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

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

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

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

The Chickens Have Come Home to Roost

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

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

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

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

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

Caring Well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

More News Stories = More Victims

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


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

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

Some have asked us how we liked the conference. 

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

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

Caring well

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

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

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

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

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

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

I want to shepherd well.

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

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

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

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

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

Some have abandoned the church. Others have not.

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

This is the reality. It is a tragic reality.

Yet, I have hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Why We're Cancelling Youth Group

Well...we're not cancelling youth ministry. 

We are moving one of our Wednesday youth worship services to another location. In fact, we're dividing our group up and saying "go to one of these available locations."

Why?

Partly because we are partnered with the local Fellowship of Christian Athletes para-church group. In fact, our student minister is the county representative for the group. In our area, this is the only para-church group with a presence on every junior high school and high school campus. Being para-church, the emphasis is not to create a youth group on campus that pulls students from the local church. In fact, the focus is to come alongside the local church to best reach as many students as possible with the message of the gospel. Though this is the stated focus for every para-church group, when the county representative is a local church student minister, it is much easier to see it come to fruition. That is, once other church student leaders begin to trust our student minister to have a kingdom focus, rather than "our church" focus. He's proven himself, so we've crossed this hurdle.

Fields of faith

Fields of Faith - October 9 at 6pm

On Wednesday, October 9 our teenagers will NOT be meeting at our church. This is a bit of a shocker for parents who are used to bringing all the children to the church campus, then going to their own Bible study. Yet, on this night, it all changes.

Fields of Faith is an FCA-sponsored event held on local school campuses. (BTW - it's not just for athletes. All students are welcome.)

According to the Fields of Faith website:

Fields of Faith is a student led event. Students invite, pray for, share with, and challenge their peers to read the Bible and follow Jesus Christ. An athletic field provides a neutral, rally point where a community can come together.

But, but, but...

Many questions come from students, parents, and church leaders. 

Who else is going?

Students like routine, just like adults, and if the service at church is not happening, they are not sure about going somewhere else, even a familiar school, unless they know others attending. That's why it is so vital that students lead out. If a student attends a rival school, challenges in their mind occur as well. In our case, we're saying "Go with your friend." It's that easy. Some campuses may have large groups. Others may have just a few. We know that every single student wants to know who else is going. We don't know. We won't know. 

Transportation is a problem.

We know. Parents have let us know. If their younger children are involved in groups at the church building, how are they to get their teenagers to the high school down the street (or on the other side of town?) It's a valid question. We have discovered that most parents and students, given enough lead time can work this out. As a parent, we did so for our children when they had to be at two different locations at the same time, whether due to school events or travel ball. Of course, we would never say to allow your student to ride with someone you do not know, is not trusted, or vetted.

We can't cancel youth group on Wednesday?

This is a reason given by many church leaders. It may be a challenge, but here's something I have found to be true as a pastor...YES, you can. You can. In fact, it is not cancelling, it is moving. (However, if your church's leadership just will not do this, don't push. Don't rebel. Don't get angry. Don't create dissension. Go to your church building and worship with your brothers and sisters. This is not a bad thing. I believe in pastoral leadership and if your pastor says no, then trust him.)

In our case, it is actually putting feet to a message we have preached for years. We tell families and individuals to be the church, share Christ with their friends, don't be sequestered in a church building all the time, be in the world but not of it. This one event on a Wednesday (one of 52 Wednesdays) gives students an opportunity to just show up where we tell them to be real in their faith ALL THE TIME

I am excited we are enabling this to happen in our church and pray that others will.

It will be inconvenient. Maybe we need a little inconvenience in our faith? Who said Christianity was convenient anyway?

What if a student shows up at the church and the youth building is closed, lights are off, and no other students are there?

Well, some will show up, I'm sure. In our case, we actually have a Bible study in our worship center where students can join others. There may be places they can assist in recreation for Awana (never alone with children, by the way.) So, if that student show up and at that very moment remembers "Oh yeah, we're not meeting tonight. We're supposed to be at the high school," they can either leave and drive down the street to the school or join the adults in Bible study. We likely won't have any pre-study games, but the Bible remains true, and not just for adults.

So, we're cancelling our youth ministry meeting for one evening, in order to send out missionaries to the field where their faith will be tested, tried, and they will see that God is doing things in our county that most do not realize.

