Christians, Depression, and Mental Illness

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mental Illness and Sin

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

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

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

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

What is mental illness?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's the promise in Scripture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where there is sin revealed, confess and repent. 

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

______________

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Is Church Membership Biblical?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Is Church Membership?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Church Membership Is a Relationship

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

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

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

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

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

Church Membership Is Not a Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

What About Members Who Abandon the Church?

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

What about the rest of those disconnected "members"?

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

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

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

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

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

It's bogus. It's sinful.

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

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

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

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

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

Church membership can be a mess.

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

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

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

 

Oh yeah...

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


Hope in a Culture Defined By Hate

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

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

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

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

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

Hate Is "Normal" 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hate Is Historical

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

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

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

Walmart shooting
Photo: Mark Lambie/El Paso Times

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

"It's never been this bad."

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

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

...and more.

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

 

Hate Is Elevated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hate Is Healable

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

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

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

It could.

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

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

The answer is the same it has always been.

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

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

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

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

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


The Shaming of Purity and the Falling of Christian Leaders

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

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

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

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

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

Purity Culture

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

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

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

Why is Christian Sexual Purity Newsworthy Now?

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

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

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

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

 
 
 
 
 
View this post on Instagram
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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

A post shared by Joshua Harris (@harrisjosh) on

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

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

The Fall of Celebrity Christians

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

I guess that is human nature.

And that's why we need Christ.

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

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

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

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

Legalism Never Brings Life

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

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

David French wrote of this in National Review...

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

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

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

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

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

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


On Death and Why We Hate Using That Word

The longer one serves in pastoral ministry, the more funerals one attends. Depending on the average age of one's church, the number of funerals vary. Our church is almost one hundred years old and our membership is fully intergenerational. Therefore, I have attended and preached as more funerals than I ever thought I would as I was studying for pastoral ministry in seminary. In fact, I don't know anyone who begins their ministry with the thought "I can't wait to preach some funerals." While funeral services (and weddings for that matter) are not exactly biblical services, the fact is that for followers of Christ, these services should be God-glorifying and gospel-centered.

On Funerals

I have written prior on the things young pastors should learn from others regarding funerals. Practical insight related to helping the grieving, as well as planning and preparing the service are given in this article. CLICK HERE FOR THIS ARTICLE.

On Death

Pastor Mark Dever mentioned in a recent 9 Marks "Pastor's Talk" podcast some things he has learned regarding preaching funerals. His insights are valuable. I encourage you, especially if you're a pastor, to listen here.

One thing Dever mentioned that caused me to think more deeply about this very natural process of life is that it seems many do not want to use the term "die" or "death" when referring to the one being eulogized and remembered at the funeral. Even Christians tend to use euphemisms to describe the death of a loved one or friend, whether consciously or subconsciously, because death is seemingly so offensive. Culturally, death has been something to fear. It is a subject we just do not like talking about in public.

“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” 1 Corinthians 15:55 (ESV)

As Christians we quote the verse above, but sometimes we just act like it is not true. The victory and the sting of death causes many to not even use the word. So, we use euphemisms like...

  • Passed away
  • Passed on
  • Dearly departed
  • Demise
  • Deceased
  • Slipped away
  • Moved on
  • Lost his battle
  • Entered into glory (not untrue, but sometimes used so we do not have to say "death")
  • Kicked the bucket
  • Graduated
  • Is in a better place
  • And many more...

Perhaps these words are comforting? Maybe they're just distracting. Is it sinful to use these terms? I don't believe so. I have used some. I get it. My question is, as Christians, why would we avoid so strongly the reality of death? In reality, Christians should be the last people on the planet to run from speaking on death. If our understanding of the gospel is clear and our world view is truly biblical, the reality of death should not be ignored. 

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Photo credit: Bernie Durfee on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND

In his excellent book Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope, author Matthew McCullough shares this point:

Death is no less universal now than it's ever been. Death is not a disease to be eliminated. It is the inevitable end of every human life. People don't die because medicine failed them. They die because they're human.1

As followers of Christ, we know that "death is the destiny" of all, as Solomon stated. We know that death has no sting. We know that death only exists because of sin. We know death is natural in the sense that all die. We know this wasn't how it was in Eden.

