Confessions (and Repentance) of An Unintentional Plagiarist

A number of years ago I began writing this blog. I wasn’t sure what blogging was and while blogging likely peaked in popularity on personal sites like mine a few years ago, I continue to post thoughts and insights, and sometimes frustrations, in forms of short articles here.

I continue to read quite a few from pastors and Christian leaders every week (even more during a pandemic, it seems.) While I seek not to live in an echo chamber, I do read from quite a few pastors and ministry leaders who have similar views as me on the state of the western church. I often have a notepad handy and as I read, I jot down points and thoughts that if I had heard shared in person would elicit an “Amen” from me or at least an “Uh-huh!”

I have often then written my own posts with similar themes and my take on the same issues. I tend to have a much smaller readership, so in many ways my posts are for my own sorting out of thoughts and ultimately become the weekly e-mailed newsletter articles we send to our church membership.

My Unoriginal Thoughts

Last Monday I shared a post on how the pandemic reveals much of what we think about church in America and west today. I used illustrations of church growth and expansion we have seen in our culture and my community over the past few decades under the banner of “church growth.” I had written about this prior as have many. I even wrote of the danger of becoming a “Lone Ranger” Christian as many of us have preached against. I felt the need to explain who the Lone Ranger was since the only recent depiction was poorly done in a movie starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer. Nevertheless, the isolationism of Christianity and elevation of consumerism were the foci.

8909660331_b6feed7ebb_c
Photo credit: Maik Meid on Visual hunt / CC BY-SA

Seeing many online postings about the growing boredom during the pandemic concerns me, so I also wrote about the “Bored Believers” whom we are seeking to lead as pastors.

The problem wasn’t the focus of the article.

The problem was that minutes after posting, I received a message from a Christian leader whom I respect and whose articles and books I read asking why I had basically copied his most recent article posted it as my own. I was shocked. First, that someone actually read my blog. Second, that this brother read my blog. (The original article is by Jared C. Wilson and is posted here.)

I was shocked. Then, shook.

My first reaction was “No way. I didn’t copy his article.”

I immediately clicked onto his article he had linked in the message.

I began reading his article and about halfway through, I began to feel a knot in my stomach as I realized that while I did not intentionally copy his article, it was so very similar (similar titles, three subheadings the same, similar concepts other than personal illustrations and an additional subheading with content) that if it had been submitted to a university or seminary it would not have passed the plagiarism smell test.

This brother’s article was one of many I had read over the weekend and while I thought initially, I was just sharing some challenging thoughts to my church and readership, I saw immediately that three of my four points were not my thoughts. They could not be. My title was basically the same relating to the concept of church and the pandemic.

(I have reread the previous paragraph and my response is “How can one accidentally copy someone else?” And…other than lazy note-taking and irresponsibility related to not linking original articles, which I often do when I share thoughts on my blog from others, there’s no good answer. No excuse.)

I contacted the brother through direct message and apologized. I am doing so again here publicly. I am thankful for the grace he has shown. I confess I tend to apologize over and over after being forgiven. I’m sorry for that, too.

Unintentional or Intentional, Sin Is Sin

Over the past few days since this exchange, I have been wrestling over even writing this. This article today may end up under the category “Too many apologies” and be viewed as weak by many. Yet, here it is. So, these are my thoughts.

Whether I intended to copy another’s intellectual property or not is not the issue. Whether a person intends to sin or not is not the issue. The point is that once a wrongdoing is exposed and revealed, we (well, in this case I) have a responsibility to respond. The response can be deflection, justification of acts, ignoring the hurt, pretending it’s no big deal, initiating some form of weak damage control, or by admitting wrongdoing and repenting.

Once I looked back at the original article and realized that I had read it earlier over the weekend, and compared it to the text of my article, I immediate deleted mine. It’s gone now. Two clicks on the mouse and there isn’t even a copy left in draft mode anywhere. I then shared the original article online.

Did My Actions and Words Fix Things?

Well, not for me. Not completely. Why? Well, because what's done was done. Ultimately because the issue of stealing intellectual property IS a big deal today. It bothers me when ideas are “borrowed” without credit. It is sinful to make money (or gain clicks online) from something that is claimed as original when it is clearly culmination of other’s thoughts. It bothers me because it is stealing. It is sin.

We all know the preacher joke that has been told for years:

  • The first time a story is used in a sermon the preacher says, “So-and-so once said…”
  • The next time that same story is used, the preacher says, “Someone once said…”
  • The next time, the preacher says, “It’s been said for years…”
  • Finally, the preacher says, “As I always say…”

It’s funny (I guess,) but it reveals that sometimes, even in preaching the gospel, in sharing good news, we can be guilty of intentionally or unintentionally gleaning (or just call it what it is – stealing) thoughts and illustrations from others. Now, most would say “That’s no big deal because the end result is what matters.” That is little more than the “end justifies the means” and that argument falls apart in an ethics analysis quickly.

Be Mindful

As many of my brothers will be now be preaching online this weekend and the weekends to come, I would say to go ahead and use illustrations others have used, quote commentaries you have studied, reference sermons from others that you have found helpful, but don’t claim originality. There really is nothing new under the sun, but we must be careful not to claim stories and examples that are not ours. Once integrity is lost, the potentially listening lost will walk away, wondering if the truth you share about Christ is true, or just another borrowed story.

Oh, and be careful if you are broadcasting your services online. Be sure you have the right, legal CCLI permissions to do so. It’s the right thing to do.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

I would say I have learned something this week, but I did not learn something new. I was simply and strongly reminded of something I have already learned. Something I learned in high school, in college, in seminary, and most recently in writing my doctoral project. Something that is inexcusable to not do.

Give credit where credit is due. There's a reason Kate Turabian is still a popular writer and continuing to update her book, even thirty plus years after her death. Credit matters, and while you may not be graded on the accuracy of the format of your footnotes in your own personal blog or articles, at least share where the original content was found, even if it isn't word-for-word. Unintentional plagiarism is still plagiarism.

Giving proper credit is the only right thing to do and will allow you to continue sharing honestly as a man or woman of integrity that which is most important.


How Today's Crisis Can Lead the Church To Go Viral Again

When we speak of things going viral, most often it is simply a term used to describe a trending news story or tweet. In fact, for the past few years, to get a story to go viral has been the goal of many.

Yet, now we think of viral in a more traditional way and. . . it's not comforting at all. It is especially not something we desire.

With all that is coming out (and changing daily, if not multiple times a day) regarding COVID-19, there is no one in our community unaffected. 

As I write this, the White House has just recommended no groups of more than ten to gather in public places. While this will negatively impact restaurants, grocery stores, and other businesses, the question are facing primarily is how this impacts the gathering of the church.

Virus

Bigger Is Not Necessarily Better

The church growth movement and the subsequent megachurch phenomenon has created a "bigger is always better" mindset among many American Christians. Don't get me wrong, there are some wonderful megachurches with thousands gathering weekly for worship. While the big crowds are perfect for promotional pieces and much energy is created in the worship gatherings, it is easier for an individual to attend and hide in the crowd, simply consuming the presented product rather than truly engaging as a covenant member of the body.

Most, if not all, large churches know that connection is vital and strategically create and promote small groups and community groups for members so that hopefully no one is lost in the crowd. Yet, it still happens. It happens in small churches as well.

Getting Smaller

Years ago during the growth of Rick Warren's Purpose-Driven Church model, he would say that the church must grow larger (because it is a living organism) while simultaneously grow smaller. The emphasis was on the inter-connectedness in smaller groups that provide healthy relationships. 

Now, our church, like many others, have decided to cancel large group gatherings such as worship and even Life Groups (i.e. Sunday school) in order to provide healthy "social distancing" until the coronavirus has run its course.