May this event be more than annual event. May it be a catalyst for renewal, revival, and awakening. (It's not out of the question.) 


Blaming the Monster We Created - Consumer Christianity in America

Pastors often find themselves meeting together at conferences, denominational events, or community gatherings. Once the typical small talk is over, and if they actually like and trust each other, many will begin to express what they feel regarding the seeming lack of commitment of church members nowadays. This is not new. It has been the reality for decades. Yet, like all generations, the present realities are the most pressing. 

I talked with a church planter recently and asked the open-ended and very dangerous question "How are things going at your church?"

He answered. It was a typical answer. It was not one that is reserved for church planters, but in the world of planting is very, very common. He said, "It ebbs and flows. Yesterday was good, but it is hard. It's hard keeping members engaged and focused."

Yep. It's hard. Not just for church plants, but for established churches as well. 

One of the most common targets for sad pastors is lamenting "consumer Christianity" that seems to be so prevalent today. In case you have never heard this term, here are some descriptors:

Characteristics of Consumer Christians (not a complete list):

  • Self-focused
  • Looks for ministry options in the church that solely benefit themselves and their family members
  • Wants a children's program/youth program/choir/band/etc. that is large and attractive
  • Loves programs that entertain
  • Desires excellence in production of events and activities
  • Wants to "be fed"
  • Is an audience member, but not part of the congregation
  • Has a list of what the church should do for them
  • Sees church as a spiritual Target, Walmart, or Amazon, simply there to provide spiritual goods as desired
  • A purchaser who never actually gives back
  • Transient (brand-loyal for a while, but since church is a brand is eventually desirous of a new brand)
  • A marketing agency's target
  • Sees regular attendance as once a month...maybe
  • Actively attends church, unless something else is happening in the community
  • Does not serve
  • Posts "Looking for a new church" online every now and then to see what else is being offered

The consumer model of church attender, or "Consumer Christianity" is rampant in our culture. Whether you live in the urban core, the suburbs, or even in rural areas, consumerism reigns. 

Consider these words by Skye Jethani, writing for Christianity Today:

When we approach Christianity as consumers rather than seeing it [our faith] as a comprehensive way of life, an interpretive set of beliefs and values, Christianity becomes just one more brand we consume along with Gap, Apple, and Starbucks to express identity. And the demotion of Jesus Christ from Lord to label means to live as a Christian no longer carries an expectation of obedience and good works, but rather the perpetual consumption of Christian merchandise and experiences.1

Who's To Blame?

Consumer Christianity has existed in some form or fashion since the beginning of the church. People coming with less than holy motivations fill the buildings. The letters of Paul address some such instances. Yet, the current state of affairs in the world of celebrity pastors and spirituality sold as a commodity seems a bit out of hand. 

While pastors and church leaders lament the consumer nature of Christianity that results in tepid spirituality and a bevy of church shoppers, perhaps it is time to take a good, long look in the mirror. 

Like many pastors my age, I grew up in an era known for the church growth movement. Sadly, this led to the marketing of easy grace, the building of large facilities, and shifting of worship styles in order to reach seekers. The seeker sensitive, attractional model of ministry made headlines, created megachurches, and expanded the power of those at the pinnacle of movement. But...it also added to the creation of consumers, ultimately to the detriment of the church.

This is not to say that every megachurch, engaging church with a popular pastor/leader is wrong or "doing church" unbiblically. In fact, many are faithfully preaching, teaching, and leading. Nevertheless, the reality of consumer Christianity remains.

Who's to blame? We are. At least partially.

The seeker-sensitive model seemed logical at the time. "Let's look at the popular music of the day, strip down the religiosity of the service, and create a fun, exciting event each weekend so that lost people will want to come to church." At least that was the proposed reasoning.

Despite the seeming logic of it all, this passage of Scripture remains true...

As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. Romans 3:10-11 (ESV)

So, no one seeks God, but the church sought to believe that people were seekers, looking for God. 

Frankenstein's Church

We continued to build the monster, not unlike Dr. Frankenstein. The American church pieced together parts and ideas all with good and, I'd say godly, intentions. Church staff were added with the intent of reaching segments of society, whether it be youth, single adults, young professionals, etc. This is not much different than having separate areas in a department store for different ages. People are different, right? Those of different ages desire different things. We know this. Marketing proves this.  It seemed logical.

