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.


I'm So Excited You're Planting a Church ... Wait. What? You're Planting Down the Street?

We are now at the point in American evangelicalism where church planting is commonplace. It seems that we have been doing this forever. While I know that "mission churches" have been launched for decades, especially in what was formerly known as the "Bible Belt," the fact remains that we haven't really been promoting and resourcing church planting strategically for very long.

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The Intersection - Newport, NC

When it comes to church planting, the facts are that the Exponential Conference has not always existed, Vision360 is now something in the annals of church history, Acts29 began in 1998, ARC began in 2000, and the North American Mission Board introduced it's Send initiative in 2011 at the SBC annual meeting. 

Believing In Church Planting

Like many other churches and church leaders, our church through much support behind our denomination's church planting focus. The church I pastor is almost 100 years old. Therefore, in our long history we have launched a few mission churches in the past. Yet, following the 2011 launch of the Send Network and the growth with other church planting strategies, it became clear that our church was not strategic regarding church planting and multiplication. 

It wasn't long before we were partnered with planters in places as far from our home as  Portland, Oregon and Toronto, Ontario. 

Over time, we have entered into some short-term partnerships and have taken the role of sending church with other planters throughout the continent. 

Believing in the multiplication strategies of reaching cities and our own community, I have served as an assessor for church planters through our network. I continue to meet with those called to serve. 

Our belief in planting has brought fruit as we have invested in planters and the missional strategies these men and their wives are espousing.

You're Planting Where?

While it is easier to justify sending money, people, and mission teams to help plant new works and sustain current ones in other cities, what happens when a planter wishes to launch his new church in your own neighborhood?

This has happened in our community numerous times over the years. The question many ask sound like "Why would you plant a church in a city where there is another just down the street?"

It's a legitimate question.

In some of these cases, we have prayed with these men, heard them clearly articulate their calling, and have chosen to help. For some, it meant the planter a key to our building so their launch team could meet in one of our rooms. In other cases, it meant providing volunteers to help with their projects. 

Not Every Person Will Get to Heaven Through Your Local Church

I know there are many more non-believers in Christ in our community than believers. I know that not all in our community will visit our church. What if a newer church, with a different pastor, a different campus culture, yet with the very same gospel message could be used by God to help reach my community for Christ?

Therefore, even in my deeply southern, former Bible-belt, church-on-every-corner, Christianese speaking, big hair, hallelujahing and amening, everyone was in a youth group years ago, I want my kids to have a youth group like mine, my grandparents founded this church, give me Awana or I'm leaving, what program does the church offer me, church saturated community ... it is clear. The number of unsaved "Christians" is alarming. And that means, we need more gospel proclaiming churches. 

Yet, I am reminded by the Holy Spirit (and often my wife - she sounds like the Holy Spirit at times) that we are to be Kingdom focused. This means that other gospel-preaching, Bible-believing, God-honoring, Christ-proclaiming churches in my community are actually on my team (or should I say "I'm on their team?" Maybe just "We're on the same team.")

We truly are better together.

However, Not Every Church Plant Is Your Partner

In a perfect world, the gospel and the focus on God's kingdom should be enough to unite like-minded churches together. Yet, churches tend to be made up of people. They tend to be pastored by human beings. In case you haven't noticed, even well-intentioned people are not perfect. Therefore, not every new church plant or campus will be partners with other churches in the community. In some cases, it is due to sinful pride of established church leaders. In others, it lands squarely on the church planters or campus leaders. I'll write more about this soon, but some things that create tension and a lack of potential partnership are:

  • If everyone excited about the new church are disgruntled former members of other local churches
  • If the pastor/planter/minister refuses to befriend other pastors in the community
  • If the selling point of the new work is "We're not like the other churches in town"
  • If winning the community is not about winning the lost, but about being the biggest and most talked about church in town
  • If the church planter is really a church poacher

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! - Psalm 133:1 (ESV)

 


Confessions from a Gossip

They say confession is good for the soul. 

That's what "they" say.

It's true. Confession is good. It is right. It is holy. It is needed.

It is most difficult.

Why? Because it is revealing, embarrassing, and requires transparency and humility.