We also know that Christ died. He really died. The cross execution was no myth. It was no unconscious experience. It was death. The heart stopped beating. The blood stopped flowing. The brain stopped sending impulses. The lungs stopped filling with oxygen. 

The grief of loved ones, especially his mother and dear disciples was very real. The quick funeral occurred. It surely seemed rushed, unfair, and wrong for Mary and the others. 

That reality must be understood. Jesus did not just "pass away" or "go home" or "graduate to heaven." He died. 

Jesus died because of sin. Just like you and I will die because of sin.

Yet, Jesus died because of the the sin of God's image-bearers. The sin that is our natural state. The sin that we all are born with. The sin that is our "pre-existing condition" from birth. 

Jesus died because sin requires it.

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 6:23 (ESV)

Every time a loved one dies we are reminded that this penalty is still in place. Yet, because of the fullness of the gospel, we are reminded that death's sting and victory has been removed for those in Christ. That's the joy of the resurrection. Christ did rise again and that encourages us to know that our loved ones who are in Christ and have surrendered to his lordship will too.

Funerals are difficult. We may have started calling them "celebrations of life" to make us feel better, but they only occur when there is a death. Acknowledging death's reality enables followers of Christ to find hope in the life-giver and in the gospel. It also should encourage us to speak truth to those who are far from God and have no hope. 

Death is appointed by God alone. Therefore, to take one's life or to take another's is not God's desire. May there be no question regarding this. 

Once death occurs, no carefully worded sermon can move a lost person being eulogized into heaven. So, pray, share, and have hope in the One who defeated death. Rest in Christ and in the truth of the gospel.

__________

Brian McCullough, Remember Death: The Surprising Path to Living Hope (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2018), 38-39.


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

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

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

______________

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Was Going On?

I eventually discovered the story. 

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

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

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Photo on Visualhunt.com

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

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

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

Why Bring This Up?

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

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

That's why I bring this up.

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

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

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

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

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

Then I said,

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

It was quiet at that point.

Now I Know

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

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

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

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

The Caring Church

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

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


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

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

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

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

You see why these statistics are a bit muddy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to Hell

Last Sunday, I preached a message from Luke 16 about a subject that most do not wish to discuss. The story in the passage is about rich man who died and went to hell and the poor man, Lazarus, who went to heaven. 

The sermon focus was one provided by the North American Mission Board and Pastor Johnny Hunt as part of the "Who's Your One?" emphasis. I do not preach other pastor's sermons. Yet, I have read and listened to many sermons and often God uses insight provided to these godly men to lead me in areas of my own sermon preparation. God used Pastor Hunt's sermon as I prepared to preach. I am thankful for this.

Since Sunday's message, many have commented on the focus and the message related to heaven, hell, and the destiny of man.

I am praying that the message will resonate and continue to be used by God as we collectively seek to share with the one person God has brought to mind regarding the gospel and the need for salvation. 

In Johnny's sermon he says the phrase "A funny thing happened on my way to hell..." and that caught me as an amazing thought. I did share that with our church on Sunday. The fact is that the "funny thing" that happened was that God met me, drew me to himself, led me to repentance, and changed my destination. Like you, I was headed to hell. Apart from the intervention of God, I would still be heading that way. Yet, because of his grace and incredible mercy, God changed not only my destination, but my identity.

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Photo credit: ChrisGoldNY on VisualHunt / CC BY-NC

The problem now is that often I forget that I once was lost, but now am found. I forget that I was on a highway to hell and had my destination changed. I forget that I was the wretch in need of rescue. When I forget these things, I tend to lose my burden for others who are still heading to hell.

This heaven and hell talk rubs people the wrong way. The "fire and brimstone" messages seem to be caricatures rather than authentic, but for a pastor to ignore the reality of hell would be as heretical as disavowing other orthodox teachings such as the nature of God, the Trinity, and the doctrine of salvation. 

