Why Pastors Desire Celebrity Status (Knowing They Shouldn't)

There are instances in pastoral leadership when we must admit that even though we know certain things are not best for the church or the path to disciple-making, we do them anyway. 

For instance, most gospel-focused pastors I know clearly affirm how the growth "consumer Christianity" has negatively impacted the church in our culture. Yet, even knowing and stating this, we often continue to develop ministries, services, and programs that actually feed the consumer mentality. I am not saying that all ministries and activities should cease, but rather than leading contextually and biblically, it just becomes easier to provide a buffet of "church stuff" hoping the already attending continue to attend (and give) and that some unchurched may begin, while shoving strategic, relational disciple-making to the back burner. This is not a shot at other pastors and churches. it's a revelation from my own mirror.

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Another circumstance that many consider to be a modern-day result of social media and celebrity culture is the rise of the "celebrity pastor." Even the title sounds icky and though there is no biblical office for "celebrity pastor" the position nevertheless exists in our culture today. 

Though many consider this to be a modern-day trend only, Carey Nieuwhof reminds us in an article he posted a number of years ago that this has been the case since the beginning of the church. Remember the church members who liked Paul more than Apollos and so on? Nieuwhof even clarifies that not everything is a negative when it comes to celebrity pastor status, but the dangers are very real (Full Article Here

Rise of Celebrity

Even prior to the advent of social media and trending stories, memes, and posts, some pastors became globally known and impacted the lives of thousands, if not millions. For instance, even years after his death I still hear how the life and ministry of Billy Graham has impacted many personally. 

Yet, it seems within the last twenty years or so a new, fast-growing trend of celebrity status hit the American church. Pastors were platformed (many never sought it) and found themselves as influencers and community impact leaders in very positive ways. In addition to the clearly defined false teachers (hucksters) of the prosperity-gospel who fleece congregants and television viewers of funds for personal gain, some well-intentioned, theologically-sound preachers and teachers began to be raised up.

Names became well-known among Christians and church leaders. Conferences were held. Teaching was offered. Video series were developed. In some cases, bands and worship teams were developed to promote the brand (oh...and God too.) I began to see pastors and young Christian leaders name their children after such celebrity pastors. 

While I have a number of books on my shelves written by some of these men, I often wondered how long they could ride this wave of status. I confess that I should have been praying for these men while reading their books and listening to their sermons.

The Inevitable Fall

Whether celebrity status was desired or not, many found themselves no longer simply shepherding the flock in their local church, but managing a global brand of marketable Christianity. 

It is 2020 and far too many of these men who were filling stadiums, doing book tours, sitting on the couches on secular talk shows, and promoting their brand online have fallen. 

It is tragic.

Churches have closed. Others have fired leaders. Some sadly have resorted to legal action against brothers and sisters. Those presumed to be godly have been exposed to be mean-spirited. Church leaders who excused wrong actions and attitudes for years have finally addressed the elephant in the room.

Some leaders private, unbiblical sexual activities have been exposed. Marriages have ended. Children have suffered. Families have divided. The collateral damage is immense.

Even some leaders who are now deceased are having their previously hidden sinful actions revealed. 

Sexual abuse has happened far too often (BTW - when it occurs once, it is far too often) in churches. Sexual abuse victims have been shamed in attempts to keep the ministry's brand viable and marketable.

Those who found themselves riding high now wonder where their fans are.

Why, Then Would Pastors Want This?

There is something about the heart - you know, the sinful, self-focused, self-loving heart that we all have within us. The longing we have for being loved reigns. The desire to be applauded is real. The jealousy that rises when we see others whom we deem to be less talented and less articulate being idolized and platformed in our industry (in this case, in American Christianity) occurs all too often. 

Fleeting thoughts of "It would be nice to be leading a church that size, to be preaching at a conference like that, to be a best-selling author doing book signings, to be an internet influencer, to be a 'cool pastor,' to be sought, to be elevated, etc." come into the minds of many. 

Full transparency - I've had these thoughts, too. I have them far too often.

Even knowing how the Enemy loves to prop up those proclaiming the gospel just to tear them down does not convince us to be content.

What To Do?

I guess that really is the answer. Our contentedness, our joy, our ministry must be solely found in Christ. (BTW - we know this...but we still fail too often) The longing to make a difference, to leave a legacy, to impact lives for eternity, is good. It is holy. Yet, it is the good that can often be perverted unknowingly. 

To live humbly, but boldly as Christ's ambassadors is the call. 

There have been many, many godly men and women throughout Christendom who were known in their day, influential in their era, are revered today years after their passing, and have been seen as legacy leavers for Christ's sake. In other words, being known by many is not a sin. In fact, as stated earlier, it is often God's design to make himself known.

What makes the difference is when the private life and the public life of the Christian leader match. The pastor seeking to live holy, striving to live generously, focusing on the gospel, and glorifying God in private must also do so in public (and vice versa.)

When the temptation to want to be known seeps in, we must repent and rely on God to keep us focused on him, on making him known, on glorifying him. We won't do this perfectly, and that's the joy (or struggle at times) of pastoring well. 

Pray for the Pastors 

Oh, and pray for those who are known, leading large churches and ministries, preaching truth, and seeking to impact the world for God's glory. Pray for them because if they fall...the impact will reverberate throughout the church, the community, and in some cases the world. 

Pray for the relatively unknown ones as well. The temptations are just as real. If they fall, others are impacted. It may be a smaller number of those impacted and hurt, but the ramifications are just as real.

I would love to never have to see another headline of a celebrity pastor's failure. 

Recommended Reading

There are many books written by godly leaders that address the challenges of pastoring and the temptations faced. Two that I recommend are by Paul David Tripp.

Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry and Lead: 12 Gospel Principles for Leadership in the Church


What the Pastor Is Expected and Obligated To Do

In most churches pastors are hired (called) and given a job description which lists expectations the congregation holds. Perhaps this is an example of current-era business practices and human resource strategies being "baptized" and brought into the church. I am not saying that is bad, but the job description (hopefully one centered on the biblical responsibilities and qualifications) often does not delineate the unspoken expectations of the pastor.

Those expectations are normally discovered by acts of omission (or perhaps commission.) 

We are beyond using the excuse "They didn't teach me that in seminary" in that pastor/shepherds do very many things not taught in seminary. Things that no class syllabus could lay out have occurred in every pastor's experience. 

For example, it may seem like no big deal to rearrange the furniture in a Sunday School class or to move a podium from one room to another where it could be better used, but when the pastor finds out that the podium was built by long-deceased Brother Buford and was meant to remain in his old classroom...a "special called business meeting" may be on the horizon.

Every pastor who has served for any significant length of time in a local church (whether an established church or a new plant) will have stories where he inadvertently crossed a line or stepped on a social landmine unawares.

There are  expectations that churches and Christians as individuals have for pastors that are truly biblical and should never be questioned, abdicated, or ignored. 

Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.  - 2 Timothy 4:2 ESV

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.  - Acts 20:28 ESV

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.  - Ephesians 4:11-12 ESV

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.  - 1 Peter 5:1-4 ESV

There are others, but the point is that Scripture speaks to the obligations, responsibilities, morality, and expectations of the one called out by God to serve as pastor in his local church.

Then, there are other expectations that are placed upon the pastor by well-intentioned church members. Not all expectations are bad. In fact, most could not be categorized as being unbiblical. There are many expectations that are little more than cultural or historical and while not actually spoken of or against in Scripture, if these items usurp the priority of prayer, Bible study, and preaching the Word well (allowing time for study) then the church could actually be piling on responsibilities designed not by God, but by others, that will actually harm the ministry by keeping the pastor tired, perpetually dissatisfied, absent from his family, and unprepared for the primacy of the role.

Hospital Visitation

For example, while visiting the sick in hospitals or those in nursing homes is not mentioned as a pastoral responsibility in those terms in the Bible, it is often the right thing to do (pending COVID restrictions.) It is actually the right thing to do for all Christians and not just a pastoral responsibility.

Counseling

Offering counseling is another good thing. It is even a biblical thing, but not the primary thing pastors must do.

