Christians, Depression, and Mental Illness

Through my recent studies in the book of Ezekiel for Sunday sermon preparation and 1 John for my mid-week Bible study, I have been speaking on the tendency for us to either justify our sin or not acknowledging it for what it is. This is part of human nature (i.e. sin nature) and we all do this at some point. 

In 1973 psychologist Karl Menninger shocked many with his book Whatever Became of Sin?

He writes about the seeming absence of the word sin in modern English. He stated that churches and pastors who were known to preach against sin and used the world prolifically now seemed to avoid it. He was speaking of many in the mainline Protestant denominations and even the early 1970s genesis of what became known as political correctness.

He states this regarding the word “sin”...

It is surely nothing new that men want to get away from acknowledging their sins or even thinking about them. Is this not the religious history of mankind? Perhaps we are only more glib nowadays and equipped with more euphemisms. We can speak of error and transgression and infraction and mistakes without the naïve exposure that goes with serious use of that old-fashioned pietistic word “sin.”

We love sanitized words. That way we can pretend sin isn’t real. 

Mental Illness and Sin

Sometimes we like to call our sin something other than sin. In the past, I have stated "We may call it a mistake, a challenge, or even call it mental illness or a disorder in a way to excuse sin." I now realize that by categorizing mental illness and disorder as I did, I presented these as synonymous with sin. They are not. 

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To claim that someone's illness is a sin is akin to what the disciples asked Jesus when they came upon a blind man.

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” - John 9:1-5 (ESV)

There is much division among evangelical Christians regarding mental health. The spectrum of mental illness is wide and when spoken of among Christians, various opinions arise. For years the concept of depression or mental illness among Christians was seen as a sign of sin or wrongdoing. In some cases, the prescription was just to "be positive and pray more, go to church more, trust God more, be happy, etc." None of those recommendations are wrong. However, the Christian in your church who sincerely desires help, who reads the Bible more, prays more, and everything else that good Christians are supposed to do, often experiences an "almost there, but not quite" reality and wonders if it will ever get better.

What is mental illness?

When speaking of mental illness or depression, a clear definition is difficult to find. Biblical counselors often state that mental illness is not a disease but a construct. Psychologists Herb Kutchins and Stuart Kirk who have served on The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) committees (the group that decides what is and is not a mental illness), state:

The category of [mental illness] itself is an invention, a creation. It may be a good and useful invention, or it may be a confusing one. DSM is a compendium of constructs. And like a large and popular mutual fund, DSM's holdings are constantly changing as the managers' estimates and beliefs about the value of those holdings change.1

That description may cause frustration for some. At first glance, it appears that they are saying mental illness is not real. That is not what they're stating. What they are emphasizing is the mystery of defining that which is seemingly understood by the masses as clearly defined, most often as biological. 

Sadly, the church often becomes the place where those who suffer from mental disorders or depression feel less safe than elsewhere.

Dr. Jeremy Pierre stated this in an article about mental illness and the church, following the suicide of Saddleback Church's Pastor Rick and Kay Warren's son, Matthew...

Everyone knows the unpleasant impulse to hide something about himself that others wouldn’t approve of. For those who experience overwhelming emotions or find themselves caught in patterns of unusual behavior, this impulse is more than unpleasant—it’s terrifying. We are aware of the general standards of normalcy around us, and when we don’t measure up to those standards, we feel shame. The easiest way to stay included is to hide those things about us that don’t measure up. Lest we demonize the church, let’s admit that this is true in any sphere of relationships—the neighborhood, the workplace, the rec league.

Nevertheless, it’s right to recognize that the church should be different. And, at least in some churches, it’s not. Sometimes it’s worse because the standards of normalcy are mixed with standards of morality, and the stakes get even higher. The thought of a guy at work finding out you take meds might be unpleasant to you, but the thought of your pastor finding out might be downright distressing. In your mind, your coworker might think you’re a little screwy, but your pastor might think you’re screwy and sinning. And so you may be more tempted to hide stuff from your pastor than from your coworker.2

To equate mental illness, mental disorders, or depression as sin is inaccurate. Yet, as believers, we know that all illness (physical, emotional, behavioral, etc.) are results of the fall of man. Sin is the ultimate source. Our brokenness impacts all of creation. The sin nature within all leads to suffering and that suffering is meant to make us groan for the life to come, when all of creation will be set free from corruption (Pierre). 

That's the promise in Scripture.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. - Romans 8:18-19 (ESV)

Counselors such as Jay Adams, with his nouthetic (to confront out of concern for the change of heart) biblical counseling approach addressed from a biblical perspective the same issue that Menninger did from a secular one in his book referenced earlier. The context of sin minimization meant that the segmentation of the person was being addressed (i.e. behavioral, physical, mental, emotional, etc.) without taking a biblical perspective that we as image-bearers of God are not just one aspect of humanity. Adams noted that the the church seemingly lost its focus on sin and salvation and also the focus on sanctification. This ignoring of the daily growth in Christlikeness through the valleys and lamentable moments was ignored by many.

Ultimately, we know and affirm that Christ is the answer for all life's circumstances and for our sin. He is the redeemer. These are not questioned.

But, what about the one who is ill, the one struggling to get up in the morning, battling thoughts and feelings that seemingly paralyze them? 

Rather than simply declare that the person is in sin (they may be, but address that for what it is, not just because they are battling depression or suffering from a mental disorder) we should look to Christ for guidance and follow the Holy Spirit's lead in offering help as brothers and sisters. 

The mind can descend far lower than the body. For [the mind] there are bottomless pits. The flesh can bear only a certain number of wounds and no more, but the soul can bleed in ten thousand ways, and die over and over again each hour. - Charles Spurgeon

Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers, had bouts of sadness. Perhaps even moments of severe depression. His words do not discount the Lord's helping hand, but also does not ignore his very real feelings. 

For the believer who is suffering with depression or other mental disorder, here's what Lieryn Barnett states on a post featured at The Gospel Coalition (full article here.)

  1. You are not alone.
  2. It is not your fault
  3. God sees you and is with you
  4. God's Word speaks to you

The thorn in the flesh is very real, and unique for different individuals. The feelings you have do not define you, though in the midst of the difficulty, they feel as if they do. God ultimately is the healer. Go to him, lean into him, trust him. Trust that he often provides others (pastors, doctors, nurses, friends) who can be very real help along the journey. 

Where there is sin revealed, confess and repent. 

Where it is not sin, it is a "thorn in the flesh" and we pray as Paul did that God would remove it. If he does, we will praise him. If he chooses not to, we will praise him and pray that you experience his grace as sufficient.

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           1Heath Lambert, "Can Jesus Heal Mental Illness? Part 1," Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, March 16, 2014, accessed August 28, 2019, https://biblicalcounseling.com/can-jesus-heal-mental-illness-part-1/.

         2Jeremy Pierre, "Mental Illness and the Church," Biblical Counseling Coalition, April 19, 2013, accessed August 28, 2019, http://www.biblicalcounselingcoalition.org/2013/04/19/mental-illness-and-the-church/.


How You Teach the "David & Bathsheba Story" May Cause Harm

You know the story, I'm certain. David is the king of Israel. He's the "man after God's own heart." He has risen to the throne after years of service to King Saul, a daring escape and hiding out from the king who sought to kill him. His entire life plays like an epic film. That's why there have been many films made about him.

Bathsheba is a beautiful woman bathing on the roof of her home. 

It just so happens that her roof is viewable from the king's palace and David is home. He shouldn't be home. He should be out with his army fighting battles and leading them.

In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel. And they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem. - 2 Samuel 11:1 (ESV)

"But David remained at Jerusalem." This is bad. Really bad.

