Baptists, Sexual Abuse, and the Long-Awaited Next Steps

Sometimes stories trend and then disappear. They become the lead story in the news or online for a season and then there's another story that pushes it to the side. Often it is just one tragic reality after another as readers and viewers take in the depravity of our world. Whether a shooting, a trial, an exposé of abuse, or the latest celebrity controversy (like Britney's conservatorship,) trending stories come and go. Yet, for those who are the subjects of such stories the focus and impact often never ceases. 

For example when the current trials in Wisconsin and Georgia are complete, families of all involved will continue to relive the issues being discussed, as well as the aftermaths while the majority of Americans shift to the next trending story.

That is just how it is. It is how it has been for as long as there have been news outlets and latest headlines and updates.

Trending Sexual Abuse Stories - Not Just for the Catholics

In the 1980s the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandals involving priests and coverups became known globally. Since that time, more and more stories have been shared. Victims may have received settlements and some clergy may have been removed, but scars and pain remain. 

In Baptist life, when the Fort Worth Star-Telegram ran an exposé of independent fundamental Baptist (IFB) churches regarding hundreds of cases of sexual abuse by pastors and leaders, many in local evangelical churches began to take note. It wasn't just a Catholic issue (like we ever truly thought it was.) Yet, even then it seemed that many were saying "That's terrible! At least it didn't happen in our church, or in our denomination." 

But we knew better. 

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The victimization of the vulnerable has been a tactic of the enemy since Eden. With humanity's depravity on full display due to the inherent sin nature of all, the sinful desires of evil men and women at times infiltrate the most sacred and holy places. 

In February 2019 the truth was laid bare for all to see when the Houston Chronicle's exposé regarding sexual abuse within Southern Baptist (SBC) churches was published. Suddenly, many shifted into damage control, but sadly, this was more than a story to be addressed or a trending issue to be survived. The instances revealed were not hearsay, but documented cases of pastors, ministry directors, and volunteer leaders who abused boys, girls, and teenagers sexually, leaving many to doubt the righteousness and love of God, not to mention the validity of sacred trust and leadership within the local bodies of faith.

I have written in the past of the disgusting and systematic abuse perpetrated by a pastoral staff member at the church I now have the honor of pastoring (though this took place many years prior to my arrival) and the tragic impact it has had on our church, community, and especially the men and women who were teenagers at the time of their victimization. My article about this is available here.

Sexual Abuse Pushed to the Forefront

What has happened within the past few months within the world of Southern Baptists has been the very public conversations, debates, votes, arguments, and varied issues brought to the floor of the annual meeting of Southern Baptists and the subsequent meetings of the SBC Executive Committee. Whether one agrees with the steps now taken regarding the waiving of attorney-client privilege (by the mandate of SBC messengers) of the Executive Committee is not my focus here (as I have also written of that here.) What is the focus is what is now occurring in many of our state conventions.

I do not know anyone personally who has excused proven sexual abuse issues within the convention's entities or cooperating churches. No one I know personally is seeking to minimize the impacts of sexual abuse within the faith community. But...as they say, perception is reality often and the perceived ignoring of sexual abuse, especially partnered with the perception of cheap forgiveness with no actual consequence has caused great harm. 

Perhaps there some within the SBC who truly hate that sexual abuse has occurred within our network of autonomous churches, have grieved over the hurt done, said the proper words regarding these issues, but would rather this just be an issue for a season, delineated in a toothless resolution, filed away as a dark chapter in our history, then ignored (maybe ignored is too harsh a word, so possibly just pushed to the back burner) so that the next denomination-wide emphasis or church theme can be promoted well and...we can move on. Yet, just as when a trending story is no longer on the front page, the pain felt by those impacted remains.

State Conventions Take Steps

November is state convention season in our network. For two to three days, Baptist messengers from churches affiliated with local state conventions gather for meetings. This is not unlike the national meeting when it comes to the business sessions and polity on display. Perhaps the major differences (as evidenced by updates on social media from participating pastors and messengers throughout our network) are that most often the state conventions now have less negative drama, more intentional focus on unity and mission, and a true sense of family as pastors who may be on different sides of the aisle when it comes to denominational politics and processes seem to actually like each other. 

I serve in Florida and our Florida Baptist State Convention was held in Lakeland on November 8-9. In what may have been a historic moment, the State Board of Missions (full disclosure - I served on this board for seven years, completing my term on November 9) brought only four recommendations to the state convention for a vote. Each recommendation was simply stated and affirmed with no issues. The only recommendation that elicited any comments from the floor was Recommendation 4. This recommendation was for the newly elected president of the Florida Baptist State Convention (Paul Purvis) to establish a special committee of the state convention to examine all policies and procedures governing sexual abuse allegation reporting, sexual abuse survivor care, and sexual abuse prevention within state convention entities and partner ministries. 

The full recommendation is included here in an article from Florida Baptist Convention by Barbara Denman -> CLICK HERE.

The comments from the floor were to ensure that while having a female sexual abuse survivor on the to-be-established committee, we must not ignore the reality that there are many men who are survivors of clergy (or church leader related) sexual abuse. This is the reality of those victimized decades prior in my church. The comments were received as friendly.

As I have read from related stories online, other state Baptist conventions have or are making similar steps.