Community Events

Being visible in the community at local gatherings, club meetings, prayer breakfasts, golf tournaments, board meetings, etc. are not necessarily bad, but if done in order to elevate self (or to elevate one's pastor) or to create some form of small-pond celebrity status...then, well, it is bad and likely sinful. They can also overwhelm a pastor's schedule keeping him from the primary call, by creating a full calendar of events that have nothing to do with the church or the call. 

Funerals

Preaching at funerals is expected by church members, though not a mandate in scripture. In fact, this has become a very important part of my ministry. As I serve the Lord in a church with many aging members, funerals have become far more regular on my schedule than I desire. Yet, these moments of gathering with family and friends, remembering a recently passed loved one, celebrating God's grace and mercy, and proclaiming the truth of the gospel allows for these moments that always interrupt our schedules to become holy pauses where God is glorified and the truth is declared.

Weddings

Then, there are weddings. I have had the honor of officiating many weddings over the years. Each one has been unique and each has presented a new set of questions to answer.

While much talk in Christian circles is about the fallout related to the Obergefell decision of the US Supreme Court a few years back making same-sex unions legal, I won't address the intricacies of that here as I have written about it previously. However, in case it is not known, I do not agree with the Supreme Court decision and I hold to the biblical definition of marriage being only between one man (born a man) to one woman (born a woman) for life in a covenant relationship.

I have been part of many Christian weddings where God was honored clearly and the worship experience truly occurred. They have been memorable, joyous, holy occasions.

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Nevertheless, some "Christian" weddings have shifted from being a ceremony where God was worshipped, where the union of man and woman was clearly expressed as an illustration of Christ and his church, and the crowd walked away knowing they had experienced holy matrimony (with an emphasis on holy) to being little more than an event designed to be remembered for the dress of the wedding party, the  venue, decorations, theme, Instagram hashtag, and the post-ceremony antics.

Weddings are Big Business

It is clear from "Say Yes to the Dress" to the renovations of old barns and farms into destination wedding venues, and even the influence of so-called reality shows such as "The Bachelor" and every "I married someone I just met..." show on TLC, that weddings have become big business. The show becomes more important than the vows for some and amazingly many are left scratching their heads when the shine has worn off and they realize they put far more energy and money into the wedding than the marriage.

It is painful to watch.

It is more painful as a pastor to know that at some level I may have allowed this to occur by ignoring the guidelines for marriage and steps needed to help a bride and groom wisely prepare and plan for their wedding and ultimately marriage.

Church members have expectations and they just presume that the pastor will officiate their child or grandchild's wedding, or maybe even their own wedding simply because he is the pastor and that is what he is supposed to do.

Over the years, I have made numerous mistakes when it comes to weddings. I have stood as the pastor, God's ambassador, calling a man and woman into holy matrimony, without preparing them for what the ceremony means and what is to come. Sometimes, I have done so because I knew this was my expected role. Other times, it was because I knew the people getting married and called them friends. 

Often guidelines are written to help keep future mistakes from being made. Therefore, we have set up some guidelines that provide guardrails for our pastors and ministers on staff. In fact, it gives them permission to say "NO" to a couple when they have been asked to officiate such a ceremony in order to provide a larger "YES" to helping them walk into a godly, biblical marriage.

Pre-marital counseling is a must and we utilize the "Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts" material by Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott. There are many other quality pre-marital counseling resources available and each pastor must deem what works best for him and the couple. The key is to ensure it is not rushed and serious evaluation and discussion occurs, always going back to God's role for husband and wife and his blessing upon the union. 

When do we say NO to weddings?

Well, this list is not in order of importance or all encompassing, but does provide some basics for our church's pastors when it comes to weddings. There could be lists for every segment above, but the wedding issue continues to be one that must be addressed, so here is a sampling of when we say "no":

  • When either bride or groom is a believer seeking to marry a non-believer. 
  • When the bride or groom have never attended the church, or any church.
  • When the bride or groom used to attend but haven't been active in years and just want the pastor or venue for the ceremony because "that's expected."
  • When neither the bride or groom is a believer. There really is no need to have a Christian wedding for non-Christians, though the opportunity to share the gospel must not be ignored.
  • When another pastor at the church the couple actually attends refused to officiate their wedding due to some biblical offense and the couple is only seeking some other pastor to fill the spot.
  • When the couple refuses to participate in multi-session pre-marital counseling.
  • When elements of the service actually make a mockery of God and his design (for instance, I refused a ceremony where the bride was going to wear a tuxedo and the groom was going to wear a dress because they thought it was "funny.")
  • When a couple is living together out of wedlock. There may be cases where the individuals are unbelievers who both recently surrendered their lives to Christ and allowances (temporary separation, quick counsel and private ceremony, etc.) are made. In these cases, the God-honoring aspects are clear. Yet, there are also cases where long-time church members/attenders just ignore these guidelines, move in together (the line is often "for financial reasons") and basically expect the pastor/minister to ignore the facts before him. 
  • When adultery has clearly occurred and repentance is absent.
  • When either the bride or groom is already married. Just wanted to clarify that for the fans of "Sister Wives."
  • For me...when I am not available. The truth is, I am most often available and while I may shift things at the last minute to speak at a funeral for a dear saint, I will not shift to accommodate a ceremony that just happens to be in the middle of a much needed vacation or other trip.

Grace Abounds

It should be noted that while we have these items that lead us to say "NO" that it is not a joy to say no to a couple. The hope is that this man and woman in love would be open to honest, heart-felt, biblical conversations with one of our pastors about the gospel, God's design for marriage, and how to honor him. Grace abounds and this must not be ignored. The wedding planning may just be a gospel conversation moment and should not be brushed off. The end result is that at times, "no" is still the answer from the pastor, but it is not to be offered as a legalistic response (there's no joy in being mean) but as a plea for holiness and trusting God.

Be Steadfast, Pastor

Pastor, there are always expectations placed upon you that seem to lie outside the job description. When you say "no" to a church member who has clear expectations for your presence, performance, or approval, you had best have a bigger "yes" ready. We don't say "no" just for the fun of it. The "no" is meant to drive people to a deeper, biblical "yes" and that is part of shepherding well. 

The wise shepherd will lead his sheep, but may have to yell "no" at them at times in order to protect them and guide them to safety and abundance.

Everyone has expectations of everyone else. Look to the Word first and hold fast to your calling. For the church member, do the same and pray for your pastor as he seeks to lead wisely and well. And...give him a break if he says no to officiating your kids' wedding or can't visit your neighbor's aunt in the hospital every week.


Celebrating Others Failures Is Not a Commendable Trait

Perhaps it is simply human nature?

Maybe it is the deeply held desire to feel good about oneself?

It could be that as long as we find someone else who is a worse person than we are, we deprives ourselves of acknowledging our own depravity?

The latest story that has trended throughout social media, become fodder for the mainstream media, and gets talked about over coffee by Christians and non-Christians alike began unfolding years ago. Then, last Sunday, a public statement made by a university president changed everything and . . . BOOM! More press releases. More stories. More accusations. More admissions. More denials. And ... I don't think the final layer of this onion has been peeled.

Thanks to the current state of politi-vangelicalism (I made up that word - a mashup of political and evangelical) that exists in our nation right now, to speak of any individual claiming, either willingly or unwillingly, a political or evangelical leadership title often either garners likes and shares or nasty statements. It is not that this is new, but with social media and instant news, it just happens quickly and more publicly now.

Thus, when Jerry Falwell, Jr.'s revelations of sinful indiscretions involving his wife, another man, and himself became more than rumors (at least some of them) and have been affirmed to be accurate, the flood of responses and shares began. 

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Photo credit: VisualHunt / CC BY

Some of a certain age are likening Falwell's revelation to those of the late 1980s involving prominent televangelists. Others are pointing to the power structures that not only allowed, but enabled such things to happen and continue happening for years. In the age of #MeToo and #ChurchToo, Falwell's story sadly becomes another of many.

Condemnation Aplenty

There are variations of responses appearing such as "Serves him right," "He's blaming his wife?" "He has no ethics," and "It's abuse of power, abuse of authority, abuse sexually, etc." 