Funerals for Lost Family

Like many pastors, I have preached many funerals. When I meet with the grieving family members of the recently deceased, I am searching for any indication of where the deceased stood with God. I get all types of memories that are good and funny and worth remembering and sharing. Yet, if all you have to tell me about your loved one is that he loved football, enjoyed fishing, she loved to cook, do puzzles, spend time with the grandkids, etc. and there is no statement of spiritual vitality or substance, it means that likely, the loved one you hope is in heaven is not. 

Some may say "Well, you can't really know if they're in heaven or hell." Maybe I don't, but what I do know that Scripture promises that a person can know for certain about their own eternal destination (1 John 5:13). It just saddens me when a person is seeking to remember all that matters about their recently deceased loved one and there is nothing of spiritual substance that reveals that person had surrendered to Christ and lived for him. 

No one wants to think about that reality, but the facts are that more people will NOT be in heaven than will. There is a wide road that leads to destruction and a narrow one that leads to life. This is not just some poetic illustration. It is truth.

For those of us who do know...who have been rescued and had our identity and nature transformed through Christ and the Holy Spirit, how dare we keep that a secret! How sad would it be for a person to bust hell's doors wide open while living their entire life in a home where a loved one knew the way to heaven, but never told them? How sad to have worked with someone for decades, but never hear the gospel from the co-worker who has been saved? How tragic to be like the rich man in Luke 16 who immediately recognizes that Jesus is the Way, Truth, and Life, but to realize it is too late.

Like you, I have family members who have not had their destination changed. I have loved ones who will spend eternity alone, separated from me, but more importantly separated from God. It hurts to think that this is reality. But there is good news...

A funny thing happened on my way to hell. I was saved.

You, and my family members and friends, can be too.

_________

My sermon from Sunday is available here and wherever you listen to podcasts.

 


The Gay Kid in Your Church May Think You Hate Him

As the years go by, the moral revolution continues to move forward. With changes in cultural norms, many churches struggle with how to respond.

The Moral Revolution and the Church

It is no secret that the moral revolution is in full swing in our culture today. The speed of change has amazed many and with new laws and the the Obergefell decision legalizing same-sex marriage being handed down by the United States Supreme Court. Legalized gay marriage led to churches having to define and describe their beliefs about marriage and especially weddings. For some, it was an easy slide to affirm that which the courts had decided. For others, it created a need for clarity regarding why same-sex weddings would not occur in their facilities and the non-affirmation of gay marriages.

Dr. Albert Mohler book We Cannot Be Silent addresses these issues. He writes...

Every Christian church – and every Christian – will face huge decisions in the wake of this moral storm. When marriage is redefined, an entire universe of laws, customs, rules, and expectations changes as well. Words such as husband and wifemother and father, once the common vocabulary of every society in its own language, are now battlegrounds of moral conflict. Just consider how children’s picture books have to change in the wake of this revolution. As those who demand this revolution make clear, there will be no model of a normative family structure left in its wake.

But this revolution has also reached into our churches. Some are arguing that Christians need to revise our sexual morality and definition of marriage in order to avoid costly and controversial confrontations with the culture at large. Are they right?

Faithfulness to the Gospel and to the authority of Scripture will not allow such a revision.

Just to be clear - our church holds to the inerrancy of Scripture. We do not affirm or accept same-sex marriages as biblically viable. We do not host same-sex weddings. We do not affirm the LGBTQ+ lifestyle as biblically acceptable. We have stated this clearly and I am one of many signatories of The Nashville Statement

This Is More Than a Same-Sex Marriage Issue

While many churches have clarified their stance on same-sex marriages and weddings, the primary issues within the local bodies have less to do with policy and weddings. Depending on where the church previously stood on doctrinal matters relating to the Bible, inerrancy, infallibility, and other matters, there was likely no shock within the body related to each church's decision on this issue. 

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Photo credit: www.ownwayphotography.com on VisualHunt.com / CC BY

The LGBTQ+ People In Your Church

Regardless where the church stands on biblical fidelity and interpretation, all churches either have individuals in their congregation struggling with their gender and personal attractions, or have friends or family members who do. Some have come out of the closet. Many have not. 