The Prayer Request In Disguise

I have often, in public, in sermons, and in private conversations chastised those who use "prayer requests" as little more than a time to share a bit of juicy gossip. Anyone who has been part of a local church understands how easy this occurs. The Sunday School (Life Group, Small Group, Bible Study Group, etc.) leader stands before the class and asks "Does anyone have any prayer requests today?"

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Photo credit: chris_wilson on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

It's an innocent and good question, but sometimes the answers are not really prayer requests. Beyond the listing of those loved ones and friends who are ill, in the hospital, facing difficulties, inevitably there will be a "prayer request" that sounds like a caring announcement, but may just be a bit of gossip in disguise.

It is actually pretty easy to fall into this trap of "sharing" something that is not verified, unfounded, or may cause harm...as a pseudo-prayer request for the group.

The Sinfulness of Gossip

Paul addresses the sin of lawlessness that characterizes the natural man. In his listing of examples and identifiers, the gossiper is mentioned.

They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. - Romans 1:29-31 (ESV)

The context is harsh, speaking of God's wrath on the unrighteous. As a Christian, however, the falling back into actions and thoughts far from godliness remain. The seriousness of all sin must be contended with, even that of gossip. I say "even that" because often we wrongly grade sin on a sliding scale and gossip is at times placed in the "not that serious of a sin" category.

This being said, I must confess.

My Sin

I will not use names and will actually attempt to be very general in certain descriptions here so as not to bring shame or undue focus on others when the sin in question is mine. Hopefully, I will do this justice.

A number of weeks ago I was contacted by a Christian friend who heard from another that I had shared a "prayer request" that really wasn't. The conversation in question had occurred over a year prior so I had to work to remember it clearly (this comes with age I guess.) The individual who had shared my comments formerly worked for me and our church. As I recall, I had shared a bit of information that I had not verified about this other friend. I was concerned. I had heard "through the grapevine" about the instance in question and shared with this leader as a point of prayer, but also in a moment of frustration.

Here's the problem.

I never actually confirmed with the party in question regarding the issue at hand. This friend lived outside my town, did not attend my church, was not someone I kept up with regularly, but was (is) someone I call a sibling in Christ and love. 

However, my sharing of the story was not in love. It was nothing more than gossip disguised as a "prayer request." I know that now. I actually knew it then. But...well, no buts about it. I sinned.

The Needed Confrontation

When I was confronted about this from the friend in question, my heartbeat sped up. I began to feel a rush of frustration, guilt, and even for about a half second thought how I could spin this as acceptable. Seriously - about a half second. Thankfully, I did not go there. In my response, I did what I knew I must, but was actually a bit uncertain, maybe even a bit afraid of what would come. I confessed. This exchange was via message (though face-to-face is always better, in this case it allowed me to say clearly what must be said.) These messages do not disappear, so here are the words I responded with (with names and specifics deleted):

Thank you for the message. I haven’t talked with ____ in almost a year other than [one unrelated occasion.] As for [the story in question] I did hear of stories from ________. As for what was shared, I should have kept that rumor (which it is) to myself and left it alone. Actually should have just forgotten or ignored it. I apologize for sharing what I had heard with ____. While I don’t remember the exact conversation, I am not denying it. Wrong to talk with ____ about such. I am sorry. Disappointing for certain. Likely nothing can rectify that.

There was more in this conversation. It is embarrassing and humiliating. You know, I'm a pastor. Pastors are supposed to lead by example, right? Some would say "Well, this is not that big of a deal." To that I say, "It is HUGE and unacceptable." 

My Imperfections Revealed

This posting is not a practice of self-flagellation. I fear that others who have confided in me in counseling sessions may think their stories are now fodder for "prayer request" time. Rest assured they are not. We as a pastoral staff do share prayer requests, real ones. We do talk through how best to minister to those in need. Yet, the confidences shared with us that are not in the category of "Legally Required to Report to Authorities" remain confident.

And...I know some are saying "How can I believe that when you have confessed to gossiping in this case?" I don't know. I just pray that you do.

Why Tell This?

Earlier today I received a message from another Christian friend. This is not unheard of, and was encouraging. Yet, in the message was a question that stated "I have heard from others that you said ______ about _______."

Oh man. I thought this was done.