And it worked...to a degree.

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Photo credit: twm1340 on VisualHunt / CC BY-SA

Crowds did gather. Groups did grow. The era of the huge youth group and ministry was strong. Para-church ministries increased their attendance as well, while many saying they were "for the church" but in practice were just competing with the local church. 

The evangelical church's Frankenstein's monster was roaming the countryside. New versions of church were launched. The old was abandoned as out of date and boring (to be honest, some were really out of date and boring.) New was in and consumers were sought.

Then, we got angry.

We blamed the church attenders and members for being what we built them to be. We became upset when the young family decided to try the new church with a larger children's program or event. We complained when church members started traveling with their children's travel team. We cried foul when numerous members purchased season passes to the local theme parks and began going to them every other weekend because that was their "escape" and their self-defined "family time." We wondered why offerings were down, seats were empty, and attendance sputtered.

But we should not have wondered.

We are a few generations into this model and it clearly works exactly as it was built.

Dr. Frankenstein's monster did exactly what it was built to do, even if the good doctor did not realize or wish to believe it.

Consumer Christians are always looking for the latest version of church. It's not unlike the marketing strategies of Apple when the release a new iPhone. The user's old iPhone still works, but the attraction of getting the latest is so strong that people wait in line just to spend a lot of money for the latest version. Then, in about a year, the "new" iPhone is an old iPhone and customers are now ready to throw it out (or give to their parents) and get an upgrade.

Sadly, some churches market the very same way to the consumers and wonder why there are consumers?

Now What Do We Do?

Well, the answer is not to turn our church services into stoic, gothic, 18th century gathering places. The gospel is not boring, so the church should not settle for boring services with no life. The answer is not to find the better model and shelve everything we're doing (though shelving some things is definitely a good idea.) The answer is not to falsely believe that the heyday of the church in America was the 1950s so we need to do what we did then. That won't work. We have too many churches today built to reach people in the 1950s. Those churches are dying.

What we must do is confess our sin and repent.

We must simply go back to the basics, realizing that lifelong discipleship and transformation of a person is not something that occurs because of a keen marketing campaign, a cool gathering spot, or a nice, new logo. None of those things are wrong. In fact, I like all those, but those are not life changing.

The gospel alone is the answer. Christ alone is the key. He is still the way, truth, and life. He is still the only way. When the local church pushes that message to the side and emphasizes all the extraneous, temporary things, no wonder we find ourselves a few decades later asking "What went wrong?"

While that monster is still roaming the countryside, I'm encouraged by what I am seeing and experiencing in our local church and among pastors and churches in our community. Sure, there are some still focused on being the latest version of church for local consumers, but by and large, most are abandoning the "Come look at us. We have a great, new version of this product you need" approach.

Jared Wilson's latest book The Gospel-Driven Church addresses this. He's not the only one speaking of this, but it is encouraging to see the conversation shift back to the gospel in such a way. Cam Hyde writes in his review of Wilson's book...

Wilson will argue throughout the book for a more gospel-driven approach rather than using any means necessary to get people through the doors of your church (an attractional method). He addresses the pitfalls of relying solely on being attractional and shows the biblical necessity of a gospel-driven approach while showing those in leadership how to steer their churches toward this change. 

We are learning that models come and go, but the gospel remains. The shiny, new, fancy attractional models will not last, and in most cases have proven to not sustain or create disciples. Since our commission as the church of Jesus Christ is to make disciples, not club members, we must confess our collective sin of relying on an attractional model and submit to the Spirit's lead that points to Christ and the good news of the gospel.

Consumer Christians remain. They're everywhere. It is very, very easy to slide into the model that seeks to "meet their needs wants" and build programs that do so. We must remain faithful to the Lord, be the church he has commissioned and called us to be, and remember that life-change only occurs through Christ. We must pray that the consumers in our midst surrender to Christ. Otherwise, they will remain weak in their faith, angry at their previous church, continually searching for the latest and greatest, all the while stagnant as a Christian, if a Christian at all.

__________

                  1Skye Jethani, "From Lord to Label: How Consumerism Undermines Our Faith," Christianity Today, July 10, 2006, accessed September 30, 2019, https://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2006/july-online-only/from-lord-to-label-how-consumerism-undermines-our-faith.html


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.