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."


When Your Church Hires the Wrong Pastor

I heard from a church a few states away last week whose pastor is leaving. He's moving on to another place of service. No issues there. However, in this case, the tenure of this pastor was challenging, to put it nicely. I won't get into the details, but one church member stated in a conversation "How did we miss so badly in calling him?"

To be clear, in many cases after a new pastor is called to serve in an established church there comes a time when some, hopefully not many, in the church start to question leadership style, direction, personality, etc. In some cases, the pastor is the needed person, called by God for that church. In other words, in these cases, God brings his man into his church to reclaim the church for God's glory. This requires a man with a clear calling, a missional outlook, a loving spirit, a mix of patience and urgency, the heart of a shepherd, thick skin, and a wife who can handle criticism, and children who are strong enough to weather the harsh things said about their father.

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Photo credit: Chris Yarzab on Foter.com / CC BY

In these instances a long tenure is needed and decades later, the historic review of the church's health is often keyed to the moment the church called this man as pastor.

But what about the bad hire?

It's true. There are times when it becomes clear that the person hired as pastor or as a member of your church's pastoral/ministerial staff is not a good fit. In fact, to be clear, there are times when it was wrong.

There are various reasons for such a hire and more than can be covered in this post. But, in my experience, here are some of the reasons a bad hire happens.

1. The pastor/minister was never truly called by God for the position.

I have talked to numerous men who have felt the calling to preach. I have asked how they have discerned such and at times, the clarity of the call is overwhelming. At other times, it simply seems that the individual is frustrated in his current job, not feeling fulfilled, and sits in the congregation watching the pastor or other ministry leader and thinks "I could do that." While that may be an impetus used by God to draw a man into pastoral ministry, it often is little more than a desire for personal fulfillment partnered with frustration of current status in life. 

Charles Spurgeon spoke much on the calling to pastoral ministry, holding it high and of value. One of his most famous statements about the call is as follows:

If any student in this room could be content to be a newspaper editor or a grocer or a farmer or a doctor or a lawyer or a senator or a king, in the name of heaven and earth, let him go his way; he is not the man in whom dwells the Spirit of God in its fullness, for a man so filled with God would utterly weary of any pursuit but that for which his inmost soul pants.1

While it is clear that many pastors would have and have done well in what has been classified as "secular" work by some, Spurgeon's quote goes to the heart of the calling. If a man could live content and fulfilled as a Christian, evangelizing the lost, discipling others, and doing so in the marketplace, then do so. However, if the calling of God is to shepherd the church, serve him in the capacity of an overseer, pastor, or elder, then by all means, that man is to do so.

The sad reality is that some men see the pastorate as nothing more than just another job. It is not. It cannot be. 

2. The pastor/minister is simply seeking a religious job and platform.

This reality is more and more prominent in the age of the celebrity preacher. Churches fall prey to this when seeking to call/hire a man to lead them. The danger is in lumping the good, qualified, popular pastors with the ones who are little more than attention seekers selling themselves with just enough Jesus added on to be dangerous (if not heretical.) 

In the recent 9 Marks podcast "Pastors' Talk" episode 69: On Pastoral Calling featuring Mark Dever, Brad Wheeler, and Jonathan Leeman, the men candidly discuss the concept of calling. You can listen to the full podcast here.

Dever is questioned by the others regarding some who seek to serve and why some should be rejected. He states:

The guy who keeps telling me he’s called to preach but isn’t making any opportunities to share the gospel likely isn’t called. He’s just waiting for someone to give him a platform. He likely just wants a religious job.

I know this guy. He has appeared in my ministry at different times. Unfortunately, in my immaturity, I have often given opportunities that should have never been given.

We have dealt with these as well in our network's church planting assessment weekends. A discerning heart often picks up on statements and desires that lean more toward this version of self-promotion than to biblical pastoral ministry.

While the church calling a man may be enamored by the potential celebrity status intent on competing with the church down the street, the result is often an unhealthy ministry led by an uncalled minister who does more harm than good. And ultimately, God is not glorified.

3. The wife is not called.

What? Isn't it just important that the man surrender to the pastoral call and go?

Uh...no.

Here's a little nugget from the Pastors' Talk podcast that speaks clearly to this. Let's say the man feels called and is sharing this with his wife. Dever asks about the very real questions that couples in ministry deal with. In this example, it is the man speaking to his wife. In other examples, the godly wife knows her husband is called to more, but he resists. We all know those as well. But in this case, 

  • How does the husband convince his wife that it is okay to be poorer than they would be otherwise? It may mean resigning from a high paying job and moving out of the nice, gated community in an intentional down-sizing to serve. 
  • How does the husband convince his wife that it is okay to be the object of more criticism than she would be normally? I know some who have greatly struggled and even slowed or stopped a move to full-time ministry simply due to an aversion to this role of "pastor's wife."
  • How does the husband convince his wife that it is okay to live more publicly with all the kids than she would have to normally?

The calling of a pastor (and since I'm a complementarian, I am speaking of a man in this role) is not divorced from the calling of his wife. Maybe I shouldn't use the word divorce - that brings up an entirely other, needed discussion. 

Simply put, I agree with Brad Wheeler in the podcast:

If the Lord has called the man, he has called his wife.

Conversely, if the Lord has not called the wife, he has not called the husband.

Yes, it's a package deal.

4. The Lead Pastor is overly enamored by having men called from his ministry.

Ouch. This one hurts, but it is true and reveals a bit of idolatry. 