It wasn't. I had omitted a biblical command that if left undone would actually allow bitterness, anger, and maybe even hatred to develop. The more who heard of my sin, the more who would be so greatly saddened and angry, and justified in not only disliking me more, but to a greater extent God's church and those whom dare go by the title "Pastor."

So, I confess today...

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. - James 5:16 (ESV)

I confess to you, my "one anothers." Some would say that I should address this to the church I pastor alone. I understand that, but those "players" in this story are not members of our church. They're members of God's universal church and serve elsewhere. Therefore, this becomes a public confession - for the glory of God and the good of his church.

I responded to today's message quickly and stated what I have shared in this post. I stated that I confessed and repented to this other Christian. I stated that the other Christian responded with "I accept and you are forgiven." 

Thankfully, today's messenger affirmed this and received it as well. 

It was a timely message that was sent to ensure no bitter root would grow regarding me. For that I am extremely grateful.

When this message arrived today, it became clear that this story is being shared. Not the forgiveness part, but the gossip part. It may be that others are gossiping about gossip? I don't know.

What I do know is that I have sinned. I have confessed to my Lord and repented. I have asked forgiveness from my fellow Christian. 

To ignore or just "let it be" sounds good, but in truth would allow the sin to grow, bitterness to swell, and relationships between brothers and sisters in Christ to suffer. 

And, God would not be glorified. He cannot be when his children fall back to exhibit the sins that defined them prior to salvation.

Forgiveness Is Freeing

When this fellow Christian forgave me, it was as if a weight had been removed from my shoulders. I had caused harm. I did not deserve forgiveness. I had even sinned by disguising it as spiritual, Christian even.

I know biblical forgiveness is transactional. It is not automatic. It is something offered freely when payback or restitution is not an option. This was offered. I was freed from this.

What a great picture and reminder of the ultimate forgiveness offered through Christ! I know the story of the gospel. You likely do as well, but at times, we need a clear reminder of how much we do not deserve God's forgiveness. That's grace. 

To offer forgiveness to those who have caused you harm is not natural. Only God can enable that. 

To received forgiveness when you know it is not deserved is humbling, and a beautiful moment. 

I ask that you will forgive me as well. 

P.S. I really hate airing my dirty laundry, but they say "confession is good for the soul." I think it's more that righteousness and grace overwhelm the sin that exists. To others, learn from my mistake (sin) and don't spread "prayer requests."


We Must Pray for Other Churches in Our Community

Do you love your community?*

For some, the fact you live where you do was decided by someone other than you. Perhaps your employer moved you to the place you live? Maybe you relocated to help family members in need? Some of you were born where you currently live, but upon conception, you were not consulted regarding where home would be.

For others, you strategically chose to live where you currently do. You may have no family nearby, but love the area and through a series of circumstances, you relocated to your current place of residence.

Every community has things to love about it as well as things that would never make it on the Chamber of Commerce's website or promotional brochures. Yet, as a Christian, there is wisdom in seeing one's current home as something God has intentionally orchestrated for his glory and our good.

The church-saturated community

Living in the Jacksonville, Florida area, I am fully aware that what we deem as normal here is not for most of the nation and world. Jacksonville is known for many things - the Jaguars, the Navy, the railroad, beaches, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and for having more churches than stray dogs. There are some noted legacy churches in our city. There are also a number of newer, quickly-growing non-denominational megachurches. Somewhere between the handful of large established and large new churches are dozens and dozens of churches with varied histories, legacies, community presence, and health. For instance, there are just over 200 Southern Baptist churches in our city. Add to that the churches of other denominations and those with no affiliation and you can understand what I mean.

With this many churches it is no wonder that comparisons and competitiveness develop among church bodies and pastors. The sin nature remains.

As the new year begins, I am seeking to change the perspective of competition and fear of other good churches that often creeps into our church body and even among staff (me included.)

If we truly love our community, we (the Christians) must be more strategic and focused on what truly matters. Could it be that God has placed all these churches, of various sizes and contextual makeup, throughout the city for something bigger than just the growth of any one church body? Could it be that this growing city has been strategically marked by God with his children and his church for his glory? I know there are many organizations that are church in name only. I understand that not every group that has "church" on its sign preaches the gospel and affirms biblical doctrine. I get that not all "churches" have the same goal in mind.

