What Is Happening in Ukraine Matters To Us All

"Wait! What is all this in the news about Ukraine?"

Questions about an eastern European country began resounding earlier this week and after yesterday's update more and more people are stopping to see what the talk is all about.

In the era of streaming and on-demand television many do not find out about current world events when the news "interrupts this program" any longer. Thus, global stories sometimes trickle out to various groups in different ways than before and once something big happens, it trends throughout the media and social media. Suddenly, all the other "big" stories disappear for a moment at least.

And Now...War

David Leonhardt of The New York Times states this is "the most significant European war in almost 80 years." I do not think this is an overstatement. As of late last night (EST in the United States) reports of bombings in Ukraine from Russian military were being shared. Now, as the western hemisphere awakens we are notified that Russian planes and missile launchers have attacked Ukrainian cities and airports. According to the map below from The New York Times, the bombings have not been limited to border areas of the nation.

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Red markings denote places where attacks have been reported. - The New York Times

 

Dr. Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has been speaking of the coming Russian aggression over the past week or so in his daily The Briefing podcasts. Dr. Mohler is well-versed in the history of Russia and especially the post-WW2 history of the region. He stated this on Monday, February 21, 2022:

This is likely to be a very big, very historic week because there are certain fissures on the world surface that are going to break loose. And by that, I mean, politics, war, geopolitics. We're looking at huge headlines rushing at us. Something is going to happen in Ukraine. Something is going to happen and Russia is going to be the instigator, regardless of what Russia claims. We are looking at a continual effort by Russia to destabilize the entire Western order and by now, we really do know what we are facing. 2

Dr. Mohler is no prophet, but he was spot-on in this analysis. Something big has happened this week and just as predicted, Russia is the instigator.

Why is Russia so fixated on Ukraine? This is a good question and goes back further than even the creation of the USSR. Even as far back as the empires of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, Ukraine has been considered part of the "sphere of influence" of Russia. The Rus' people, an early medieval group who lived in what is now Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and other eastern European areas are connected by heritage, ancestry, and share culture, history, and etymology.

In Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent address to the world essentially, he stated "I would like to emphasize once again that Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us, it is an integral part of our own history, culture, and spiritual. It is our friends, our relatives, not only colleagues, friends, and former work colleagues." As he spoke, he hearkened back to hundreds of years of history, but truly was longing for the days of the Soviet regime to return. He has positioned himself through his statements as the "liberator" of the Ukrainian "occupation" of their own land. But, as he states "Ukraine was simply invented by Russia." Therefore, the independence of the nation is something he does not recognize. As the world watches, a tyranny is taking place and believe me, it matters.

With Ukraine being invaded as I type this, unless something unforeseen occurs, Russia will own the land once more. This will put Russian territory on the border of Poland and that matters as well for Poland is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO.) The NATO charter states affirms an agreement of collective defense that basically states if one NATO nation is invaded or threatened all are. Thus, the military of NATO nations must come to the defense of the one being attacked. 

What About Taiwan?

What would Taiwan have to do with Ukraine? 

As Pastor Bob Roberts Jr. tweeted yesterday...

 

The west is watching what is happening in Eastern Europe. The east is watching how the west responds. I believe Pastor Roberts may be right as China looks to the response with plans for Taiwan. I pray that war does not break out globally, but there was a time when the US was embroiled in a two-front war - one in Europe and one in the East. The players have changed, but sometimes it seems that history repeats.

Thus, this trending news report that seems to be centered around one issue on the Russian border is much larger.

Pray Now

What can be done? Politicians and military leaders are no doubt gathering in rooms in Washington and throughout Europe even now. Steps will be taken. Some will be avoided. And we watch and wait. Yet, while we wait, Christians must pray. This is more than the trendy, weakly offered "thoughts and prayers" that people often give. What is needed from the church now is face-down, heart-wrenching, God-believing, intercession for our brothers and sisters in Ukraine and surrounding areas. Images of praying Christians have been shared on news stations. 

We have missionary friends in Ukraine and surrounding areas who are sharing the on-the-ground updates.

An evangelist friend has tickets to travel back to Ukraine in two weeks. Of course, those plans will likely change. He shared that over the last year numerous churches have been started in the nation. Hundreds have come to faith in Jesus Christ. These are our friends, brothers, and sisters. A Slavic revival has been happening among the people. While many foreigners are now leaving the nation, the native Ukrainians are unable do so. So they pray and we must join them.

The video below aired yesterday and shows people of Kharkiv praying as the impeding invasion comes.

