Drive-Thru worker at Chick-fil-A, run around the stage or at times, pull a Bon Jovi and fly above the crowd. Brooks is an entertainer for certain.

Whether you like his music or not, there's no denying he has appeal for many. The stadium was packed. It was raining. It was cold. And while I know that post-production can do some pretty amazing things, based on tweets and reports online from those who were in attendance, plus what was seen on television, the crowd LOVED the show.

Photo credit: tncountryfan on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC

So, what does this have to do with anything related to church, Christianity, worship, or anything else spiritual?

While watching last night, I said to my wife "Brooks has the crowd in his hand. He's no evangelist, but he's evangelizing and the crowd is 'amening" their approval." I followed up with "If he asked people to come down front to make a decision, they'd come in droves." This was not a condemnation on crusades or the traditional "come down the aisle" moment in many churches. I was just noting that what we were observing in this very well produced event was something that we have seen in religious settings as well (albeit with fewer people in the crowd.)

My friend and pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Dean Inserra tweeted as the concert was completing:

 

Dean hit the nail on the head in this comparison.

Some of you reading will be upset that I, a Baptist preacher, may seem to be condoning the message or lifestyle promoted in Brooks' songs. Well, I'm not. However, I do know the words of many of the hits he played. I like some more than others. Yet, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who actually has a radio in their vehicle, an iTunes or Amazon Music account or who has been alive for the past twenty years or so who does not know at least some of the words to "Friends in Low Places." 

Christmas at Church

No I do not recommend singing "Callin' Baton Rouge" at your Christmas Eve service. Yet, I do find some insight from this event that was on television last night. Spurred on by Dean Inserra's tweet, I recommend the following to pastors who are trying to find ways to connect with their communities during this Christmas season.

  1. Plan Well. Every community is different, so know yours. If you don't...you have more issues than Chris Gaines. Presuming you know the people in your community, plan a service that will connect with them and allow them to not only feel welcomed, but encouraged that there is a God who loves them deeply. If your service is planned for church people, you will only connect with church people (yours and those who are members of other churches.) It's easy to plan a church service for church people. Don't.
  2. Preach Clearly. Christmas sermons are sometimes the most difficult for pastors, because we (pastors) all too often try to be really creative and end up missing the point. Jesus is the point. He always is. He always must be. The "birth of Jesus" story is known by many, but don't presume it is rightly known by the crowd in your building. Some view the story of the nativity as little more than than a holiday fairy tale or myth on par with the Rudolph, Frosty, and Grinch stories. (BTW - I like all those stories and even the Charlie Brown one.) BTW - just because it's Christmas, don't leave Jesus as a baby in a manger. Get to the cross. Preach the resurrection. A little Easter at Christmas is needed by all.
  3. Provide the Familiar. Sing songs that people have heard. Is it a sin to sing "Jingle Bells"? I say no. However, sing the carols that glorify the Christ. Don't skip or ignore those. People have heard them. Many know the words. They may just sing along. The words point to Christ. Christ is the point, remember? Sing about him. Worship him with these classics. It's possible. And, as we saw with Brooks' incredible show, you don't even have to have the very best singer in town on the stage leading. You do need to be able to lead people to sing, however. In the age of performance worship and having to present the latest pop-song worship chorus, many in the room are left watching and missing the opportunity to worship with song. Vicarious worship is not the goal. The best worship leaders are the leaders who worship.
  4. Present the Decision. Don't forget to draw the net (that's an evangelism term that refers to giving people the opportunity to respond) and express to all who have attended your special Christmas Eve or seasonal service that God loves them. He sent his son. He wants to know them personally and they can receive something more than a temporal gift wrapped in paper. Life is available. Whether you allow people to respond by calling them down front, offering them a moment to meet with you following the service, giving them a link on your app to click, or a number to text does not matter. There are numerous ways to give people the opportunity to respond. Just don't leave it left undone. Otherwise, you will once again evaluate your service with your staff and say "We had a good crowd, but we're not sure if anyone made a decision and therefore, have no way to follow up." Yep - we've done this way too often.

What you don't need to have an effective Christmas service is the production budget of Garth. Don't be who you're not and don't fret that you don't have unlimited resources for smoke machines, lighting, or other effects. If you have those things, that's fine, but those are not the point when the true focus is clear.

So this Baptist preacher learned something from a country singer with hits about drinking, cheating, dancing, and a false narrative about prayer while performing on stage with a man dressed as a leprechaun at a Catholic university. 

Weird.

________________

Photo credit: tncountryfan on Visualhunt /CC BY-NC