But what about those churches who do? 

It may be too much to call all the pastors together for some large city-wide project. I have been to those meetings in the past and to be honest, I don't like them. They often end up with too many men and women in a room trying to determine the pecking order of importance while the project or event for the city becomes the primary focus, rather than the movement of God that was initially declared to be the focus. 

I believe pastors and church leaders should intentionally, strategically, and declaratively pray for the other churches in their community. 

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We should pray for other churches because...

  1. We serve one God. This is pretty simple isn't it? We're on the same team. For those holding to biblical fidelity, focused on the gospel, and intent on making disciples, we must realize the incredible blessing of not having to reach our city or community alone. When one church grows, the church grows. Your church is not your church. It's God's.
  2. Our community makes no distinction between churches. This is a broad statement and I know that those in your community likely do know the difference between the large church with money and many ministries for kids and teenagers and the small one that does not have the same resources. Yet, more than likely, most in your community do not know, or care to know, that each local body is autonomous and unique. For your community, if one church fails, it's as if all of them fail. If one church has a moral issue, all the churches are stained. Therefore, it is not good to see the pastor at the church down the street fail. You may not agree with him. You may not like his personality, but if he fails, you fail. When one hurts, the entire body (and that extends outside the walls of your local church family) hurts. When your church is known for not liking the others in town, you perpetuate the already believed lie that Christians hate others, even their own.
  3. Our jealous hearts need healing. The jealous, comparative, and competitive nature that develops between churches and church leaders is deadly (Song of Solomon 8:6, 1 Corinthians 13:4, Philippians 2:3, James 3:14-16, Proverbs 14:30.) One of the best ways to melt away the jealousy and competitiveness that rises when other churches seemingly are doing better is to first, repent and second, pray for the other churches and their leaders to thrive.
  4. This helps our community. So you love your community? Sure you do. Then, realize that having a variety of healthy churches throughout the community is good. What if the church-saturated community becomes a gospel-saturated one? This can happen when the church serves well together, for God's glory. The fringe benefit of honoring and glorifying God through obedient worship and service is that the community is blessed.
  5. This glorifies God. Paul instructed Timothy and the church as a whole to pray for others, especially those in leadership positions (1 Timothy 2:1).  We even see in the book of Acts where one local church collects funds for another in need. This love for other fellowships should not be just historical, but common today. God is honored when his children are united in him.

So, as the new year begins, make it part of your weekly worship services to pray for other churches in the community (and throughout the world.) I would recommend praying for one church by name each week. Pray for the pastor by name. Many in your congregation may know the church and pastor. Some are likely former members of said church. 

If other churches do the same, then be comforted in knowing you and your local body of believers are being prayed for as well.

Just imagine a new year where the biblically-centered, gospel-focused, doctrinally-sound churches in your community and city stand together for more than the growth of their individual kingdoms. 

_____________________

*I am writing from a western, American evangelical perspective and realize that there are many people throughout the world who have no choice but to live where they do and have no options for relocating. I also understand that the "church on every corner" that is a reality for many American towns and cities is not the norm. Therefore, the call to pray for other local churches expands to praying for the global church for all.

 


The Difficulty of Being a Single Adult in the Church

About fifteen years ago, prior to being called as the Lead Pastor at our church, I had the honor of serving as our Single & Young Married Adult Pastor at our church. This was following my initial stint as Student Pastor. During that time, I learned much. Mostly, I learned how much I did not know regarding ministry to and with those who were categorized as single adults in our church.

For many current evangelical churches in America, the single adult ministry often is forgotten or deemed unimportant. While that may not be stated aloud, the lack of focused ministry to and with those who are unmarried proves otherwise. Even if not intended, this appears to be what is experienced by the unmarried believers in the church family.

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Recently, I was leading our deacon ordination council interviews with prospective deacons. One young man is newly married (within the past two years) and I asked him point blank "How difficult was it for you to serve faithfully in the church as a single man?" The question had nothing to do with the ordination interview. That was complete. It was simply a question that had been on my mind recently. His response was not unexpected, nor shocking. He stated, "Very difficult." 