Questions Remain

Though the vote in our state was clearly in approval of this recommendation, not all messengers were, or are certain this is needed. These conversations will continue to occur. Some fear that churches may be stepping too far into what has been termed "cancel culture" by presuming guilt rather than innocence. I do not see that as the intent of the recommendation at all. There are varied lists of "but what about..." that I have heard and continue to hear. Sorry, I don't have answers for all those potentials and while I do agree that in some cases this may be a Pandora's Box of issues, I believe that perpetually ignoring or pushing to the side the issues of such heinous sin is worse. 

I also do not believe the passing of our recommendation will fix all the issues that continue to be revealed in our churches and entities, but I do believe it is a good next step and clearly states that our intent is action, not just words. Of course that ultimately remains to be seen, but I seek to be an optimist.

Healing Fueled by Prayer

The Florida committee will include eight people. I am praying for our state convention president, my brother and friend Paul Purvis, Pastor of Mission Hill Church in Temple Terrace, as he compiles this team. I am praying for the committee as they seek to glorify God, listen well, seek truth, and do all they are enabled to do to ensure that if any steps need to be taken in our state entities, if any policies need to be updated, if any guidelines must be restated, and more, that their recommendations will be heeded.

I am praying for Tommy Green, the Executive Director-Treasurer of our Florida Baptist Convention as he continues to lead our state convention well. I thank him for spearheading this recommendation and leading our State Board to address it.

I am praying for the men, women, boys, and girls who live with emotional scars and deeply felt wounds that have impacted them in ways I cannot fathom. I am praying that they will know they are deeply loved with a pure, selfless, permanent, unconditional love and will experience the healing they so desperately need. 

Our focus must be less about fixing organizations, and more about ministering to those most vulnerable and carrying the hurt of a formerly trending story. Ultimately, this glorifies God.

I believe this was the correct next step for our state convention. It will not be the final step.


Halloween on a Sunday Leads Our Church to Make a Shift in Event-Centered Ministry

Do you know what almost NO ONE in your community is asking regarding the upcoming October 31 events? They are NOT asking whether they should participate in their neighborhood Trick or Treating. They are NOT debating whether or not they should purchase overpriced candy to give out at the doors to children dressed as superheroes, princesses, and Bluey. They are NOT asking which local church they never attend may be having an event they can attend (though many may be considering such if convenient.) Oh, and since October 31 is on Sunday this year, most of your neighbors are NOT feeling conflicted about Halloween being on the Lord's Day.

For years our church has hosted a "Trunk or Treat" event for the community that has drawn great crowds, tired many church members, and left us thinking "Well...that was very tiring, but good." Yet, this year we are doing things a bit differently.

After deciding to not host our "Trunk or Treat" event, our leadership team began asking what, if anything could or should be done on this second-most popular holiday in America. Of course there are all the "Should Christians Celebrate Halloween" articles and discussions that come up this time of year. To be honest, over the years, I have likely held every differing opinion on this. And since I do not desire to write an article on the subject of Halloween and Christians, I'll just link to Travis Allen's well crafted one here on the Grace To You site (click here) and move on.

As our team contemplated our calendared events, knowing there are some in our church who will be upset that we are no longer doing exactly what we have done in previous years (There will always be that group. I think we still have some members that are a bit frustrated we no longer have "Hanging of the Green" at Christmas. We stopped doing that in 1992, two years before I joined the staff here. I am grateful.) There are some who will likely like the fact we are not hosting a "Trunk or Treat." And...there are many who simply do not care either way.

That's how it is for most church-based events.

One of our values as a church is that we "love where we live." It's practical, aspirational to a degree, and needed. Yet, to love where we live means that often we must do the work of the minister not just at the church building (or in the church parking lot on Halloween) but in our own homes, neighborhoods, and communities. Therefore, we are attempting a shift this year. Perhaps this will be the year that we can begin to pry apart the philosophy that Christian activities must take place at the church buildings only. There's something about equipping the saints and commissioning believers to be on mission in their own communities, neighborhoods, apartment complexes, and cul-de-sacs.

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Seeking to discover how best to do this for Halloween, without compromising any theological beliefs or matters of conscience I found a sister church in our network that has produced a logical, point-by-point, step-by-step, how-to strategy for Halloween outreach for their members. Since stealing is a sin, our church will be gleaning (that's a good biblical, not sinful word) from Fruit Cove Baptist Church and present similar ideas and plans to our church family. Thank you to Fruit Cove and Pastor Tim Maynard and staff for this great idea. A portion of their plan is below.

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Just a portion of Fruit Cove Baptist Church's Halloween Outreach Plan. More at fruitcove.com/neighbor

I do not know how many of our church family will actually take this advice and do this, but I am optimistic.

Imagine hundreds of believers refusing to isolate themselves from the very people they have been commissioned to reach with the gospel. Imagine hundreds of Christians actually having fun and smiling as dozens of children (potentially) come to their doors asking for free candy (and by the way - give out good candy and don't give out tracts.) Imagine relationships beginning that could eventually lead to a gospel conversation. Imagine the church focusing on going where the crowd is rather than always trying to create a crowd.

Of course, if you just cannot move yourself to do anything on Halloween.  That's understandable. No guilt throwing here.

But even if that is your conviction, I encourage you to pray that somehow, in some way, God would use his grace-filled, redeemed children to live as missionaries and love where they live so much that others may hear and experience the gospel and that angels will rejoice.

As for me and my house...we will be eating all the Reese's before any kids start ringing our doorbell.

 

Here's a link to our webpage with ideas for our church members - click here.


With All That Is Happening In the Southern Baptist Convention, What Are We To Do?