As I think more about this and my twenty-five plus years on pastoral staff (nine as youth pastor, the remainder as lead pastor) of our church, I can name at least twelve young men and women (teenagers at the time) who were members of our church or actively attending that have come out as LGBTQ+. I'm sure there are more who are not coming to mind. There are others who are adults, married, single, of various ages. It is a wide demographic.

Over the past five years I have had numerous contacts with pastors and ministry leaders from other churches who are seeking to respond biblically and in love with these young people and family members. In many cases, the young people are children of deacons, elders, ministry leaders, and pastors. Now, more than ever, a biblically sound response (not reaction) is needed.

Each church responds differently. Some denominations and local churches have declared their affirmation of homosexuality and welcomed the moral revolution that affirms the LGBTQ+ lifestyle. In those churches, which admittedly hold to a more liberal or moderate view of biblical interpretation, there may be less of an issue related to the welcoming and acceptance felt for those who have declared their LGBTQ+ identity.

Other churches hold to a more conservative and often inerrant view of biblical interpretation, considered by some to be more stringent in their doctrinal beliefs (this would be my church.) In these churches, those who identify as LGBTQ+ often feel as if the church is a place of hate rather than love.

I am sure that hateful things have been done and said to those individuals. I know that while my constant intent is to show and reveal the love of Christ fully and clearly, there are times that my intentions are not evident. Due to my sinful nature, I repent of those moments where I poorly reflect Christ to others, especially those close to me.

Hating the Church 

I recently saw an interview featuring Bobby Berk of Netflix's show "Queer Eye." Bobby shares about his upbringing in church. His story of youth group doesn't sound much different than many students who have attended our church. You can watch Bobby's interview here. Be warned there is inappropriate language used in this clip.

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Photo credit: Texas Monthly - Sept 2018

In his case, after coming out as gay, he shares of feeling hated and ostracized. He responds "I carried so much hate for the religious community for completely turning their backs on me."

I do not know his former church or pastor, but I have no reason to doubt that Bobby experienced what he did, whether intentional or not from the church's perspective. 

I am certain that many of the students who have come out to their parents and peers within our church family have felt the very same way. I do not doubt that many, if not most, felt ostracized, looked down upon, perhaps even hated by the church and some within. 

In many cases, young people are afraid to come out due to fear of family rejection and friend disconnection. For the "church kid" who has been in the children's and youth ministry his/her entire life, this fear can be overwhelming. In some cases, years of hearing gay jokes and snide remarks from peers and even youth pastors and parents has created an honest fear of revelation.

Of those students who self-identify as LGBTQ+ and have grown up in evangelical families, 85% felt uncomfortable coming out to parents and 81% feared being viewed as disgusting by family members. A majority feared being disowned. Nine percent feared they would be literally kicked out of their home.1 I do not doubt that at times these fears were founded, but in some cases the story of response and rejection was already played out in the mind of the young person and therefore became somewhat a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Hated By the Church

You've likely heard the phrase "perception is reality." Therefore, many young LGBTQ+ people have echoed their feelings of abandonment from their churches and families and feel hated. 

At times, well-meaning Christians throw out the statement "Love the sinner. Hate the sin." as if they are quoting a Bible verse. It is not a verse, but a phrase that goes back to St. Augustine and his encouragement to nuns in Africa regarding prayer. Much later it was quoted by Gandhi in his challenge to Christians that from his perspective, didn't look like love at all.

There are biblical principles and commands to love God and all that is holy. Sin is to be hated. It's not to be taken lightly. Sin is an act and does not occur independent of a person. The truly loving response to a sinner (and we're all sinners in need of God and his grace) is to speak truth, in love, for the hope and purpose of redemption through Jesus Christ. This is the message of the gospel and cannot be weakened or watered down.

The most hateful thing a person could do is ignore sin and not tell loved ones the truth. 

Nevertheless, in the world today, this is viewed as intolerant and even hateful. When emotions get intense in such discussions, there are often tears and words then said that would be regretted later and even if stated in love, feel like hate. 