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Photo credit: corrine klug on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Imagine you're in Sunday School. You're a teenager and the teacher reads the rest of 2 Samuel 11 and you hear how Bathsheba, the wife of one of David's warriors, is home, bathing and is seen by the king. She's desirable and he calls for her. He has his way with her and sends her home.

Who sinned?

That's the question. I have heard it asked before. I have heard sermons preached on this. 

The obvious answer is that David has sinned. 

But...what about Bathsheba?

It's mentioned by someone in class. The pastor may be making a point about the sins of bathing on the roof. (BTW - despite how this has been taught for years, the Scripture doesn’t say that she was on the roof. She could have been inside near a window. It was David on a roof looking at her.) Regardless, there's this message given that she was complicit in the sin. She did the deed with David and it's her fault.

Bathsheba's fault?

But, wouldn't a person in an ancient Middle Eastern kingdom be basically stating "kill me" by refusing a request from a king? That's referenced in other books, even in the story of Esther and the Persian king. 

I get it. Bathsheba is not perfect. She is a sinner. There's no doubt there. Oh, not because of this story, but because of what Scripture states regarding everyone's sin. We're all sinners. So, the sin nature of humanity is not in question here.

What I am speaking of is how we teach this lesson. So often I hear points made related to the great sin of Bathsheba. It is almost as if her rooftop bathing caused the sin perpetrated against her. Really? Her bathing caused David to stay home when he shouldn't have been home. Her bath caused him to do the ancient equivalent of surfing the web for porn? Her rooftop bathing made David send for her and plan out an encounter that was about his pleasure alone. 

That's how it is often presented. 

What's the big deal?

Imagine you're teaching this class and unbeknownst to you there are women (it could be men) in the room who were stalked, groomed, seduced, and sexually assaulted in the past by someone in authority. Maybe it was a parent, a pastor, a teacher, a coach, a relative, or someone else. It doesn't matter who it was. What matters is that a person of authority took advantage and greatly harmed someone sexually for their own desires and personal pleasure. 

That survivor in your class hears your Bible lesson and doesn't hear anything else than, "They think it was Bathsheba's fault." This leads them to think "I guess it was really my fault, too."

And that's how victims remain victimized and how, even unintentionally, our teachings of inerrant Bible stories and truth can state things the Bible does not say and things we don't intend.

David sinned greatly. He was also confronted by God's prophet Nathan. Look how Nathan refers to Bathsheba in his confrontation...

1And the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.” - 2 Samuel 12:1-4 (ESV)

The "lamb" was innocent. Bathsheba is the innocent lamb in this story. She had been taken advantage of, used for the pleasure of the king, and violated. As we see her in this story, she was taken from her home and was little more than a possession the powerful king desired.

It was not her fault.

It's that simple. In this story where we are first introduced to Bathsheba, based on what God's prophet Nathan reveals and what we have in Scripture, this woman was not to blame. 

I guess it's the "naked woman on the roof" (or at least visible from a roof) that just makes people want to blame her. Amazing how that becomes the focus for so many when studying this story.

And those who have been sexually victimized sit in our churches remaining silent, because they blame themselves for what someone else did to them. And, they reason that no one will believe them anyway. I mean, in Sunday School they blamed Bathsheba.

Sometimes the way we teach Scripture leaves our learners unable to hear the truth, much less receive it. 

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This post was prompted by a story in Rachael Denhollander's soon-to-be released book What Is a Girl Worth? Available for preorder here.


No, You Don't Have a Right to Join the Church

Growing up in various Baptist churches (my father was in the Air Force, so we lived in numerous cities) we would prayerfully consider where to attend church and when the "right" one was found, we would join. In those days, the process of becoming a member of a church was quite common.

  1. You walked down front at the close of the worship service while the music minister led the congregation in "Just As I Am" or another "come on down" hymn. 
  2. You introduced yourself to the pastor. If you had your family with you, you introduced them as well.
  3. The pastor would ask "Why are you coming down today?"
  4. If already a Christian, you would say "I'm coming to join this church by moving my letter here."
  5. Then, most often, it was a "Well, amen! We're glad to have you." The pastor would have you turn around and face the congregation. He would introduce you and say something like "If you approve of having John Doe join our church, say 'Amen!'" 
  6. The congregation always said "Amen" and boom, you're a church member.

There was a longer process if you hadn't been baptized by immersion or were coming from another denomination. Yet, by and large, it was often a very simple process.

I grew up thinking this was correct. While common, it certainly was not the best understanding of church membership. In fact, looking back now, this process was terrible and terribly problematic for the local church.

Is Church Membership Biblical?

Sometimes you will hear the argument that membership in the local church is not biblical. There are newer churches who "don't do membership" and see it as a man-made administrative step that leads to legalism. To put it bluntly, those churches are wrong, regardless how spiritual their reasonings may sound. 

The church universal is often spoken of when seeking to minimize the membership expectations of the church local. Some "seeker sensitive" churches of the 1980s and 1990s built models that left membership in the margins, if referenced at all, in an attempt to be "relevant" and grow a crowd. 

Matt Chandler, Pastor of The Village Church in the Dallas, Texas area wrote of this a few years back. he stated:

With conflicts already brewing over other doctrines that I viewed as far more central, I wondered if we should let this church membership thing slide and come back to it later. I was preparing at the time to preach through the book of Hebrews and “happened” to be in chapter 13 when verse 17 leapt off the page: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

Two questions occurred to me. First, if there is no biblical requirement to belong a local church, then which leaders should an individual Christian obey and submit to? Second, and more personally, who will I as a pastor give an account for?

These two questions started my search for a biblical understanding of the local church, and they began around the ideas of authority and submission.

Regarding the first question, the Scriptures clearly command Christians to submit to and honor an elder body (Heb. 13:17, 1 Tim. 5:17). If there is no understanding of local church membership, then who are we to submit to and obey? Is it anyone with the title “elder” from any church? Should you as a Christian obey and submit to those loons at Westboro Baptist? In order to obey Scripture, must you picket soldiers’ funerals, as the pastor of Westboro seems to imply?

Regarding the second question, the Scriptures clearly command an elder body to care for specific people (1 Pet. 5:1-5; also, Acts 20:29-30). Will I as a pastor be held accountable for all the Christians in the Dallas Metroplex? There are many churches in Dallas that I have strong theological and philosophical differences with. Will I give account for what they teach in their small group, how they spend their money, and what they do concerning international missions? (9Marks Journal, April 28, 2011)

In addition to this, the concept of church discipline falls apart when there are no clear membership roles or expectations. Paul's confrontation of the church at Corinth clearly reveals an expected behavior of those who claimed to be part of (members of) the church body.

While church membership may not seem cool for some, it is biblical.

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What Is Church Membership?

A clear understanding of what it means to be a member of a local church is essential. Pastor Dean Inserra stated that years ago following a new member's class at his church a potential member asked him "What changes for me on Monday if I join the church today?" It's a challenging and needful question. It led Dean to clarify the membership process and expectations in his church, to the benefit of the church body.

All pastors should contemplate that question. What is the big deal? What changes?

If the answer is "Well, you get to vote in our business meetings," you likely are not fully understanding the need for people to be church members. And...if someone joins the church just to vote in a business meeting, you likely have more issues, or will, you have deeper problems.

Jonathan Leeman of 9Marks gives a concise definition of church membership here...

Church membership is a formal relationship between a local church and a Christian characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church. (9Marks Journal, August 22, 2014)

When a person seeks to join a local body of believers (the local church) the church, or designated pastors, elders, and leaders are not to just say "Come on and join. It's easy. There's nothing to it." but to clearly delineate what the covenant relationship means.

Church Membership Is a Relationship

The relationship between men and women in a local church is covenantal. It is relational. The relationship begins with God and is centered upon him. God is relational. The Trinity expresses this clearly.