 

So, we pray for Ukraine. We pray for the surrounding nations. We pray for those in Taiwan who are watching this unfold with their own fears. We pray for God's grace to abound. 

Send Relief has released some prayer points that many are sharing, so we now pray together for these items. Praying. Believing. Hoping.

Click Here to Download the Ukraine Prayer Guide 

Send Relief also has available a giving option for those who wish to donate to provide resources for the displaced during the crisis. You may give here.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7 (ESV) 3

__________________ 

Leonhardt, David. “War in Ukraine.” The New York Times, 24 Feb. 2022, link.

Mohler, Albert. "The Russian Bear is Poised for Attack: Russia Escalates Situation in Ukraine to Explosive Proportions." The Briefing, 21 Feb. 2022. link.

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Php 4:6–7). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

 

The Question I Should Have Been Asking All Along

The challenges that pastors of legacy churches in older, changing communities continue to increase. And as Carey Nieuwhof shared in recent post, crisis is both a revealer and an accelerator. Carey writes...

The crisis of the last few years has done two things for every church and business. It’s revealed what’s working and what isn’t. And it’s sped up the consequences of both.

While a few churches have seen rapid growth during the crisis, most churches are still hovering between 30-70% of their 2019 attendance.

A survey of over 15,000 churches conducted just before COVID hit shows that between 2000 and 2020, median church service attendance dropped from 137 people to 65.

The updated graph will probably show an even more precipitous decline.

So what’s the insight?

Because crisis both reveals and accelerates, perhaps you’re seeing today what your church would have looked like in 2030. The longer your church has been fully open for in-person services, the more true that is.

As sobering as that might be, perhaps it’s a gift.

If the old approach hasn’t been working for 20 years, the accelerated decline can be a gift to help you see that a new approach is needed.

If the old approach never led to renewal, trying harder won’t bring about different results no matter how hard you try.

And if the old model of church wasn’t working before, it’s probably not going to work again, no matter how sincere you are, how loudly you shout it, or how desperate you feel.1

When I speak of pastors in older, legacy churches in changing communities I have first-hand knowledge. Our church turned one-hundred years old last May and our community that bumps up to the southwestern corner of Jacksonville, Florida is changing at a rate hard to comprehend. In just a short number of years our area has moved from being a destination for families to buy homes, imbed themselves, and remain for decades to being a "drive-by" community from the fast-growing Jacksonville to the former swamp and forest-filled areas in the central and southern part of our county where new subdivisions have been and continue to be planted. New highways and thoroughfares are being built in these areas and the old-timers who may think nothing is going to change are in for a rude awakening. 

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Years ago I shared with our church's deacons and leadership about how missional mapping reveals the great difficulty of actually getting to our church's property from many parts of our county. Barriers that keep people from moving from location A to location B include gated communities, divided highways, waterways, bridges, railroad tracks, and more. As an example, for me to drive from my home to my office at the church, I must cross a divided highway, go by a gated community (I don't live in one,) cross a waterway over a bridge, and cross a railroad track. Thus the "Field of Dreams" philosophy that states "If we build it, they will come" that developed through the church growth era is defunct, if it ever was truly valid.

It's Not Just Small Churches Needing Revitalization

Church networks, mission agencies, and denominations have been and are working to develop strategies to help the thousands of churches across our nation that are on life support. In many cases, the targeted churches are in communities that have had dramatic demographic shifts and yet the church seems to be living in a time warp where upon entry one feels as if they've stepped back a few decades. 

Some have found their membership aging and numbers dwindling to just a a dozen or so. In these cases, one does not need a degree on anthropology or even an advanced math degree to determine that unless something changes, the church will soon no longer exist.

Many in these smaller churches do not realize change must take place until it is too late.

Sadly, many in historically larger, legacy churches in our communities have the very same blind spots. They just have more financial resources so they often do not recognize their very real needs until decades after they should. And as stated before, the crisis of the pandemic has thrust us all about ten years into the future as it relates to church attendance. So, some are now thankfully noticing such needs that would otherwise be ignored for years.

But What To Do?

In our most recent deacons meeting the men asked some very sincere and needed questions regarding the many changes that have recently happened in our church. These changes have included the retirement of two full-time pastors, the retirement of an administrative assistant, the shift from full-time to part-time for some employees (by their request) and the very real issues of deferred maintenance to our buildings that are now having to be addressed.