Love and Affirmation Are Not Synonyms

So, why does the student in your church who has been struggling with his/her feelings of same-sex attraction, been affirmed by friends, teachers, coaches, online followers and acquaintances feel like you hate him/her?

Presuming you don't actually hate the person, it could be because somewhere along the line love and affirmation have become synonyms in the young person's mind. This has been the reality for generations. Some wrongly believe that to truly love someone you must affirm their actions, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.

However, we all know this is not reality. Parents who deeply love their children with a love that is as close to unconditional as a human can offer, will not approve of every action taken, attitude, or belief held by their child. The same is true for every other relationship of true love, be it spousal, family, or friend-based.

The argument here is that to not affirm someone for feelings they did not choose and an identity they believe they were born with is akin to hating them. That is another conversation for another time. 

For the church, the pastor, the parent, or the Christian friend, the reality is that we are called to love our neighbor (even if they're gay) but that love does not mean blanket affirmation for every belief and action of the loved one. 

One reason that so many families are divided over this is because it is falsely believed to be a culture battle, rather than a gospel issue.

Dr. Russell Moore addresses that this way (full article here)...

One of the reasons this is so hard for some parents and grandparents (of LGBTQ+ children) is because somehow we assume this issue to be merely a “culture war” issue, and not a gospel issue. As such, parents are often perplexed as to how to deal with this in their families because they think this is about them.

They wonder if others will judge them, as though they did something to “cause” this. That’s ridiculous, and it leads people ultimately either to reject biblical teaching to keep their kids or reject their kids (and their gospel witness to them) for the sake of appearing to keep the biblical teaching. At the root of all of that is pride, and I don’t mean that in the sense of “gay pride” but in the sense of carnal self-seeking. That’s a temptation for all parents, not just for those of gay children. We’re tempted to see our children as reflections of ourselves, and we’re tempted then to keep up our image.

Crucify that temptation. God calls us to holiness, and to encourage one another to holiness. The Bible is clear that this means fleeing from sexual immorality, and that includes same-sex sexual activity (1 Cor. 6). God also calls parents to love their children. Be clear about your convictions, and at the same time don’t exile your child from your life. If we sacrifice grace for truth or truth for grace, we’re sub-Christian.

Love Wins (And That's More Than a Political Buzzword)

There are numerous voices in the church world today speaking on the LGBTQ+ experience and their experience within the church. Perspectives vary from those of Justin Lee and Matthew Vines (gay men who affirm the LGBTQ+ lifestyle as not being opposed to Scripture) to Christopher Yuan, Rosaria Butterfield, and Jackie Hill Perry (those who no longer affirm the LGBTQ+ lifestyle as biblically viable.) Each individual's story brings insight and reveals personal pain and in certain cases hope. Caleb Kaltenbach presents a unique perspective as he is a pastor who was raised by gay parents. His insight revealed in his book Messy Grace shows that Jesus's command to "love your neighbor as yourself" doesn't exclude your gay neighbors (or family members.) 

The "Love Wins" mantra is strong and has been used in pride parades and as declarations of LGBTQ+ affirmation. Beyond the placards held by protestors and hashtags used to promote LGBTQ+ agendas, the church must remember that this "culture war" is not about winning a political battle. It comes down to loving those individuals, as individuals regardless of their sexual orientation. Love does not equal affirmation and the church, and individual Christians must understand this. That being said, biblical fidelity need not be abandoned. 

Jackie Hill Perry gives wise counsel for Christians who seek to preach a "heterosexual gospel" with intent of getting their gay child/friend/family member straight (full article here)...

Stop telling gay people that if they come to Jesus, he will make them straight.

When the gospel is presented as “Come to Jesus to be straight,” instead of “Come to Jesus to be made right with God,” we shouldn’t be surprised when people won’t come to Jesus at all. If he is not the aim of their repentance, then he will not be believed as the ultimate aim of their faith. They will only exchange one idol for another and believe themselves to be Christian because of it.