The relationships Christians are to have with other believers flow from this relationship with God. Within the local church, those relationships are even more connected. The "one anothers" of Scripture are played out within the body. There is no mistaking this. The "Jesus and me" mentality that sees church as the place where I go to get my fill of weekly spiritual teaching so that I can get through my week, tends to place "me" at the center of everything. 

No wonder so many get bored and tired at church and are seemingly always looking for the latest edition or version available. 

This me-centered, independent mindset prevails in our culture. It leads to the shopping for churches and consumerism disguised as Christianity.

It also leads to a belief that people have the right to be a member of the local church.

Church Membership Is Not a Right

As Americans, we love our personal rights. We even have a "Bill of Rights" in our Constitution that have allowed freedoms to be expressed and experienced that are unavailable in other areas of the world. We truly are blessed to have these. However, sometimes we transfer what we believe to our rights to aspects  of life where they do not apply.

When it comes to becoming a member of a local church, no one actually has a right to be welcomed in as a member.

I know this sounds like we have some super-exclusive club where certain people will not be welcome. That becomes some of the pushback for churches who require membership. Truly, in the past, some have used unbiblical guidelines (such as race) as determining factors regarding who can or cannot be a church member. I am not speaking of such vile circumstances.

Some basics are expected and those must align with the church's declared and shared doctrine. A person should not be admitted into membership if certain doctrinal differences exist, especially if they're first- or second-level theological issues (view of Trinity, justification, mode of baptism, meaning of Lord's Supper, etc.)

For a person to be accepted in membership of a local church, there are definitely expectations that should be understood. These are not only things expected from church members, but things the potential member can expect from the church. This is a relationship and therefore, there are expectations.

When churches minimize what it means to be a member and lower the standards expected of church members, membership not only becomes unbiblical but troublesome.

What About Members Who Abandon the Church?

Most churches I know have a list of church members who never attend. This list includes a small percentage representing those who are incapacitated or unable to leave home and attend worship services or other activities. Their health is failing or they have physical or other disabilities keeping them from the local gathering. For those individuals, membership has not been abandoned. In fact, the church has expectations to continue the relationship (remember, it's a covenant relationship) and to help when family members are not able to do so.

What about the rest of those disconnected "members"?

Most pastors know this passage in Hebrews, yet we often only focus on a portion of it.

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17 ESV)

I fear that we love the "obey" and "submit" portion, but skip over the "those who will have to give an account" portion. Simply put, the displaced and non-attending church member should be contacted and sought to be drawn back in to the fold.

Why? Because we (pastors and leaders) will have to give an account to God for our care.

However, there are likely members who haven't attended in years and would not want to come back into the fold simply because doing so would put them immediately into a process of church discipline. Yep, that church member living opening in sin cannot just slide back into church. Therefore, they seek to hide away from church, while simultaneously keeping their membership in the church.

It's bogus. It's sinful.

Some may not even know they're still considered members of the church. Maybe they've been attending elsewhere. Perhaps they moved away. Some may actually be members at another church that either "doesn't do membership," is of a different denomination, or simply is poor in their administration that they never saw fit to reach out and connect with the former church.

We actually had some church members who were serving at a sister church as deacons and Sunday School leaders years ago. Why? Mainly because our membership process at the time did not allow us remove members unless another church sent for their "letter" (membership) or the individual requested to be removed from the church roll.

Why Would Someone Want to Remain a Member and Not Attend?

The cultural Christian reality explains this well. Dean Inserra's book The Unsaved Christian covers this well. There are many reasons, but some that come to mind are...

  • Membership allows someone to use the building for a wedding at no or reduced rates.
  • Membership allows someone to use the building for a funeral.
  • Membership looks good on the postcard or website in some areas if you decide to run for office.
  • Membership allows for some to claim connectivity with others when there is no relationship.
  • Membership in the church is like membership in the Rotary, Lions, or any other community organization. It's good for business.

Church membership can be a mess.

While our church won't be dropping church members wide-scale, we will begin to delete the "Sunday School members" who haven't attended in months. We will eliminate names that have been passed and promoted for years.

People matter, but membership is more than a name on a roll.

Joining a church is a covenantal agreement. Anything less is superficial at best, and sinful at worst. So, no you don't have a right to be a member of the local church, but God desires that you be a member. It is good. It is right. It is holy and it allows for the believer to be a disciple who makes disciples. 

 

Oh yeah...

If you're actively attending another church and engaged in ministry there...join it. Don't keep your membership in one church and act like a member in another. :-)


Hope in a Culture Defined By Hate

"It has never been this bad" is a statement of despair that I have heard from numerous people over the years.

This cry echoes in our culture once again as we hear of the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. These evil actions of two individuals (with seemingly unrelated motivations) have brought cries from various corners of society for fixes. Political pundits and creators of sound bites and spin have once again taken center stage in order to state their cases.

While cries of action come from some, cries of grief continue for family members and friends who are now planning funerals.

It is bad. There is no question that these events are terrible, horrific, and evil. The loss of life, even in a desensitized culture, is always tragic. It is even more tragic when deaths are not the result of accidents or illness (though those are tragic as well) but at the hands of deranged criminals. 

Thus we hear "Woe is us. It has never been this bad."

Hate Is "Normal" 

From a Christian perspective, we know the story of sin. We not only know it historically, but we understand it personally. Thus, the need for a Redeemer. 

The Enemy hates God. His hatred is revealed clearly in the Genesis account of the Garden of Eden. His hatred for God is played out upon God's image-bearers, Adam and Eve. Sin enters the human story and separation from God results. Even so, in this separation, the love of God remains. It always has.

Shortly into the story of the first family, hatred between brothers is revealed as Cain kills Abel. 

The account of Noah is more than just a story about a large boat and animals. The destruction of humanity (except for Noah and his family) was due to the hatred and wickedness within the hearts of man. 

The human story continues with wars, attacks, jealousy, and hatred. The Scripture is replete with these accounts. Thankfully, Scripture also reveals the amazing love of God for those who, by nature, hate him.

So, hate is "normal." It's the factory default for humankind. Yet, it is not good. It is not acceptable. It is not excusable. It is not holy. 

Hate Is Historical

It does not take long to develop a list of heinous, hateful actions perpetrated throughout history. Globally, there are numerous accounts of terrible actions done against others. Sadly, in many cases, these have been done under the guise of religion or nationalism.

In our short history of the United States, we have more incidents than could be listed here.

Today, we face the reality of hateful actions perpetrated against seemingly innocent victims. In the case of the El Paso shooter, a manifesto has been found where he (Patrick Crusius) expresses his motivations and warped reasonings for driving hours from his home in Allen, Texas to the border-town of El Paso in order to murder and create mayhem in a local Walmart. His "manifesto" does little to provide insight as it presents little more than what has been stated for generations by those whose dark hearts see other image-bearers of God as enemies to be eradicated. 

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Photo: Mark Lambie/El Paso Times

Crusius's actions have been described as "white terrorism" and that is not an incorrect assumption. There are some who would claim the color of his skin to not be relevant (though this is often only an argument when the criminals are white), but the fact is that in this case and others (Charleston for example) the declared reasonings for the attacks have much to do with old fashioned, sinful white supremacy and self-declared racial superiority.

"It's never been this bad."

Yes. It has. It has been this bad for a very long time. It has been this bad in the USA. It has been this bad as evidenced...

  • When churches would segregate their gatherings so that the whites could worship in "unity" without having people of color in the room. it was bad. It was evil.
  • When self-proclaimed Christians would line up with those who peddled hate, it was bad. It was an abomination.
  • When self-righteousness and political power-mongering justified the devaluation of human beings as less than human (3/5ths of a human to be exact.)
  • When humanity was defined at beginning far after conception to enable the legal murder of unborn children.
  • When those who speak a different heart-language than English are denigrated as second-class.
  • When the elderly, ill, those with special needs, etc. are forgotten and deemed as burdens rather than image-bearers of God with value.
  • When churches have ignored the cries of victims of abuse in order to protect their brand.