His response was centered around the fact that many, if not most church programs and activities tend to be promoted with "family" or for those who are married.

Years ago one of our senior adult men (married for decades and wife still alive) asked me why we even had a single adult ministry. His question seemed odd, if not a bit offensive at first, but as I discovered, came from a sincere desire to understand. The last time he could have been categorized as a single adult was right after high school. He remains happily married and did not know why those who were unmarried would not feel comfortable in a couples' class.

The truth is some do feel comfortable with others, regardless of the marital status of others. Yet, the fact remains that not all do.

While our church is intent on ministering to and with families, leading parents to be lead disciple-makers in their homes, the reality is that while unintended, some who are not married feel left out. Some have expressed that it is like being the friend of the high school student with a boyfriend and being invited to go to the theme park with them. It can be enjoyable, but you end up sitting behind the happy couple on the roller coaster, or even worse, in the "Tunnel of Love."

Why is it this way in the church?

Writing as a man who has been married to the same woman since I was twenty years old, some may view my responses and analysis here as uninformed or disconnected. Yet, as a pastor called to lead a congregation into the fullness of God's teachings and minister to those who have been segmented into ministries based on age, gender, and marital status over the years, I hold a heavy responsibility to do my best for all who are part of our church family. 

Without doing an extensive survey, but simply talking to people who are single, and having served in pastoral ministry for almost thirty years, here are some things that seem to be making it so difficult to be an engaged (not engaged to be married, but engaged strategically in ministry), faithful single adult believer in the local church. Of course, there are exceptions and varied other things that could be listed as well. Feel free to add to the list in the comments.

1. There's a post-high school and college gap in the church.

If your church has a vibrant, strong student ministry - that is wonderful! Some churches even have a strong collegiate ministry. But, what about when a person makes it through those ministries that include events, mission trips, camps, conferences, Bible studies, and more? If your church is like most, many have couples classes and small groups for adults. These are good. But...what about the adult who did not get married in college or even has a significant other at this point? This gap is real and what many have discovered is that these ministries for youth and students tend to have designated pastors or ministers leading them. The youth pastor is the go-to person for teenagers. There may even be a collegiate pastor. Yet, the lack of designated leadership for the single adult ministry post-high school and college often leaves a large demographic with no where to land. 

Even if the church is not large and there are no designated pastors or ministers, the gap is still felt. Some single adults who desire to be married find in the smaller church that they stand alone in what well-intentioned, but wrong friends and parents claim a "small pond" and thus, the single adult is encouraged to go elsewhere to find a prospect for marriage.

This concept of "finding a prospect" leads well into the next point.

2. Singleness is often viewed as a stage of life to survive.

It may not be intentional, but whether from parents, grandparents, other family members, or those in the church, offhanded comments like "When are you going to get married?" often come across negatively. 

Rather than viewing singleness as a stage to survive and get through until you find that perfect someone, could it be the church should elevate those who are living faithfully to the Lord as single adults. Perhaps even honoring their faithfulness as Paul alluded to in his letter to the church at Corinth.

So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better. 1 Corinthians 7:38 (ESV)

This is not a shot at the married, but should be viewed as it is intended, as an affirmation for the single believer.

Often in the church, this affirmation is absent. One pastor of a neighboring church told me years ago when referencing his single adult ministry that "There are some who are single for a season and others who are single for a reason." While that statement could be taken well, if intended to affirm the "reason" as being for the calling of God, this pastor actually was speaking in a demeaning manner of those who apparently just couldn't get it together and find a spouse. That is wrong and in the age of the easily offended, that statement should offend.

In an article featured in Relevant Magazine, Preston Sprinkle states the following truths regarding the subtle and not-so-subtle anti-singleness message in the church:

Much of this anti-singleness message saturates the air of our churches, sometimes with words, other times with actions. The message is usually it is subtle and unintended. But single people hear it loud and clear: You’re incomplete until you get married and have at least two kids. (But if you have more than four, then people think you’re weird again.)

Just ask any post-college single person at your church how they feel. Ask them if they feel like they are valued, honored, respected, loved and invited into the lives and homes of other families of the church. Ask them if they are ever made to feel incomplete by off-handed comments (“Why aren’t you married yet?”) or sermon illustrations that always draw from parenting. Ask them how they felt on the weekend that the church was away at Family Camp.