Concerns abound that we are doing less ministry than in the past, but after discussing this honestly with our deacons and staff, it is not so much that ministry is not happening. It is more that we have been forced to take the steps we should have years prior to eliminate the mindset that the "professional Christians" (e.g. paid pastors and staff) do the ministry and the church members receive the ministry. While there is certainly ministry actions and services offered to church members, we all know that one of the roles and callings of pastors and ministers is to equip the saints for the work of ministry. Thus, we have been recently blessed with a shift from obvious consumer-Christianity to biblically-based gospel service.

I will say that it is a very difficult shift for those who have spent decades in a church model that seemingly fuels consumer-based thoughts and functions to one that is biblical. I understand this and actually feel this tension.

In our discussion and in many one-on-one talks I have had with church members, I hear recommendations from those seeking to serve the Lord through our church. As ideas are shared I hear the desperation in the voices. Examples of what could be done (or should be done) clearly are based on what has been experienced in decades past, or in other churches. I have heard well-meaning saints express that we should implement a bus ministry (but we don't have a bus,) restart our children's sports leagues, sing more hymns in worship, sing more praise choruses, increase our choir numbers, get rid of the choir, turn up the lights, turn down the lights, have a big youth event weekly, do more trips, restart mid-week meals, do Bible studies in homes, offer better and more classes for Sunday morning, have the preacher (me) do more topic-based sermons, have the preacher (still me) do more verse-by-verse sermons, go back to what we did years ago (in various ministry age-groups,) and more.

The good news is that all these brothers and sisters care deeply about our church.

The challenging reality is that just about every recommendation comes from a rear-view mirror. That makes sense because we know what we know, not what we don't know. What we know is what we have experienced. We often think about how church was when we loved it most, met our spouse, had our baby dedicated, developed deep friendships, experienced revival, etc. and long for that again.

The Question That Hit Me Like a Brick

Back to that deacons' meeting. We talked. I wrote on a white board. I listened. I offered opinions. Then one of our men asked a question. It was a question I did not expect, but should have. It was the question that caused me to stop and to be honest, led to a bit of a conundrum in my mind. 

You see, I believe that planting new churches is needed in our nation and throughout the world. I serve with our mission board as a cohort leader for new church planters. I serve in our local network to connect church planters with legacy church pastors. I offer expertise (what little I have) to church planters looking for resources, insight, demographic studies, and next steps for the churches God is leading them to begin.

But this question...well, it shook me.

This brother asked "If our church did not exist but you were a church planter looking to plant a church at this location, what would you do and what would you not do?"

Uh...

This is the question that must be answered.

While the legacy of one-hundred years of service in our community is good and vital, in order to continue serving the Lord faithfully and impacting our community...our dramatically changing community...I must ask this question regularly.

It has been said often and must be repeated, the unchanging message of the gospel is never up for debate. The doctrines of the faith are cemented and secure. Who we are as God's church is founded upon him. Yet, to live missionally in any community means that contextualization must continually occur. Otherwise, we will wake up one day to the reality that we have systems in place and structures developed as a church that are perfectly designed to reach a people who no longer exist.

What would I do if I were planting a church here today? 

It seems we have been thrust into this due to the global crisis and this "time machine" has led us now to what otherwise would not have been recognized by many of our church members until years from now. But it is now and God has sovereignly allowed us to remain as his light in this darkness. To be salt and light in this community remains founded on the very same Word, but the way we share that with the world may be changing. It obviously has. 

I am thankful that things are not as dire as they could be, or are for many. But, I know that to ignore the realities of now by simply going backward is not the answer.

We cannot put new wine in old wineskins, though many try. 

I will wrestle with this question as will many others in our church. Perhaps by reading this, other churches and leaders will as well. In the midst of very challenging post-pandemic (or current pandemic) days, may we not cease to live as missionaries and ambassadors to a world not seeking God, not desiring God, but needing him. 

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1Carey Nieuwhof. “5 Faulty Assumptions about the Future Church.” CareyNieuwhof.com, 21 Jan. 2022, careynieuwhof.com

 

The Power of Panic

There are many questions about life that come to mind when a young person is preparing to step into full-fledged adulthood. Questions about work, marriage, relationships, and many other things abound. Faith questions are real for those who grew up in the American evangelical Christian world. These young people begin to flesh out their faith in Christ. Do they truly believe or are they just holding onto their parents' belief system? Is Christ real? Would they believe in Jesus if they had grown up in a non-Christian family? What about...fill in the blank?