...and more.

Hate is an equal opportunity offender. The "manifesto" from this killer seems to place him in contradictory and opposed camps so that all can be claimed, or disavowed, as the case may be. Pastor Bart Barber from Oklahoma stated it well in this tweet...

 

Hate Is Elevated

Perhaps it is not the worst it has ever been, but with the shrinking of the world through instant information via the internet and social media, polarization has seemingly increased.

Evangelical Christians are not immune to this polarization. This has become more evident than ever since the 2016 presidential election. Nevertheless, the polarization politically, ethically, morally, and communally did not begin then. It just seems more prominent. 

Of evangelicals with an opinion, 82 percent believe that since the 2016 presidential election, groups within the Christian church have become increasingly polarized on issues of politics. (Ed Stetzer, Christians in the Age of Outrage, p. 5)

You may say that the incidents in El Paso and Dayton are not political. I disagree. In the current culture, everything is political. Even the "manifesto" presented by the El Paso murderer references this.

The divisions among Christians were not created by a political win or loss. However, 73 percent of evangelicals believe that in the just the past few years, long standing divides hidden for years within "religious-speak" and "church-talk," have become more evident. (Christians in the Age of Outrage, p. 5.)

I believe that the current climate in our nation has not worked to quell the latent anger (often based on fear) among many, but has been used by the enemy to fuel the feelings of despair, frustration, and ire. 

People are being played. They are being manipulated and tempted by the same enemy of God who spoke first to Eve and offered the concept that God was holding out on his image-bearers and was not to be trusted. Individualism and self-defined "fairness" became a key to rebellion. 

Hate Is Healable

When I first read the news of the El Paso shootings, I was grieved. I knew it would not be long before "experts" began posting well thought out opinions on why this terror occurred. In many cases, they proffered fixes that were centered on legislation and political action. Then, statements regarding immigration, border walls, legal citizenship, etc. developed. These were often lead-ins to harsher opinions. Posts and statements turned south. The racial heritage of the victims and the Spanish-speaking, Hispanic, Latino culture was to blame for the attacks. Some even saw a justification for the acts based on certain beliefs related to race, laws, immigration, etc.

Before you begin posting responses understand that I am not writing this post with intent to enter into a discussion related to political parties, immigration laws, citizenship procedures, walls, or anything else that has been and remains as front-page fodder for those in Washington and beyond. I believe each of those subjects is legitimate and wish that level-headed, wise, humane, and constitutional conversations among lawmakers and influencers would occur (some have) and will lead to resolution.

This article centers on the very real hatred that was evidenced in the shooter in El Paso (and likely in the shooter in Dayton as well.) The shock of the attack hit hard. Being in a Walmart moved many Americans to realize "It could happen where I live."

It could.

I pray it won't ... wherever "here" is.

The ultimate answer for such depravity is not found in Washington DC. It is not found in any state assembly room. It is not found in protests, sit-ins, displays, or even by sharing thoughts online. It is not found in "sending our thoughts" to the families of victims. 

The answer is the same it has always been.

It certainly has been this bad before. It has been this bad since our perfect relationship with the Father was lost through sin in a garden.

The good news is that the answer and the healing for this hate, fear, emptiness, and lostness is the same God that we read about in Genesis. It is the good news, the gospel message, that Jesus Christ has come to redeem us. He took on all the sin, all the hate, all the evil in the history of humankind. He died...and so did the sin debt owed. He rose again. Through this glorious reality of resurrection, we can live too.

Church, we grieve with those who grieve. We lament the realities of evil in our world and the impact on the seemingly innocent. We sometimes throw up our arms and wonder where God is (the psalmist did this often, so we're in good company.) The answer we receive is the one we have known all along. God has not abandoned us. He is here. He is hope. He is the healer of the broken-hearted. 

In the midst of tragedies where evil seems to be winning, let's remain true to the calling which we have been given. Let us remember well that all is not lost. 

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 (ESV)


The Shaming of Purity and the Falling of Christian Leaders

In November 2018, I posted an article here regarding Joshua Harris and his renouncement of his best-selling book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. At that time, he was most widely known in conservative, evangelical circles as the former pastor of a prominent church who became a best-selling author in his twenties. His book spoke of the value of courtship, the wrongs of dating, and the importance of remaining sexually pure until entering into a biblically affirmed marriage. For those who did not grow up in church in the 1990s, this concept may seem foreign or at least what the Duggar family espouses on their once-popular reality show.

In Harris's retraction of his book, I found some interesting statements and some insights with which I agreed. Yet, I did not at any point believe the emphasis on sexual purity among Christians was, or is, wrong. I am not one who viewed "True Love Waits" as a legalistic step of the church built on fear. It likely was for some, based on how the concept was taught and presented.  Though "purity culture" may be trending now, I do not find where purity is something to be avoided or that the biblical teachings of such are wrong. I do not believe they were wrong in the 1990s. They are not wrong now. 

In addition to Harris's current stance, other authors such as Linda Kay Klein have made declarative statements regarding the evangelical culture of purity and "sex shaming" that grew to prominence in the 1990s. I have read Klein's book Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free. Klein is an excellent author and I really do appreciate much of what she expressed in her book. There were elements that resonated with me (a male pastor who served as a youth pastor during the 1990s and early 2000s) to be true to the culture and very insightful. There were helpful statements and perspectives that I had never considered.

Harris
Joshua Harris, author of "I Kissed Dating Goodbye"

Klein's book is insightful, yet it is likely that many evangelicals have never heard of her. If they have, I sense that her book would not be found in their libraries. I am not endorsing her book, but I did find the information and her perspective helpful (even where I disagree.) I do own the book and I did read it. I shared a number of insights from the book on Twitter and the author's responses were greatly appreciated. Perhaps this just shows that you do not have to agree with every author you read and that somehow, someway, even on Twitter, one can have a discussion where agreement may not be found, but mutual respect can be? That will be a subject for another article in the future. This one is about the purity culture and former Christians.

Purity Culture

So, what is meant by the now trending term "purity culture"? Joe Carter gives a good definition on The Gospel Coalition blog. Here's what he writes:

“Purity culture” is the term often used for the evangelical movement that attempts to promote a biblical view of purity (1 Thess. 4:3-8) by discouraging dating and promoting virginity before marriage, often through the use of tools such as purity pledges, symbols such as purity rings, and events such as purity balls. (Full article here.)

For those in their 30s and 40s, this may bring to mind "True Love Waits" rallies, signed pledge cards on display, ring ceremonies, and prom alternatives. Books such as Harris's were purchased in bulk by churches and given to students. While Harris's book was often given to boys (with the belief that teenage boys actually want to read a book about not dating) another book titled Lady in Waiting was given to girls. The girl-focused book was not nearly as popular, but presented the same themes of sexual purity, chastity until marriage, courtship, and fidelity within the confines of biblical marriage.

Why is Christian Sexual Purity Newsworthy Now?

One reason this seems to be trending is that a number of authors such as Klein have written on the subject from a perspective expressed previously in this article.

Another reason stems from what has been aired on  television series "The Bachelorette." This summer hit features a young woman named Hannah who declares herself to be a Christian while openly sharing of her sexual relationship with one of the game show's contestants. She stated in magazine articles and on television that her sexual activity is good and not in opposition to her Christian faith and others should stop "slut shaming" her. 

Finally, and most recently, has been the public statements and revealed actions and beliefs of one of the Christian purity culture's most known proponents, Joshua Harris. Following his renouncement of much of what he wrote in his bestselling book last year, he and his wife have publicly announced their pending divorce. Upon this announcement, some cynically stated "He has kissed marriage goodbye." Sadly, there is even more to the story. 