While some balk at the idea of doing so as simply not trusting God and being fearful (I'll write about this later) others are thankful for their pastors taking the lead and doing so. It's viewed as a practical way to "love one's neighbor." 

Online Fills the Gap

We are offering our services online each Sunday. Next week I will be preaching to an empty worship center with only our worship team and our production team in the building. To be honest, it's not easy preaching to a camera. Yet, this is best at this time and I am thankful for the technology that allows this to happen.

Streaming Is Not Just for Large Churches

While online church is not the best option, it is better than not gathering at all...by a long shot. This is why we offer this. The good news is that regardless your church's size, if you have a facility to film in, even if it's the pastor's living room, with a smart phone, a Facebook or YouTube account, and someone to hit "start" on the phone, anyone can stream live. This isn't just for large churches.

Other Considerations - A Silver Lining

As our church staff met today, we are brainstorming some other ideas for the weeks ahead. These may be things you and your church could consider. Again, these are just ideas. We have not fleshed them all out just yet:

  • Recording preschool and children's teachers teaching Sunday School then posting on the website and social media so families with children at home can "take them to their class" too.
  • Providing PDF pages and links to videos for parents to lead children through during the week.
  • Offering some interactive games and learning options for what we could call in Sunday School lingo as "closed groups" using Zoom. This video conference software works on Android, Apple, and computers and allows for interactivity. The free account allows for up to 100 to join for forty minutes. 
  • We are looking at some large group (Sunday School ling0 = "open groups") teaching for different age groups via Facebook Live. This could be done on YouTube streaming as well.
  • We are trying to find ways to connect with our church family who are in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. This can be through phone calls, cards, and even FaceTime if staff can help. One wife of a man who is in a rehab center says he has a room with a window, so she's going to sit outside his window and call him. This is good for daytime and I would let staff know - otherwise "Peeping Tom Church" will trend and that's not what we want.
  • We have even thought of those in our church who do not have the technological acumen or devices to stream our services. What if a couple of family took their smartphone over to a fellow member without access and watched the service together? This would be a great intergenerational opportunity. Of course, still washing hands and ensuring all are as safely distanced as possible.

The church will prevail, but the calendar will change. We've been trying to clear our calendar for years and now, for the next few weeks, it's blank. This is a great opportunity.

What if God is using this to lead his church to rise up and see the value of the individual even more than before. The "one anothers" really mean more now when one is somewhat isolated from others. Let's not fear. Let's not react. Let's respond well and serve our community in the name of Jesus Christ. While the world fears, we have the answer. 

For generations Christian leaders have rightly told church members that they were not saved to sit. Now, we have a few weeks to sit, but sitting and staying in our homes does not mean we have permission to be unegaged and ignore the mandate of the gospel.

Just because we are not in the same physical room together, we must remember that we, the church ARE together.

I'm praying that our ministry and efforts to fulfill the Great Commission and Great Commandment will go viral in our communities again as we ask the question "How do we do church...or better yet, how can we be His church best during these days?"


Live In Such A Way Other Christians Don't Have To Apologize For You

The respectful Christian is an obedient Christian. 

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Romans 12:14-18 (ESV)

As I read this passage of Scripture today I am reminded of the context in which it was written. Persecution of Christians at this time was not simply an emotional stressor. Lives were at stake. Prison stays and beatings were not only a possibility, but a likelihood. To be a Christian in the first century who could truly bless one's persecutors would be impossible apart from God's love and his indwelling Spirit.

The same is true today.

Lightstock_410927_medium_david_tarkington

The passage in Romans does not affirm a milquetoast, watered-down life of faith. Boldness of faith and blessing of persecutors are not at odds.

Though Christians today likely will "amen" these and other Bible passages, the challenge, especially in the twenty-first century west, is to understand what blessing others truly means. Blessing, honoring, and respecting others seem mostly synonymous in these commands.

Showing respect to those with differing opinions, lifestyles, cultural backgrounds, and even political leanings appears to not only be rare, but perhaps a lost art for many claiming the name of Christ. 

This is not a practice of calling evil good or good evil (see Isaiah 5:20.) This is about being obedient to show respect and honor to others, despite our differences. Respect and honor of people are not synonymous of agreeing with unbiblical beliefs. It is more about acknowledgement of people being God's image-bearers and the value of respect.

Elliot Clark writes in his excellent book Evangelism as Exiles...

Clearly this is not how we typically treat our opponents. Yet this is the kind of gentle respect and dignity we should display to all rulers and authorities, all races and religions, all classes and persuasions, showing due honor to fellow image-bearers. And this shouldn't be that hard. For if we struggle now to do this with a transgender neighbor or a coworker from Saudi Arabia, how are we going to be gracious and bless those who overtly persecute us one day?1

Christian pastors, theologians, and leaders acknowledge the growing secularity in America and the west. Cultural norms have shifted dramatically in a very short time. 

Now, more than ever, we must live as "salt and light" in the communities and areas God has placed us. 

Clark continues in his book with this insight related to how the church is viewed in the west...

Our secular society is increasingly suspicious of religion. Christians are no longer part of the solution; we're the problem. Pastors aren't trustworthy. Churches are suspect. Bible-believers are bigots. Thus the days of attractional evangelism are waning. The times of relying on the gravitational pull of our social standing to bring people into church, a Christian camp, or a revival meeting are all but gone. The time is coming, and is here now, when the world won't listen to our gospel simply because they respect us.

However, they might listen if we respect them.2

As we seek to engage our neighbors, our friends, our coworkers, and even our enemies with the message of the gospel, perhaps if we take to heart Paul's Holy Spirit-inspired words to bless those who persecute us (and even before they persecute us) we will discover that God is honored most of all.

Apologizing For and Excusing Other Believers

It gets tiring having to apologize for Christian brothers and sisters who spend more time ranting about those who offend them, bother them, live lives categorized as "beneath" them, and complain about those who vote differently than they do (these rants are most often seen on social media in a strange attempt to sway other's behaviors through negativity) to my friends and those I seek to bless and ultimately share the gospel. 

It is even more challenging to excuse evangelicals holding a temporary celebrity status when they appear on the news or at public venues seemingly speaking for all Christians in America. Yet, we press on. We have to take the time to state clearly that while it seems to some that the gospel is little more than a political platform statement, it is not. So we explain this to our friends, neighbors, and potential brothers and sisters. Why? Because the message of the gospel is too vital to ignore. The life-saving gospel is too valuable to exchange it for a temporal affirmations from an echo chamber.

It is not that I or any other believer must apologize for the broad spectrum of things said and done throughout the ages by those who claim to be Christians, but truly are not. It is more of stating something such as “I’m sorry that is how you have been presented Christ. Please let me show you in his Word who he is and what the gospel truly is.” These types of conversations do not often happen in one-shot moments, but over a period of conversations with other image-bearers who believe differently. Blessing, honor, and respect is not found in shouting at others, leaving tracts instead of money as your tips at restaurants, simply putting a chrome fish on the back of your car, or perhaps a sticker that let's others know you love Jesus so much you get angry if people do not say "Merry Christmas."

I don't claim to be "above" these brothers and sisters. I am certain others have had to apologize for statements I have made and actions I have done. This is to my shame. Though imperfect, I seek to not bring shame to the gospel and to my fellow believers. I desire for God to approve of my thoughts and actions and to live a life on the narrowness of God's truth in such a way that his love shines through. If I have to be excused, then I pray it is because I come across as loving and caring while simultaneously narrow-minded (meaning that I will always hold to the biblical teaching that Christ is the only way to salvation.)

"To honor others is to have a genuine care and concern for them. So this is what we must do–even for those who have no concern for us." - Elliot Clark

____________

        1Elliot Clark, Evangelism As Exiles: Life On Mission As Strangers In Our Own Land. (The Gospel Coalition, 2019), 80.

         2Clark, 81.