It is a great thing to have men and women surrender to ministry in the church. It is honorable and celebratory to have them do so under your leadership as pastor. However, there is this reality that all too often occurs in churches. The lead pastor is loved. He has faithfully preached, taught, and shepherded the church. God has used him well and many are coming forward to surrender to ministry.

Yet, some of those who come are not called.

They want to be on staff. 

They want a title.

They want to live the preacher life (or at least the version they see from the congregation), but they are not qualified. They are not called. They have been given another role.

It's not a downgrade. In these cases, the individual is called to evangelize and disciple, as all Christians are. They are in the marketplace, in the schools, in the workforce. They are on the frontlines. They are called, but not biblically qualified to pastor or serve as an overseer. Yet, they are given a position. They are given a title. Why? Because the lead pastor is excited that someone would come forward under his ministry to do so. 

Yet, it's a disservice to the individual and as will always be revealed, to the church.

The danger is when that unqualified individual is given a position to which he has not been called, the ramifications are serious. Ultimately, he will likely either quit, fold under the pressure, or have to be dismissed. At any rate, that family is hurt (he, his wife and children) and the church. Shame sets in. Embarrassment occurs. Even anger results. 

In some cases, the person is done with church, because it is very hard to go from being listed on the website and bulletin as a minister to just sitting in the congregation again. Sometimes, the person just goes to the church down the street or in the next community over. Either way - the rift is real. 

And it always comes back to harm the church and the lead pastor.

There are numerous other reasons why the wrong person is in a pastoral position.

The question is, "How does the church survive this?"

Sadly, some do not. If the church has a man in pastoral leadership who has done more than just preach poorly, become arrogant, or hurt people's feelings, the harm may be lasting. In some cases, sexual sin, affairs, and even abuse occurs. Our church dealt with this long before I joined the pastoral staff in 1994. The senior pastor at the time led the church to hire me as student pastor. It was about a month after arriving I was told by him and others in the church that three youth pastors prior, a sexual crime had been committed by the man with the title. The senior pastor at the time apparently resigned later for his own indiscretion. 

It's been over thirty years now and while most in our community have no idea of those days (and I'm thankful for the senior pastor who called me to his staff and the immediate previous youth pastor who was able to serve with distinction before moving to another church) the scars of past sins in our church remain.

While these were the most heinous offenders, others over the years have come and gone. Good guys, but wrong hires.

Not all. Believe me, God has blessed us currently and in the past with godly, called men and women to serve in ministerial leadership positions. 

At times, I'm certain some in our church have wondered if I was a poor hire. Most of those are now members at sister churches in the community. 

God's church survives these moments not by forming another committee to go "find the right guy this time" but by grounding itself in the gospel and in prayer. God loves his church and he always calls his man to serve as he desires. The church must be prayed up (that's a church phrase we use, right?) and discerning, knowing that God never leads to the wrong man.

As for the pastors/ministers/directors of ministry serving at your church now - pray for them and their families. Be their defense in prayer. Even the right ones can be tempted and are. 

If (when) there is a vacancy in the position, depending on your church polity, prayerfully consider the points above before putting another in the role. 

I believe and have been affirmed that I have been called by God to pastor. Yet, even in my affirmed calling, my old nature sometimes (all too often) rises up and leads me to say and do things that are not God's desire. In other words, I'm not the perfect pastor for this church, but I am the called one, by God, equipped and strengthened by the Holy Spirit for this task. As are the other godly men I know serving faithfully for the sake of the call.

__________

1Charles H. Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing, 2017), 47.


The Blessing of Qualified Deacons Who Serve

It is the time of year once more in our church where the members will prayerfully nominate biblically qualified, faithful men to serve in the office of deacon. We recognize two offices within the church - pastors (elders) and deacons. 

It is at this time of the year I sometimes feel like Bill Murray in the movie "Groundhog Day." We have been nominating deacons to serve in our church for decades. This is something that has occurred every single year that I have been here (the past 25 years) and for many years prior. Yet, every year the same questions come up regarding qualifications, expectations, and responsibilities of the men who serve.

Each year, the answers remain the same. At least the core answers do, for those are based on the only passage in Scripture where qualifications of deacons is given (1 Timothy 3.)

So, as we prepare for this time once more, we must go back to Scripture to ensure we understand what is required for men who answer this high calling for the lowly position.

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Often when looking at the qualifications for deacons, we begin reading in verse 8 of chapter 3 while ignoring the qualifications for pastors (elders) listed in the first portion of the chapter. While these are two distinct offices, there is a connecting phrase in verse 8 that leads the reader to see that which is required of pastors is true for deacons as well. That phrase is "Deacons likewise must be..."

While the offices of pastor/elder and deacon have been affirmed in the modern church, the roles of the offices have often been misunderstood, if not fully modified. Based on the New Testament, the pastor/elders are the primary spiritual leaders of the local church. Pastors are to teach or preach the Word and shepherd the souls of those under their care (Eph. 4:11; 1 Tim. 3:2; 5:17; Titus 1:9; Heb. 13:17).

Deacons are to serve. The church needs deacons to offer practical, logistical support and service to the pastors and the church body so that the pastors may focus on the study of the Word of God and prayer. 

The Similarities of Offices

It is clear as one reads through the passage that character counts. Men who serve as pastors and men who serve as deacons are held to high standards of character. They are to be proven, Christian men who are dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy, holding to sound faith and doctrine, and blameless. They are expected to lead their families well and, if married, to have wives who are above reproach as well. Clearly, if a moral character qualification is listed for elders, it is expected of deacons as well. 