"Oh no! What are we going to do? What's next?"

These are the words of desperate, fearful, overwhelmed, and despondent people. And sadly, over the years I have found myself saying these very things. 

Whether the questions revolve around national politics, global health issues, local community problems, natural disasters, denominational or religious issues, or even the very personal issues such as marital breakdown, prodigal children, grief over death, or even terminal diagnoses, we tend to all find ourselves at one point or another asking these very same or similar questions to anyone who would listen.

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There is a black hole of despondency that has a gravitational pull so very strong that it feels impossible to ignore. The circumstances of life, the interruptions of our personal peace and daily schedules, the frustrations brought upon us by actions or inactions of others...or sometimes just the random "bad news" that arrives in our stories can suck us into a place of fear and hopelessness.

I awakened this morning and after reading the Bible (working on that "read the Bible in a year" plan still) and praying, I checked the latest goings-on via Twitter. I understand that Twitter may not be the most accurate news source, but it is immediate and trending stories catch my eye. Through all the vital updates via the trending hashtag, such as Robert Pattinson's strange "Batman voice" in the teaser of the upcoming film, the latest on the MLB playoffs, and Prince William's declarations that billionaires should not focus on building rockets, I noticed the latest updates in the sub-culture of Southern Baptist (SBC) life.

There is much more to every recent SBC story than I could delineate clearly here, so I will leave that to the more accomplished wordsmiths who understand more fully the latest controversies, polity issues, and scandals that gain likes, responses, or fuel Twitter-wars.

Nevertheless, I do care very much about what is happening. I have strong opinions (as do many other SBC pastors and leaders) about decisions made recently and am praying for what is to come. I am not disinterested, nor am I disengaged. I believe we owe it to those who have been harmed, abused, and impacted in the past to do the right things now. I have shared about that prior as well as other issues, so will not go into depth in this posting again.

But ultimately, on this day, I find myself thinking on the nature of God. The sovereign God whom I serve (whom I seek to serve wholeheartedly,) and worship never has to check social media to see what is trending or to discover the latest dust up regarding SBC life, or any other pertinent issue.

The God who is never surprised, never shocked, never taken aback, never not knowing what to do, and never at a loss for words is who he always has been and always will be.

This gives me assurance. This gives me hope and strength. This is my fear melter.

I know these to be true. God knows results of votes before they're counted. He knows appointments to offices and positions and callings of ministers and pastors before anyone else does. He knows about resignations and retirements prior to it ever happening. He is never surprised by the details in an email or letter. He knows. And he is Lord of all the details.

This does not mean that we are simply to throw our hands up and disengage in areas of church and community life believing that nothing we do matters because "God knows" but this reality of God's nature gives us not just hope, but strength for the day and the days to come.

Encouragement to Pastors

In the little sub-culture that I live known as the SBC, God is not uninvolved and he is fully aware of all that is happening at the denominational level (yes, I know, by the strict definition the SBC is not a denomination...but you understand what I mean, I hope) as well as the upper level of our non-hierarchical convention known as the local church.

In light of our autonomy as local churches, I know no one can tell a local church and its pastor what to do and how to do it. Yet, to my pastor friends I implore you to not lose hope. I encourage you to spend your time where you uniquely most valuable, and in some cases irreplaceable. This begins in your family, but follows closely in the local church God has blessed you to serve and shepherd. When you preach this coming Lord's Day to the flock, follow the Spirit's lead, study well, pray deeply, and do not allow the distractions of denominational issues become the message of the day. As you stand behind that holy desk (whether it be a pulpit like Spurgeon's, a music stand, or something in between) open the Word of God boldly and declare the truths within clearly. 

I encourage you in this...basically because I need to remind myself to do this weekly. 

I'm reminded of an old pastor of mine when I was in high school who would simply say to me "Just keep the main thing the main thing." I know it wasn't an original phrase of his, but it resonated then with me and continues to.

"What are we going to do?" Well, I would say we do what we have been as pastors and Christians, or at least what we should have been doing all along.

I tweet a Bible verse daily (thanks to Hootsuite, I just set it up automatically.) A friend once called me to let me know that something was wrong with my Twitter account as it kept tweeting the same Bible verse. I told him that was intentional, as a daily reminder to me and maybe to anyone who actually follows me that the calling as a Christian is a high calling. Our mission is clear. The gospel is true and how we live, act, and talk (even online) matters. So...it's my reminder. I need it daily.

 

So, if you're a bit overwhelmed about...well...everything, take heart. God is still on his throne. He is sovereign. He never fails and he remains constant - yesterday, today, and forever. And despite all that is happening and will happen in our SBC sub-culture, God is not shaken. In fact, just in case you need reminding, God is not relying on the SBC. It should be the other way around.


Running Low On Hope That the SBC Will Right This Ship

Sometimes in the Southern Baptist (SBC) bubble that I grew up within, serve within, and often live within, I think that everyone is talking about SBC issues and concepts all the time. The truth is the majority of my deeply politically-conservative, tradition-laden, church-on-every-corner, southern town is not Southern Baptist. The vast majority are not Christians and many only hold to a "God and country" version of American Christianity rather than a biblically convictional version. In other words, just like every other pastor and Christian I know, I live in the heart of a mission field where lostness has more reign than I desire.

If I am not careful, I will get sidetracked from the actual mission. Since I am a Southern Baptist and have been my entire life (I was Southern Baptist, at least on Sunday School roll, prior to my new birth moment) I often think in "Baptistese" utilizing a lexicon that not even all our church members understand (i.e. messengers, autonomy, Cooperative Program, IMB, NAMB, State Board of Missions, Executive Committee, UUPG, Lottie, Annie, etc.)