Of course, there are others who due to their longtime support and views of the individual (or perhaps his father or Liberty University) blame it all on conspiracies, politics, anti-Christian groups, or any number of other people or circumstances.

Even Christians (and I'm not immune to this) often vent online when others fall. If we're not careful, we do more than vent. We actually may celebrate the downfall of others, especially those who claim to be followers of Christ as well.

But, celebrating the failures of others, especially those who at least publicly claim to be followers of Christ, is not the best, right, or biblical response. However, it is my most common response, but that does not make it right. Therefore, I read this verse in Proverbs and respond with repentance.

"He who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished." - Proverbs 17:5b (ESV)

Some Get It Right

Then, hidden deep within the comment thread on stories about Falwell, every now and then, we see things said that just do not get the likes or shares that others do. 

In the midst of this tragic, sinful, abhorrent reveal that continues to be shared, there are those who are clearly not excusing the sin, not seeking an avoidance of justice, are calling for repentance, and who actually believe consequences should be faced, but are...get this...stating that they are praying for ALL involved and seeking God in the midst of these people.

In today's culture of offering "thoughts and prayers" (which has become a punchline for jokes - and in the way that many use the term, it should be a punchline) some are truly offering God-focused, biblically-accurate, grace-filled, justice-seeking, consequence-acknowledging (YES - THERE MUST BE CONSEQUENCES), condemnation-removing (Romans 8:1), repentance-desiring, intercession for Jerry Falwell, Jr., his wife, their acquaintances, and all others involved either directly or indirectly with these heinous accounts now made public.

Praying for Sinners Is Not Excusing Their Sin

I fear that all too often we wrongly believe praying for those who have done despicable things is excusing their sins. It is not.

Jesus prayed for those who put him to death on the cross. When he prayed "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" he was NOT saying "You know, it's no big deal what they have done. It's all good."

When Stephen prayed that God would forgive those who would soon put him to death by stoning, it was not weakness on display, but grief over lost religious people who acted in ways that dishonored God, put his name to shame, and hurt the cause of Christ. 

Terrible People Who Get What They Deserve

Some believe that Falwell's failures will negatively impact the cause of Christ for decades to come. I tend to believe that God is bigger than a university president, even one who led a university founded on biblical principles. God was not surprised when Falwell's failures became public. He knew when the sins happened. He knew when the sins would be made public. He also knows what will occur next.

As a Christian, I must confess, it is much easier to pile on the story and jump in on the "He is a terrible person and is getting what he deserves!" mantra. Truth be told - he is a terrible person and is getting what he deserves.

More than that, I am reminded that apart from the redeeming and gracious rescue by Christ in my life, I am a terrible person. So are you.

As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one." - Romans 3:10 (ESV)

You see, it is easy to feel righteous as long as you compare yourself to someone who is easily seen to be worse morally than others. 

But, what about when we compare ourselves to the one whom we are called to follow and be like? Compared to Christ, I am reminded daily that "but for the grace of God, go I." 

When it comes to Jerry Falwell, Jr., I have opinions. Just like you do. He should not be leading Liberty University (or any university.) I do not believe he should be platformed.

He would be wise to get off Twitter and to stay out of the public eye for a season (perhaps a very long one.) I pray that he seeks God personally, privately, and honestly. I am praying that he discovers the great relief of forgiveness offered to those who are in Christ and repent. I pray he does this for real, and not as a Christian publicity move. I pray for his wife to do the same.

I pray that they realize they are not too far gone for God's grace to reach.

I pray that somehow their marriage survives and that it is nothing like it was prior (according to his own admission and other reports) but that God heals them both. I pray for their family...and for those who are part of this story in other ways as well.

And, no, praying for them does not excuse sin. It does not minimize it either.

Can God fix this? Certainly. I know he desires to do so. God won't for the sake of "good PR" however. He will do so only for his own glory.

Oh...and pray for Liberty University. This is a new day for the school. They have needed new leadership for years. They now have it. Despite the past, the future can look bright - but it starts at the top.


Systemic Racism Within the Church - Listen. Learn. Then, Do Something.

We are blessed in our church to have leaders on staff and godly lay-leaders of impeccable integrity. Our church in Orange Park, Florida (First Baptist Church - FBCOP, near Jacksonville) is a predominantly white, Anglo one. We have existed in this community for over ninety-nine years. In that time, there are undoubtedly chapters in our history that are well left in our rear-view mirror. Yet, for every challenge and soiled chapter, God's grace has proven sufficient. For his glory alone, his church in Orange Park remains. I pray that as we look to celebrate our one-hundred year anniversary next spring, we will trust God for the days ahead so that those who are yet to be part of our fellowship will follow God wholeheartedly, lead selflessly, and impact our community and world missionally. 

Every generation of believers in our church has been faced with challenges and difficulties. Some are negative and sinful issues developed outside the church walls that sadly crept within. Others were of our own making. The sinful nature of those in the building sometimes superseded the calling and ministry of God's church. I addressed one such scar and evil era in a post last year. You can read it here.

Racism Within the Church

Much has been said recently regarding racial issues in our nation. Sadly, some of my older pastor friends state that it feels like they're living through the late 1960s all over again. I lament that it seems we should be further along than we actually are.

When it comes to what is termed systemic racism, there are many "hot takes" on the subject. Many of these are shared on social media and sent via email or text to friends and acquaintances. Some would say that even speaking on the subject of social justice would categorize an individual as a Marxist, and therefore in the current "cancel culture" lead to an elimination of any dialogue. 

This is not only outside the church, but within evangelical (and especially Southern Baptist) corners.

Racial Diversity Within the Church

I celebrate the reality that our church is no longer homogenous when it comes to race. It hasn't been since years prior to my arrival in 1994, but this church existed for decades when segregation was the law, so I'm sure there are stories - sad, embarrassing, sinful stories. Nevertheless, the reality is that we are, in the words of a dear friend, still "very white." I'm not apologizing for that fact because those who call our church home have been called by God to join and are covenant members. However, I do recognize God's calling to be missional and strategic in actually reaching those who live in our neighborhood and community (not just those who lived here thirty years ago.) Over the past few decades our community has shifted demographically and while some churches such as ours would seek to relocate to a newer community (basically a version of church-based "white flight") I am actually seeking God's lead in reaching our neighbors of diverse ethnic backgrounds where we live while simultaneously starting new churches in numerous other areas at the same time.

This means our church demography will change. Our leadership makeup will change. To be a multi-ethnic church (or as I like to call it, a biblical church) we must recognize that simply left to our own comfort levels and historical methods, we will never be the church God has been and continues to call us to be.

Addressing Systemic Racism Within the Church

Now, for the part of the article that will either gain me more followers and friends or lead me to be blocked online by others...

I do not back down when it comes to calling out racism. I never have. Yet, in this case, I believe it best to hear from someone else–from a friend, a sister in Christ, and a Christian leader.

Selena and Patrick Hayle have been members of FBCOP since 1997. I began serving on pastoral staff as youth pastor in 1994, later as Lead Pastor in 2005.

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Patrick & Selena Hayle

Patrick currently serves as the Executive Director and CEO of Mercy Support Services, a non-profit focused on helping offer a hand up to the unemployed, homeless, and downtrodden in our community. Patrick also serves as our Pastor of Mercy Ministries here at the church.

Selena Hayle has served for years in various rescue missions and other ministries. She currently serves as the Southeast Regional Coordinator for the Citygate Network which exists to to provide the envisioning, education, training, resources, guidance, representation, and nexus for missions and kindred ministries that are striving to move people in destitute conditions or desperate situations from human suffering to human flourishing through the process of gospel-powered life transformation.

Recently, John Ashmen, President of Citygate, asked black members of the Citygate Network staff to respond to questions that white people often ask as it relates to racism and other issues.  Ashmen presented these questions and responses in an email to supporters and I received permission from Selena Hayle to share her portion.

QUESTION:

"What does systemic racism look like, and specifically, how are you affected by it during a normal day in 2020?"