 


The Potential Church Member May Struggle with Your Membership Process

As a lifelong Baptist who grew up in a family that moved every few years due to my father's military service, I have been part of a number of Baptist churches. For the most part, during the 1970s and 1980s, the churches we joined were pretty much carbon copies of each other. Each used the same Sunday School curriculum, handed out identical bulletins, sung from the same version of the Baptist Hymnal, had the same schedule (Sunday School at 9:45am and Worship at 11am with Sunday evening and Wednesday evening events too,) and for many, the layout of the facilities were exactly the same. This was not unheard of in Southern Baptist life in that most of our material was published by LifeWay (née Baptist Sunday School Board) and the blueprints used for building were provided by the denomination. Finding sameness was comfortable and allowed for an ease of joining a new church upon relocation.

The membership process in each church was similar, too. This is from memory and I was a child for most of these moves, but it seems that joining a church was pretty simple. Here's the process as I remember it:

  1. You attend a service
  2. Walk down the aisle during the invitation hymn
  3. Tell the pastor you want to join the church
  4. The pastor would ask if you were a Christian and if you were a member of another Baptist church.
  5. If the answers were "yes" then the new church would contact the former and "send for your letter."
  6. If the potential new member was not yet a Christian or baptized, those very important discussions were held and membership was complete upon baptism.
  7. Then there was the moment when you and your family were brought up before the church  (normally about five minutes after you walked down the aisle)
  8. The pastor would present you to the congregation and a brief business meeting took place. It went something like this: "This family wants to unite with our church. We're so excited about this. All in favor say 'Amen!'"
  9. The congregation would say "Amen."
  10. The pastor would ask if anyone thought otherwise, but most often there were no "nay" votes.

It was that easy. Boom! You're a church member.

I am sure it was not like this everywhere, but in most of the smaller churches our family attended it seemed to work this way. It could be that the church was so excited to have a young family join that they just "amened" us in before risking losing us.

Easy Membership Leads to Difficulty

As I think back I wonder if anyone at these churches ever had doctrinal discussions with my parents prior to joining? I'm sure there were some conversations, but as I stated, I was a child so I was not in those meetings.

I know my parents listened to a few sermons to determine whether or not the pastor stayed true to Scripture. I am confident that some of the things that led to joining certain churches had to do with how welcoming the people were, the opportunities for personal growth, and whether or not the children's ministry was of good quality.

Not much has changed regarding families and potential church membership today.

However, in those cases where membership is rushed, conversations do not take place, testimonies are not shared, and the potential for creating members while sacrificing the call to make disciples occurs.

Membership Classes and Covenants

When our church first instituted new members classes, most people understood the reasoning. However, some were adamant that it was unnecessary, wrong, and even "un-Baptist." Once we explained the reasonings (doctrinal clarification, salvation assurance, ordinance explanations, and clarifying member expectations) for the class, many agreed that it was needed and helpful.

Some, however, still did not like it. 

The Concept of Covenant Membership

One of the biggest pushbacks was from those who refused to sign or agree to covenant with other members. Some had previously been members of churches that were...well, toxic. Those who had gone through difficulties at other churches (or our own in the past) struggled with trusting leaders and seeing the value of committing (or covenanting as we stated) with others in the church for fear of being hurt.

I understand that fear.

Regardless how others may have soiled the concept of covenant membership, the affirmations of being one in Christ and being responsible to one another resonate throughout the New Testament. Therefore, it is biblical to be in an honest, gospel-centric, covenant relationship with other brothers and sisters in Christ as a local church.

I do know some who struggle with this due to experiences that involve abuse of power, and in some cases, traumatic sinful actions made by those who used the "covenant" terminology in unbiblical and selfish ways. I am not speaking of such instances. I do not minimize those as they are very real and impactful. That is just a subject for another article.

For the purpose of this article, I am speaking of healthy churches, led by biblically-sound, godly leaders who submit to the lordship of Christ. Healthy churches include covenant members who are redeemed by Christ, accountable to the Lord and one another, and serve well together, selflessly for God's glory alone and their own good.

Opposition to Membership Classes

Over the years, I have heard numerous reasons why potential members balk at the concept of required new members' classes.

The most common is:

I have been a member of many Baptist churches and never had to take a class before. I should not have to do so here.

Other opposition tends to fall from this train of thought. This response and similar ones come from those who have been members of other Baptist churches for years. In their mind the "send for my letter" model described above is all that should be required. A class seems like legalism to them. I heard one state that it seemed "cultish." That was a shock to me.

Truth be told, the process could become legalistic. I am sure it has at certain places.  I am not for creating extra-biblical hoops for people to jump through to become part of the body

I do value the one-on-one conversations with brothers and sisters who seek to become members. In most cases, the personal connections are needed and helpful. They are helpful for the potential members to understand who we are as a local church, how we seek to fulfill God's great commission, and how they can join in this journey of faith with us.

It is beneficial when it is determined that a person wants to join the church but has never joined God's family. Just because a person has a long tenure as a church member elsewhere does not mean that they are born again children of God. If this church attender is not a believer we gain a clear opportunity to present the gospel, answer questions, and follow the Holy Spirit's lead.

That's not legalism. That's loving.

Membership Interviews

We are now at the point of adding membership interviews into our new member process. Again, this is not to create another hoop, but to help brothers and sisters unite with our church well. These interviews will be led by pastors and ministry leaders on our staff during membership classes. They are individual conversations that may take place in a large room during a time of sharing a meal together. 

What will happen in the interviews?

We will share who we are a a church and describe doctrinal distinctions of our fellowship. This will be a time of clarifying what we believe about the ordinances of the church, structure of our church, the vision and mission of our church and expanded ministries, and answer questions regarding such. The potential member will have the opportunity to share his/her personal story of how he/she came to know Christ as Lord. This personal testimony time is a key moment in that many believers are never challenged to share. During this time, key elements of one's personal story will be given to help them focus on the gracious love of God and how he rescued them. 

For those brothers and sisters who come from other churches that view baptism differently, we will have an opportunity to discuss our understanding of the ordinance clearly.

Expectations of a member will be also presented.

Additionally the expectations a member should have from his/her church will be presented.

If church membership is the next step, we move forward. If there are barriers to work through, we can prayerfully and carefully do so. It may be that we ask the candidate for membership if he/she would be open to meeting with a current church member (same gender) for a season of study to help answer some questions that may arise. There are other things that may come up, but the goal is not just to get another name on a membership roll or check off another box, but to seek God as we grow in number possibly, but most importantly, as we make disciples. 

I am sure that some will balk at the "interview" process simply because it sounds more business-oriented than church-oriented. Perhaps there's a better term. I am not sure what a better term would be, but I am certain that such conversations will not only be helpful for the individuals but beneficial for the church.

Membership requires relationships. Primarily with Christ. Secondarily with his children. We cannot do life together if we do not know one another. 

You Want to Join Our Church?

So, you want to join our church? Great. Let's talk about it. Maybe over dinner?

It sure beats having you coming down an aisle and being paraded in front of a bunch of people you don't know yet so they can "Amen" you into the family.


The Awkward Encounter with a Former Church Member

Every local church has members who decide for one reason or another to leave the fellowship. The reasons people have for leaving are varied. Some reasons are godly and prayerfully considered. Some are selfish and consumeristic. Some leave angrily and/or hurt. Others may be transferred to another city by their employer and therefore, change churches. Oh, and some leave because the church they attend is toxic, the preaching is not biblical, and compromises in doctrinal fidelity have occurred. There are more reasons, I'm sure, but you get the point.

In a community like mine, there are dozens of local church options. This has increased over the past twenty years as the community has grown, more schools have been built, and traffic patterns have changed.

Therefore, the inevitable has occurred. Our church may actually have more former church members/attenders in our community that current ones. 