The Differences of Offices

The character qualifications are similar, but the roles and expectations of the offices do differ in some significant ways. The most distinguishing difference in the passage is found in 1 Timothy 3:2 where pastors are required to be "apt to teach." 

This has caused confusion for some in that some churches have required their deacons to be serving in a teaching capacity in the church. What deacons are called to do is "hold" to the faith (1 Tim. 3:9).  The office requirement is clear on holding strongly to the doctrines and mysteries of the faith. The passage clearly suggest that deacons do not have an official teaching role in the church.

Nevertheless, while a deacon may not actually be leading a small group or Bible study in the church, he must have the capacity to answer questions regarding biblical truth and doctrine. He must be able to share this truth with others. He should also be willing to serve where needed in the local church...and that may be in a teaching capacity (for various age groups.) 

Character & Doctrine Matters

The deacon is an office of necessity so that the members of the church are served well. The pastor ensures they are taught well. God has positioned these offices in his church for his glory and the good of the church. 

So, as the questions come, the answers remain consistent. There are interpretative variances on some of the qualifications. For example, while "husband of one wife" literally means "a one-woman man" some churches have read this to mean that a divorced man is not qualified for the office (this is our church's understanding.) Other churches have held this to mean a man should be married to only one woman at a time, which was an issue in the day it was written and will likely be again as marriage laws and redefinitions of acceptable relations continue to occur. Some hold that if a man became a believer after a remarriage, he qualifies. 

Our church also has chosen to refrain from the drinking of alcoholic beverages for all pastors and deacons. While we concur that drinking alcoholic beverages is not a sin, we acknowledge that in our culture the command to ensure we not be stumbling blocks to newer believers has led to the continuation of this guideline. 

While the "Groundhog Day" feeling continues, there are things that come up during this season of "deacon nomination" that causes me to reevaluate our guidelines, processes, and roles in our church.

Things We Need To Reconsider

  • GET RID OF THE TERM LIMIT - We have "inactive deacons" and I keep looking in Scripture to see where that is validated. Our practice, as with many legacy churches, is to call a man to serve for a "term" as a deacon. In our case, it's for three years.  It seems to me the concept of "inactive" is wrong. Now, there are cases where a man should step down from service. Obviously, the abandonment of solid doctrine, immorality, divisiveness, or opposition to pastors (who are leading biblically) would be reasons for a removal from office. However, a year off after three years on seems to be nothing more than a passive way to remove men from office without having to address personality conflicts or more importantly, issues such as those listed above.
  • STOP NOMINATING THE UNQUALIFIED - The process of nomination is challenging. Yet, there are men nominated by well-meaning church members each year who are not qualified for the office. 
  • STOP TRYING TO FILL A QUOTA - We have abandoned this, but many churches still are focused on having the right number of men as deacons a required by their by-laws. The church is better off having the right men, even if it's a smaller number, than a large group of men who do not qualify.
  • SELECT QUALIFIED DEACONS WHO ALREADY SERVE IN THE CHURCH - Calling a man who does nothing in the church with the hopes he will once he is called as a deacon is akin to giving a person who never attends small group a teaching position in hopes that he/she will start attending regularly. It's futile. It's wrong. It lowers the bar. 
  • CALL TO REPENTANCE THOSE THOSE WHO HAVE SERVED, BUT WON'T NOW - There are some who do not serve actively due to health or serious familial reasons. Then there are the men who refuse to serve for reasons that are less than godly. A deacon who has served in the past but won't currently due to differences with pastoral leadership, anger, laziness, or simply a desire to not serve within the church, must be called to repentance. Why? Because this is sin. If the man has disqualified himself from the office, that too must be addressed. However, it seems that at times, certain men are begged by other church members to serve again as they did prior to their refusal to be "active" once more, but to do so without calling them to repentance is to affirm the sin keeping them out of the office. 

The Bible charges pastors with the tasks of teaching and leading the church. The deacons role is more service-oriented. By handling such issues within the church, the pastors are freed up to focus on shepherding the spiritual needs of the church. Deacons are a blessing. They honor God through their service to him and his church.


Why I Quit Men's Ministry

About fifteen years ago I was reading one of the popular men’s books available and selling well in Christian bookstores at the time. I was challenged and encouraged and even traveled out west to attend a retreat hosted by the author. At that point in my life, I needed this message and God used it to affirm his calling upon my life.

Prior to that, like many Christian men, I read a few books about living as a godly man that had become popular.  This was during the growth of the men’s ministry movement that was grew due to ministries like Promise Keepers and other conference events. The focus on biblical manhood was needed then. It still is. Pastors like Robert Lewis and his Men’s Fraternity material proved very valuable. I began leading Men’s Fraternity groups at our church and launched a men’s ministry called “Battle Ready” through our church. This led to retreats, outings, conferences, and small group studies over the years.

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One of the annual highlights for our men was Battle Ready Weekend. We would gather in Tennessee for three days of solid, no-holds-barred biblical teaching, personal reflection, along with some fun experiences like paintball, white water rafting, zip lines, and more.

The themes of the teachings were the same every year. In fact, most of the biblically-based books and resources for men’s ministry tend to be similar. There’s a focus on living out one’s identity in Christ, refusing to be passive, delving into spiritual wounds, being a godly husband, and leaving a legacy as a godly father.