Within our SBC bubble things happen.

Good things happen.

Conventions occur annually on the state and national level. Associations and networks come together to intentionally fulfill the mandates of the Great Commission and Great Commandment for the glory of God. Board meetings and entity gatherings take place where saints intentionally pray and plan for wisdom to extend the reach of the gospel. Missionaries are sent. Churches are planted. Seminarians are trained. These are all good things (and the list is not extensive.)

But...bad things happen, too.

Sometimes this is unintentional. Sometimes...sadly it seems to be systemic. Maybe this is a result of brand-protection, propagation of a long-held buddy system, latent Christian celebrity making, or idol worship.

Then...yesterday. A Southern Baptist event took place that quickly moved to the front burner for many active and engaged SBC pastors and church members. I heard the phrase "the world is watching" from many and maybe that is so, but even if the world wasn't watching, I was. And more importantly, our Sovereign God was...and is.

What occurred was a special called meeting of the SBC Executive Committee (the managing and functioning agency for Cooperative Program issues and denominational decisions throughout the year excluding the two days when the actual Southern Baptist Convention is in session.) The polity of this organizational structure may seem strange to those who are not Southern Baptist, but suffice to say this group is the SBC decision-making group when the annual meeting is not in session. Yet, there is a very clear and specific caveat for this group. They work at the behest of the SBC and our messengers (voting representatives at our annual meeting sent from local, autonomous churches in good standing.) In June 2021 the SBC Annual Meeting took place in Nashville, Tennessee. It was one of the largest attended in numerous years due to two things - 1) the 2020 meeting cancellation due to COVID and 2) the genned-up in-house squabbles between factions hoping to get their respective man elected president. It was fun. Kind of like riding a roller coaster that makes you throw up all over your shirt is fun.

Our Most Recent Mess

Nevertheless, during the Executive Committee's presentation at our annual meeting where the intent was to unveil and promote a new vision for the SBC (It was unveiled, but this was no home run. It was welcomed with a collective "amen" that sounded more like "meh") a motion was made from the floor (remember - this is just a big Baptist business meeting) by messenger and pastor Grant Gaines regarding the widely-known sexual abuse scandals in many local churches and the response requested from the Executive Committee. His motion is below:

I move that the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting June 15-16, 2021, in Nashville, TN, ask the newly elected president of the SBC to appoint a task force within 30 days of the date of this Convention that shall be comprised of members of Baptist churches cooperating with this Convention and experts in sexual abuse and the handling of sexual abuse-related dynamics. This task force shall either assume oversight of the third-party review announced previously by the Executive Committee or initiate a separate third-party review. Said task force shall ensure that the third-party review includes an investigation into any allegations of abuse, mishandling of abuse, mistreatment of victims, a pattern of intimidation of victims or advocates, and resistance to sexual abuse reform initiatives. The investigation shall include actions and decisions of staff and members of the Executive Committee from January 1, 2000 to June 14, 2021. This investigation should include an audit of the procedures and actions taken by the Credentials Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, which was formed at the Convention meeting in Birmingham, AL, June 11-12, 2019. The review shall be funded by allocations from the Cooperative Program.

We further move that the task force agree to the accepted best-standards and practices as recommended by the commissioned third-party, including but not limited to the Executive Committee staff and members waiving attorney client privilege in order to ensure full access to information and accuracy in the review. A written report on the factual findings of this review shall be presented to the task force 30 days prior to the SBC Annual meeting in 2022, and made public in full form within one week of the Task Force’s receipt of the report along with suggestions from the task force for actions to be taken by our convention.

The motion was discussed and voted upon. (Full disclosure - I voted to affirm the motion.) An overwhelming majority of messengers affirmed this and we left the annual meeting with the understanding that since the messengers had spoken, the things within the motion would be accomplished.

That is how it is supposed to be.

The Executive Committee is comprised of faithful Southern Baptists throughout our convention churches (pastors, church staff members, church members, men, women, young, median age, and older.)

A task force focusing on the sex-abuse issues of the SBC was put together and gave wise, strongly worded, step-by-step recommendations to the Executive Committee. The Executive Committee met recently and found themselves at an impasse regarding the motion. Delays were made and amendments to press on were defeated. The sticking point was the waiving of attorney-client privilege.

A special called meeting was held yesterday (September 28, 2021) via Zoom. The meeting was streamed live online and many, like me, did watch. Was it the "watching world?" Perhaps. There were certainly many Baptists watching. 

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Zoom meetings are the norm for many now. We use them in our church for committees and small group Bible studies. We use Zoom for local and state meetings. Yet, for this subject and with this much at stake for our convention, it became clear last night that a virtual meeting via Zoom was a poor choice. Despite the frustrating fact many apparently could not figure out how to mute/unmute, turn their cameras on/off, or vote electronically, there were bigger problems. The presentation showed a lack of professionalism, lack of decorum at times, inability to effectively count votes, and a revealed lack of respect for the SBC messengers by some, not all, on the committee. The recommendations from the sex abuse task force was disregarded. It was like watching a slow car wreck occur and those tuning in knew it would not turn out well.

The Enemy must love this stuff.

Sure enough, it did not turn out well. 