ANSWER BY SELENA HAYLE:

One of the things that God has done is to use my husband and me to integrate white churches in the South. After we encountered many episodes of racism in New York, we moved to Atlanta in 1991 and continued to share our lives with blacks and whites there. In many cases, we were the only blacks at events we attended, the communities we lived in, and in the places we dined. Some of the racism we experienced looks the same today as it did decades ago: Christians in the churches would sit on the opposite side of where we sat. People would be very sweet and appear welcoming at church but would ignore us in the supermarket or in the post office the following week.

Systemic racism means that people will look at your résumé and see your experience and call you, excited to schedule an interview. But when you get there and they see your skin color, the job is suddenly no longer available, or the process is explained to be longer and more complex than you were originally led to believe.

As a black CEO, systemic racism means that some white people will pass you in the office and ask the first white person they see to direct them to the CEO—whom they expected to be white. Systemic racism also suggests that as a black CEO you should make less than your white peers simply because of the color of your skin.

Having survived 37 years in America as a born-again believer, I must say that things for me have changed. I don’t judge people’s racist behavior anymore, but I continue to have open discussions with both blacks and whites, even when I notice evidence or even hints of racism. I continue to share with my bi-racial grandchildren that not everyone sees their blended cultures as a positive thing. When I’m out with my white relatives and friends, we sometimes have a wakeup call that we’re not all equal in the eyes of our neighbors.

My black family and friends have to face the racist ordeals when they come to visit. But I’ve learned that the only way to love my neighbor as myself is to love God first! We need to be focused on who we are in Christ and making sure that the world sees who we are now, rather than who we used to be.

Listen. Learn. Then, Do Something.

I am thankful God has placed Patrick and Selena Hayle and their family in my life. I am blessed to be their friend and pastor. In Selena's concise response presented in this post, I am also educated in ways that I otherwise would not be. 

As the church (not just our local expression of church) moves through these days, we must be more than open to listen. In fact, there are times when things within the church must shut down so that vital issues may be addressed. With COVID-19, we have not had to plan a shut down. It has been planned for us (and I'm not speaking of the government doing this, but God doing this.) 

In the New Testament, there are two times when the church leaders said "Stop! We need to address this issue right now. Everything is on pause until this is addressed. We cannot just keep going and hope this works itself out." (Okay - that's my paraphrase, but you get the point.) The two times are in Acts 6 and Acts 15 and both cases are about ethnic tension. 

So...racial reconciliation and racial unity are not outliers, but part of what it means to be one as believers. 

Conversations among image-bearers on differing viewpoints of racial issues cannot be done if everyone conversing is of the same race and cultural background. Therefore, we must continue having conversations, but also must begin (or continue) breaking down whatever has been built that, even unintentionally, elevates one image-bearer over another or denigrates one under another simply due to skin color, heart language, or cultural heritage.

We are one in the bond of love and that love is the unconditional love found only in Christ. 


Are You Pastoring the "Kobayashi Maru" Church of the No-Win Scenario?

The "Kobayashi Maru" likely does not ring a bell for most people, but for the few who grew up watching the original Star Trek television series and then enjoyed seeing Captain Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy and the rest of the crew of the starship Enterprise when they jumped to the big screen the reference is clear. The introduction of the Kobayashi Maru was in the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (the best Star Trek movie, by the way.) The Kobayashi Maru was the name of a fictional ship (even fictional in the fictional universe of Star Trek) that was created as a training exercise for Starfleet officers. The ship was in a battle with the evil Klingons and the trainee was to guide his/her ship to the rescue and win the day. Yet, in this exercise, the Kobayashi Maru was always destroyed, regardless what the trainee did. (For those who actually care, click here for a clip of the scene.)

The 1982 film opens with Saavik in the command chair, leading her crew made up of original series stars into the battle, only to see crew members die and the Maru destroyed. It was truly a dramatic scene when first viewed in the theaters back in the 1980s. Soon after the destruction and defeat, the scene shifts and the hero, Captain Kirk walks from behind a wall and makes it clear that Saavik, not unlike others, has failed the test. 

It's a short scene, but has become over time a reminder of what is known as the "no win scenario." It was repeated in J.J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek starring Chris Pine in 2009 as well as numerous books, reference works, and fan fiction.

(Okay, you figured it out by now, I am a Star Trek nerd. No apologies. Live long and prosper. Now read the rest.)

The No-Win Scenario

Sometimes in pastoral ministry, leading the people in the church God has called you to serve feels like a no-win scenario. That's a foreboding thought and not necessarily one that comes to mind when one surrenders to full-time ministry and is called to serve as pastor in the local church. Nevertheless, as I have discovered over the years and in talking with many other pastors, the thoughts of leading a church through cultural changes and missional engagement seems to be a no-win.

Church Members Divided

There have always been divisive issues among Christians within the church. Some are primary issues that must be addressed with no compromise. These would be issues of biblical fidelity, trinitarian teaching, doctrinal clarity, etc. There is really no debate on whether or not to stand firmly on such issues. To do otherwise is an affront to biblical Christianity and leaves the church open, if not embracing, false teachings and teachers.

There are, however, divisive issues that often rise up among church members that have nothing to do with first priority issues. They are not doctrinal. They are not biblical issues. Many have written about such divisions and articles on theological triage by Dr. Albert Mohler (here) and podcasts featuring Dr. Jason Allen and Dr. Gavin Ortlund (here) have addressed such clearly. 

Today's Trending Church Divides

There will always be issues that rise up causing division among church members. Most recently, that division centers around church responses to COVID-19 and how congregations are planning to meet in person again for worship. These are not insignificant issues, but as we all know, the opinions vary greatly on how one must respond and what must be done. Whether it is the use of chemical cleaners in the church facilities, the enforcing of social distancing, the forced locations for seating in worship, or guidelines regarding wearing/not wearing masks, the opinions are there - within every church, and they differ greatly depending on whom is speaking. 

I have received numerous emails and text messages from other pastors and have had a number of conversations with men in our community asking how we are addressing such. These are not isolated issues. Yet, as one pastor mentioned to me, "This is a no-win scenario." Thus...the Star Trek-Kobayashi Maru comparison. 

Captain David
Taken years ago when I had darker hair and a set for Star Trek existed in South Georgia

I was in a meeting earlier this month (not a Christian ministry or church related one) with friends from the community and one man dared to share his opinion related to being required to wear masks. I watched as another jumped into the conversation and the soon-escalating discussion revealed that no resolution would be found. Opinions are very strong. Fortunately, the moderator of the meeting kindly shut down the conversation and we moved forward (and these men remain friends, so no harm, hopefully.) This revealed once more that divisiveness is natural in a sinful world. The challenge facing pastors is shepherding through what some have called a no-win scenario.

Beyond COVID-19 and other pandemic related talking points, we now face the greater, and I believe the more serious divide relating to racial unity, police actions, government responsibilities, and all that has developed since George Floyd's death in Minneapolis.

If you thought opinions on issues within the church related to carpet color, music style, schedule changes, pandemic response, and all were big, you now know they pale in comparison to these even more potentially divisive chasms among those who not only are brothers and sisters in Christ, but covenant members of the same fellowship.

For the pastor wondering what to do...it seems like a no-win scenario.

Changing the Conditions by Clarifying the Calling

In Star Trek lore, the only Starfleet cadet to ever beat the no-win scenario of the Kobayashi Maru was James T. Kirk (of course.) When asked by Saavik how he did it, Kirk responded with "I reprogrammed the simulation so that it was possible to rescue the ship."

Immediately, his son David Marcus says "He cheated," to which Kirk replies "I changed the conditions of the test. Got a commendation for original thinking. I don't like to lose."

It's a gutsy move for the movie's hero, but in the church there is no "reprogramming" of the scenario. Some pastors desire to change the conditions and at times, they do. In some cases, these are incredibly positive shifts that lead to church health and biblically strong congregations. Sometimes, however, the conditions change simply because the pastor leaves. At times by his choice and God's calling. Sadly, at times due to the church's lack of desire to follow God's man's lead. 

However, all pastors realize in their ministry how easy it is to be distracted by secondary and tertiary items to such a degree that the primary ones are forsaken.