I have fond memories of these days. The gospel was proclaimed. Biblical teaching on being the man God intends was offered. Wives started signing their husbands up stating the benefits to their marriages were clear. Children had conversations that previously had gone left unsaid.

We began inviting our sons to join us on these weekends. The shift was needed and those with sons were provided opportunity to speak into their lives in ways that they often desired, but were unable or unwilling to do so. In retrospect, the moments between fathers and sons proved to be powerful and impactful.

Then things began to shift.

Preparing for the weekend trips became an administrative headache. I was the keynote speaker, but also the schedule developer, the rooming reservationist, the event planner, and over every little detail of the weekend events. This was due to my own immaturity and weaknesses in leadership. I was “leading” but not leading well. I had created a retreat for me and ended up inviting other guys along. It was good. It was not best.

Then, I invited my son. This became the father-son weekend I desired. Those things I had challenged other fathers to do was now to be modeled by me – the pastor, the men’s ministry leader, the founder of Battle Ready.

My son was in elementary school. He would soon be in junior high and would attend with me annually until his senior year in high school.

We did have some good times. There were a couple of years when he and I would leave early and arrive at the campground a few days before the bus full of friends from church arrived. It was just the two of us. I tried to make it a memorable week. Maybe I was trying to create something that I felt was missing in our lives? Perhaps I was trying to connect with him before it was too late. Hindsight is 20/20, but it also leads me to over analyze in ways that are often not helpful. So there's that.

We came home and my wife asked “How was your time together?” I said “Okay. It was good.”

I meant it. Truly. But she was expecting something profound to happen. When I failed to reveal the “moment” that connected us well, she seemed disappointed. In truth, I was too.

There was a gap. It wasn’t my son’s fault at that time. I really don’t think it was mine either. I’m not sure what the problem was. Well, looking back, it was something I had created with my overly busy schedule likely (I’ve been told that numerous times) and was trying to make up for lost time.

Words from Robert Lewis would resonate with me. He would say “An involved dad is not a strategic dad.” Boom. That was me. I was definitely involved. I coached his team. Went to school events (I did miss that one story time in elementary school that leaves a scar in our story) sponsored him and traveled with him on school field trips, would adjust my schedule to his, and took him with me on occasion when I could. But…that wasn’t necessarily strategic.

Then something happened.

THE WORST MOMENT IN MY LIFE (SO FAR)

Up to this point, it would be categorized as the worst moment in my life. For my son, it wasn’t good either.

There was a divide between us. He was in high school.

He made choices that fell outside our (my wife and I) understanding of biblical fidelity. There were many things that we never saw coming. Our family was under spiritual attack. A trap was sprung. It was an incredibly effective one as well. We were in a battle and while it manifested as being between my son and I at times, the true battle was deeper, more sinister, and spiritual.

Many in our community and even some in our church didn’t (and do not) understand this. I’ve discovered there is a two-dimensional narrative that some believe to be true. Based on the portions of our story known by some, opinions were developed. Judgments were made. Depending on who you talk with, varying characters in this storyline were the wrong ones and the bad guys. That’s always the case. Since living through this journey I’ve been convicted of times when I have made the same false judgments on others based simply on one version of a story, or perhaps only what I have observed.

I have learned. I hope I now know better. Looking back, confirmation has been given by God regarding our rightness to stand firmly on his Word and truth. Sin does not live in grey areas and of that we have been affirmed. We also have this amazing ability to see how we could have responded better (not by affirming sin) at times. That remains a continual struggle, since as you may know our story continues (just as everyone reading this is living in a continual story.)

Our son eventually graduated from high school. He went to university and excelled. He continues in graduate studies and I have no doubt that he will continue to do well. He may actually be the most intelligent young man I have ever met. He is gifted and talented. He is also perhaps the best friend an individual could have.

Yet, the fellowship between father and son is absent. I don’t say those words lightly or with animosity. It’s just a reality. It’s not a finality, but today it remains.

MEN'S EVENTS

I continued to plan men’s weekends even after my son went away to school and was beyond wanting (or pretending to want) to attend. I remember the last one I planned. It was in eastern Tennessee at Doe River Gorge. This is a beautiful location with many amenities. The cabins are perfect. I stayed in an old train caboose that had been converted into a hotel-type room. I had other men teaching sessions so it was not all on me. We had a good group attend and it was not unlike previous gatherings.

But…something was wrong.

I was tired. I was no longer being renewed through these weekends. I was burning out. And I felt like a hypocrite.

I was teaching the Word and as our men know, was always pretty transparent in my sessions. I would share weaknesses and mistakes and where I saw my needs for grace. Yet, in this story as a father, I felt like a failure. I was seeking to model the “how to” of being a godly husband and father and lo and behold, there was this monkey wrench thrown into the machinery.

“Where’s your son?” was asked by a few of the men. It was asked by some whom I thought knew what had happening and the journey we were on. However, these are men. I’m guilty as well. Sometimes we just don’t catch the obvious or hear the details.

Battle Ready Weekend ended and I began my drive home. I didn’t ride the bus. I drove alone. I arrived early to Tennessee and spent three days alone in prayer and just trying to gather my thoughts or anything else that would help. I actually found myself ready to end my weekend and head home about a day before all the men arrived. NOTE – if you want to leave before everyone arrives, that’s not a good sign.

Overall the weekend went well.

But, I was done.

I just could not do it again.