I actually loved growing up in a family that treasured God and his church. My faith was strengthened throughout my childhood by my parents as well as God-fearing adults and teachers in the churches where we served. This does not mean I did not have questions. I did. I just found that God in continually drawing me to himself provided answers through his Word and through his church. During my first couple of years in college I found I was actually more secure in my faith than I was in high school. Sadly, I also found I was drawn to a certain sub-culture of Christianity that sensationalized certain things to create a sense of urgency. It was not a biblical urgency based on Christ or his great commission, but an urgency that seemed to grow louder and more angry over time, seeking to create stories that did not exist for the purpose of "rallying the troops." (We Christians tend to love militaristic metaphors.)

I started to listen to talk radio and enjoyed the takes on politics and personal freedoms that were displayed. This may actually be the genesis of the age of mean-spiritedness disguised as free speech that we now have. I even found Christian talk radio programs that paralleled the political ones. In fact, there was not much difference in the programming. Both were bombastic and loud. Both were built upon the personality of a host who was more entertainer than news reporter. Both were perpetually raging about the dangers of the "others" out there, most often liberals and evil spirits. Both were selling products–maybe a newsletter subscription, books, caps, t-shirts, and bumper stickers. 

Then, in 1988 while I was a junior in college, something happened that thrust the evangelical Christian world into panic. Due to me being hooked by the voices of the day, I found myself deeply interested. A movie had been produced by an Oscar winning director that would depict Christ in a blasphemous way. In addition to the Oscar-winning director, the film featured some big name Hollywood actors, but that was not what pushed it to the front-page of my university's newspaper and the others in cities across America.

It seems that even without seeing the film, a backlash from evangelical Christians grew so loud that the production company did not really have to spend money on promotion. The controversy was enough. Thus, when The Last Temptation of Christ was released many went to see it just to discover what the big deal was all about. 

When Evangelicals Panic

What was the big deal in 1988 regarding this film? This was The daVinci Code before Dan Brown ever wrote his blasphemous novel (BTW - Christians did the same thing in 2003 with Brown's book and the movie when it was released. I am guilty of getting on that bandwagon.) How could a film cause so many Christians to panic? Christian leaders such as Bill Bright, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, James Wildmon, along with Catholic leaders in the United States pushed very hard to stop the production and to keep the film from premiering. It has been reported that Bill Bright even offered Universal Studios ten-million dollars to buy up all the film prints and negatives just to destroy them.

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Photo credit: antgirl on VisualHunt

No wonder people lined up to see this film. Curiosity alone makes the typical person think "I need to see what all this is about."

While Christians gathered with placards and protested the studio and movie theaters, more and more stories about the film, its content and message were shared. It also seems that more people actually paid money to view the film than otherwise would have. As they say, any publicity is good publicity, right?

To put it bluntly, the organized Christian talk radio effort, petition signing, and righteous rallying did little but cost money and create the opposite of what was intended. According to Coleman Luck, a Christian who worked for Universal in Hollywood at the time, it did more damage to his evangelistic attempts to love his coworkers and community and introduce them to Christ than any other single event at the time.

This was so long ago that many have likely forgotten the story. We as evangelicals were scuttled from one panic-fueled protest to another over the years in order to "fight the good fight" and "win the world to Christ." Looking back I just am not sure that these boycotts of Disney, AT&T, Universal, MTV, Microsoft, Burger King, Ellen, JCPenney, Old Navy, Nutrisystem, and many other companies and groups actually did was was intended. I have yet to meet anyone who has come to Christ as a result of a corporate boycott. Perhaps it has occurred, but I have yet to see it.

What was the actual win?

"Well...they knew where we stood on issues." Okay, I get that. "They" being the decision-makers at such companies and organizations, I presume. I still am not sure if this had any real impact.

Syncretism Fueled By Panic

In addition to such cultural boycotts and stances the church also, at least seemingly, married the state in many areas as the syncretistic union of faith and politics occurred. In Julie Roys recent interview with Coleman Luck, he states "Two-thousand years ago, Jesus Christ said that His Kingdom was not of this world. His followers have been trying to prove him wrong ever since.”

I wonder of we are actually aware of the power of panic in our lives and in our churches. 

Panic is a tool used to get groups to do what is desired. It is a true motivator, but a fear-based motivator. When panic is fueled, anger grows. Have you encountered anyone living like that? Do you know anyone who is seemingly so overwhelmed with fear that they are perpetually angry. That anger is strengthened by the talk shows they listen to, the podcasts they subscribe to, the news shows (which do not actually share the news) where talking heads declare the worst that is being done by others, and the echo chamber they live within. Sadly, sometimes these panic-fueled moments are exacerbated by the church and even by church leaders.