We have had people leave our church for every reason listed above (well, except the one about the abandonment of good doctrine on our part, at least from my perspective.) Since I have lived here for over twenty-six years, I run into many brothers and sisters who are in the "former member" category. These encounters take place in restaurants, grocery stores, school events, and elsewhere.

6277857364_9bc20f61f3_b
Photo credit: Indiana Stan on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC

For those who didn't leave angrily or hurt, the meetings are cordial and very nice. Often there's a bit of catching up because I just don't see them as much and am not aware of the latest details in their lives. 

However, there are times when the encounter is . . . interesting.

There are some who angrily left our fellowship. Some disagreed with my teaching or doctrine. To some I am too conservative. To others I am too liberal. One was angry I was not more political from the pulpit (He found a church that tends to wrap the cross in the flag, so he's happier now.) I know some who were just turned off by my personality (I really can't blame them.) Others felt I did not minister to them as a pastor should. They're probably right, to be honest.

So what do I do?

I smile. Ask how they're doing. Sometimes force them to shake my hand and wish them well. In most cases they're going to other churches and I'm comforted to know that.

A few weeks ago I saw a brother in the grocery store. I asked how he was doing. I hadn't seen him at church in a while, but I did not ask about his attendance. I was not setting him up. I was not intending to make it awkward. The encounter wasn't awkward from my perspective. I noticed he was nervous. Then, he said, "Well, my wife and I are now attending [such-and such church, a new church in our area]." He named the church. I smiled. I know the church. It's the latest good church to pop up. While I am certain he is attending there, he said the name of the church incorrectly. I knew which one he was talking about and really wanted to say "Well, if you're going to the church, you should know the name of the church," but I didn't. It didn't matter. He was apologetic in how he spoke, but I stated quickly "That's a great church. I'm so glad you're connected and involved. Stay there. Be a member. Stay committed." He smiled and I went to get my gallon of milk.

Awkward, but not bad.

Membership Matters

Like most churches, we keep a membership roll as up-to-date as possible in order to know our members, where they live, track their attendance and service, and help understand next steps for discipleship. 

Like many, we have names on the roll of people who never attend, haven't attended in years, and are likely members of other churches. We really need to deal with that.

I believe church membership is biblical and matters. I won't get into the details of the biblical justification of such, but recommend the book Church Membership by Jonathan Leeman on the subject. You can purchase a copy here.

Leeman makes this statement in the book (page 22):

If you are a Christian living in a Western democracy, chances are that you need to change the way you think about your church and how you are connected to it. Most likely, you underestimate your church. You belittle it. You misshape it in a way that misshapes your Christianity.

That's a harsh statement for some, but the truth is there. In America especially, the heightened individualization of our faith leaves the faithfulness to brothers and sisters in the local body somewhere on the back burner (if on the proverbial stove at all.) 

Leeman continues:

If you are a Christian, the local church is not a club. It is not a voluntary organization where membership is optional for you. It is not a friendly group of people who share an interest in religious things and so gather weekly to talk about the divine. Nor is a church a service provider, where the customer has all authority.

The church is God-ordained and the fellowship of believers is needed. It is needed for each believer and for glorifying the Father. 

My Responsibility to "My" Church

How I interact with former members varies depending on the former member. This is a reality for all relationships. How a brother or sister in a local church interacts with those who used to be in their church changes when they leave. This is inevitable. 

The universal church is biblical. However, the local church body is as well. These are not the same, yet both are needed. 

As a pastor I have a responsibility to God and my church to the members of my church. (I say my church here just to distinguish it as different from other local bodies. I know it is not my church, but God's.) 

I do not have that same pastoral responsibility to brothers and sisters in the universal church.

In the local church, there is a covenant relationship between members. In some ways this relationship is like the "I do" stated at a wedding. Church membership is about the church taking the biblical responsibility for its members and for each member taking responsibility for the church.

Whether you meet in a church building, a home, a school, a YMCA, or other venue, the local body of the church is where membership is held. This is because it is within the local body that accountability, discipline, discipleship, worship, the partaking of the Lord's Supper, and other needful things occur. 

Back To The Awkward Encounter

My encounters with former members are not always awkward. In most cases, the awkwardness does not resonate from me (at least not intentionally) because I no longer have the oversight/shepherding responsibility for that brother or sister. I won't need to offer them counseling. I won't officiate their wedding or speak at their funeral. I won't take them on mission trips or start a Bible study with them. Of course, I am speaking of the one now attending and a member of another local body.

For the stray sheep out there, going nowhere, seeking God, but simultaneously running from him, I pray and will continue to follow the Holy Spirit's lead of drawing him/her back into the fold.

In most cases however, it's not about getting the distant sheep back into the fold, it is about getting the lost saved.

The Awkwardness Will Likely Continue

The state of American evangelicalism means that these encounters by Christians in suburban and fast-growing areas will continue. People will join your church. They will leave and join another. Some will join who have more church memberships from local churches than Tom Brady has Super Bowl rings. Sadly, this is just how it is. While I lament when a brother or sister leaves our church, especially if it is due to sin on my part or theirs, I trust God that he will place them where they can serve and be shepherded well. 

Pastors, be encouraged in this. The awkward meetings are very real, especially in the west. It will not always be this way. It is not this way on my global mission fields. Be thankful there are others seeking to honor God and new churches are being planted. Shepherd the flock God has given you. Lead your church to seek and save the lost, not the already saved who attend elsewhere.

As for loving your brothers and sisters, regardless where they attend weekly for worship, there is no pass. Love God and love others. This is non-negotiable, whether they attend your church, another church, or no church.

And if you have the awkward encounter, smile, offer a handshake, say a brief prayer and go get your gallon of milk.


7 Things the Church Planter You're Supporting Wants to Tell You

The expansion of churches and gospel ministries is an outgrowth of the Great Commission and in our nation today (and elsewhere) planting new churches in areas of increased population density where few, if any, gospel churches exist seems to be effective in reaching people well. 

Over the years, our church has partnered with planters in Portland, OR, Toronto, ON, Orlando, FL, Tucson, AZ, Washington, DC, Colorado Springs, CO, and more. 

I am currently in conversation with another young man who is planning to move with his wife and children to a densely populated metropolitan area next year. I get excited hearing about his call, his plans, and the anticipation of this new work.

There are numerous books, blogs, videos, and articles written with the church planter and his family in mind. These offer insights, growth and health strategies, and numerous other elements that are helpful and vital for new works. 

Planters

That's not what this post is about. I'm writing to the pastors and church leaders of established churches who are designated as sending or supporting churches. 

A number of years ago at one our denomination's national "Send Conferences" I was asked by one of our "Send City" teams to share in a breakout session with other pastors. I was asked to speak to them, pastor-to-pastor, and share some of the things we had talked about on a vision trip prior. Basically, I was asked to tell pastors things they wish they could, but fear would negatively impact their support.

You see, these planters are so very grateful for the support and sponsorship of legacy church pastors and churches, but sometimes the "help" offered is not the help needed...and they just cannot find a nice way to say it.

So I said it.

And, it bears repeating.

In no particular order, here are seven things your very appreciative church planter would like you to know (probably.)

1. Don't send your youth choir, puppet team, drama team, handbell team, sign language performance team, dance team, etc.

Okay, this is a pretty broad statement and there may be exceptions. One exception (and it may the only one) is if the church planter actually requests such team. For example, we know certain areas in Europe where choirs from America are welcomed and public performances are ways to celebrate the arts well. In this case, the choir may be a good thing (if the choir is a good choir.) However, most of our urban-area church planters have no such venue, opportunity, or place where a choir, drama team, etc. would be a benefit.

Just because your group has traditionally been received well in your church and community does not mean that in an unchurched community such would be welcomed or helpful. 