That was 2015.

I am still way too busy it seems. While things aren’t exactly as I desire them to be, God has done a work upon and within me. I went back to school and am almost finished. I’m older and hopefully a bit wiser. The crisis of life pushed me even deeper into God’s Word. I still have some men’s ministry books. Actually I have a shelf full of them, but have found greater insight into living for Christ directly from the Bible rather than from books about the Bible. Go figure. As a pastor, you’d think this would be obvious.

I still read these books and others. I have read biographies of great men of the faith. I have discovered once more what I have already known. The doubts and fears I have faced, the inadequacies that seem to be more and more obvious, the spiritual attacks, and more are not unique to my story. The perfect pastor’s family does not exist. It’s a façade. There is only one who is perfect, and His perfection is my strength. His grace is my sufficiency.

BACK AT IT

I’m not hosting another men’s weekend. We may never do those again like we did in the past. In fact, most of the men who were key to making it happen have left the church or moved elsewhere. Some have clearly followed God’s lead elsewhere to serve. Others have just been taken out of the story through moral failure or the abandonment of biblical truth. For those I grieve.

While I’m not hosting, I have agreed to speak at a men’s weekend. A portion of our annual attendees lived in North Carolina and under the leadership of my friend Travis Bowman, Battle Ready NC was created. I am so excited for what he has been able to do through this ministry. This year I will be speaking at the opening session for the men attending. It takes time to get from Florida to North Carolina. I will once again take a long drive alone for prayer and reflection. Yet, this time I believe God is calling me to do this for His glory and for the good of the men in attendance. Maybe it’s for the good of my family as well. I hope so.

I quit men’s ministry. Maybe I don’t need “men’s ministry” but I know what I do need, and I know the men in our church and community need this too. I need to walk humbly with God as a man with a strong faith, a biblical worldview, with gospel-soundness and a graceful love of others.

It’s kind of funny, in a sick way. I was telling men to be “Battle Ready” and was blindsided by the enemy who proved I was not. Yet in my weakness He is strong and where I have no capacity to be battle ready, I know he is.

The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent. Exodus 14:14 (ESV) [1]

_______________

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ex 14:14). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.


Your New Church Has Great Music, a Trendy Logo, and Looks Great On Instagram...But, That's Not Enough

Laura M. Holson recently (March 17, 2018) wrote an article about a young, large, fast-growing church in southern California for The New York Times. Dr. Albert Mohler referenced the article and church in his podcast The Briefing, posted on March 23, 2018.)

As I listened to Dr. Mohler's podcast and then read the article, I could not help but think "I know churches just like the one in the article!"

Pastors serving in a metropolitan or suburban (and perhaps in some rural) areas have noticed an uptick in new church starts intent on reaching the next generation. I am excited to see more churches in our city. I am so glad to see men step up, not just as a career choice, but due to a God calling (BTW - not all who seek to pastor, should. I wrote about that in the past here). That's why I serve in our city network as a church planting assessor, offer our facilities for new works, and seek to help those called into pastoral ministry as best I can.

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Now that I amazingly am an "old-timer" in our community since I've pastored here for over two decades, I often am asked about some of the new starts that pop up from my peers. Normally the question is something like "What's up with XYZ Church?" Sometimes I know the new pastor and have great things to say. Other times, I have yet to meet the new pastor and have no information to offer. Then, there are the other circumstances when I do know the pastor, know of his theology and focus, and seeking not to be negative, will just encourage others to pray for them (while never encouraging anyone to attend their church.)

Referencing the article from the NYT and Dr. Mohler's assessment once more, I noticed some things that stand out and should be addressed by evangelicals (based on a solid definition of the term). I list some of these below, in no particular order:

The Term "Evangelical" Has Become Almost Unusable

In America today, the term evangelical is used by some who understand the meaning to be related to an identified subset of Christianity that holds to biblical authority and the desire to reach out, or evangelize (thus, the name) those who are non-believers. This is a valid definition. It lines up with the explanation of the National Association of Evangelicals on their site:

Evangelicals take the Bible seriously and believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The term “evangelical” comes from the Greek word euangelion, meaning “the good news” or the “gospel.” Thus, the evangelical faith focuses on the “good news” of salvation brought to sinners by Jesus Christ.

However, most recently the term "evangelical" has been muddied. The media uses the term to identify any church or Christian that cannot be categorized as Catholic or Protestant Liberal. More troubling, the term has become an identifier of a perceived political ideology. Christians are likely to blame for this.

Marketing Is Celebrated More Than Message

To be clear, I love specialty marketing stuff. I have no real issues with churches creating attractive logos and plastering them on shirts, hats, or other items. Maybe that's a hold over from my business classes in college. A well-designed logo becomes identifiable in a community. Churches seeking to connect with Millennials often utilize social media (Instagram and Snapchat primarily) to spread the word and create a sense of "coolness" for what they're doing. I'm not opposed to it. Just call it what it is. It is not evangelism. It is not discipleship. It is marketing. While not a bad thing, the church must remember that we have not been called to market well, but to be "salt" and "light" in the world (Matt 5:13-16), commissioned to make disciples of Jesus Christ (Matt 28:19-20).

In some churches, especially the ones referenced in the article, music is incredible, complete with the best sound systems, incredible musicians and smoke machines.

Yet, the message is somewhere an afterthought. The message is toned down into a stream of tweetable thoughts of positive thinking, self-belief, with just enough Jesus sprinkled in to allow the gathering to claim to be Christian. But, it's dangerous.