The fact that a vote on an amendment within the meeting had to take place by the committee members regarding whether or not they would do what they had been instructed to do by the messengers of the SBC causes me great concern. And I know some will say "But you just don't understand," or "You're not a lawyer," or "The messengers aren't privy to all the things this committee is privy to and they're just trying to protect the SBC," and other such things.

Those statements may be accurate.

Nevertheless, I am a Southern Baptist. And as a Southern Baptist I know our polity reveals that we are not a top-down, hierarchical denomination. We are a network of cooperating churches coming together for the sake of the gospel, to grow God's kingdom globally through evangelism, discipleship, and missions with doctrine and practices that conform to our confession of faith. It just seems to me that somewhere over the years a new system overtook the original programming. It's like a computer virus. It is a system that elevates brand over Bible. It's a system that says that people matter and that we care for the down-and-out, the hungry, the lonely, the abused, and the forgotten...but acts like it's more important to not be embarrassed publicly while doing more to promote programs, denominational efforts, and temporal issues that create celebrity pastors which harm greatly the church.

I have experienced much in SBC life over the years. I have heard angry preachers and angry Baptists attack one another at times.  Today I fear this moment may be the one that leaves more destruction, collateral damage, and unaddressed problems than we realize. 

Some are working to #DefundTheEC. There are cries by some to leave the SBC. A few are seeking to consider how to send funds to denominational entities of choice while eliminating the ones (in this case the Executive Committee) that anger them. A number of church planters are vocally wondering if they should remain in the Send Network and the SBC. 

Maybe it's just frustrated talk.

I doubt it.

I like to think that I mostly an optimist. Sometimes I doubt that I am an optimist. That makes me a pessimistic optimist. So, in my pessimistic optimism I believe that it is not too late. I want to believe that all those years and stories of sexual abuse survivors fighting for recognition, help, and justice will not continued to be ignored. I want to believe that when the majority of SBC messengers affirm a motion to do the right thing that those SBC agencies, entities, and committees given such assignments will stop hiding behind preference and legalese and do what they have been elected and appointed to do.

This is a watershed moment for the SBC. 

It is not too late to right the ship (I hope.) 

This means change must take place. That is most likely a change in leadership first, followed by a change in function and maybe structure. 

And maybe...please...can we stop having Zoom meetings like we just had so that our collective public embarrassment can be centered around issues and important topics rather than our inability to effectively utilize technology and behave like adults?


Southern Baptists Will Have To Decide If We Truly Are "Great Commission Baptists"

Every year when our Southern Baptist Convention gathers, banners and logos are pasted upon the host city's convention center. There are often placards throughout the city, near the hotels and where SBC messengers will be walking. It is no different than any other convention with a theme.

Each year's theme is presented by the current president of the SBC. J.D. Greear has been our president for three years thanks to the pandemic (the terms are for one-year only, and traditionally presidents will run for two concurrent terms.) In 2019, Greear announced the theme for the Birmingham meeting would be "Gospel Above All." In 2020, the announced theme for the since canceled Orlando meeting was "GSPL: Above All. Always." Apparently, 2020 was to be the year we avoided vowels (just kidding J.D.) I actually thought our 2021 theme would just be the 2020 one carried over, but when the Nashville theme was announced a change was clear. The 2021 theme for our meeting next week is "We Are Great Commission Baptists." 

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I'm anticipating (well hoping) a responsive reading at each session that will hearken back to cheer from the film "We Are Marshall!" Maybe Greear can just go to the platform and say "WE ARE..." and the messengers can respond "GREAT COMMISSION BAPTISTS!" But, alas, I doubt that will happen. Not because Baptists are against responsive readings or even gleaned university football cheers. It will not happen because even the theme likely would cause controversy. I'm sure it already has. 

Statements like "I thought we were SOUTHERN Baptists!" would resound. I can anticipate a question brought to the messengers and leaders from a well-meaning messenger who just cannot understand why we would avoid using the word "Southern." Then, of course, a messenger representing a church in Michigan, Oregon, Toronto or some other locale north of the Mason-Dixon line or west of Texas would stand at another microphone with a response akin to "We're not all in the south." And then...someone else would reference our collective history which includes slaveholders seeking to be missionaries, avoidance of civil rights issues, Martin Luther King, Jr., and maybe even the historical value or racial implications of the Confederate flag. 

It is clear that I have attended more than a few of our annual meetings.

Nevertheless, my Southern Baptist Convention has more issues this year than determining the theme for the annual meeting. It is just that as I plan my journey to Nashville, sign up for the pre-SBC Send Conference, gather my tickets to alumni luncheons and other meetings, I keep seeing "We Are Great Commission Baptists" everywhere.

I like the theme.

I really do.

I just wonder if it is true.

Is "Great Commission Baptists" declarative for who we are or is it aspirational for who we desire to be?

I know no Southern Baptist who would deny the value or commands that are included in the Great Commission (mostly looking at the Matthew 28:19-20 reference.) I know no one in my own church that would say it is unimportant. Yet, I also know that even in my own life, I do not always live and serve in such a way that keeps the "Gospel Above All" and as a Christ-commissioned disciple.

What must a Great Commission Baptist be? That's the question. Clearly it should not be presumed that every Southern Baptist knows what this means. It also should not be presumed that when verbal affirmation of the Great Commission is given that practical, lived-out actions automatically follow.

While we joke that Baptists love a good controversy and fight, it is actually evidence of our sin nature and our loss of focus upon the gospel.