2. Don't arrive in the city with your "way to do church or ministry" expecting the planter to do it your way.

There is such a thing as contextual mission and for the planter embedded in the city, building relationships, and planting a church centered on the gospel for that region, the way to do ministry may be different than how the visiting team does church. In fact, it likely is. 

What works in a church with decades of history may be counter-productive in a new work. What works in rural Alabama likely will have to look differently in downtown Philadelphia. This is not a statement regarding the gospel, biblical truth, or doctrinal authenticity. This is related solely to how these elements come together for the church in the community God has planted it.

No one likes the expert who knows how to do everything ... but really doesn't.

3. Don't let another agenda overshadow God's.

For example, if your primarily politically conservative, MAGA-hat wearing church members arrive in the city center that is known to be politically liberal and not supportive of the same political party or political leaders, and the city’s residents first encounter with your team members leads them to believe you are promoting a political agenda (you can swap conservative and liberal depending on where you are from and going,) immediate barriers to gospel conversations will be raised and may impact future conversations. This is not to say that any Christian cannot have strongly held political beliefs (just about every person does.) However, the mission is bigger than convincing someone you have never met to vote the way you do.

Maybe it's not political. It may be as simple as not wearing a Dallas Cowboys t-shirt in New York? Sounds silly and kind of ridiculous. You can cheer for whomever you want, but if your church planter is connecting with a New York Giants fan-base in a specific region of the city, your blue star may just shut down a conversation it took him weeks to begin.

For southern, college football fans, it would be like wearing an Auburn shirt on a mission trip to Tuscaloosa. For our midwestern brothers and sisters, it would be akin to wearing a Wolverines sweatshirt in Columbus, Ohio. You see the problem?

How would you know what fits in this category? Talk to your church planter. Listen to him. He likely has figured out much of this already. Don't ignore his insight.

Keep the main thing the main thing.

4. Don't overpromise and underdeliver.

This is the one I am so tempted to do. I want to offer our planters EVERYTHING they need. I desire to do this, but I cannot offer them funds I do not have, resources that do not exist, or help that will not arrive. 

When a promise is made, the planter believes it to be true, as he should. Yet, so many churches have promised things that either just were impossible to fulfill, or due to supporting church dynamics, were simply pastoral desires and not church desires.

5. Don't expect me to plan your mission trip and be your tour guide.

Please don't be offended, but while these planters need your support, your teams, your finances, and prayers, remember that they live in the mission field. They are not tour guides (though they will often give you a tour of their city) and are not vacation planners (I know, you're on a mission trip, not a vacation.) 

Every city we visit has incredible sites and wonderful places to visit. Often, we will add a day of touring for our teams just so they can get a good feel for the city or region. In fact, when we go to Toronto, we'll take an extra day to visit Niagara Falls. When in Portland, we may go to Mount Hood. I see nothing wrong with any of that, but we must not expect the planter to create our agenda for touring on our "extra" day.

As for the work being done during the trip, that is a bit different. Groups or individuals who go to serve, do so at the behest of the planter. Therefore, he will have some things in mind where the help of other people is advantageous. 

Yet, in most cases, the work of the church is long-term. Therefore, no rally/crusade/event/etc. is likely to be planned by the planter for the visiting mission team to pull off. There are cases where this may happen, but most often...no. 

Our people visiting our planters go there to serve him, his spouse, and his family. Whatever they need, we are there to provide. At times, it may seem like we're not doing much, but the ministry of presence is valuable and viable. It counts. If your church needs a "report" of how many "souls were saved" from every trip, you may find yourself frustrated at the very healthy and helpful trip your church planter requested and provided.

6. Don't mess up what we've built.

No one desires to mess up another's ministry. Yet, there are times when a well-meaning mission team arrives in a church planter's city and the conversations at the coffee shop, the activities done, the "ministry" provided actually did more harm than good.

These planters are not just visiting the city for a season. They actually call this city home. It is home. They're building community. They're meeting their neighbors. They have friends. They have new brothers and sisters in Christ and many who they pray will be. They are on a long-term mission and sometimes (unintentionally) the short-term team can actually cause the process of ministry in the city to step backward, rather than forward.

Be careful and again...talk to your planter. Help him and his family serve his city in the name of Jesus Christ. Oh, and doing so may mean doing so in a voice not quite as loud as it is at home (we tend to be loud) and absent of Christianese and "Jesus clichés." Stereotypes of evangelicals and Baptists especially are real. Don't add fuel to them.

7. Don't forget us.

When a planter first goes on the field, it's nerve-wracking and exciting. There's fear and joy about a new work. The sending and supporting churches tend to have very intentional emphases for them initially. Then, it happens.

A few weeks or months into the plant, there's been no communication with the supporting churches. Friends at the former church are still friends, but only through Facebook now. The pages on the calendar have flipped and while life is moving ahead in the new, frighteningly exciting work, for those back home, the same has occurred. The urgency of the immediate takes over and...we forget.

We forget to contact our planters.

We forget to pray for them regularly.

We forget to let them know we love them and support them.

We may even forget to deposit that extra offering in their name that we promised we would (this is often from individuals, but can be from churches as well.)

Ministry is lonely and the support group of brothers and sisters that send out the planter and his wife often find the physical distance to lead to communicative distance. 

And the planter family feels so very alone.

The Three "P"s

Years ago I was sitting in a conference room with some of our North American Mission Board Send City planters and missionaries. We were brainstorming some ways to remember what is needed most from established churches for these planters.

I remember saying, it's simple - prayer, people, and provision.

I think another "P" has been added by some, but the fact remains that these families need to know that they are not lone rangers taking on a city alone. We must be together, but take a moment and think through the seven suggestions. Your support is vital, but wrong support is deadly.

Pray for your planters. Pray for them regularly. Pray specifically. 

Send people from your church, but only the right people in the right number doing the right things.

Give provision to your planter. Give what you promised. Provision = money! Support them in tangible ways. 

Vital Questions

  • How can you know what to pray?
  • How can you know who to send?
  • How can you know what their financial and resource needs are?

Simple - ask them. A photograph on a prayer card is great, but more is needed. Talk to them, email them, give them permission to be honest. Then...get in on this great thing called church planting and stay faithful. The harvest will be reaped and you and your church will have played a vital role.

 

__________

Our church planters serve through the Send City initiative of the North American Mission Board (SBC.) This is not the only church planting strategy and the points shared above are likely useful regardless the sending agency.


How Did Your Church Die? Two Ways - Gradually, Then Suddenly.

In 1926 Ernest Hemingway published his novel The Sun Also Rises. As with many Hemingway books, this one became a best-seller and remains in print today. This character Mike Campbell was asked about his money troubles and responded with this oft-quoted answer. 

"How did you go bankrupt?"

"Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly." - Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

As a pastor of a legacy church (i.e. old church) in what was formerly called "The Bible Belt" of the southern United States, I have watched numerous churches in our region come face-to-face with closure or abandonment. Even some (most) larger legacy churches are having to make staffing and organizational decisions to ensure they have a future of ministry ahead of them in the city. While an historically large church may have millions of dollars worth of property and a long legacy of great work for the Lord in a region, the reality often hits as changing demographics and population shifts result in a downturn of attendance, giving, and impact. Some have stated how sad it is when this happens. I guess that's true, but this is no new story and should not surprise us. Just take a trip to Europe to visit some of the megachurches of history where great things for God were done years ago. It seems that just about all local churches have a shelf life. 

IMG_0902
A Closed Church in Northern Wales

What is sad is when a local church and its members are surprised by reality and end up panicking, making unwise decisions, and positioning themselves to be little more than a footnote of Christian work in a region.

Church planting is part of our local church's DNA. Even before the term "planting" became popular, our church was focused on launching new "missions" and supporting other churches in our area and throughout the world. This was set in motion long before I came to be pastor and I am thankful for this.