The fact is, marriage is a small blip in our existence. We’re all born single and called to steward our singleness for the first 20-30 years of our life. Many people will be called out of singleness and into marriage and then called to steward their marriage to the glory of God. But us married folks will be single again, in this life, whether through divorce or death of our spouse. And then we’ll spend eternity with God as single persons once again. (Full article here.)

3. Marriage has become an idol

This is a difficult topic. Marriage between a man and woman is ordained by God. It is good and is even used as an illustration of Christ's relationship with his church. It is honorable. It is holy. Yet, as with all good and godly things, there is the potential for marriage to become one's idol. The family unit has also become this for many in the American church.

It's difficult because the church actually, unintentionally, propagates this opportunity for false worship.

One woman declared:

What truly should be addressed in church is the idolatry of marriage. So many singles (well, for women) feel as if they can’t be on mission until they get married. (from article here)

When thriving as a Christian is equated to being married and having children, these great and godly elements of life are elevated to places they do not belong. 

This does not mean the church should avoid ministry to the married. In fact, with the divorce rate so high and marital issues between believers continually present, ministry to and with pre-married and married couples must continue. The godly marriage takes effort. No one drifts toward that reality.

Yet, alongside a strong ministry for those who are married, a vibrant, intentional, gospel-focused ministry with single adults must happen as well. Otherwise, the multi-faceted church intent on "being all things to all people" for the sake of reaching some, ignores a large demographic in the community.

4. We join ministries, not the church

The American church has been impactful for generations, but throughout the twentieth century an industrial model of business entered into the church. The programmatic structure became expected and helpful. It was beneficial for many as children's, student, age-graded, and gender-based ministries developed. The development of single adult ministry emerged as it was discovered the gap existed.

Even now, we understand that programmatic division, while helpful with age-based learning stages, often leaves many on the outside looking in when they cannot find where they fit.

The church's focus should not be built on a demographic study or gender focus, but solely on the Word of God. This may seem contradictory to the premise that single adults should be ministered to and with, but while I do believe a focused ministry for the unmarried (with or without children, never married, divorced, or widowed) is vital, I strongly believe that single adults should not be relegated to a satellite ministry that seems to orbit the church. I believe the same for student ministry and others. God ordained the church. We are called to unite together as his church locally for his glory and our good. If a person simply joins a ministry (regardless the demographic attached) they and the church find themselves disobedient to God's call. How many teenagers in our churches really were never called to unite with the church and fall under the shepherding leadership of the lead pastor, but simply joined a youth group and hung out with a youth pastor? Yeah - that hit a nerve, right? It's the same for any ministry.

5. The return on investment is not high enough

Oops. That's hitting too close to home, right? 

This is a sinful reality among many churches, but let's call it what it is. If a church seeks to grow, increase membership, and along the way increase its budget, the best option is to focus intently on family units. Create a ministry for mom and dad and the kids. It's a higher return. 

The single adult will have one income. It may be lower (not always the case) than the married adult. The activity in ministry is going to be limited to just the one person, rather than an increase in children's, youth, men's, and women's ministry. When it's all about numbers, the one becomes less valuable than the ninety-nine. So much so that often the one is left to fend for himself and ultimately will disappear from the fellowship.

What is the answer?

The answers will be varied, but it begins with the realization that all these issues and more are not only present, but prevalent in many of our churches. To ignore a large portion of the population is to simply say, either overtly or covertly "You don't belong." 

The answer likely has nothing to do with hiring a single adult pastor. It likely isn't to elevate a programmatic ministry model as the answer either. Yet, it begins with a passion to see all people come to Christ and thrive as part of the local church.  

Not every adult is called to be married. Yet, every Christian, married or single, is called to God and equipped for service within his church. 

As a pastor, I must be conscious of this reality and ensure that not every sermon illustration is about marriage or parenting - though many are from my own story, so I won't ignore them. I must ensure that when seeking those to lead in ministries, we are not only looking from a pool of married persons. I must lead biblically in all areas, focusing on the value we have as children of God to be bestowed by God alone and not elevated by whether an individual is married, single, divorced, widowed, or "it's complicated."