From Holson's article:

Mr. Veach believes he can save souls by being the hip and happy-go-lucky preacher, the one you want to share a bowl of açaí with at Backyard Bowls on Beverly Boulevard, who declines to publicly discuss politics in the Trump era because it’s hard to minister if no one wants to come to church. Jesus is supposed to be fun, right?

“I want to be loud and dumb,” Mr. Veach said with a wide, toothy grin. “That’s my goal. If we aren’t making people laugh, what are we doing? What is the point?”

Asked about abortion rights, Mr. Veach declined to give a specific answer. “At the end of the day I am a Bible guy,” he said.

Mr. Veach’s father shrugged about his son’s equivocation. “Last thing you want to do is turn off a whole demographic,” he said of today’s pastors. “If you draw lines in the sand, people are going to think God hates them.”

And Mr. Veach wants Zoe to be a refuge for many, against the rhetoric of so many other dogmatic evangelicals.

“From the time I’ve entered, and, maybe, just what we grew up in, it’s, like, you don’t bring politics into church,” he said. “We’re here to preach good news. We’re here to bring hope to humanity. We’re here to talk about God. This is not the place for a political agenda. This is the last place. When I come to church, you know what I need? I need encouragement.”

Dr. Mohler responds:

Now before we dismiss that statement entirely, there's something profoundly true in what he said. People do not come to church in order to talk about politics. That's not what their souls need. But what he said is fundamentally wrong and it ends up being actually, not only allergic to politics but antithetical to the gospel because he reduces what people do need to exactly the wrong word, encouragement. There have been far too many evangelical congregations that have talked more eagerly and more clearly about politics and political issues than they have about the gospel and that is to their shame. But the inescapable fact is that if you are 'a Bible guy" then that means you have to teach the Bible and it means you have to believe the Bible as the inerrant and infallible word of God. It means that you have to preach the parts of the Bible that a contemporary society might find encouraging but it also means you've got to preach the parts of the Bible that a modern, very secular society will find anything but encouraging. Most importantly, if you claim to be committed to human flourishing, you have to be clear about whom the Bible identifies as a human and what flourishing would mean.

"Gospel Lite" with a Good Beat

Now, I do not know Mr. Veach. And, clearly, all I have to go on is what the church promotes online and an article written for The New York Times.

What I do know is that as I read the article about Zoe Church in southern California, as described in this article, I could not help but think of a few churches in our community that seem to have taken the exact blueprint for church launching and growth. They have great music, marketable goods, a trendy logo, an incredible social media presence. This is the Instagram and Snapchat generation and these churches are connecting well.

My concern is the sacrifice of good theology for the propagation of crowd gathering, bent solely on encouragement and good feels.

Many of these music-driven churches are based on others such as Hillsong, described in the NYT article as the "granddaddy of them all." Mohler says, "Hillsong is in many ways an updated millennial prosperity theology packed very well with contemporary music."

Worship Doesn't Have to Be a "No Smoking" Zone

To be clear, having a good band lead worship, complete with lights and even a smoke machine is not bad. Some lambast music styles, but I do not. I am firmly convinced authentic worship can take place through a variety of music styles. To argue otherwise is a waste of breath and ultimately moot.

However, just having good music does not excuse weak preaching. There are some incredible worship songs being written today and many have been sung regularly in churches throughout the world. Yet, the wise pastor would be careful to ensure the worship music (whether old hymns, country gospel, hip hop, modern praise, etc.) has strongly worded lyrics that affirm good theology.  A good rule of thumb is that if a band spends more time explaining why a lyric is biblical after being confronted by solid, biblically sound pastors regarding said lyric, the song should be deleted from the worship set.

I don't care if the band plays contemporary music. I don't care if there are lights and a smoke machine. I don't care that a trendy logo is slapped on various items. I really don't care if a church does that. My warning is to not major on the minors (all that stuff) and miss the main thing - the message of the gospel.

A Higher Standard

I care about these churches because I know some of their pastors and a good number of their members. I pray they will not sacrifice the good news for a good time.

However, if a local church proves to be more icing than cake, I will continue to pray for them and not recommend that anyone attend. 

And for those who counter "Well, they weren't going to church anywhere. At least that church is better than not going, right?" I say - "Probably not."

I care because I want people to come to Christ. I want the unreached reached. I want the lost found. I just don't want a fluffy, weak, watered-down version of Christianity to propagate.

There's too much at stake. 


Live for God and You Will Face a Sanballat & Tobiah

I have been leading our church through a study of Ezra and Nehemiah on Wednesdays recently. We have discussed much about the rebuilding of the Temple and walls of Jerusalem. We looked at the significance of rebuilding these structures and of the gates of the city as well.

As you who have studied these books know, there are a few characters who show up early in the book of Nehemiah that seek to discredit Nehemiah's leadership and put a stop to the work being done in the city. These men are Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem.

The main protagonists are Sanballat and Tobiah. At first, they start hurling insults at Nehemiah and the people. Then, the threats lead to potential physical attacks. They are opposed to the work of God and are doing their best to stop it.

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Photo credit: alvaro tapia hidalgo on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND

Nehemiah is seeking to lead God's people well and honor God through the work. The enemies seek to place themselves first, not God nor his people. This is clear in the writings. 

Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem were men of influence. They had authority in the community due to their roles as governors and leaders of their regions. They represented people groups that were originally expelled from the Promised Land of God's people centuries prior. 