Yet, at the same time we focus on new work and church planting, the reality of local church closures and dying churches is upon us. I don't think we're planting at a rate to replace all the historic churches now faced with death. Thus, we see a focus now on church replanting and revitalization. We are seeking to see a movement of God that historically we have never seen. 

Yet, churches are dying. They're closing their doors. 

The quote from Hemmingway could be applied to churches as well.

"How did your church die?"

"Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly."

Church Planting Is Hard

Church planting is hard. It is hard on planters, their spouses, their children, and on the members who sign up to be part of a "launch team" only to discover that after about month of setting up and tearing down their portable church in their leased location, it just is not fun anymore. I pray for these planters regularly, believing they are truly on the frontlines of ministry and mission in our own communities. 

Church Replanting/Revitalization May Be Harder

As difficult as church planting is, I believe church replanting and revitalization is more difficult. In many cases, the replant/revitalization (I will use these terms together, but I do understand these are not the same) is akin to an adult child having to tell their senior adult parent they will no longer be allowed to drive their car (the one they paid for and have owned for years) and will be taking their keys and license away. That may be the best comparative illustration I have heard. For instance, in many cases, these older churches have decades of history. There is an era of growth likely when things were going well, people were joining the church, being baptized, and the community was being reached. Perhaps the church never hit "megachurch" status (megachurches are very rare) but the church was healthy...for a season. Yet, that chapter of history is closed. It is a great memory and the legacy is very real, but currently the church is barely hanging on. The membership is decidedly older, often comprised of only older people. There have been no baptisms for years. The community has changed so much that the neighbors do not look like the members of the church. While the property may be owned, the offerings are not enough to cover such things as pastoral salary, utilities, insurance, and lawn care expenses. 

The church is bankrupt. 

How did it happen?

Well, gradually at first, but then suddenly.

When the "suddenly" hits, the reality of what is to come becomes clear. It is sad. It is tragic. 

It Doesn't Have To Be This Way

This is the reality of many local churches. In our city and region today, there are approximately forty churches that are in this category (that I know of.) Some realize it. They are taking steps to ensure a gospel witness remains.

We have seen some incredible stories in our network. One church gifted its property to another that was newer, growing, and ethnically different (from the current church, but the same as the community where the building is located.) Another church deeded its property to our network and that facility has been given over to another new, growing church comprised of immigrants and refugees who have relocated to our city. It's thriving now. Still others have partnered with larger legacy churches. In these cases, we are seeing the larger churches bring the older, smaller one under its wings, providing financial support, pastoral leadership, and numerous resources for the purpose of replanting and relaunching the church in the same facility for future decades of ministry.

Tragically, there are many who remain in their state of bankruptcy, closer to dying today than ever. Sadly, I fear that some will end up selling their property, liquidating their assets, and leave their legacy as little more than a historical footnote. This is not good. This is not godly.

I am praying that we will be as the men of Issachar (1 Chron 12:32) having the insight to know the times well and respond wisely. 

Regardless the size or location of your local church the fact that gradual, then sudden death could occur is a reality. Resting on one's laurels (or bank account, pastor's personality, history in a community, etc.) is not enough. It never has been. It cannot be. 

What is occurring in churches throughout our region and nation is not reserved for certain churches of certain demographical makeup in specific areas. Every church is susceptible. Every leader has blind spots. May we wise up and see what God is showing us. 

The Hope

I am hopeful. I know that some churches will close. I know that others will begin. This life-cycle is real and we can continue to celebrate the wondrous things God has done through his local expressions of church throughout our communities. Yet, premature closure is little more than the enemy's attack on God and a small victory. Small, but deadly. I hate seeing a region lose a center for gospel witness. I hate seeing a region left abandoned (not by God, but by his people.) Therefore, we must pray more, serve well, stop living as if other local churches are the enemy, and come together for God's glory. Many are doing so. That's why I have such hope.

This is difficult. But, if it were easy, anyone could do it. Our joy in the Lord gives us strength. Replanting and revitalization is working, but not due to the creativity and ingenuity of those with "new ideas" on how to do church, but because God is empowering his people, living faithfully, for his glory to be the instruments of bringing life to that which was previously dead, or dying. This is God at work. He alone gets the glory, but oh, we get to bask in his glory and this is for our good.

Press on church planter, replanter, and revitalizer. For the pastor of the legacy church who is now experiencing the best chapter in your history, be wise and be aware. Perhaps you are meant to strengthen the replanter or come alongside the dying church to offer support and leadership for a new work?

Let's not leave this task left undone.

What's the worst that can happen? Well...what happens if you choose to let your senior adult parent who cannot see well and is a danger to himself and others continue to drive? 

I believe that revitalized churches will be reawakened in much the same way they began to die, at least in this case.

"How did your church get revitalized?"

"Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly."


Hey Christian - Your Faith Is Showing (Expressing the Fruit of the Spirit Online)

Social media and a networked online presence for people is here to stay. This new instant media world has impacted much. Conversations are often conducted with misspelled and abbreviated words through texts, political statements and movements are no longer relegated to door-to-door "evangelistic" programs or even whisper campaigns in elevators. Verification of news authenticity is suffering due to the fact that information is shared immediately. When wrong information is shared, it's often not retracted. If retracted, it's rarely noticed. 

For the Christian, social media and an online presence can be a wonderful way to proclaim the gospel. However, it can also be a trap easily ensnaring the believer with deeply held convictions, leaving them searching for online echo chambers where community complaints can be affirmed.

For all the great potential (and no doubt, great and godly things have occurred through online conversations and communication) of an online presence for the glory of God, so too is the great opportunity to do harm.

Even those seeking to do right sometimes find that a tweet or post needs to be deleted (I'm guilty of that.) 

As I read through the Gospel of Matthew, I pause at this statement by Jesus...

Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. - Matthew 12:33 (ESV)

Well...amen! Right? I know this is true. You know this is true. I'm no tree-ologist, but I know that if a tree is good is should produce good fruit. Good fruit comes from good trees. Bad fruit comes from bad trees.

Bowl-with-variation-of-healthy-fruit

When it comes to good fruit, I'm drawn to what the Holy Spirit led Paul to write regarding the fruit of the Spirit (obviously good fruit.)

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. - Galatians 5:22-23 (ESV)

Social Media and the Fruit of the Spirit

One thing that social media has done is allow Christians (pastors, too) to have connections with church members and fellow believers. This is good, sometimes. At other times, it is grievous. Why? Because we see Christians posting, sharing, and opining on things in such a way that is little more than cringe-worthy (not to mention ungodly and harmful.)

Shocker! 

This has been true for all time, but especially in our current culture. Whether it's political divides, anger over chicken restaurants, promoted boycotts, generational divides, or even sports rivalries, it seems that some have revealed what we always have known to be true (but would rather not see confirmed.) Some see their Christianity reserved for the hour on Sunday morning, revealing little of the transformed, redeemed, authentic life of a Christ follower during the rest of the week, either in person or online.

What if we actually believed what Christ stated?

What if our actions were to reveal our faith?

It's not a works theology, but a faith that leads to godliness.

Before you tweet, post, share, or comment, consider the following:

LOVE - Is what you're about to post reveal the agape, unconditional, grace-filled, love of God? This is not a culturally defined love that affirms sin, but a biblical love that begins with the "Come and see..." rather than an attack or declaration of how much you dislike someone or something.

JOY - Is what you share something the can bring joy, even a smile to the face of one who reads it? Yes, it can be funny. It can be a meme. It's not a sin to laugh. Of course, it should not be laughter at the expense of others. Can the reading of your post be used to bring a sense of contentment in others?

PEACE - Are you posting things that divide or unite? Demean or lift up? "Blessed are the peacemakers" is what Jesus said. That's online, too.