What the gay community needs to hear is not that God will make them straight, but that Christ can make them his. In this age, they may never be “straight” (for lack of better words), but they can be holy (1 Corinthians 1:30). We must remind others (and ourselves) that Christ is ultimately calling them to himself — to know Christ, love Christ, serve Christ, honor Christ, and exalt Christ forever. When he is the aim of their repentance, and the object of their faith, they are made right with God the Father, and given the power by the Holy Spirit to deny all sin — sexual and otherwise.

Love does win...eventually. Otherwise, we have abandoned the gospel of grace and truth and swapped one idol of self for another. 

You may not hate the LGBTQ+ people in your church or community, but they may believe and feel that you do. Christians...we must do better.

_________

1VanderWaal, C.J., Sedlacek, D. & Lane, L. (2017). The Impact of Family Acceptance or Rejection Among LGBT+ Millenials in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Journal of Social Work and Christianity. 44(1-2). 72-95.


When Your Youth Group Functions As a Parachurch Ministry

Parachurch ministries have been common in American evangelicalism for decades. In most cases, these ministries have provided opportunities for mission involvement, evangelistic outreach, and domain engagement. The term "para" means to come alongside as healthy and beneficial parachurch groups come alongside the local church for the sake of gospel ministry.

As a Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) huddle leader at a local school, I see the value for many of these groups, but also the ease of a  parachurch group losing sight of the "para" concept. Of course, in my circumstance, I am not funded through donations or supporters as many parachurch missionaries are.

Recently, Sam Rainer, Micah Fries, and Josh King spoke of the local church and relationships with parachurch organizations on their Established Church podcast. Listen here.

But, this article is not about the good and bad of parachurch ministries. It is about those ministries within your local church that basically function as a parachurch ministry. This is not necessarily intentional, but it does happen. When this occurs, it ultimately is to the detriment of the church and the individual believers (or at least members of the group.)

Youth Group Experiences*

Last Wednesday we baptized two teenagers at our church. One of these students is a high school senior. We'll call him Andrew (not his real name.) Andrew had become active in our mid-week student worship service and faithful in attendance. The Lord had been drawing Andrew to himself and after a few weeks of wrestling with God's call, Andrew surrendered his life to Jesus Christ. The next (and first) step of obedience for Andrew was to be baptized. As a Baptist church we believe the biblical mode of baptism is immersion and that while it is not salvific, it is the right and obedient step for a believer. Since baptism is a public declaration, the Wednesday gathering for worship became the venue for the ordinance. 

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Andrew had met with our student minister and talked through the details and the meaning of the baptism. His family members were in attendance to witness this, as were members of the church.

The second student baptized was a young lady. We'll call her Susie (again, not her real name.) Following the evening's service, she surrendered to God's calling, repented of her sin, and submitted to Jesus Christ as Lord. We counseled with her and baptism ended up being a "See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?" moment.

Her family joined us and before her new church family, Susie was baptized.

"You're not joining the youth group."

I met with Andrew prior to his baptism. I was congratulating him on his step of faith and gave him a new Bible to remember this moment and for his further study. As he was preparing to be baptized and become a member of our church, I said to Andrew, "You are joining the church, not the youth group."

He responded "Absolutely!" I was encouraged, but also realized that through this, over the years we have sometimes been satisfied for students to simply join the youth group apart from being covenant members of the body.

As I look back at photographs taken at youth trips in the past, mission outings, and events involving our students (most of whom are now in their 30s or older), I cannot help but notice how many were faithful and active for the years they were in junior high and high school, but were never engaged in the life of the church. In many cases, as students became adults, their church participation dwindled. They are no longer active in a local church and often only see their church experience as a great time they had as teenagers, much like other events that were experienced during the formative years.

Perhaps it was the "At least they're coming to youth group" mentality held by church leaders that promoted this as acceptable? As I sought to see as many teenagers as possible come to the Lord, I would invite them, encourage students to invite their friends, and unwisely promote the "Wednesday youth service" as the end-game. 

The Virtual Parachurch Ministry

Parachurch ministries have been assets to the Kingdom of God. Many have come to know Christ and grow in their faith through them. In fact, many people in our church are supporters and partners in such groups as the Gideons, YoungLife, FCA, Bible Study Fellowship, and more. 