While it's not necessarily a good thing to ask "Where am I in this story?" when it comes to biblical narratives, primarily because that seems to place self at the center of God's stories. In this case, there are some things that are not only clear historically, but applicable for churches and Christian leaders today.

There are always Sanballats and Tobiahs

Most pastors I know have experienced this reality. When a pastor or Christian leader seeks to do great, impossible, God-sized things for the glory of God, there is always opposition. In other words, there's always a "Sanballat" and "Tobiah" in the midst. These may be community members or neighbors. Sometimes, they are actually members of the church. 

Over time they become easily recognizable. Here are some things that occur within the church that reveal a Sanballat and Tobiah may be in the room:

  • A sense of "me first" or "our group first" rises to the surface when community engagement and mission expansion are presented.
  • A pervasive negativity fills the room and is stoked by the Sanballats and Tobiahs. Negativity is like a cancer and can turn a joyous gathering of Christians into a complain-fest that sees nothing positive happening.
  • Vision dissipates.
  • A desire to go back rather than forward is often expressed.
  • An "us versus them" mentality is expressed, either overtly or covertly. The confusion may come in identifying the "us" and the "them." 
  • New ideas (or even old ones cemented in biblical truth) are opposed.
  • A number of pastors have heard the "We were here before you came here. We'll be here after you're gone." expression regularly.
  • A continued reminder of how big a failure you are as a pastor or leader (i.e. "You didn't visit enough," "Your sermons are negative diatribes," "You love 'them' more than 'us,'" "You're changing things and we don't like it," "Your family is rude/mean/loud/unruly/undisciplined/etc."

Here's the good news - your Sanballats and Tobiahs are just members of a long-lasting club. It's a club no one should want to be a member, yet continues to grow in number, it seems.

Pastor, be encouraged. There's no pastor who has not faced this. You are called to shepherd and serve. You are not perfect. You will make mistakes. Believe me, people will let you know when you make mistakes. Just remember that God called and equipped a king's cupbearer for an impossible task of rebuilding a stone wall with large wooden gates around a city. This task he (Nehemiah) was given was impossible. Then, while continually facing opposition, even from those who were working with him, he was opposed by Sanballat and Tobiah. Yet, he finished the task. The city was restored. God's good hand (Neh 2) was upon him. It is on you as well. Stay focused on the task, grounded in the gospel and respond to the negative attackers as Nehemiah did...

And I sent messengers to them, saying, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” Nehemiah 6:3 (ESV) 

I love that! When Sanballat and Tobiah were working once more to distract and stop the work Nehemiah was called to do, he responds with "Can't talk now. The work of God I am doing now is too important." 

Take heart. You're not the first to face opposition. You' won't be the last. Don't waste time talking about it to those who are direly opposed to God and his work (regardless their position or title) and press on. Yes, this is easier said than done, but then most vital things are.

One other warning: Be careful not to become a Sanballat or Tobiah. It's really easy to slide into that mode, even justifying one's own sin while doing so.


You Are Called to Pastor - Do You Really Need Seminary?

I have served in pastoral ministry for almost thirty years. When I surrendered to God's calling as a pastor, I began counting down the months until graduation at the university I was attending. I knew, immediately, that seminary was my next step. This is likely due to the fact I lived in Fort Worth, Texas which was home, at the time, of the largest evangelical seminary in the world (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.) My pastor was a student at SWBTS, as were the numerous student pastors who served part-time at the small church where I was a member. In fact, it never occurred to me that seminary was not an option. 

I am currently back at seminary, working toward a Doctor of Educational Ministry at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

So, I would understand if in your reading of this article, you deem me to be biased. I am. I believe seminary education is good and valuable for the one called to pastoral ministry. 

I also understand that it is not a biblical requirement of the office.

Nevertheless, as I have had opportunity to serve in the local church and see young people surrender their lives to what we term "full-time Christian service" there is a trend I have noticed of minimizing the need for theological education. This is not true for all, but there are those who just want to hurry up and get on the field and forego the study.

Do You Have To Go To Seminary to Pastor?

Well, no. You won't find a verse that commands the called out ones to enroll in an accredited school for the purpose of earning a degree. Yet, we must not dismiss this as a viable option for pastors, or in some cases a recommended one.

Dr. Albert Mohler, President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary states it this way:

Seminaries, when they are faithful as servants of the church and accountable to the church, training ministers without apology for the churches, and doing so effectively, can offer a pastor the most comprehensive background for ministry that can be put into about a three year period. Now, as I say, I hope every pastor would have at least that much, because I think to really be a skilled preacher of God’s word and a pastor, to continue to grow, most pastors will go beyond that and if not in formal study, at least that better be the investment in how they study on their own.

Yet, we have all heard from those in the local churches who have decried the seminary education for fear that all that training messes with good preachers and makes them ineffective. Well, if you haven't heard that type of talk, you haven't been around many of our smaller congregations who struggle with the sending off for educational purposes.

Southern-Seminary
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary - Louisville, KY

In some cases, these complaints are valid. In fact, in Baptist life just a few decades ago, the great fear was becoming a reality. Biblically-based, theologically conservative institutions were not just leaning, but running quickly to the left and disavowing the veracity of Scripture as inerrant. While many Baptist colleges and universities were lost to the cultural shift, the six Southern Baptist seminaries were reclaimed through what has become known as the conservative resurgence.