I know this is overly simplified and actually doesn't address specific things to be done regarding COVID-19 issues much less the issues of  racial unity among believers. I am not offering step-by-step fixes for such dynamic and serious issues. Please know I am not minimizing these either, but I do believe that pastors must first and foremost remember that the calling to lead a church is not the calling to be a CEO or Director of Activities. He is not placed by God to just tickle the ears of the congregation so that offerings will continue. The pastor is not called to be the political action committee chairman or a puppet for any group in a community or region.

The pastor is called first to God, then to his church where God has placed him to pray, study, serve, protect the flock, and proclaim the Word. 

There are many sub-points for each of these responsibilities. For example, protecting the flock is a biblical mandate and covers not only protection from false teaching (primary) but also from other issues (e.g. pandemic.) Proclaiming the truth of the Word and allowing the Scripture to speak clearly is primarily for the preaching of sermons but also speaks into cultural injustices of which there are many (e.g. life, racism, abuse, inequality, health, etc.) not from worldly devised talking points, but from biblically grounded truth.

My denomination's statement of faith, the Baptist Faith & Message (2000), delineates our beliefs regarding the Word of God...

The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God's revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.

An open, read, studied, and proclaimed Bible reveals, without error, God's truth and his answers to the issues of sin and suffering in our world. The Scriptures, inspired by the Holy Spirit, reveals the truth of the Gospel so that we may know the Father through the Son. 

Sometimes when it seems the issues we face as pastors fall under the category of the "no-win scenario" we must remember that the true win...the ultimate win...the primary win is found in Christ alone. 

I know for some that sounds like a trite answer to the very real issues and sinful hardships being experienced by many today. Please understand that despite all that we are suffering through, the One who is the "Suffering Servant," the Way, the Truth, the Life has been, and must always be THE point. 

To quote the great theologian James Tiberius Kirk (that's a joke) "I don't believe in the no-win scenario." 

With all that we face in our world today, I rest in knowing that our sovereign God is never taken by surprise and in him is the victory, the win. Press on pastors - just keep the main thing the main thing.


Why I Will Only Hire an Associate Pastor/Ministry Leader Who Is Willing to Leave Our Church

The era of the church growth movement along with its structure of specialized ministry led to multi-staffed churches with numerous associate pastors, assistant pastors, age-graded pastors, ministry interns, directors of ministry. etc. over the years.

I am not saying these ministry positions are wrong. We have godly people serving in these and other positions at our church. In fact, I served as a youth minister, student pastor (same thing as a youth minister, but a more professional sounding title,) singles and collegiate pastor, and young married adults pastor prior to being called to serve as the senior pastor (or lead pastor, or better yet, just "pastor") of the church I currently serve. It was during these years as an associate I know God prepared, honed, and developed me to serve in the role I now have. Still, there are many days I feel unqualified for this pastoral role (not biblically unqualified...just a bit amazed that God would see fit to choose me to serve him this way.)

As years go by, ministry models for evangelical churches shift. Whether purpose-driven, attractional, event-oriented, emergent, missional, or any other trending term of the day, church leadership tends to always be looking for the next silver bullet for church growth and ministry. (By the way, there's no silver bullet. Daniel Im has written about this. Check out the book trailer here.

The Rise of Church Planting

For the past twelve years or so, we have seen a dramatic increase in the planting of new churches in America. Denominational mission agencies, like our North American Mission Board (NAMB), have strategically shifted to enable planters to relocate to urban settings and fast-growing areas for the purpose of increasing the churches in areas where the numbers of unchurched or de-churched continues to increase. NAMB is not alone. Numerous other groups have been and are planting churches. Planters are responding to God's call to leave the comparative safety of the known church culture of home and relocate their families to areas that cause many church members and family members to say "Why would you do that?" 

I won't go into all the reasons church planting is needed today. There are many stories and statistics showing how God is using this era of church planting for his glory.

Where Do We Get Planters?

As a pastor of what is now termed a "legacy church" (that means we are an older, established church that has been in the same community for decades) I have sought to lead our church to not only be supportive of church planting, but to be a sending church raising up men and women to go. At some point, the Great Commission has to be more than theoretical.

Lightstock_1866_medium_david_tarkington

I wish I could say we have batted 1.000 doing this, but ... it has been a learning process. We have sent out some planters and families who are serving the Lord faithfully. These are incredible stories of long-term ministry and we remain partnered and engaged with them. There are others we have met and come alongside for a season.

Staffing the Church Differently

One of my pastor friends who served in a Virginia church years ago led me to think more strategically about church planting and the concept of sending planters. This was years prior to NAMB producing the Send Network and before I had ever heard of Acts29, ARC, Vision360 or any other church planting movement. 

My friend told me he would not hire an associate pastor (e.g. worship pastor, student pastor, teaching pastor, etc.) to serve on staff with him unless that man was willing to leave the church to either start a new church or help start one.

My first reaction was "What?!?"

Why would I respond this way? Because my life experience in church was very traditional. I knew that churches hired staff members intending they remain on staff at the church for years. If at any time, a staff person left the church...even in good standing...it would only be to go to another church (most often after a series of secret interviews without letting the pastor know,) in another city, to serve in a similar role but with better pay.

But, to hire someone expecting them to leave to pastor a new church...in a nearby community perhaps, much less the same one, was unheard of. That only happened when churches split. At least that was my understanding and experience.

Oh, how things change. That crazy idea from my pastor friend has proven to be biblical, right, and good for the kingdom. In his case, the result has been a number of new churches in the same area of Virginia, as well as other communities throughout the world (thanks to God calling those stationed to nearby military bases being transferred to other areas and starting new churches.) 

Is Everyone Called To Church Planting?

I mentioned in a meeting yesterday that not everyone is called to church planting. At that point a church planter in the meeting said "I think they are."

I thought about that and...I think he's right.

While not everyone is called to move to a new church plant, I do believe that in order to be Great Commission Christians, we are all called to church planting, to the expansion of God's church throughout the world, even in areas where some in the community say "We have enough churches around here."

The truth is that we do not have enough churches. We may have more churches than Starbucks and gas stations in some communities, but there truly is no region where there are enough churches. How can I say this? Because I know that there are still unsaved people everywhere. While the church does not save them, God has always and will continue to use his church through the power of the Holy Spirit to draw people to himself. 

So, I have shifted my thinking. 

I believe now, as my friend did years ago, that every associate pastor and ministry staff person at our church must be willing and ready to leave our church in order to help plant and start new churches. This is much different than being ready to leave to go to another church with more programs and better pay (but that happens, too.) 

Gone are the days when an associate pastor will be hired with the expectation he remain in the position for decades. He may remain there, but he must be willing to abandon that particular area of ministry for where God calls.

However, it must be noted that just because someone in an associate position wants to be a church planter, it does not mean he should. That's where the value of assessment and long-term strategic planning comes in. These do not supersede the call, but I know God has used these tools to help men secure and solidify where and if God is calling to plant a church. 

Frustration in ministry is not the best determiner for a change in ministry.

What This Means for the Church

It means that church members need to understand that ultimately every pastoral staff member is called by God and affirmed by the church to serve. If, or when, God calls that associate pastor to step out in faith to plant (or assist in planting) a new church, he must be free to do so (pending wise counsel and clear assessment.) Ideally, the new church plant led by the former staff member will be supported and provided for by the church where he previously served.

Healthy churches plant churches.

Healthy churches send planters.

Healthy churches support their planters with prayer, people, and provision.

Healthy churches look upward and outward more than inward.

Our church has not "arrived," so we are not necessarily the best model for doing this well. Yet, we are now doing more than just talking the talk. I have instructed every staff person in our church that at no point do I see their position here to be their finish line. It could end up being the last place of serving in full-time ministry for some, but the willingness to go must never be erased. It must never be squelched. 

It may mean that a beloved staff member leaves for a new work. It may mean that some faithful church members go with him to help plant the new work. It may mean that, if needed, another person is hired to do the work previously done by the planter. It may mean all of this and more. It likely will. And this is good.

Kingdom work supersedes our kingdom work (little "k"). 

May we see more churches planted by legacy churches. We all say that churches plant churches. It's time for more churches to actually do this rather than leaving planters out there on their own hoping to land on their feet. 