PATIENCE - Be slow to speak, slow to tweet, slow to post, slow to comment. 

KINDNESS - Is your post mean? Do you use demeaning terms to describe an image-bearer of God who happens to disagree with you, represent the "other" political party, live a lifestyle you cannot affirm? You don't have to agree with everyone to be kind to and about them.

GOODNESS - Do your words encourage others to live like Christ? He is good. Our words should be too.

FAITHFULNESS - Are your words simply religious clichés? Seriously, just leave the "Let go and let God" phrases go and post things that are true, right, and revealing of your faithfulness in Christ. The clichés may not be wrong, but they're still clichés. So, are your postings designed to point people to Christ or to you?

GENTLENESS - Comment threads are not the place to declare one's frustration with everyone else. I'm a member of a few community pages on Facebook and rarely are there things shared there that are gentle and edifying. However, if I wish to read how some people cannot stand others who dare drive worse they they do, don't put their trash cans up on the correct day, or even dare to move into their neighborhood, I have plenty to read. Rare is the gentle word. Perhaps there is an issue to confront, but likely it's not best to do so online. 

SELF-CONTROL - And this is perhaps the biggest one. Before you post, tweet, respond, or comment ask yourself this question "Should I actually say this?" Based on the other fruit of the Spirit, does this need to be stated here, now, and in this way? Or...is it better to pray first, seek God's lead and maybe...just maybe...the wise thing to do is leave that post left unposted.

Hey Christian, Your Faith Is Showing

Your likes, posts, tweets, and comments reveal who you are. As followers of Christ, this means our online persona as well as our face-to-face interactions. This is not easy. It never has been. It's just that with the online realities of the day, our walk with the Lord has a bigger audience than ever.

You may not grow the kingdom of God online, but you certainly can hinder its growth. Be wise. Be fruitful. Produce good fruit.


Striving to Care Well in Our Church (And Not Allow the Emphasis to Be Another Program)

It seems that every day another Christian leader, church leader, former pastor, and Christian entertainer has succumbed to the #MeToo and #ChurchToo focus. While some just wish we could talk about something else, those who have been victimized sexually in the past by spiritual leaders are thankful that we are finally talking about it. Hopefully, we are doing more than talk.

Southern Baptists naively though the sex abuse issues in the church were primarily "Catholic issues" in the past. The sexual deviancy by some Catholic priests that became news fodder a number of years ago was thought to be a result from poor theology (from an evangelical perspective) and the requirement of singleness and celibacy among the priesthood. 

Then, when reporters Sarah Smith (now with the Houston Chronicle) and Nichole Manna produced the poignant articles under the title "Spirit of Fear" at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram focusing on sexual abuse stories primarily in Independent Baptist churches (including one in my county) many Southern Baptists just shook their collective heads declaring it was due to lack of accountability and legalism that permeates in many independent churches.

The Chickens Have Come Home to Roost

The old saying about chickens coming home to roost refers to the fact that unconfessed and unrepentant sins committed in the past will come back to haunt oneself. The truth will be laid bare and will no longer be avoidable. 

That's what has happened in some of the churches of our Southern Baptist Convention. What could not happen here, has happened here. Thanks (and I do mean thanks) to an exposé titled "Abuse of Faith" by reporters Robert Downen, Lise Olsen, and John Tedesco of the Houston Chronicle published in February 2019, the heretofore not talked about, or even acknowledged, has become a leading topic among pastors, church members, and denominational entities.

Caring well
David Tarkington is seated next to Debbie Vasquez (abused & impregnated by her pastor as a teen) at the Caring Well Conference in Dallas. Photo: Jon Shapley, Houston Chronicle

J.D. Greear, President of the Southern Baptist Convention and Pastor of Summit Church in North Carolina, met with denominational leaders and other pastors while declaring that steps must be taken to acknowledge the sin, hold churches and pastors accountable, and primarily offer help and healing to victims and survivors, while seeking justice for perpetrators. 

From the outside looking in, the concept seems simple, but in reality the functionality of such a move has proven very difficult. This is primarily due to the autonomous nature of SBC churches and the lack of power denominational leaders have. Yet, with that being said, the truth is being revealed that their are right steps to be taken that do work, are working, and offer help and hope in this area. As has been stated by many, we hold to our churches having autonomy, but cannot hide behind that when it comes to doctrinal, legal, and moral issues such as clergy abuse and church compliance.

Caring Well

In just a short amount of time, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and LifeWay produced curriculum, video training, and even held a national conference (the annual ERLC Conference in Dallas shifted its focus to the abuse issue this year) to ensure this issue of response and healing was a front-burner issue for SBC churches. 

Much good has been done, but nonetheless for some, it will not be enough.

While I do not have impact on large-scale denominational policies or practices (other than voting as a messenger at the annual meetings and serving on our state's Board of Missions) I do have impact on the church God has called me to pastor. Like many SBC churches, we have an overabundance of curriculum and program options. We have a closet at the church where we store dozens of video series, workbooks, and other resources. To be honest, I'm just about done with the latest "fix in a box" that's available for purchase. That's why at first, I was a bit skeptical of the Caring Well curriculum and training videos. Yet, I knew we must not ignore this reality and if nothing else, this material may be used to push us forward to be a church that will not ignore abuse issues, nor pretend that our own church's sad history could not happen again (READ MORE HERE).

I shared with our church membership that we would be forming a Caring Well team. This team would include some of the pastors on staff, some age-group leaders, members of the church with counseling backgrounds, some with law enforcement experience, those who have served victims of abuse, and others who may choose to serve. In just a few meetings, we found ourselves with a team much larger than I anticipated. Nevertheless, we have the team God has put together not to protect the brand of our local church, but to ensure we glorify Him and provide hope and healing for those in our church and community who have suffered from abuse by spiritual leaders and those of power. 

Some even felt free to share their own stories of suffering. For at least one, it was the first time her story of survival had been shared publicly. Suddenly, we knew that the statistics do not lie. There are women and men in our church family who have been carrying a burden for years. They don't relish their experience, but being survivors of sexual abuse and discovering they are not alone, or to blame, has moved them to a place where we believe God will bring full healing. This is no formulaic process. It's not cookie-cutter, easy-to-do stuff. As each week goes by, I hear more. I'm heartbroken. I'm grieved. And with each new revelation on social media or the news of another church leader's sin being exposed, I see more who are triggered and brought back to their own moments of trauma.

Our Caring Well team is new. We're still working to figure out what to do. We have some plans in place, but more to be done. We see the primary mission of the church to be proclamation of the gospel. We desire the lost to be saved. We want to see the broken healed. We want to ensure that the Enemy no longer has a foothold in Christ's church, using those with titles, callings, and positions of power to inflict (sometimes eternal) damage on those in the flock. 

Therefore, our Caring Well emphasis must never become another curriculum in the closet. It will not be all we do, but it must be a part of who we are. Our church, every church campus and sister church in our network, must not only declare to care well, but actually care well. That is our our calling.

I asked some of our Caring Well team members to share why they're serving. I am encouraged by these responses (just a sampling, not all responses received):

When you explained what Caring Well Ministry entails, I immediately felt a pull or drawing toward this ministry.  While serving on church staff as the Preschool Director and in another church as Children’s Director, neither church “cared well” for the ones hurting. Situations were quickly swept away and quietly dealt with leaving the innocent feeling betrayed. So my short and brief statement is; I want to care well!  I want hurting individuals to feel safe and know they WILL BE CARED FOR.

 

Victims of abuse deserve to be heard, have their allegations investigated in an objective manner and see the perpetrators brought to justice.  I want to serve to help make sure we minimize the opportunities for abuse to occur, make sure we protect and minister to those who are the victims of abuse and see that they get the justice they deserve. 