Just last week, Harris shared this on his Instagram account:

 
 
 
 
 
View this post on Instagram
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

My heart is full of gratitude. I wish you could see all the messages people sent me after the announcement of my divorce. They are expressions of love though they are saddened or even strongly disapprove of the decision.⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ I am learning that no group has the market cornered on grace. This week I’ve received grace from Christians, atheists, evangelicals, exvangelicals, straight people, LGBTQ people, and everyone in-between. Of course there have also been strong words of rebuke from religious people. While not always pleasant, I know they are seeking to love me. (There have also been spiteful, hateful comments that angered and hurt me.)⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ The information that was left out of our announcement is that I have undergone a massive shift in regard to my faith in Jesus. The popular phrase for this is “deconstruction,” the biblical phrase is “falling away.” By all the measurements that I have for defining a Christian, I am not a Christian. Many people tell me that there is a different way to practice faith and I want to remain open to this, but I’m not there now.⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ Martin Luther said that the entire life of believers should be repentance. There’s beauty in that sentiment regardless of your view of God. I have lived in repentance for the past several years—repenting of my self-righteousness, my fear-based approach to life, the teaching of my books, my views of women in the church, and my approach to parenting to name a few. But I specifically want to add to this list now: to the LGBTQ+ community, I want to say that I am sorry for the views that I taught in my books and as a pastor regarding sexuality. I regret standing against marriage equality, for not affirming you and your place in the church, and for any ways that my writing and speaking contributed to a culture of exclusion and bigotry. I hope you can forgive me.⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ To my Christians friends, I am grateful for your prayers. Don’t take it personally if I don’t immediately return calls. I can’t join in your mourning. I don’t view this moment negatively. I feel very much alive, and awake, and surprisingly hopeful. I believe with my sister Julian that, “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

A post shared by Joshua Harris (@harrisjosh) on

There is much in this posting that I find heartbreaking and troubling. Yes, I know some of you reading this will resonate more with what Harris has stated than what I am stating. I understand that. I get it. Nevertheless, I am still troubled at what has been called a "falling away" or even an apostate belief.

Harris's statement is not about the "purity culture" but because he is now newsworthy outside the Christian bubble, this just adds to the confusion regarding gospel clarity, holiness, biblical Christianity, and yes...purity.

The Fall of Celebrity Christians

People love putting others on pedestals. This is human nature. Celebrity culture is not new. It has been around for millennia. Most recently, it seems that this little bubble known as American Christian evangelicalism has excelled in creating celebrities. Those who have pastored large churches, grown immense followings, written many books, and influenced many seem to be falling quickly. Names that not so long ago were listed as influencers and godly models such as Driscoll, Tullian, MacDonald, Bell, Hatmaker, Patrick, Noble, and others have either fallen morally, lost their positions,  started believing they were above others, or simply abandoned orthodox Christianity. And the same believers who elevated them often celebrate their demise. 

I guess that is human nature.

And that's why we need Christ.

Every pastor I know can list church members who were at one time faithfully engaged and some even leading in ministry, only to disappear from the fellowship of the redeemed. In some cases, the reasons were similar to those listed above for the fallen celebrities. In other cases, they were simply forgotten as they began to disappear. They ended up in the "Whatever happened to _______" category. 

Joshua Harris does not desire my empathy. I do not know him. He has never heard of me. 

I know some who have read his books and listened to his teaching. They're angry now. They've thrown away his books. They no longer follow him on social media. They are distancing themselves from his influence.

Based on what he has most recently stated, this response is understandable. He has "kissed biblical Christianity goodbye." It leaves us with more questions than answers at times. 

Legalism Never Brings Life

To be clear, I believe in biblical holiness and that sexual purity is right and godly. I do not see this as anathema to true Christianity. Nevertheless, it is clear that for some the legalism that permeated and defined the presentation and practice of sexual purity harmed many. The harm was not physical, but spiritual in that the hope from the gospel was traded for the rules of church expectations that were little more than processes intent on behavior modification. 

Behavior modification does not save anyone. Just being better, acting nicer, doing good deeds, being moral, etc. will not redeem for they are not the gospel. 

David French wrote of this in National Review...

The indescribably good news is that from the moment of the confession of faith, believers are not defined by their sin. They’re not defined even by their own meager virtues. They’re defined by Christ. Moreover, they find that “for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” This does not by any stretch mean that past sin wasn’t sin — one of my best friends is an eleven-years-sober addict who did dreadful things during his worst days — but it does mean that their past now gives them a unique ability to reach suffering people. Their terrible stories and past pain have been redeemed, transformed into instruments of grace and mercy.

One of my first acts as youth pastor was to lift the ban on dating (a ban for teenagers in the youth group put in place by a previous youth minister.) Ending legalism is not the same thing as sanctioning sin, and I have no idea if there was more or less extramarital sex as a result of the dating ban or the purity rings. But it was incumbent upon me — in the limited time that I had in leadership — to tell the truth, and the truth was that legalism is its own kind of sin. To create burdens where Christ did not is an act of arrogance. It’s deeply harmful. And, sadly, it’s a way of life in all too many Christian churches.

Harris previously repented of his legalism. Yet, it seems the poison of legalism continues to poison. This impacts Harris and his family, but also other believers and non-believers now reading of his decisions.

I have prayed for Harris and his family. I have prayed for the others who have walked away, or have felt pushed away, from the church. Whether it be self-righteous celebrity culture or the overbearing weight of legalism, or perhaps something else, the facts are clear that the Enemy continues to seek to steal, kill, and destroy. 

Do not abandon the truth for a lie and allow cultural Christianity, civic Christianity, patriotic Christianity, therapeutic Christianity, legalistic Christianity, or any other false Christianity keep you from the Truth. 

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. 1 Peter 5:8-9 (ESV)


So That's Why They Asked That Question - Pastoring a Church Healing From Sexual Abuse

*(JUNE 21, 2019) EDITED BASED ON INFORMATION I DID NOT PREVIOUSLY KNOW. APPRECIATE THOSE WHO BROUGHT DETAILS TO MY ATTENTION.

THE INFORMATION IN THIS ARTICLE REFERENCES A STORY FROM OVER THIRTY YEARS AGO. THE STORY REFERENCED IS PART OF THE PUBLIC RECORD. THE PERPETRATOR WAS ARRESTED AND WENT TO PRISON. HOWEVER, THERE ARE MANY VICTIMS STILL SUFFERING FROM THE ABUSE SO NAMES ARE NOT USED IN THIS ARTICLE. 

______________

Twenty-five years ago I began serving as the youth pastor at our church. I had gone through the search process with the church. I was finishing up my final semester at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and was very excited about the possibility of being called to serve on a church staff, especially in a state I had never even visited prior. I had phone conversations with search committee members and the pastor. I was flown to the city to see the community, the church, and discuss possibilities of joining the staff. When the time came for the committee to present me to the church body, my wife joined me. We met with church members, students, and spent time in homes with key members and those involved in the youth ministry. 

I met with the church membership in an afternoon session where questions would be asked. I had tried to prepare myself for this portion of the interview, but with an open mic, there are often questions that seem to come from left field. I shared my personal testimony. I shared my philosophy of ministry. I then began to answer questions. 

One of the other staff members had previously warned me that I may get some questions related to sexual issues. 

Um...okay. I had not had a class at seminary where this type of questioning was covered. The staff member informed me that one or two church members had asked him some interesting questions like this when he was hired and that I should be prepared. 

"Okay," I thought. This must be normal.