I read an article by a former Southern Baptist, Erick Erickson regarding the current SBC issues. While you may or may not like Erickson's writings, statements, or beliefs in other areas, in this statement I fear he is sadly correct. Erickson stated:

A group within the SBC has decided to organize politically in response to some perceived liberalism creeping in. I have a lot of friends in the group and some who are on the outside and share the concerns. But, from my vantage point, it seems they’ve decided every fight is a matter of orthodoxy and anyone who stands in their way can be smeared — it’s just politics after all.

Another group within the SBC seems to have responded almost in kind and are increasingly vocal about racial reconciliation and a host of other social justice issues. In countering those pushing hard against critical theory and perceived liberalism, they seem to have gone off to other extremes.

Both sides share something in common — defining themselves in opposition to the other instead of defining themselves in support of the gospel. The actually have something else in common too — they treat the others as if they are political enemies, not just opponents and neither has shame for doing so, just rationale and justification. (The SBC: I Have Some Thoughts)

I'm Really Concerned This Year!

I have received text messages and have heard from other Southern Baptist pastors on all sides of various controversies in recent weeks. The common theme has been "I'm really concerned this year." I hear this and agree.

I too am concerned. Yet, I'm less concerned that the "wrong" person wins a denominational election. I am more concerned that we may gather, have meetings in the big room and secret meetings in the hallways and smaller rooms. I am concerned that the real issues that must be addressed will not be. I am concerned that the things tabled in the past will never come up again. I am concerned that the Great Commission will be little more than a theme on a banner to be removed the evening following the final gavel and messengers will travel back to their respective homes reporting little more than political posturing, angry speeches, hurt feelings, with the few highlights being the restaurants in the city and the reconnections with old friends (those are not to be missed, by the way.)

But are we really going to be "Great Commission Baptists" who believe the "Gospel is Above All" in how we live, love, and serve our Lord?

I am just one pastor of a suburban church. We are not a mega-church. Our influence is small compared to others. I have a great church full of imperfect children of God who just want to see friends, neighbors, coworkers, and family members saved. We want to see disciples made. We want to be equipped to serve well, engage lostness intentionally, and see God's kingdom expand. 

That's what Great Commission Baptists should want. Right?

The Great Commission is clear. 

Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20 CSB)

Great Commission Baptists who believe the gospel is above all will not allow:

  • Protecting a church's or denomination's brand by ignoring sin.
  • Nationalism over the gospel.
  • Abandonment of biblical fidelity (and inerrancy) in order to line up with the latest push from the moral revolution.
  • Political posturing disguised as theology (within the church, denomination, and the community.)
  • Abuse and victimization of others or protection of abusers. (Yes, we need a database of abusers.)
  • Idolatry of celebrity Christians (even in our own denomination.)
  • Legalism disguised as doctrinal gatekeeping. (And to be clear, I affirm strongly doctrinal fidelity as expressed in the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, so I'm not affirming weakening such. I just believe Pharisaical posturing is so very easy and often ignored.)
  • Racism.
  • Classism.
  • Local church autonomy to be diminished, but also will not use autonomy as a false barrier to dealing with very real issues of sin.
  • And numerous other items that conflict with "teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you"

This is what I believe.

I am not running for anything. I am just one messenger attending my Southern Baptist annual gathering. I look forward to connecting with friends, reconnecting with old ones, and making new ones. While others are working to get their designee elected, their agenda moved forward, and their battles won (all valiant desires,) I will be praying that our agenda will be usurped by the Holy Spirit early in our gathering. 

May we see change take place this year in Nashville. And may it be a change precipitated by repentance. I am praying we collectively experience a brokenness next week due to the realization that for far too long we have allowed our own agendas and posturing to take center stage.

WE ARE...

GREAT COMMISSION BAPTISTS!

(I hope.)


Getting the Church "Back to Normal" Is The Wrong Next Step

Our church like many others, has been slowly moving to what we hope may soon be categorized as the "post-pandemic era." We have gone through a series of steps, not unlike others, which has included social distancing, face masks, taped off seats, hand sanitizing stations, and numerous other things that have been recommended by the CDC and others. While some churches in our community have moved back to pre-pandemic schedules and events in full, others never shut down at all, and still others are yet to meet in person. 

These are trying days for church leaders seeking to know what to do next.

Online church services became the norm for many and while personally I like in-person services best, God has used our streaming services to keep us connected to church members as well as expand our reach to others. The streaming numbers are deceiving, unless you delve into what they mean. So, while I know we are not really reaching thousands through Facebook Live (since they count a 3-second view as someone scrolls by as a view) we have seen God use the online portal for his glory. In fact, we will be baptizing a brother in the coming weeks who first found our church online, watched us online for a few weeks, responded to the gospel through the "virtual invitation," and now is attending our church in person and will be a member of our church following his baptism.

"Getting Back to Normal" Is Not the Way Forward

The phrase "getting back to normal" has been stated by many. I have heard it from church members and others in our community. It is clear that the phrase has been a cry from those frustrated by all the pandemic has brought and it is totally understandable and right in many cases.

However, for our church, "getting back to normal" would be a huge step backward and if fully implemented could actually do great harm to our church. This has nothing to do with doctrinal foundations, biblical fidelity, or ministry callings. This would be a backward step for us as it would result in repopulating our calendar with the very same events and activities that existed prior to March 2020. This would also mean simply focusing on getting groups back to meeting in person in their same rooms, with the same structure, intent on gathering as they have for years. 