This is not to say that Christians should be living with a "Pollyanna" worldview defined by weakness and overt passiveness. Yet, just as I was enthralled as a young person by the loudest voice in the virtual room that used warnings and scare-tactics to grow an audience, so too can it happen now. Age alone does not bring along maturity. Only Christ can truly give us mature spirits. 

We surely should be active in our faith. We must be fulfilling the commission given to us by Christ. We actually do not have the privilege of opting out of the expected lifestyle and worldviews scripture proclaims. Yet, we must not slide into falsely believing that God needs us, that God is so thankful we were finally born so that we can right all the wrongs in the world, that our strength is in our numbers, our volume, or our political acumen. We must remember that to live as Christ lived is to understand that coming as a servant, a suffering servant, is key. Sure, Christ was righteously angry at times and when he turned over of tables in the temple, it was pretty amazing, but many Christians seem to live as if that is the goal - turn over as many tables as you can and claim your anger is righteous when in fact...it is just anger.

There is power in panic and as sheep of the Good Shepherd we must be sure we are listening to his voice. Otherwise the loudness of the sheep rustlers that are everywhere will continue to influence us into actions that not only embarrass the Good Shepherd, but fragment the flock and lead us to losing our witness.

For God gave us a spirit not of fear (so don't panic...that's my paraphrase - DT) but of power and love and self-control. - 2 Timothy 1:7 (ESV)


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.


Facing the Reality That Your Church Has Changed

"Your church is perfectly positioned and staffed to reach a people who no longer exist."

I first heard a Christian leader make that statement about fifteen years ago. His point was that often churches of a certain age find themselves overwhelmed by decades of programmatic, event-driven, historically successful strategies that were not and are not necessarily sinful, but over time become ineffective. Thus, your church may still be filling its calendar with elements designed to reach...people who are no longer in the community or attending the church.

Change Leads to Pastoral Frustration

I have discovered that I often do not think the way other pastors of churches think. This is not because I have some secret knowledge others do not or some insight that others have yet to gain. It is because I am weird. Yep, that's it. I tend to ask questions that others never consider and I just do not know better than to ask. Sometimes, I am like that four-year-old who responds to everything his parents say with "Why?" or the even deeper question of "But...why?"

It can be frustrating and I'm sure my frustration frustrates those who are part of the church I serve.

Yet, I still ask the questions. 

I still wonder why we do things we do. I wonder why things are the way they are. So I ask.

I do my best to look toward a place that is truly impossible to see - the future - to hopefully get a handle on trends and cultural shifts so that we as a church can be positioned well to present the never-changing, life-redeeming message of the gospel to the yet unreached.

"This is Not Your Father's Oldsmobile"

Now this dates me and those who are not at least fifty-years-old likely have no idea what I'm referencing. Yet, I'll attempt to explain.

Back in ancient history the company known as General Motors produced a line of vehicles under the brand name "Oldsmobile." Oldsmobile was positioned in the auto industry to reach a specific target market. 

At one point, Oldsmobile was focused toward an older demographic. Eventually, the market-share shrunk and GM was basically competing with itself (since Buick and Cadillac also targeted the same group.) Thus, in the mid-1980s Oldsmobile began running an ad campaign under the by-line "Not your father's Oldsmobile." The commercials featured actors who had starred in older television shows or movies along with their adult children. I remember ones featuring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy of "Star Trek." They were in the cars with their respective children and the adult children were shocked at how sporty the new Olds were. Thus..."This is not your father's Oldsmobile" was then stated and plastered on the screen.

It was catchy and creative. Apparently, not enough though as the Olds brand was soon discontinued. Yet, that phrase stuck with me and in church life where the retirement of long-dead programs and outdated emphases remains, the marketability of "This is not your father's church" seems to resonate.

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Of course, when I speak of this type of branding and marketing of the local church, I am not speaking of the abandonment of timeless truths, the value of the Lord's Day, the doctrines that define us, or the inerrancy of God's Word. Those and other vital elements of who we are as Christians and our message are timeless and never change and should never be tampered.

Yet, as most of us who grew up in church know, there are elements that were used by God for a season, but the season ended. In these cases, change has to happen. Otherwise, the church ceases to to be faithful to the calling God has given and ends up existing in a form that exists solely for itself.

Some struggle with this reality, but it does not make it any less true.

Many of our Baptist churches in need of revitalization or replanting now have faithful remnants of brothers and sisters in Christ serving and seeking to survive in their communities. Yet, even by their own admission, walking into the church is like stepping back in time. Back in time not to a moment of biblical focus and holiness, but just back a few decades to a time when said church was reaching its community and had more people in the gathering.