The question was asked about our marriage. It was a question regarding intimacy in our marriage. I answered quickly, likely as my face reddened, and said something about "I love my wife and we have a new baby...so...yes, we know what intimacy is." 

Next question.

Fast forward a bit. The church voted. I was called to be the next youth pastor. I would go home to Texas, finish seminary, and following graduation move to Florida. 

I was loving the challenge of leading a youth ministry with more members than most churches I had ever attended. I was learning and seeking to lead well. I was setting up meetings with parents and reaching out to them. I told them "I am not a parent of a teenager. You are. You love your children more than I can and I want to help you as best I can. I will be your advocate and resource." 

It seemed biblical and right. This was part of the philosophy of youth ministry that I held. 

After a few months, one of the youth parents told me that he did not trust anyone with the title "pastor" or who held a seminary degree. I was surprised and felt this was going to be an awkward conversation. Then he said that after getting to know me and as he served as a leader in our ministry, he believed I was God's man for this role and that he was glad I was here. Whew!

It was a few months later and another, similar conversations occurred. I could not figure out what had led these people to distrust pastors and especially youth pastors. My predecessor was a good man. He was a godly leader, a faithful husband, father, and a seminary graduate. He was and continues to be a friend. Following a season serving at another church, he has come back to ours and remains a faithful member. I soon realized that he was not the one they distrusted. He was not the problem at all. This distrust went back years prior.

At one point after a short time into my service here, we were entering into a new building program payoff and fund-raising effort for newer facilities. We were tasked with visiting all the church members on the roll. (I don't recommend these visits, by the way.) I met some members of the church who hadn't attended in years, but being a Baptist church, their names were still listed on the roll. I don't remember the person's name, but I do remember the visit. He was cordial, but clear. He had an experience at our church - well, his child did - and he was not ready to come back (much less commit to a building program.) 

What Was Going On?

I eventually discovered the story. 

Back in the 1980s, while I was still in high school in Texas, the church here in Florida was growing and thriving. The youth group was huge and reaching many students at the local school. The leader was a charismatic (personality, not theologically) person who was able to reach and connect with students. There were ski trips and events and other things that drew in the students. They did not, however, do many events, camps or activities with other Baptist churches.

The church had a house in the parking lot that became the youth building. This was the norm for many churches doing youth ministry in the 1980s. 

Legs-in-jeans-and-canvas-shoes
Photo on Visualhunt.com

Then, the story broke. This sad, dark chapter in our church's history was made known. The secrets were discovered. Families were torn apart. Students were revealed to be victims. The one with the pastoral title was the victimizer. 

I won't go into details, but suffice to say that in an era prior to online searches, internet news stories, and instant information access, our church was facing a reality that had to be dealt with immediately and clearly. 

I was not here. No one on pastoral staff when I was called here in 1993 was here either. Most current church members were not here at that time. Those who were do not talk openly about it. 

Why Bring This Up?

As a pastor of a Southern Baptist Convention affiliated church, we are talking openly and clearly about the reality of sexual abuse in our churches. Our votes at our annual meeting last week in Birmingham will go down as an important first-step to bring transparency, clarity, justice for victimizers, and healing for victims of sexual abuse in the church.

In our little story of shame, it was revealed that at least two other Baptist churches discovered similar acts being done by this same staff person upon students in their fellowship when he served there. However, rather than calling the police, these churches did what so many others have done over the years. They released him from his duties and let him go to find work elsewhere. In other words, they passed the buck and washed their hands of the story, letting others deal with it. In their passive dealings with the issue, for whatever reasons given (protecting the name of the church, protecting the victims, the family of the victimizer, fear of lawsuits, etc.) they became complicit in the sins perpetrated upon other young people.

That's why I bring this up.

Last Sunday I preached on the role of the father. I mentioned that some fathers try really hard, but are not leading well in the home and therefore leave their children spiritually void or worse.

I then took a sidebar, so to speak, and briefly addressed those who have been abused by their fathers and others (even pastors.) I mentioned forgiveness to be biblical and needed. I also referenced Romans 8:1 which states that there is "no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus." I affirm that verse, as I do with all Scripture, but made clear that the verse does not state that there are no consequences for sin. 

That, I fear, has been the ignored reality for many churches and Christians when addressing physical and sexual abuse. 

At that moment, from the pulpit I stated to our congregation,

"For the victim, we want to help. We want you to feel safe. We desire to walk with you through the very painful and needed areas of healing. We're still trying to discover how best to do that."

Then I said,

"To the victimizer, we want you to know that Christ loves you too and that you need to repent and receive the forgiveness for your sins. We also want you to know that you need to go to jail. We want to make sure that happens." 

It was quiet at that point.

Now I Know

I know now why that question was asked in my interview twenty-five years ago. I was not here in the 1980s. I have brothers and sisters in Christ who were. God has brought great healing to our church. The police were called, but apparently not by our church leadership (and for that we were wrong), but by a parent of a child and another person in the community that had learned. It seems that the church leaders were focused much more on potential liability and harm to the brand (of the church) than for the healing of victims. This was a perception by some. Sadly, it may be the case in that many churches have shown this to be the initial (if not only ) focus. Thankfully, the truth was made known. Truth is always right.

The accused was convicted and went to prison. Sadly, I am pretty confident that our church did not provide the healing place needed for all the victims. 

I also believe, based on what I have heard from some, that it was not because we did not want to. It was because we did not know how to do so. I am not sure we know how now. What I do know is that those who were hurt still carry scars. Some have remained in the church (if not ours) and are faithfully serving the Lord. Some may have pushed these stories back so far in their history as to not have to deal with them. I apologize if this has reopened wounds you thought were healed.

For others ... well, I don't know. I fear there is a group of fifty-year-old wounded people out there who have abandoned the church because a wolf entered the sheep pen and did great harm. For those, I am deeply sorry and I pray you will receive the help and healing needed that only God can provide.

The Caring Church

Like many pastor friends of mine, I am not content with just offering lip service to an initiative that can be perceived as simply a reaction to news articles. I believe the issue of healing and hope for those victimized by sexual abuse is a gospel issue. That's one reason we have signed up for the Caring Well Challenge and encourage other churches to do so as well. That is not enough, I know. However, it is a start.

Rather than have a dark chapter that no one speaks of, perhaps we can learn from the past so as not to ever repeat it.


"The Reports of Our Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated" - Southern Baptist Convention

The oft-quoted phrase "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated" is attributed to Mark Twain. While actually a bit of a misquote from what Twain actually stated, the gist is correct. 

When it comes the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), it is no secret that statistically we (I am a Southern Baptist pastor) do not have the numbers of members, new converts, and attendees that we once did. Much has been written about this. One of the best was recently penned  by Dr. Albert Mohler (read it here.

Normally, the SBC becomes front-page fodder for the news media during our two-day annual meeting. 

We are meeting in Birmingham this week. The news media has produced stories and reports as they do annually. However, this year the focus has been on the state of the SBC and current challenges surrounding sex abuse by clergy and church leaders as revealed in an expose by Robert Downen of The Houston Chronicle. (I wrote of this in an article posted on February 12 here.) While some have lamented the publishing of the Downen article, the truth is that these reports needed to be revealed and stories of sinful actions by those who served in God's local churches needed to be exposed. Though painful, truth is right and Scripture affirms the reality that sin will be discovered when the light is shone.

Bad Southern Baptists

In addition to the issues revealed in The Houston Chronicle, other stories and issues began to appear in other venues.

As preparations for this year's gathering came closer, stories spinning in social media and other media outlets, blogs, postings, and other public venues made it seem, depending on what you read, that the SBC was harboring sex offenders, didn't care for abuse victims, hated women, hated each other, devalued the Lord's Day, was little more than a political puppet for the GOP, financially suspect, racist, social justice warriors, or the opposite of most every one of those.