 

The best way to care well is to prevent abuse from happening in the first place. A child who is abused anywhere, but especially at church, may be so harmed spiritually that they never come to know Christ. We have to do everything in our power to protect them, so they have that opportunity.

 

I have always had a heart for children whether my own, coaching kids sports, working with 4th through 6th graders at church or my grandchildren. Children are undeniably God's gift to us. As I study our Caring Well Handbook and watch the videos and pray, I think this is beyond me and I won't be able to help much, but I know I can do something.

 

I fought hard for many years for victims and survivors of child abuse and assault, and even though it has been quite some time since I have been active in the system, I have never lost my desire to help or my empathy for the individuals whose lives most certainly have been hugely impacted by their experiences.  When the Caring Well information was mentioned I knew immediately that if possible I wanted to be a part to minister in whatever way God leads to provide understanding, empathy, compassion, friendship and a listening heart and ear. 

 

I am a survivor.  By God's grace, as a child I had the protective factors available to help me cope even though I didn't disclose my abuse to my parents.  I was fortunate in ways that so many others are not, and with that comes a sense of duty to help ensure that anyone suffering from abuse will have access to whatever resources are needed to cope, survive, and thrive.  

More News Stories = More Victims

Sadly, stories of sexual sin revelations continue. Whether it's the potential calling of a pastor who almost twenty years ago victimized young girls in his youth group, a spiritual leader who downplayed a victims accusation to protect an image, or a Christian entertainer whose private sexual escapades and propositions with young single and married women shocked the fans who just wanted some clean entertainment, the truth is clear.

It is not the fault of unbiblical ecclesiology, poor interpretations of theology, suggestive clothing worn by naive (or not so naive) teenagers, or loneliness due to marital stress. 

The fool blames those things for his/her sinful actions. The enemy says "It's their fault. You deserve this. You're a leader. You have needs." and more. 

To the victim, we seek to care well and pray for your healing.

To the victimizer, we seek justice upon you and pray for your healing as well. 

It remains a gospel issue, and therefore something we must do as the local body. The gates of hell will not prevail against God's church. That is so true and we must remember that. However, we must also remember that does not mean local bodies, led poorly, that abandon the fullness of the gospel will continue to exist. Some shouldn't.

 

File this under "Things they didn't teach me at seminary."


How Deep Is This Caring Well? Addressing Sexual Abuse in the Church

Last week my wife and I traveled to Dallas, Texas for the 2019 SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) National Conference. As a result of the February 2019 exposé in the Houston Chronicle regarding sexual abuse in Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) churches, the focus of this year's conference what changed to address the issue directly.

Some have asked us how we liked the conference. 

How can you like a conference that is focused on addressing such heinous crimes and sin? 

Well, we did like it because a very real issue was being addressed. It was "good" that no longer were we intentionally or subconsciously ignoring victims of such abuse. Yet, sin is never good. This left us with an overwhelming feeling of sadness, grief, and lament.

Caring well

From a perspective as a pastor in an SBC church, I knew that focusing on such instances was considered by some to be a risky endeavor. For those who were asked to speak, it was clear that ERLC and SBC leaders did not tell them to hold back. It seems that they were not even asked to avoid certain subjects or people. In this era, that was refreshing.

If you followed the #CaringWell trending hashtag online, you likely saw many comments related to the conference. Some were supportive. Others were cautiously encouraged. Still others were angered that the event was even occurring. Of those angered, they constituted varied perspectives.

On one end were those who fear acknowledging that such abuse even occurred in their (our) churches, seminaries, and institutions and to speak of them would tarnish the SBC brand and image. (News flash: It's already been tarnished.) 

On the other end of the spectrum were those who have been victimized by church leaders or others in power (even if in smaller churches) in the past and were appalled that such an event would be sponsored by an agency of the SBC. It seemed, according to some of the statements and posts, to be little more than an attempt at whitewashing sin to give the SBC the ability to say "See, we did something."

I understand where these opinions come from. To say they're not legitimate would be wrong. 

Yet, I went to the conference hopeful. I was not seeking to see if anyone shared a "gotcha" statement or if the ERLC was simply putting on a show for the media. I was seeking to hear from those speaking, victims and advocates. I wanted to come away with some insight into what those in my church may be feeling who have suffered through similar events in their past. I realize that based on statistics there are likely many who have suffered as victims of sexual abuse in our church family (even if not perpetrated by anyone in a church in their past) and this reality is something I must consider when praying, preparing, preaching, and leading those whom God has placed in this local body for me to shepherd. 

I want to shepherd well.

So, I came home with a brain full of information, numerous notes (some disguised as tweets) and insight into things that I had never even considered prior. While some practical information was provided to ensure our church is better suited to protect people from abuse (not just to protect our image or brand - oh, Lord, please no - but to protect victims and those who could be victimized) I found myself drawn into the very personal stories shared from the platform from women and men who had been abused. These were not just stories that would make a good episode of Dateline, but stories that exposed a sinful underbelly that often is allowed to grow in ministries, churches, youth sports and other organizations where predation occurs.

There were so many who spoke and shared. I won't be able to highlight all of them in this post. There are some whose stories continue to resonate, not in a way that "Oh, that's interesting" but in "Oh my! I am grieved that you experienced that and I'm amazed you have found the courage to share." For some, they are first-hand accounts of stories I've heard and read about. For others, they were insights and accounts that I had never heard prior.

My wife and I talked about the information presented. We began to question whether certain people we know and some we are related to could be victims of abuse. We saw in our own conversation what we were warned about by the speakers - the tendency to see all as victims or as victimizers. It happens. It was an overwhelming three days of information, all on the same subject. It was needed. It is needed. And while we recognize that not all people we know find themselves in one of the two categories mentioned above, we do realize that there are far too many who have personal stories that sound much like what has been shared in the Houston Chronicle and from the stage.

Some have gone public with their stories. Many have not.

Some have found support from their churches, church leaders, and denominational representatives. Others have not. 

Some have abandoned the church. Others have not.

Some are hoping for change and help. Others have abandoned any hope for change.

This is the reality. It is a tragic reality.

Yet, I have hope.

That may not be enough for those who are needing more. I know that. But even in the midst of these sinful, nasty, abuse-laden, image-bearer trashing, falsely holy, power-focused stories of the past, I hold onto hope. It's not a hope in man, or in the SBC, or in the ERLC, or any denominational entity (and to be clear, I'm not anti-SBC.) It is only in Christ and the healing offered from the one whose image we bear do I have hope. 

As Mary DeMuth stated from the main stage this past week, God has chosen to use the broken, sinned against, "foolish things" of this world to confound the wise. He is using the "least of these" in these cases, years later, to reveal ignored and excused sin, so that he may be seen clearly.

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. - 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 (ESV)

Brothers and sisters, we have much work to do. The work must be done, but not in our power. If done in our power...then, we have nothing but a conference and resources that help make our brand look caring (I'm not saying that is what we have, but that is what it will be if we rely on self) when healing and right steps must be made. 

The church must help the helpless. We must listen to the cries of the wounded. We must stop believing that every victim is no more than a modern-day version of Potiphar's wife just making up accusations against innocent people. There are certainly some Potiphar's wives out there, but they are the minority. 

Videos from speakers who have given ERLC permission to post will be uploaded soon and available for viewing. Our Caring Well team will watch. We will discuss the messages. We will continue to pray and take tangible steps in our church to ensure that we are not just a building on an avenue in Orange Park, Florida, but a local body of Christ-followers who love the Lord with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength...and love our neighbors and most vulnerable as ourselves. We will be a church that cares well. In fact, it is a deep well whose name is Christ. We will continue to go to this well, for that is the only place where the Living Water can be found. 

Until the videos are posted, here are some of the live-tweets I made as stories were being shared (Apologies to Andrew Schmutzer for misspelling his name in every one of my tweets):