A Call To Prayer for Our SBC Seminaries

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every aspect of our lives. I am reminded daily when I receive updates and prayer requests regarding the health challenges and hospitalizations of church members, the reported deaths of those in our communities and families, and the varied other challenges related to employment, education, and relational health. The list is extensive.

As a Southern Baptist pastor, I receive updates regularly from leaders in our local association, state convention, mission boards, and other denominational offices and entities. I appreciate the information and am thankful for the men and women serving the Lord and our churches in these offices and entities.

Our Seminaries

We have six excellent seminaries as Southern Baptists. These schools have served Southern Baptists well for many years. There have been challenges, changes, restructuring, and shifts throughout the years. Today we have six seminaries providing solid, biblical, doctrinally-sound guidance for men and women called of God into ministry. In addition to graduate level degrees, some offer undergraduate degrees in their respective colleges.

When COVID-19 forced most all schools to close and shift to online, distance-learning only, our seminaries made the proper adjustments. Yet, the challenges remain.

Dr. Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS,) recently published an article delineating the changes made at SBTS in order to continue offering courses, degrees, and provide for staff and students. The changes were difficult and unexpected by many. Nevertheless, these are unexpected times (from a human perspective.) Click here for article.

It is my great concern for each of our seminaries at this time. While some see this as an opportune time to critique unnecessarily our seminaries and the men chosen to lead our institutions, I believe our needed and primary response as faithful believers and Southern Baptists is to pray for these men and the health of our schools.

These are our schools. 

Last Sunday (April 26, 2020) was a day on the denominational calendar emphasizing our Cooperative Program (CP.) I am so thankful for the CP and the faithful, generous giving Southern Baptists have historically shown.

As a graduate of two of our seminaries (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary - 1993, and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary - 2018) and pastor of a church with staff, church planters, and missionaries with degrees from each of our six seminaries, I am so thankful for the education provided and the resources available through CP.

Call to Prayer - Beginning Friday, May 1 at 11am EDT

Pastors praying for seminary presidents copy

Some will say "Who are you to call Southern Baptists to prayer?" Well...no one, really. Just a pastor believing that God desires we do this. Perhaps (and there's a really good possibility of this) he just wants me to pray for these men more intently. Nevertheless, I would like more to join me.

I have contacted the presidents of each of our seminaries and have asked individual local church pastors who are either graduates of each seminary or closely connected to join me on a Zoom call for a time of pastoral prayer for our seminaries and the presidents.

I will be premiering these prayer videos each weekday, beginning Friday, May 1, 2020 on our church's YouTube channel, Facebook page, and Twitter account. These clips will be shareable and I hope that many other Southern Baptists will join us in prayer each of these days for about fifteen minutes.

Why Do This?

Like others, I have been thinking about all the ways our church and others have been impacted by the pandemic. In the midst of this forced pause for many, I see God at work. I am not fearful. I am just praying for wisdom for decisions I must make as the pastor of the church and the leadership I must offer, as the under-shepherd of this flock. It can be overwhelming, especially if I slide into relying on my own ingenuity, ideas, and thoughts. 

In other words, I know I need wisdom and I cannot generate that. It is a gift from God. I know I lack wisdom in this area. I have never pastored during a pandemic (and neither has anyone else I know.)

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. - James 1:5 (ESV)

Thankfully, I know brothers and sisters who are praying for me. In addition to my request for wisdom, others are interceding as well. 

I know there are other denominational entities and conventions across the nation and world needing our prayers. I know there are other leaders needing prayer. We need to pray for them as well. This call to prayer is not meant to elevate one group over another. It is just that having one staff person set to graduate from Southeastern in May and others looking to move toward getting degrees in the future, our schools continue to come to my mind.

I truly enjoyed and benefited from my years in seminary and appreciate all who poured their lives into ensuring we have these schools and that they are worthy places to recommend others to attend.

When I reached out the seminary presidents, I explained that I was simply a local pastor desiring to initiate a time of prayer for them and the schools. I need wisdom in these days. I know they do as well. I asked local pastors to lead simply because I believe in the local church and know these pastors love these seminary presidents and seminaries and have blessed by them personally.

I also assured each pastor and president that the only agenda for these meetings was prayer. Nothing more. Nothing less. No critiques. No trolling disguised as prayer. No puffing up. No putting down. Just prayer for wisdom and encouragement. 

Everyone needs a Barnabas every now and then.

So, please share the schedule and join in prayer. If you cannot join at the time when the prayer videos premiere, join at a time that works for your schedule. 

I believe in the power of prayer. I also believe that for me, at least, I sometimes talk more about prayer than I actually pray. So, by scheduling these prayers, I will do more than just talk about prayer for these men, I will intercede on their behalf. I hope you will as well.

Prayer for our Seminaries & Presidents Schedule:

These prayer videos will premiere on the following days:

______________

This call to prayer is not something scheduled by any denominational entity. It is a grass-roots call to prayer for our men leading our seminaries. Praying for every staff member, student, and family connected to our seminaries. I am thankful for these men being willing to join me online for this time of intercession. 


Confessions (and Repentance) of An Unintentional Plagiarist

A number of years ago I began writing this blog. I wasn’t sure what blogging was and while blogging likely peaked in popularity on personal sites like mine a few years ago, I continue to post thoughts and insights, and sometimes frustrations, in forms of short articles here.

I continue to read quite a few from pastors and Christian leaders every week (even more during a pandemic, it seems.) While I seek not to live in an echo chamber, I do read from quite a few pastors and ministry leaders who have similar views as me on the state of the western church. I often have a notepad handy and as I read, I jot down points and thoughts that if I had heard shared in person would elicit an “Amen” from me or at least an “Uh-huh!”

I have often then written my own posts with similar themes and my take on the same issues. I tend to have a much smaller readership, so in many ways my posts are for my own sorting out of thoughts and ultimately become the weekly e-mailed newsletter articles we send to our church membership.

My Unoriginal Thoughts

Last Monday I shared a post on how the pandemic reveals much of what we think about church in America and west today. I used illustrations of church growth and expansion we have seen in our culture and my community over the past few decades under the banner of “church growth.” I had written about this prior as have many. I even wrote of the danger of becoming a “Lone Ranger” Christian as many of us have preached against. I felt the need to explain who the Lone Ranger was since the only recent depiction was poorly done in a movie starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer. Nevertheless, the isolationism of Christianity and elevation of consumerism were the foci.

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Photo credit: Maik Meid on Visual hunt / CC BY-SA

Seeing many online postings about the growing boredom during the pandemic concerns me, so I also wrote about the “Bored Believers” whom we are seeking to lead as pastors.

The problem wasn’t the focus of the article.

The problem was that minutes after posting, I received a message from a Christian leader whom I respect and whose articles and books I read asking why I had basically copied his most recent article posted it as my own. I was shocked. First, that someone actually read my blog. Second, that this brother read my blog. (The original article is by Jared C. Wilson and is posted here.)

I was shocked. Then, shook.

My first reaction was “No way. I didn’t copy his article.”

I immediately clicked onto his article he had linked in the message.

I began reading his article and about halfway through, I began to feel a knot in my stomach as I realized that while I did not intentionally copy his article, it was so very similar (similar titles, three subheadings the same, similar concepts other than personal illustrations and an additional subheading with content) that if it had been submitted to a university or seminary it would not have passed the plagiarism smell test.

This brother’s article was one of many I had read over the weekend and while I thought initially, I was just sharing some challenging thoughts to my church and readership, I saw immediately that three of my four points were not my thoughts. They could not be. My title was basically the same relating to the concept of church and the pandemic.

(I have reread the previous paragraph and my response is “How can one accidentally copy someone else?” And…other than lazy note-taking and irresponsibility related to not linking original articles, which I often do when I share thoughts on my blog from others, there’s no good answer. No excuse.)

I contacted the brother through direct message and apologized. I am doing so again here publicly. I am thankful for the grace he has shown. I confess I tend to apologize over and over after being forgiven. I’m sorry for that, too.

Unintentional or Intentional, Sin Is Sin

Over the past few days since this exchange, I have been wrestling over even writing this. This article today may end up under the category “Too many apologies” and be viewed as weak by many. Yet, here it is. So, these are my thoughts.