And Then...The Pandemic

There has been much written for many years regarding contextualization and the changing landscape of church planting, sustaining, and community engagement. Then COVID-19 hit and suddenly what smart people said would happen within the coming decade occurred within a span of weeks. 

Churches who refused or never thought seriously about online streaming, online giving, or online anything were reevaluating their strategies. Pot-luck meals went the way of the buffet restaurants. BST (Baptist Standard Time) for all meetings, services, Sunday schools, etc. was erased. A year's worth of events and programming disappeared. And...many pastors and ministry leaders whose job description and in some cases personal identities were defined by what they do (or did) rather than in who they are began to struggle. All the "Ministers of..." and "Associate Pastors to..." that were tasked a certain age group, ministry element, or program found themselves wondering what to do since their gatherings and programs were gone. Of course, this is an over-simplification as pastors and ministers truly focus on people, but it is easy for one to slide into busyness and tasks. It happens to all of us at some point, I guess.

Suddenly, discovering how to connect and reconnect became paramount. How to "do church" when how we "did church" was unavailable. The longing for "getting back to normal" began to be shared. And now, despite the delta variant, many churches are back to meeting in person. Programs are rebooted and structures are being reset. But...in many cases, the church has changed. In some cases it has been dramatic.

A great crowd for many on a Sunday gathering is very much smaller than pre-pandemic. A shift has happened. Now, we must adjust.

This is not your father's church...and it's not even the church you attended pre-pandemic in some cases.

When I arrived at our church to begin serving in pastoral ministry our community was much different. It was 1994. The population was smaller. The number of homes within a drivable distance was much less. Average incomes of those living near our church was significantly higher than now. There were fewer schools, fewer churches, and much history to preserve.

It is now 2021 and as I stated to our congregation a few Sundays ago - we cannot pretend that we are the church we were when we were the only conservative Baptist (or evangelical) show in town. Our mission field has changed and in some cases, we have pretended nothing has happened. A new coat of paint on a wall does not fix long-deferred maintenance. 

There is no going back, but there is a way forward.

We cannot simply ignore the mission field that exists in the present, pretending we are who we were in the past (with the numbers in the room we had at that time and the budget we had then) and be faithful to be who God has us here to be right now.

Reality Checks Are Good

So, let's just be honest. People ask me how many members we have at our church. I normally answer "I have no idea" but I do know on the books we have about four times as many "members" as we do who attend and participate in ministry. This has been the case for decades yet has been exacerbated due to our pandemic-infused online only era of church gatherings. Thus, we have bogus numbers. And our church is not alone. 

Numbers are our friends, but only if they're accurate.

Can the brand of our church survive a dose of reality? What if we begin to admit our church is not as big as it used to be, or as big as the church down the street? What if we actually look in the mirror and see who we are, then look out the window to see who really lives nearby. If we continue to seek to reach people who do not exist we will ultimately be successful in reaching nobody. 

Change is a pain. I don't like it, but it can be helpful.

Ignoring reality is a sign of pending death. I am thankful for who we really are (and for who really is in the room - or online) and believe the never-changing God has kept us here for his glory and ultimately for our good and our community's good. Rear view mirrors are great, but there's a reason they're smaller than the front windshield. 

Maybe you needed that reminder as well. God is sovereign and maybe he has been shrinking our imagined crowds of self-defined "Gideon's army"  to those who are truly disciples and will be used for the work ahead.


The 2021 Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting Is Over...So Now What?

I knew the questions would come once I returned home from Nashville. 

These are legitimate and right questions. 

Members of the church I pastor want to know what happened in Nashville at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) annual meeting. They have seen the news reports, the tweets, the blog posts, and one said "I've read from so many different places about the SBC. I think I am more confused about what is going on now than I was a week ago."

I have also discovered that not only do many members of local Southern Baptist churches not fully understand the polity of our convention and annual meeting (most of us never take time to explain it,) there are also a number of local church leaders who are confused about it and a good number of the 15,000+ who gathered in the room that still are trying to put the pieces together.

Unlike other denominations (and the SBC is not truly considered a denomination due to the autonomous nature of member churches) we do not have a top-down hierarchy. Yet, we do have polity. We do have cooperative agreements. We do have a statement of faith that gives us clarity regarding our doctrinal beliefs and structure. 