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In some cases, this may not be a huge issue, but in our case, it is clear that our practice of groups ministry slid into what was easiest and least disruptive in years past while our philosophy of groups ministry became little more than an aspirational concept.

In other words, we know that groups must multiply in order to be healthy. We know group leaders must have continually updated resources, relevant insights, doctrinal guardrails, and groups coaching to ensure that our philosophy of "leaders are learners" remains in place. But, this has not happened. Thankfully, we do have some great group leaders who love the Lord, study well on their own, and love their groups deeply. But, overall, we have not provided for them as we must.

Another aspect of philosophy not driving practice has been our very overt and clear statements regarding family equipping discipleship and the need for strategic and intentional intergenerational ministry within the church. I have written about this for years and the fact that ministry silos are so normative in our American evangelical world makes it difficult, if not impossible for church leaders to make the shift away from the programmatic structure during "normal" times.

But...we had a pandemic.

One thing the pandemic offered was the opportunity to pause every busy ministry and event-driven programmatic offering the church has been expected to do by the Christian consumers in our sub-culture.

Groups and intergenerational ministries are just two examples. These are very real examples in our church. Other churches may have other things that have been done for years that need to be retired. Some programs never need to return, as the era for their effectiveness no longer exists.

Be Careful...It's Easier To Do the Same Old, Same Old

But now, the calendar is being repopulated and it is frightening.

It is frightening because as days, weeks, and months move by, we find ourselves closer to a full reopening and our default and easiest next steps would be to do exactly what we were doing before the pandemic.

But we must not.

We cannot.

If we do, we not only will be stepping backward, but eliminating one of the greatest opportunities to right the ship in regards to biblically-centered philosophy of discipleship and ministry.

Our leadership team met earlier this week and I discovered after the meeting that we were doing exactly what I am warning we must not (and I was leading the way.) After thinking and praying through this since our meeting, I communicated with our staff that I know God has some great things in store for our church and to simply put back on the calendar all that we did prior (even if church members expect those programs and events to return) without praying through the steps, ensuring biblical fidelity, and seeing how they line up with our clear philosophy of ministry, mission, and vision we will be guilty of wasting the moment. 

Now What?

Now is the time.

It is not the time to "get back to normal."

It is not the time to go backward.

It is time to step into a ministry season that simultaneously remains the same and changes. We must remain centered on the gospel without compromise. That is not negotiable.

Yet, we must also be more intentional regarding intergenerational ministry, equipping the family (the entire church family,) fulfilling our commission to make disciples, and strategically seek ways to reach the people who actually exist near our church's address (and the expansive audience through social media and online connections.)

I am thankful for the men, women, boys, and girls who make up my church family. Once we take these steps forward, I look forward to seeing how God uses each one of these brothers and sisters for his glory as his church.


High School Graduate Recognition in a Family Equipping Church

It is spring in an almost post-pandemic year and high school graduation in our county is tomorrow. We have received graduation notifications in the mail, invitations to family-hosted celebrations, and some neighbors have the now common-place signs in their yards stating that a graduate is in the house. Social media feeds are full of memory photos including many reenactments of those "first day of school" pics from kindergarten with the now adult-looking child holding a sign that says "last day of school." In our county, public graduation ceremonies are back on, without masks even. It is almost like it used to be prior to COVID-19.

Churches are having their annual high school graduate recognition time. For some churches this involves having the students march down to the stage in their respective caps and gowns. A brief introduction will be made to the congregation stating who the student is, from which local school he/she is a graduate, and sometimes future plans are shared as well. It is a nice stroll down memory lane for those in the church who actually know the students. 

What To Do For Graduates At Church?

Most often the church will acknowledge the achievement of graduating high school. Then a gift is given to the students. Many times the gift is a book that, to be honest, we know will never be read.  Many students will just pack the gift in the box with the rest of their "high school memories." There was a season when our church would give a compilation cassette tape or CD (FYI - cassette tapes were small plastic reels of magnetic tape containing recordings of music. CDs were round, reflective discs that could hold music, videos, and data. These were played in the dashboard audio systems of Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs or on the Gateway personal computer in the home - if said computer had a CD-ROM drive. For information on Oldsmobile, Pontiac, or Gateway, search the items on Google.) of Christian music to graduates. 

It is a special day for the students. It is likely more monumental and special for the parents of the students.

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Pastors and church leaders often struggle with what to do for high school graduates, especially with the understanding that the Lord's Day worship gathering is to be just that, a focus on the Lord. Holidays and special events (Mother's Day, Father's Day, Memorial Day Weekend, Independence Day, Arbor Day, etc.) often create great confusion, and anger groups of church members when what is expected on a particular Sunday morning is seemingly ignored or not prioritized. 

So, what do you do with high school graduates on the Lord's Day?

If you take the entire service honoring graduates is that not a problem for a church commanded to honor God alone?

If the focus is on the accomplishments of the seventeen and eighteen-year-olds in your fellowship, is that wrong?

If you totally ignore the fact that some in your fellowship have just graduated from high school is that ignoring the context of your culture?

What about those students who really never come to church, but their parents or grandparents do? So, on high school graduate recognition Sunday there is a teenager standing before the congregation who is not only not a part of the fellowship, but is unknown to most but those who are related to him? Does that graduate get the "free gift" too?

What about students who joined the church and attended worship, but never attended any student ministry activities, events, or trips? It is often the student pastor leading the recognition. It is awkward, but does that student count? Or...should that student count more because she was part of the church and not just part of the student ministry?

Over The Years, I Have Learned...