If you look close enough, you may find a Southern Baptist that matches each of the descriptors above. I'm not defending that reality, but stating the obvious. 

However, there is a big difference between the online version of the SBC as seen in social media posts and blogs, and the actual face-to-face SBCers who worship together, meet together, and even debate one another in person as we are seeing this week. No, the SBC is not perfect. We have many chapters in our history. Some of those we wish did not exist. Nevertheless, they do, and to ignore the bad chapters leaves us to repeat them, or relive them in some ways. We pray never to find ourselves in a chapter that dishonors our Lord and will be regretted by our godly children and grandchildren.

No Rose-Colored Glasses

I do not have a set of rose-colored glasses. I am not an idealist. I sometimes do not see things others do, but just because I cannot or do not see those things does not mean those are not real. This is not a "your truth/my truth" thing. I reject that. This is just a clarification of perspective.

This means that I know there are some bad spots in our SBC that need to be corrected. There are systems in place that likely worked well decades ago, but need to be reworked. I'm not speaking of doctrine. I am thankful for the work done by God in the SBC through the Conservative Resurgence (NOTE: I appreciate the people who were instrumental in the resurgence, but must give the credit not to man, but God. He orchestrated the shift and empowered it. To him alone goes the glory.) I believe our Baptist Faith & Message (2000) is a solid confession of faith and belief. 

Nevertheless, we are an imperfect people seeking to serve our perfect God.

In our imperfection, we seek guidance, healing, and direction for next steps.

I believe the steps taken by SBC President J.D. Greear, our Executive Committee, our Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and the new teams and committees formed to address the sexual abuse issues among our member churches are the right steps. I do not envy the teams that had to work out the language used and the machinations needed to uphold church autonomy while refusing to hide behind that statement to keep from moving forward. The work done and presented this week to the messengers in attendance is godly, right, and needed.

However, it likely is not enough. We all know that. A statement does not heal a wound. A finely wordsmithed document does not fix the past. We know this. I believe we all (or at least most) know this. Yet, this is the right step for now. More steps will be taken in days to come. Prayerfully, healing will come for the hurting ones as well.

Is the SBC done for?

I don't believe so.

The decline is real.

The broken pieces are laid bare, and yet there is hope. Hope not in the repairing of a brand. Hope in the rescue of people from the grips of sin. Hope in Christ alone.

Today at the close of our afternoon session, our International Mission Board presented men and women who have committed their lives to serve the Lord on mission for the sake of the gospel. Single women and men are preparing to go serve those in other nations who have no one to tell them of Christ. Young couples are moving to areas that cannot even be mentioned for safety reasons. They're taking their small children, leaving grandparents and safe homes in subdivisions to go to the uttermost parts of the world. They are willingly going to attend language classes so they may best communicate the truth of the gospel. They want to be obedient and they are taking that step. One couple, recently retired from the mission field and back in the US have said "YES" once more to go overseas. So much for that calm retirement. 

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Photo by Todd Robertson

I was in tears as the testimonies were shared and the commissioning service continued. 

There is much going on throughout the SBC and if you only read tweets and posts, you may miss the real story.

I recognize, as some have tweeted, that the IMB has had their (well...our) own share of abuse issues. No excuses. Prayerfully, steps have been taken to ensure nothing happens like that again. If it ever does, then I pray that proper consequences come and proper care for the victim as well. I pray this is true not just for the IMB, but for all our agencies and especially our local churches. 

The SBC is a strange version of denomination. In a sense, it's not even really a denomination, but we use that word for lack of a better one for the masses. Just try to explain our autonomy and organizational structure to someone who did not grow up SBC or grew up in a mainline Protestant or Catholic church and you will see what I mean by strange.

Yet, in our strangeness, there is good, despite ourselves. The good of the SBC is not founded in the SBC, but in God alone. I believe that we do have great days ahead. I do believe that God is not finished with the SBC. I know he is not finished with his church. May we remain faithful to Him, and live out the greatest commandment to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and love others righteously and in holy manners so that they may know him as well.

The reports of the death of the SBC have been greatly exaggerated. But...this is not really about the SBC.

It is the Gospel...above all.


Why "Family-Equipping Discipleship" Is Needed Now More Than Ever (And Is Better Than What We Grew Up With)

Our church has been making the long shift from a family-based or programmatic ministry model to a family-equipping model over the past few years. It is difficult to understand why for man, but here is another reason... 
 
From Reggie Joiner and Carey Nieuwhof's book Parenting Beyond Your Capacity. (We give this to every parent during parent dedication services.)
 
Girl-wearing-canvas-shoes-and-sitting-on-rock
A dad was concerned as his daughter cooled toward the faith in her early teen years. She began to date a boy the dad described as "bad news," started to dress differently, and showed a general disdain for church. He confided to a pastor, "I just don't know what I am doing wrong! We have always been faithful at church, making it a priority. We've had her memorize the verses. We've sent her on the youth activities."
 
"What ministries is your family involved in?" replied the pastor. The father couldn't name any. "That might be your problem," said the pastor.
 
"The world is offering your daughter a more compelling story than you are. In the world she sees adventure and purpose. Here at church you have treated her as a receptacle of information."
 
The story goes on about how the father found a small orphanage in Central America that his family could adopt. It's a great story of living out the gospel, rather than simply gathering information about the gospel. It's also a good reminder that discipleship cannot be outsourced. It begins at home. 
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This story is shared in J.D. Greear's book Gaining by Losing.
 
For more on the family-equipping model, read this previous post on the "One-Eared Mickey Mouse" here.

As Southern Baptists, We Aren't Even Reaching and Keeping Our Own Kids

Numbers and statistics can be grueling. Just ask anyone (like me) who moved through two semesters of statistics in college and more in graduate work. The values are vital and helpful, but can become overwhelming. Also, apart from good statistical procedures and analysis, numbers can be misleading, if not totally wrong. That is why I read through articles as carefully as possible and seek to discover where the numbers were gathered, if there was a large enough sample to make the statements being made, and if the information is helpful or simply click-bait for more articles.

As a Southern Baptist pastor who has been leading our church toward a family equipping model of ministry, any story that speaks of losing the next generation always piques my interest. Based on information from the Annual Church Profiles (ACP) (viewable here) provided by participating Southern Baptists, a downward trend in certain areas of categorization continues. For those who are not Southern Baptist, it should be noted that the ACP is provided voluntarily by member churches. Not all churches submit the report and to be honest, not all reports submitted are accurate. A question may be asked to signify the number of attendees in worship weekly. If the church does not do a systematic count each week of people in the room, save those numbers, and then average them, most often the individual filling out the form will simply make an educated guess. The number may be close, but likely not accurate. 

Yet, when it comes to baptisms, the numbers are most often accurate. As Baptists, we count those baptisms. We really don't have a metric to count disciples (unless we simply count those attending classes, study groups, and serving on mission) so we count baptisms. Those numbers have gone down as well. The most troubling of the baptism numbers is not the downward trend, but that the only growing or consistent age bracket of baptisms is that of toddlers (five years old and younger) in our churches. For a denomination that affirms believers' baptism, the toddler baptism numbers reek of little more than pedobaptism. Likely, many of those young children who were led in a prayer will struggle with their faith later in life and hopefully will come to Christ at a later age and then truly be baptized biblically. Of course, that means we have one individual being baptized twice (it happens more than you think) and for our overall numbers, that's multiple baptisms of the same person over the course of time. 

You see why these statistics are a bit muddy?

Nevertheless, those numbers are troubling, but this headline from a recent article published by Christianity Today caught my eye.

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It sadly did not surprise me. Not only have I been pastoring for decades and have seen this, but I am also a parent of two adult children. Statistically speaking, in my own home, we have only seen fifty percent of our children remain faithful in the church.