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Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting 2021


When the SBC meets annually for our meeting, it truly is a convention. In fact, the two days of our meeting between the opening and closing gavel hits, the SBC exists. Outside those two days, there really is no convention. This is eye-opening for many. Not unlike the Republican National Convention, the Democratic National Convention, the National Pipefitters Convention, the DAV National Convention, or even ComicCon (Comic Book & Sci-fi Convention) for example, the SBC is simply... a convention. There is allotted meeting space. There are groups that gather for meals. There are seminary alumni gatherings. There is an exhibit hall, complete with booths representing many ministries and groups (complete with freebies and bowls of candy.) 

For the remaining 363 days each year, the SBC Executive Committee acts as the SBC ad interim, or between annual meetings. (More here on the EC.)

During the convention meeting, which is simply a huge business meeting of Southern Baptists, decisions are made, resolutions are proposed, reports are given, speeches (and sermons) are offered, and votes are taken.

The SBC does not have delegates. Churches do not send representatives. Churches who cooperate within SBC associations and state conventions send "messengers." 

Here's a brief synopsis of who can send messengers:

The SBC Bylaws state that a church must have indicated it is in “friendly cooperation with the Convention and sympathetic with its purposes and work” and have made financial contributions to Convention work in the fiscal year preceding the annual meeting in June in order to seat messengers. The fiscal year ends on September 30 each year.

Each qualifying church automatically receives two messengers and can qualify for up to ten additional messengers based on the level of financial support the church has given to Convention causes (see SBC Constitution, Article III, for greater detail.)

If a church is recognized by a cooperating state or regional Baptist convention as a cooperating church and makes CP contributions through the state convention, the church’s name is forwarded to the SBC through the state’s Annual Church Profile report as a church in friendly cooperation with the Convention. (SBC.net)

At this year's meeting our worship pastor and I served as messengers from First Baptist Church of Orange Park.

This year's meeting was different than in year's past. The attendance was more than double from recent years. There were significant issues brought to the messengers to be addressed. On the heels of resolutions related to Critical Race Theory & Intersectionality (CRT/I) and the sex abuse scandal revealed in the Houston Chronicle article of February 2019, it is sufficient to say that not every messenger was walking in unity with others as our convention began.

Is the SBC Drifting?

Depending on which news reports you read, which videos you watch, and if you're on Twitter, which Baptists you follow, the messages regarding theological drift are varied.

There is a group that has come together decrying the liberal drift of the SBC. They have formed a network within the SBC called the Conservative Baptist Network (CBN.) It seemingly launched as a grassroots effort a year ago with the purpose of "righting the ship" of the SBC and the perceived liberal drift that is occurring. 

The steering council of the team represents (for the most part) conservative SBC pastors and leaders. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee is an interesting choice for the council. Though he previously served as an SBC pastor in Arkansas, he is apparently attending a non-denominational, egalitarian church now. I do not know most of the others on the council, but those I do know have been faithful Southern Baptists for years. While I disagree with them, they believe the CBN is needed.

I Don't Believe We Need To Fix What Isn't Broken

I do not believe the CBN is needed. In fact, I do not believe we need a Conservative Baptist Network because I believe the SBC is the network of conservative Baptists. That statement will likely get me some eye rolls and perhaps some social media arguments. Nevertheless, I do believe it is the case and I do not desire to debate regarding it.

SBC Presidential Election

Some have asked me if position of SBC President is simply symbolic with no real power. While "power" may not be the term I would use, the role is more than symbolic.

My friend, Pastor Jon Beck of First Baptist Church Avon Park, Florida, wrote this for his church members who were wondering about such as his church's messengers prepared to attend the annual meeting:

The Election for SBC President

Why is this important?

  • President appoints the Committee on Committees
  • C on C nominates the Nominations Committee (voted on by messengers)
  • Nominating Committee Nominates Trustees (voted on my messengers)
  • Trustees lead and oversee the Entities

SBC Entities

The Southern Baptist Convention conducts its work throughout the year through eleven ministry entities, the SBC Executive Committee (which serves as “the fiduciary, the fiscal, and executive entity of the Convention”), and an auxiliary called Woman’s Missionary Union.

  • SBC Executive Committee
  • Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC)
  • GuideStone Financial Resources
  • International Mission Board (IMB)
  • Lifeway Christian Resources
  • North American Mission Board (NAMB)
  • Theological Seminaries
    • Gateway Seminary of the Southern Baptist Convention 
    • Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (MBTS)
    • New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary(NOBTS)
    • Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS)
    • The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS)
    • Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS)
  • Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU)

Pastor Beck's full posting is here.