Yet, none of these groups are the church. 

They know it and they do their best to ensure their members do as well. The healthy parachurch ministry comes alongside the local church, not seeking to be "in place" of the local church. This is not a problem. What is a problem is when those ministries within the church begin to function as virtual parachurch groups.

This is not only in youth ministry, but in any age-graded ministry or specialized group (i.e. women's ministry, men's ministry, senior adult ministry, choir, children's ministry, etc.) 

There are numerous signs that this is occurring. Sometimes, they are not noticed until it is too late. In my experience, these are just some of the indicators...

  • People are encouraged to join the ministry rather than the church.
  • Volunteers are committed to the leader of the ministry, or to the concept of the ministry, but are unengaged in the fellowship of the church body.
  • In some cases, the ministries have separate websites, programming, logos, etc. that differentiate them from the church as a whole.
  • There are "hangers on" in age-graded ministries. For example you may have a student in youth ministry that graduates out, but refuses to step into the "big" church, and would rather just hang out in the youth group. At times, it may be a calling, but in most cases, it is due to the fact that a student joined the youth group and not the church. The unwise leader then seeks to find a place of service for him/her to keep him/her engaged. (I've done this, so I know it's easy to fall into this trap.) I have never seen then end in the development of a healthy church member, maturing in the faith. And...if the "hanger-on" is now 30 and still in the youth group, it's more than just a little creepy.
  • A family-equipping model of discipleship is not only difficult to build, but likely impossible to implement without major challenges.
  • The church body views ministries as separate entities designed to gather people and in the cases of children and teenagers, to "keep them busy" but never view the attendees as part of the church. In other words the students may be "those teenagers" rather than "our students."
  • In the age of segmented living (work life, church life, school life, etc.) the church is viewed more and more as a commodity designed to "meet my needs" or the family's desire. 

Why Is This a Problem?

I stated prior that "it ultimately is to the detriment of the church and the individual believers (or at least members of the group.)" when this occurs in the local church. But why? Why is it to the detriment of the church and members?

  • Biblically, the church is ordained, called by God, and as the bride of Christ is his chosen instrument for bringing him glory and fulfilling the Great Commission and Great Commandment. There are no parachurch ministries in the Bible. This does not mean parachurch groups are wrong, necessarily, but does emphasize that only the church can fulfill the calling of the church.
  • In other words, a parachurch ministry cannot biblically observe the ordinances of the church (baptism and the Lord's Supper.) This means that if a student is baptized in the youth worship service, it is not a youth ministry ordinance or observance, but a celebration of the church (just as it is at satellite campuses). This has to be clear and expressed plainly.
  • The Lord's Supper is for the church, not something that should be done just for a sub-group gathered for Bible study. This is why we don't observe the Lord's Supper in small groups, at funerals, weddings, or retreats.
  • Church discipline (Matthew 18) does not fit within the parachurch ministry. While there can be discipline of members in such and at times result in expulsion from such groups, it is not church discipline. Church discipline can only take place within a covenant relationship of the local body.
  • Another problem is that when individuals are only committed to a specific ministry or even the leader of a ministry, when that ministry ends (and there are times when ministries need to cease) or the leader moves on or no longer leads, the members leave. We have seen this over the years far too often. Individuals who were regular attenders to church events, but never engaged in the church and rather hid stayed in their ministry of choice end up in the category of "Whatever happened to so-and-so?" 

After 30+ years in ministry, it is clearer now than ever for me. Church leaders lament that members leave their congregations or stop attending after graduation (either their own or their children's) or when a ministry ceases to meet. Yet, what often has happened, though unintentional, is that the church has propagated a subset of good ministries that function as independent entities within the church (virtual parachurch groups) rather than elevate and emphasize the value and biblical foundations of being the church.

So, when we tell folks to "be the church" they struggle because they have only ever been the youth group, children's ministry, men's breakfast, women's tea, senior adult group, etc. 

Be the church, but be part of the church first.

_____

*It is not just youth groups. Any ministry within the church is susceptible to becoming a "virtual parachurch" group.