Whether I intended to copy another’s intellectual property or not is not the issue. Whether a person intends to sin or not is not the issue. The point is that once a wrongdoing is exposed and revealed, we (well, in this case I) have a responsibility to respond. The response can be deflection, justification of acts, ignoring the hurt, pretending it’s no big deal, initiating some form of weak damage control, or by admitting wrongdoing and repenting.

Once I looked back at the original article and realized that I had read it earlier over the weekend, and compared it to the text of my article, I immediate deleted mine. It’s gone now. Two clicks on the mouse and there isn’t even a copy left in draft mode anywhere. I then shared the original article online.

Did My Actions and Words Fix Things?

Well, not for me. Not completely. Why? Well, because what's done was done. Ultimately because the issue of stealing intellectual property IS a big deal today. It bothers me when ideas are “borrowed” without credit. It is sinful to make money (or gain clicks online) from something that is claimed as original when it is clearly culmination of other’s thoughts. It bothers me because it is stealing. It is sin.

We all know the preacher joke that has been told for years:

  • The first time a story is used in a sermon the preacher says, “So-and-so once said…”
  • The next time that same story is used, the preacher says, “Someone once said…”
  • The next time, the preacher says, “It’s been said for years…”
  • Finally, the preacher says, “As I always say…”

It’s funny (I guess,) but it reveals that sometimes, even in preaching the gospel, in sharing good news, we can be guilty of intentionally or unintentionally gleaning (or just call it what it is – stealing) thoughts and illustrations from others. Now, most would say “That’s no big deal because the end result is what matters.” That is little more than the “end justifies the means” and that argument falls apart in an ethics analysis quickly.

Be Mindful

As many of my brothers will be now be preaching online this weekend and the weekends to come, I would say to go ahead and use illustrations others have used, quote commentaries you have studied, reference sermons from others that you have found helpful, but don’t claim originality. There really is nothing new under the sun, but we must be careful not to claim stories and examples that are not ours. Once integrity is lost, the potentially listening lost will walk away, wondering if the truth you share about Christ is true, or just another borrowed story.

Oh, and be careful if you are broadcasting your services online. Be sure you have the right, legal CCLI permissions to do so. It’s the right thing to do.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

I would say I have learned something this week, but I did not learn something new. I was simply and strongly reminded of something I have already learned. Something I learned in high school, in college, in seminary, and most recently in writing my doctoral project. Something that is inexcusable to not do.

Give credit where credit is due. There's a reason Kate Turabian is still a popular writer and continuing to update her book, even thirty plus years after her death. Credit matters, and while you may not be graded on the accuracy of the format of your footnotes in your own personal blog or articles, at least share where the original content was found, even if it isn't word-for-word. Unintentional plagiarism is still plagiarism.

Giving proper credit is the only right thing to do and will allow you to continue sharing honestly as a man or woman of integrity that which is most important.


The Potential Church Member May Struggle with Your Membership Process

As a lifelong Baptist who grew up in a family that moved every few years due to my father's military service, I have been part of a number of Baptist churches. For the most part, during the 1970s and 1980s, the churches we joined were pretty much carbon copies of each other. Each used the same Sunday School curriculum, handed out identical bulletins, sung from the same version of the Baptist Hymnal, had the same schedule (Sunday School at 9:45am and Worship at 11am with Sunday evening and Wednesday evening events too,) and for many, the layout of the facilities were exactly the same. This was not unheard of in Southern Baptist life in that most of our material was published by LifeWay (née Baptist Sunday School Board) and the blueprints used for building were provided by the denomination. Finding sameness was comfortable and allowed for an ease of joining a new church upon relocation.

The membership process in each church was similar, too. This is from memory and I was a child for most of these moves, but it seems that joining a church was pretty simple. Here's the process as I remember it:

  1. You attend a service
  2. Walk down the aisle during the invitation hymn
  3. Tell the pastor you want to join the church
  4. The pastor would ask if you were a Christian and if you were a member of another Baptist church.
  5. If the answers were "yes" then the new church would contact the former and "send for your letter."
  6. If the potential new member was not yet a Christian or baptized, those very important discussions were held and membership was complete upon baptism.
  7. Then there was the moment when you and your family were brought up before the church  (normally about five minutes after you walked down the aisle)
  8. The pastor would present you to the congregation and a brief business meeting took place. It went something like this: "This family wants to unite with our church. We're so excited about this. All in favor say 'Amen!'"
  9. The congregation would say "Amen."
  10. The pastor would ask if anyone thought otherwise, but most often there were no "nay" votes.

It was that easy. Boom! You're a church member.

I am sure it was not like this everywhere, but in most of the smaller churches our family attended it seemed to work this way. It could be that the church was so excited to have a young family join that they just "amened" us in before risking losing us.

Easy Membership Leads to Difficulty

As I think back I wonder if anyone at these churches ever had doctrinal discussions with my parents prior to joining? I'm sure there were some conversations, but as I stated, I was a child so I was not in those meetings.

I know my parents listened to a few sermons to determine whether or not the pastor stayed true to Scripture. I am confident that some of the things that led to joining certain churches had to do with how welcoming the people were, the opportunities for personal growth, and whether or not the children's ministry was of good quality.

Not much has changed regarding families and potential church membership today.

However, in those cases where membership is rushed, conversations do not take place, testimonies are not shared, and the potential for creating members while sacrificing the call to make disciples occurs.

Membership Classes and Covenants

When our church first instituted new members classes, most people understood the reasoning. However, some were adamant that it was unnecessary, wrong, and even "un-Baptist." Once we explained the reasonings (doctrinal clarification, salvation assurance, ordinance explanations, and clarifying member expectations) for the class, many agreed that it was needed and helpful.

Some, however, still did not like it. 

The Concept of Covenant Membership

One of the biggest pushbacks was from those who refused to sign or agree to covenant with other members. Some had previously been members of churches that were...well, toxic. Those who had gone through difficulties at other churches (or our own in the past) struggled with trusting leaders and seeing the value of committing (or covenanting as we stated) with others in the church for fear of being hurt.

I understand that fear.

Regardless how others may have soiled the concept of covenant membership, the affirmations of being one in Christ and being responsible to one another resonate throughout the New Testament. Therefore, it is biblical to be in an honest, gospel-centric, covenant relationship with other brothers and sisters in Christ as a local church.

I do know some who struggle with this due to experiences that involve abuse of power, and in some cases, traumatic sinful actions made by those who used the "covenant" terminology in unbiblical and selfish ways. I am not speaking of such instances. I do not minimize those as they are very real and impactful. That is just a subject for another article.

For the purpose of this article, I am speaking of healthy churches, led by biblically-sound, godly leaders who submit to the lordship of Christ. Healthy churches include covenant members who are redeemed by Christ, accountable to the Lord and one another, and serve well together, selflessly for God's glory alone and their own good.

Opposition to Membership Classes

Over the years, I have heard numerous reasons why potential members balk at the concept of required new members' classes.

The most common is:

I have been a member of many Baptist churches and never had to take a class before. I should not have to do so here.

Other opposition tends to fall from this train of thought. This response and similar ones come from those who have been members of other Baptist churches for years. In their mind the "send for my letter" model described above is all that should be required. A class seems like legalism to them. I heard one state that it seemed "cultish." That was a shock to me.

Truth be told, the process could become legalistic. I am sure it has at certain places.  I am not for creating extra-biblical hoops for people to jump through to become part of the body

I do value the one-on-one conversations with brothers and sisters who seek to become members. In most cases, the personal connections are needed and helpful. They are helpful for the potential members to understand who we are as a local church, how we seek to fulfill God's great commission, and how they can join in this journey of faith with us.

It is beneficial when it is determined that a person wants to join the church but has never joined God's family. Just because a person has a long tenure as a church member elsewhere does not mean that they are born again children of God. If this church attender is not a believer we gain a clear opportunity to present the gospel, answer questions, and follow the Holy Spirit's lead.

That's not legalism. That's loving.