There were four men nominated this year to serve the one-year term of SBC President. One is a state convention leader. One is a seminary president. Two are local pastors. Opinions on these men were varied, as was evidenced by the pre-annual meeting social media blasts and campaign videos.

I hate that our election of SBC President left me with some of the same "icky feelings" that our national elections elicit. Baptists are not immune to name-calling (though it is often couched in Christianese...meaning some just add the word "Brother" before the diatribe calling out another.) 

Ultimately, each of these men is my brother. Each has be redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ. They each have a story to tell of when they were lost, when the Spirit of God drew them to the Father, and when they each surrendered their lives to Christ as Lord. 

In other words...each of these men will spend eternity in heaven. To God alone be the glory!

Yet, only one would be elected president of the SBC in 2021. 

After a run-off election (since no candidate had over 50 percent of the vote the first go-round) Pastor Ed Litton was elected President of the SBC. 

Despite what some have declared, Litton is not an egalitarian. He is not a liberal. He is not a moderate. 

Ed Litton has served his church well and has been an asset to Southern Baptists for years. He and his wife have supported and served pastors and pastors' wives, especially church planters, well for years. 

Regardless who won the election, I knew some would cry foul. Everyone knew this. And now, some are crying foul. 

Ed Litton needs our prayers. The SBC may very well be at a crossroads and future annual meetings may be just as challenging. Yet, I believe God is not worried about that. Perhaps this our "for such a time as this" moment.

The SBC Remains Faithful to Biblical Truth

The warnings against liberal theological drift should always be addressed. Left alone, without a rudder, any ship will drift. Mainline Protestant denominations in America have for the most part not only drifted, but have gone full speed ahead into liberal theological worldviews. This began many decades ago and if not for the conservative resurgence within the SBC in the 1970s and 1980s, our Convention would have been lost. Yet, holding to the anchor of biblical inerrancy led to a turn toward biblical fidelity and conservative theology. I believe this was necessary and am thankful for those who fought the good fight for the sake of doctrine, for the glory of God and the good of our churches.

While some do believe we are now going that very same way, I disagree. Our statement of faith (Baptist Faith & Message 2000) remains intact. We took no steps to reword it, amend it, or change it this year. There was no need to do so. Our confessional statement is solid and allows for autonomous Baptist churches to cooperate together with like-minded Baptists within a larger story.

Questions regarding CRT/I may not have been answered to some's liking, but the resolution approved by messengers on Tuesday, June 15 "On the Sufficiency of Scripture for Race and Racial Reconciliation" was worded well and sufficient in my opinion. I do not believe that Southern Baptists (as a whole, as churches, or as entities) use CRT/I as their measuring line for understanding racial issues from a biblical perspective. I do believe it is wise for Christians to at least understand the concepts of this belief system to understand where others may be coming from regarding race relations and racial issues. To some, that statement will never be enough. To others, it is likely too much. Nevertheless, I hold that when any teaching is elevated over the inerrant Word of God, the one holding that teaching has failed. God's Word alone has the final say. 

Yet, to discount the reality of what has been deemed systemic racism and to ignore the hurt and suffering those of minority races have experienced would be sinful as well. 

Where Do I Stand?

I am an inerrantist. I believe the Bible is true from beginning to end, without error. I am a complementarian. I affirm the Baptist Faith and Message (2000.) I am a pastor and my primary calling, after my family, is to the membership of First Baptist Church of Orange Park. I am called to shepherd, teach, preach, pray, and protect. 

If at any point I believed the SBC was heading toward an unbiblical, liberally theological, man-centered belief system, I would oppose the SBC as best I could and if that did not lead to change, I would lead our church to disfellowship with the SBC and other member churches. But...I do not believe that is happening now. So I remain and am pleased to be a Southern Baptist (though I think Great Commission Baptist is the better name.)

Some of my friends and pastors of sister churches will disagree with me. They have in the past. That's okay. I disagree with them, too. (Just not on Twitter.) Yet, I pray that our love for the Lord and for one another will sustain us. 

The SBC annual meeting is truly a great family reunion. Some often reference the "crazy relatives" who attend. (If you cannot name the "crazy relative" then you may be who they're talking about.) Regardless, I love these men and women in our SBC family. I am praying for better days ahead. I am no SBC apologist, but I am not ready to abandon this ship.

The 2021 annual meeting is over. The fields remain ready for harvest. There's work to be done.


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." 

2021-Nashville-1500-x-500-Final-B

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. 

Lightstock_69336_small_david_tarkington

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.


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.

Ravi2
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.