After thirty-plus years in full-time pastoral ministry here is what I have discovered and recommend regarding high school graduation and church:

  • If you recognize graduates on Sunday morning, some will love this. Others will be angry.
  • If you do not recognize graduates on Sunday morning, some will love this. Others will be angry.
  • I don't believe it is wrong to recognize high school graduates. You may disagree, but I'm writing this blog and that is my opinion.
  • Graduates are not excited about the gift the church gives them (for the most part.)
  • Just because most graduates may not read the gift book you give them does not mean you should stop giving books. Books last. Books are good. Good books are great. If you give them a book, don't waste money on a "Promises for the Graduate" book, but give them one that speaks of identity in Christ, life in Christ, proper doctrine, and truth. Self-help books (even Christianized ones) are not worth it. They may not read it...but they may and it is best to offer a timeless work than a pop-Christian-psychology-you-have-what-it-takes manual. Oh, and even if they have a Bible, a new Bible still a good gift. I actually still have the Bible my church gave me in 1986 when I stood in front of our congregation as a graduating senior. Thanks Davis Boulevard Baptist Church (now CrossMark Church.)
  • No graduate should be given the microphone and asked "What do you plan to do for the rest of your life now that you are an adult?" Don't do this to a student even if they have thirty honor ribbons and everyone knows they've been accepted to the most prestigious university around. Why? Because there are likely students standing next to them who are just really glad they have graduated high school and are unsure of their next steps. It is a recognition for all graduates, not just the valedictorian-level students. The school's awards ceremony is the place for acknowledging those academic accomplishments.
  • You will have students show up for graduate recognition that you cannot ever remember seeing before. So, if you have a gift for others...have one for them. This "who gets recognized" issue is no hill to die on.
  • Don't make participation in youth ministry activities and events the litmus test for being recognized on Sunday.
  • Regarding the sermon - preach the gospel. This should be understood, but Sunday's sermon should not sound like the secular "Believe in yourself" or "Follow your heart" drivel offered at many commencements. In fact, if you are preaching through a series, stay in the series. It is a clear reminder that while you are acknowledging the accomplishments of your now young adults, the church gathered is focusing on God's teaching from God's Word for the day (just as you do every Lord's Day.)
  • If you are recognizing graduates do so as a church, not as a student ministry. 
  • Consider a post-service or pre-service fellowship with graduates and their families. Or, do as we did for years, have a drop-in graduate recognition party for all your graduates. This will provide space and fellowship for all your graduates and that way when families are calling the church to reserve the fellowship hall for their graduate's party, you can say "We do this for all our graduates on ______ day. You're welcome to participate." It will keep church members from trying to hit every party in town and will provide a celebration for those students whose parents may not schedule such an event. And...for families who want their own...they will do it anyway.

The Big Shift for Graduates & Parents - The Family Blessing

Moving to a family equipping ministry as a church has been challenging, yet fulfilling. I have written about this philosophy of ministry prior. You can read about it here.

Since the church is helping parents, grandparents, and guardians of children and teenagers to be the point of the spear when it comes to discipleship, we believe it is imperative that our recognition of graduates moves beyond the traditional presentation of students and a gift from the church during a worship service.

The family blessing is a milestone that cannot be replaced by a church event. The words of a loving parent (or guardian) spoken publicly to a young man or woman will be remembered much longer than any words spoken by whomever was chosen to give a speech at the high school graduation. The blessing is biblical. It is intentional. It is public. It is spoken. It is right and holy.

And...for many parents, it is frightening.

It is most frightening for those who fear standing in front of or speaking in front of a crowd. We understand that. In those cases, we stand with the parents, we provide mentors, we even will read the blessing of the parents upon their child for them if needed.

We will see this play out on Sunday here at our church.

We have just a few graduating seniors this year, but they will be recognized. During the early part of our worship service, these students will be brought to the front of the congregation (wearing their respective graduation regalia.) They will be introduced to the congregation. Words of encouragement and challenge will be offered by the pastor or student pastor. Then, their parents (or guardians/mentors) will come stand with them. The microphone will be given to the parent and he/she will speak a blessing upon their now young adult child before the fellowship of believers.

This is a milestone.

Some may call it a rite of passage, but it is more than that. It is the loving parent's words of blessing upon a child who is stepping into a new chapter of life.

It will not be easy for all. Some parents may struggle with finding the words. In some cases, the wounds between parent and child make this even more difficult. Yet, even then, we believe there is power in the biblical blessing within the fellowship of the redeemed. Since we are intent on equipping parents, we help them with this. We make this step doable. We are equipping parents to bless their child even if they have never experienced this in their own lives.

And with this...an added on recognition to a worship service becomes a time of redemption, calling, blessing, challenge, and will shift from being solely about the graduate and more about God and all that he desires for the future of this person. 

To God be the glory, may we do this well.

And...congratulations graduates!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Teenagers Need More Than the Coolest Youth Group In Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is. He always has been.

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

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

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

More Than Lock-Ins and Pizza Parties

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

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

These were good days.

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

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

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

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

Hindsight is 20/20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Ravi Zacharias Scandal & the Danger of Creating Celebrity Christians

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

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

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

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

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

Grieving the Death of Ravi

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

Grieving More Deeply at What Has Been Revealed

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

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

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

The Crushing of Idols

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It's their words against his"

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

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

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

"Even David sinned sexually and remained king"

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

"I just won't believe it"

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

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

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

How Many More?

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

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

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

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

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