Membership Interviews

We are now at the point of adding membership interviews into our new member process. Again, this is not to create another hoop, but to help brothers and sisters unite with our church well. These interviews will be led by pastors and ministry leaders on our staff during membership classes. They are individual conversations that may take place in a large room during a time of sharing a meal together. 

What will happen in the interviews?

We will share who we are a a church and describe doctrinal distinctions of our fellowship. This will be a time of clarifying what we believe about the ordinances of the church, structure of our church, the vision and mission of our church and expanded ministries, and answer questions regarding such. The potential member will have the opportunity to share his/her personal story of how he/she came to know Christ as Lord. This personal testimony time is a key moment in that many believers are never challenged to share. During this time, key elements of one's personal story will be given to help them focus on the gracious love of God and how he rescued them. 

For those brothers and sisters who come from other churches that view baptism differently, we will have an opportunity to discuss our understanding of the ordinance clearly.

Expectations of a member will be also presented.

Additionally the expectations a member should have from his/her church will be presented.

If church membership is the next step, we move forward. If there are barriers to work through, we can prayerfully and carefully do so. It may be that we ask the candidate for membership if he/she would be open to meeting with a current church member (same gender) for a season of study to help answer some questions that may arise. There are other things that may come up, but the goal is not just to get another name on a membership roll or check off another box, but to seek God as we grow in number possibly, but most importantly, as we make disciples. 

I am sure that some will balk at the "interview" process simply because it sounds more business-oriented than church-oriented. Perhaps there's a better term. I am not sure what a better term would be, but I am certain that such conversations will not only be helpful for the individuals but beneficial for the church.

Membership requires relationships. Primarily with Christ. Secondarily with his children. We cannot do life together if we do not know one another. 

You Want to Join Our Church?

So, you want to join our church? Great. Let's talk about it. Maybe over dinner?

It sure beats having you coming down an aisle and being paraded in front of a bunch of people you don't know yet so they can "Amen" you into the family.


The Awkward Encounter with a Former Church Member

Every local church has members who decide for one reason or another to leave the fellowship. The reasons people have for leaving are varied. Some reasons are godly and prayerfully considered. Some are selfish and consumeristic. Some leave angrily and/or hurt. Others may be transferred to another city by their employer and therefore, change churches. Oh, and some leave because the church they attend is toxic, the preaching is not biblical, and compromises in doctrinal fidelity have occurred. There are more reasons, I'm sure, but you get the point.

In a community like mine, there are dozens of local church options. This has increased over the past twenty years as the community has grown, more schools have been built, and traffic patterns have changed.

Therefore, the inevitable has occurred. Our church may actually have more former church members/attenders in our community that current ones. 

We have had people leave our church for every reason listed above (well, except the one about the abandonment of good doctrine on our part, at least from my perspective.) Since I have lived here for over twenty-six years, I run into many brothers and sisters who are in the "former member" category. These encounters take place in restaurants, grocery stores, school events, and elsewhere.

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Photo credit: Indiana Stan on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC

For those who didn't leave angrily or hurt, the meetings are cordial and very nice. Often there's a bit of catching up because I just don't see them as much and am not aware of the latest details in their lives. 

However, there are times when the encounter is . . . interesting.

There are some who angrily left our fellowship. Some disagreed with my teaching or doctrine. To some I am too conservative. To others I am too liberal. One was angry I was not more political from the pulpit (He found a church that tends to wrap the cross in the flag, so he's happier now.) I know some who were just turned off by my personality (I really can't blame them.) Others felt I did not minister to them as a pastor should. They're probably right, to be honest.

So what do I do?

I smile. Ask how they're doing. Sometimes force them to shake my hand and wish them well. In most cases they're going to other churches and I'm comforted to know that.

A few weeks ago I saw a brother in the grocery store. I asked how he was doing. I hadn't seen him at church in a while, but I did not ask about his attendance. I was not setting him up. I was not intending to make it awkward. The encounter wasn't awkward from my perspective. I noticed he was nervous. Then, he said, "Well, my wife and I are now attending [such-and such church, a new church in our area]." He named the church. I smiled. I know the church. It's the latest good church to pop up. While I am certain he is attending there, he said the name of the church incorrectly. I knew which one he was talking about and really wanted to say "Well, if you're going to the church, you should know the name of the church," but I didn't. It didn't matter. He was apologetic in how he spoke, but I stated quickly "That's a great church. I'm so glad you're connected and involved. Stay there. Be a member. Stay committed." He smiled and I went to get my gallon of milk.

Awkward, but not bad.

Membership Matters

Like most churches, we keep a membership roll as up-to-date as possible in order to know our members, where they live, track their attendance and service, and help understand next steps for discipleship. 

Like many, we have names on the roll of people who never attend, haven't attended in years, and are likely members of other churches. We really need to deal with that.

I believe church membership is biblical and matters. I won't get into the details of the biblical justification of such, but recommend the book Church Membership by Jonathan Leeman on the subject. You can purchase a copy here.

Leeman makes this statement in the book (page 22):

If you are a Christian living in a Western democracy, chances are that you need to change the way you think about your church and how you are connected to it. Most likely, you underestimate your church. You belittle it. You misshape it in a way that misshapes your Christianity.

That's a harsh statement for some, but the truth is there. In America especially, the heightened individualization of our faith leaves the faithfulness to brothers and sisters in the local body somewhere on the back burner (if on the proverbial stove at all.) 

Leeman continues:

If you are a Christian, the local church is not a club. It is not a voluntary organization where membership is optional for you. It is not a friendly group of people who share an interest in religious things and so gather weekly to talk about the divine. Nor is a church a service provider, where the customer has all authority.

The church is God-ordained and the fellowship of believers is needed. It is needed for each believer and for glorifying the Father. 

My Responsibility to "My" Church

How I interact with former members varies depending on the former member. This is a reality for all relationships. How a brother or sister in a local church interacts with those who used to be in their church changes when they leave. This is inevitable. 

The universal church is biblical. However, the local church body is as well. These are not the same, yet both are needed. 

As a pastor I have a responsibility to God and my church to the members of my church. (I say my church here just to distinguish it as different from other local bodies. I know it is not my church, but God's.) 

I do not have that same pastoral responsibility to brothers and sisters in the universal church.

In the local church, there is a covenant relationship between members. In some ways this relationship is like the "I do" stated at a wedding. Church membership is about the church taking the biblical responsibility for its members and for each member taking responsibility for the church.

Whether you meet in a church building, a home, a school, a YMCA, or other venue, the local body of the church is where membership is held. This is because it is within the local body that accountability, discipline, discipleship, worship, the partaking of the Lord's Supper, and other needful things occur. 

Back To The Awkward Encounter

My encounters with former members are not always awkward. In most cases, the awkwardness does not resonate from me (at least not intentionally) because I no longer have the oversight/shepherding responsibility for that brother or sister. I won't need to offer them counseling. I won't officiate their wedding or speak at their funeral. I won't take them on mission trips or start a Bible study with them. Of course, I am speaking of the one now attending and a member of another local body.

For the stray sheep out there, going nowhere, seeking God, but simultaneously running from him, I pray and will continue to follow the Holy Spirit's lead of drawing him/her back into the fold.

In most cases however, it's not about getting the distant sheep back into the fold, it is about getting the lost saved.

The Awkwardness Will Likely Continue

The state of American evangelicalism means that these encounters by Christians in suburban and fast-growing areas will continue. People will join your church. They will leave and join another. Some will join who have more church memberships from local churches than Tom Brady has Super Bowl rings. Sadly, this is just how it is. While I lament when a brother or sister leaves our church, especially if it is due to sin on my part or theirs, I trust God that he will place them where they can serve and be shepherded well. 

Pastors, be encouraged in this. The awkward meetings are very real, especially in the west. It will not always be this way. It is not this way on my global mission fields. Be thankful there are others seeking to honor God and new churches are being planted. Shepherd the flock God has given you. Lead your church to seek and save the lost, not the already saved who attend elsewhere.

As for loving your brothers and sisters, regardless where they attend weekly for worship, there is no pass. Love God and love others. This is non-negotiable, whether they attend your church, another church, or no church.

And if you have the awkward encounter, smile, offer a handshake, say a brief prayer and go get your gallon of milk.