Therefore, over the past few decades, much like many years ago, the ministerial training offered at our seminaries has proved to be quality, biblically-sound, and effective. Of course, there will always be small exceptions, but by and large, this is the what God has provided, all to his glory, in our schools.

Pastoring Without Seminary

Yet, there are many godly men serving in pastoral ministry who do not have seminary degrees. These are not unlearned men. They are wise and biblically sound. 

Matt Chandler, Pastor at The Village Church, is one such man and has addressed this clearly. He states:

I have been asked recently about what my thoughts are concerning seminary and why I never finished. I have found this to be a very polarizing subject where people put me in the camp of those who think that seminary is unnecessary or put me into the other camp that thinks scholarship isn't important for the pastorate. The truth is I think most men need to go to seminary and scholarship is extremely important. 

There is a recent trend of really sharp, entrepreneurial, driven men skipping seminary all together and planting churches. I don't have a problem with this at all if those men have picked up the tools they need in other places and are continuing to grow theologically and philosophically. If a guy can handle the Greek and Hebrew, knows at least at the cursory level Christian history and can wrestle through and find answers for deep, difficult theological questions then he might not need a degree from a seminary. These men are usually driven, avid studiers and readers by nature. If they could, they would spend their whole day with the scriptures as well as with men like Calvin, Luther and Spurgeon. I said might because seminary then becomes an obedience issue between him and the Lord and may still be a very good idea.

On the other hand, if you don't have the tools, have a tendency to be lazy in study, can't handle the languages, know nothing of how to find answers to deep, difficult theological questions except to quote John Piper and know nothing of our rich history then you need to go get some tools. If you are lazy in study and continue to get in front of people and teach, you have much more courage than I do. I would strongly recommend seminary for its accountability and plan to educate you in doctrine, language and history.

Speed Doesn't Justify Poor Theology

Dr. M. David Sills has written an incredible book titled Reaching and Teaching: A Call to Great Commission Obedience. As a former field missionary overseas and now as a seminary professor, he brings great insight into the flawed model of ministry that offers little discipleship training and provides empty titles for those determined to be leaders.

With a desire to reach the unreached, we have unfortunately turned previously reached groups into unreached groups while ultimately seeking to speed the return of Christ (as if we actually can manipulate God to adjust a time he already has set.) Yes, reaching the unreached is a mandate. It is biblical. It is right. Nevertheless, as Dr. Sills states, "The great missiological error of our day is the mistaken notion that the Great Commission equals reaching the unreached."

Reaching and discipling are not synonyms. (TWEET THIS)

The great tragedy of the world is not that it is unreached; it is that it is undiscipled. Jesus commanded us to make disciples, not just to get decisions.

Sills continues in a recent article posted on the International Mission Board site...

Theological preparation is necessary to plant the pure seed of the gospel in the soil of the target culture rather than simply bringing a potted plant that is indigenous to the missionary’s home culture.

Yet, a degree from a theological seminary may not be necessary, and in fact, some seminaries might do more harm than good. But every missionary must have a masters degree from the School of Christ, no matter how or where he gets it.

Missionaries would be wise to go to the best seminary they can find, one that teaches sound theology and biblical missiology, and get all the education they can in preparation before deploying to the nations.

If God opens the door before they actually graduate, then by all means they should follow his guidance and go. The Lord knows what each missionary needs to do all he has planned for him or her to do, and he also knows what the world needs.

Make sure you hear the still, small voice that says, “This is the way, walk in it,” and then obey that call as if souls depended on it. You shouldn’t run before you’re ready any more than you should delay once you are. God’s timing is not ours. If he hasn’t yet said, “Go now!” then get all the education you can get while you’re home.

Planters, Pastors, and Missionaries in Hurry Up Mode

As we have mentored and coached young ministers and pastors over the years, a few challenges have arisen. In some cases, a person surrenders later in life (when it comes to schooling, this may mean over age 30) and while working a full-time job and seeking to raise a family, deem theological education as not being an option. While some, as in Chandler's case, may rightly continue serving without any training, others drastically need coaching.

When there is an urgency to hurry up and get to work in the ministry, things often do not go well. Don't get me wrong, God remains sovereign and can work through anyone willing to serve. I'm not negating his power or call. Yet, I have seen unteachable people rush to service only to do more harm than good for the kingdom.

Sills states "If God opens the door before they actually graduate, then by all means they should follow his guidance and go." I agree, but I also have seen some vibrant newly surrendered ministers and missionaries who actually forced the door open. In these cases, undone work remains undone. 

In these cases, it's really not about seminary or continued education. It is about having a teachable and learnable spirit. 

If he hasn’t yet said, “Go now!” then get all the education you can get while you’re home.

Patience is a pain, but it's a virtue too, right? In the waiting, God prepares and provides. Seminary and theological training are not tools to cool one's passion for the gospel. It is a gift of God. We should remember that and take it to heart.

And, just as a building with the name church on it does not make it a viable option for education and worship, neither does an institution with a name college, university, or seminary mean it's a good option. That being said, I'm glad to say that as a Southern Baptist pastor, I can wholeheartedly recommend our seminaries for those called into ministry, for the furtherance of their training. I can, and do. We live in an era where quality theological training does not mean uprooting one's family and moving across the country (though it could.) Distance learning is provided by all our schools, and depending on the region one lives, most likely an off-campus site is available in a short driving distance. If not, then by all means move. As God calls, he provides.

Our SBC seminaries: