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."


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

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

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

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

I answered initially with one word - longevity.

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

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

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

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

What I Said About "The Letter" 

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

Mail-newsletter-home-mailbox-hiring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Such a Letter Would Say

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answers to the Common Questions

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

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

What If You Received Such a Letter?

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

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

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

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

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


Why Be a Disciple of Jesus Christ from Your Church?

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

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

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

Why would God want a disciple from our church?

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

Lightstock_435493_medium_david_tarkington

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

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

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

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

Doctrine Matters

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

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

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

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

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

Hard Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Pastoring In the Aftermath of the DC Riot

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

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

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

Capitol-washington-dc-government-building

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

Ideology & Theology

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

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

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

Pastors: Be Strong and Courageous 

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

What you may face...

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, maybe it is not so strange?

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

And it has always been this way.

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

Be strong and courageous.

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

Ephesians 4:1-6

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

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

 


Becoming a Healthy Church Takes More Than a Resolution

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

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

Healthy Church HD Screen

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

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

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

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

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

We Need More Healthy Churches

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

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

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

 

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Resources

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