Rather than repeat all the article states, you can either click the image above or here to read it in its entirety.

According to the data here, the numbers seem to give a good representation of the trend. Just looking across the congregation I pastor, knowing that many of the fifty and sixty-year-olds have adult children who were very active in children's and youth ministry programs years ago, it is hard to debate the veracity of the numbers. 

Simply put - an active youth group does not always lead to an engaged church of adults years later. 

Some, it must be noted, do move from Southern Baptist churches to non-denominational churches or those who align in different denominations. Those as well as the defectors are counted as the half that leave. The fact is this is a reality that Southern Baptists (and I'd say many other denominations) did not face forty or fifty years ago.

But, as they say, times have changed. The sad reality is the model of family ministry in many churches has not. 

The article draws me in, but the lamentations end as I see the call to equip families as disciple-makers as God's original plan for reaching, growing, and keeping the next generation (not just in one's local church, but in God's church wherever the zip code may be.)

Most often when statistics like this are seen, excuses are offered as to why things are the way they are. In local churches when empty pews awaken the aging congregation to the reality of the absent generation, they often seek to push more money, create new ministries, and a new hire of a minister to "fix the problem." We should know by now, that is not the answer. That has never been the answer. It's been done many times...and we are where we are.

It is this time of year when we recognize our next group of high school graduates in the church. It is a celebratory moment where families come together intentionally to honor their child. My challenge to these students will be that they not take the path previous graduates have in our church. I encourage, challenge, and plead that upon their graduation from high school they do not also seek to graduate from church. Many have in the past and our last memory of them gathered together with the covenant members of the church has been when they wore their cap and gown and stood on the stage to be recognized for their achievement. 

We are coming alongside parents to change that. I wish the church had done so this way when my child was younger.

I'll write more on our strategy of making and keeping disciples alongside parents of children and teenagers soon. 


Grieving For and Reaching the Lost Person in Your Family and Church

I recently purchased and just completed reading the new book by Pastor Dean Inserra (who, by the way, when I talk about his new book to people outside Florida or pastor's groups, am asked "Dean and Sarah who?" This is apparently common.) Dean is the founding pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Florida.

Unsaved christianHis book The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel has proven to be very popular among evangelical pastors and church members. This is due, in my opinion, to the fact that Dean has put to paper many of the thoughts and experiences that pastors and church leaders have faced over the past few decades. In some cases, the frustrations have left church leaders wondering what to do next. Dean's book is a primer for next steps of engaging and reaching the American Christian who has unknowingly traded (or never had) the true gospel for the accepted version in our culture.

Many people think they're Christians but have no concept of the severity of sin, necesity of repentance, message of grace, or the overall message of the gospel.1

The struggle is real and for any pastor who laments the latent lostness of church members and attenders, this book provides more than just details on the current state of Christianity in America, but steps for engaging gracefully and strategically with those in need of salvation. 

Over the past couple of decades, I have experienced just about every example of lost "saved" people evidenced in the book. Each evangelical pastor I know echoes this reality. It is heart-breaking, but also very difficult to address. For these reasons, I am thankful for Dean's concise explanations and descriptive steps for evangelizing those who think they're already saved.

This is a slippery slope for some, mainly due to the strategies used by some traveling evangelists over the years that sow seeds of doubt simply to gain presumed decisions at camps, crusades, and revival services. These same strategies have even been used on mission trips or Vacation Bible School to elicit "results." While the numbers of decisions may increase, the numbers of truly saved individuals does not. 

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Grieving Over Lostness

For the cultural Christian (that term refers to the one who is good by cultural worldview standards, may attend church a few times, probably a member of a church, is the neighbor you want, very nice and friendly...but not actually a Christian because he/she has never surrendered to Christ and been redeemed) lostness is not thought of much, if at all. Church is a place, not a people. Deeds are weighed highly. Political beliefs, tolerance, and good citizenship are viewed as the most desired characteristics. 

Yet, for the born again follower of Jesus Christ the lostness of friends and family members remains a constant burden and focus for prayer. To claim to be a Christian and care not for the lives of others is to sinfully ignore the Great Commission and greatest commandment.

It is this burden that motivates Christians to not simply sit idly by while others falsely hold to a "faith" that requires no faith at all. 

When Christians no longer grieve over the lostness of friends and family members, they no longer recognize the urgency of evangelism and of speaking truth. The teaching, falsely attributed to Augustine that states "preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words" has become a theme for those hoping their loved ones come to Christ, but ignoring the command to make disciples. J.D. Greear states it this way...

You cannot preach the gospel without words. The gospel is and explanation about an act that occurred in history once and for all. We testify through words that Jesus did for uw what we could never do for ourselves by living the life we should have lived and dying the death we should have died, in our place, so that others can believe the message and trust in it. Saying, "Preach the gospel; if necessary use words," is like me saying, "Tell me your phone number; if necessary, use digits." Apart from digits, there is no phone number. Apart from words, there is no gospel.2

May we never cease to grieve over the lostness of others. Once we stop grieving, we stop sharing.

Barriers to Truth

I'm convinced that most all evangelical pastors and believers believe in the necessity of salvation through Jesus Christ. In the evangelical world of what is termed conservative Christianity, the concept is loudly affirmed. Those who hold to biblical inerrancy and seek to have a biblical worldview get this.

Yet, we know that cultural Christianity exists. We know that family members, friends, and even some (not all) church members have never truly surrendered their lives to Christ. It's evident in their words, their stated beliefs, ignoring of sin, tolerance of wrong, and their elevation of deeds over faith. It is seen in the devotion to church only when it does not interfere with other events or activities. It is not new as some active members of the church are more committed to the Rotary, the Kiwanis Club, Lions Club, or their lodge than the community of faith. It is inferred or voiced in eulogies at funerals where universal salvation, and particularly the salvation of the recently deceased, is inferred if not clearly stated as the dead person is declared to be in a "better place." 

Well-intentioned Christian leaders desire to see change. They hope for transformation among their congregants. Pastors preach clarity. They refuse to apologize for calling sin what it is. In their desperation they are said to be entertaining at first, but eventually may be accused of being negative, angry, or lacking grace. Church members shift to another congregation to avoid the weekly diatribes. A seeking of positive-worded, deistic therapy is sought and many "churches" offer such.

The fear of offending often keeps Christians from sharing. The fear of losing members can keep good pastors from preaching the fullness of the Word.

When fear wins, people lose (or remain lost.)

When truth is compromised, lostness goes unaddressed.

Comparative Analysis 

Well-intentioned adults may actually live their entire lives believing they have everything in order. It may be because they repeated a prayer at one time, but never surrendered to the lordship of Christ in their lives. It may be because they vote a certain way, are faithful to their spouse, raise their children with good manners, provide financially for their family, and maybe give to charity regularly. All are good, but without Christ, they are worthless.

Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?" And then will I declare to them, "I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness." - Matthew 7:21-23 (ESV)

Sometimes the largest barrier to surrender to Christ becomes the religiosity of deeds that leaves our friends and family members doing comparative analysis with others. From any equation used, they likely are better people than others. However, compared to Christ, they fall short...just as all of us do.

They need a Savior. They need rescuing. They need redemption. That is only found in Christ. The surrender may be initiated through prayer. It likely will be, but it is more than just repeating words. 

May we never let fear keep us from sharing the truth. 

May we never presume that our loved one or friend is a child of God simply because they are better than the next person. To ask a believer if they are a Christian and have them tell you about their faith journey will not offend a true Christian. So...ask.

Then, be prepared to tell.

May we see a decline in the number of cultural Christians in our communities and an increase in children of God.

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    1Dean Inserra, The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2019), 12.

    2J.D. Greear, Gaining By Losing: Why the Future Belongs to Churches That Send (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 123.