Southern Baptists Will Have To Decide If We Truly Are "Great Commission Baptists"

Every year when our Southern Baptist Convention gathers, banners and logos are pasted upon the host city's convention center. There are often placards throughout the city, near the hotels and where SBC messengers will be walking. It is no different than any other convention with a theme.

Each year's theme is presented by the current president of the SBC. J.D. Greear has been our president for three years thanks to the pandemic (the terms are for one-year only, and traditionally presidents will run for two concurrent terms.) In 2019, Greear announced the theme for the Birmingham meeting would be "Gospel Above All." In 2020, the announced theme for the since canceled Orlando meeting was "GSPL: Above All. Always." Apparently, 2020 was to be the year we avoided vowels (just kidding J.D.) I actually thought our 2021 theme would just be the 2020 one carried over, but when the Nashville theme was announced a change was clear. The 2021 theme for our meeting next week is "We Are Great Commission Baptists." 

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I'm anticipating (well hoping) a responsive reading at each session that will hearken back to cheer from the film "We Are Marshall!" Maybe Greear can just go to the platform and say "WE ARE..." and the messengers can respond "GREAT COMMISSION BAPTISTS!" But, alas, I doubt that will happen. Not because Baptists are against responsive readings or even gleaned university football cheers. It will not happen because even the theme likely would cause controversy. I'm sure it already has. 

Statements like "I thought we were SOUTHERN Baptists!" would resound. I can anticipate a question brought to the messengers and leaders from a well-meaning messenger who just cannot understand why we would avoid using the word "Southern." Then, of course, a messenger representing a church in Michigan, Oregon, Toronto or some other locale north of the Mason-Dixon line or west of Texas would stand at another microphone with a response akin to "We're not all in the south." And then...someone else would reference our collective history which includes slaveholders seeking to be missionaries, avoidance of civil rights issues, Martin Luther King, Jr., and maybe even the historical value or racial implications of the Confederate flag. 

It is clear that I have attended more than a few of our annual meetings.

Nevertheless, my Southern Baptist Convention has more issues this year than determining the theme for the annual meeting. It is just that as I plan my journey to Nashville, sign up for the pre-SBC Send Conference, gather my tickets to alumni luncheons and other meetings, I keep seeing "We Are Great Commission Baptists" everywhere.

I like the theme.

I really do.

I just wonder if it is true.

Is "Great Commission Baptists" declarative for who we are or is it aspirational for who we desire to be?

I know no Southern Baptist who would deny the value or commands that are included in the Great Commission (mostly looking at the Matthew 28:19-20 reference.) I know no one in my own church that would say it is unimportant. Yet, I also know that even in my own life, I do not always live and serve in such a way that keeps the "Gospel Above All" and as a Christ-commissioned disciple.

What must a Great Commission Baptist be? That's the question. Clearly it should not be presumed that every Southern Baptist knows what this means. It also should not be presumed that when verbal affirmation of the Great Commission is given that practical, lived-out actions automatically follow.

While we joke that Baptists love a good controversy and fight, it is actually evidence of our sin nature and our loss of focus upon the gospel.

I read an article by a former Southern Baptist, Erick Erickson regarding the current SBC issues. While you may or may not like Erickson's writings, statements, or beliefs in other areas, in this statement I fear he is sadly correct. Erickson stated:

A group within the SBC has decided to organize politically in response to some perceived liberalism creeping in. I have a lot of friends in the group and some who are on the outside and share the concerns. But, from my vantage point, it seems they’ve decided every fight is a matter of orthodoxy and anyone who stands in their way can be smeared — it’s just politics after all.

Another group within the SBC seems to have responded almost in kind and are increasingly vocal about racial reconciliation and a host of other social justice issues. In countering those pushing hard against critical theory and perceived liberalism, they seem to have gone off to other extremes.

Both sides share something in common — defining themselves in opposition to the other instead of defining themselves in support of the gospel. The actually have something else in common too — they treat the others as if they are political enemies, not just opponents and neither has shame for doing so, just rationale and justification. (The SBC: I Have Some Thoughts)

I'm Really Concerned This Year!

I have received text messages and have heard from other Southern Baptist pastors on all sides of various controversies in recent weeks. The common theme has been "I'm really concerned this year." I hear this and agree.

I too am concerned. Yet, I'm less concerned that the "wrong" person wins a denominational election. I am more concerned that we may gather, have meetings in the big room and secret meetings in the hallways and smaller rooms. I am concerned that the real issues that must be addressed will not be. I am concerned that the things tabled in the past will never come up again. I am concerned that the Great Commission will be little more than a theme on a banner to be removed the evening following the final gavel and messengers will travel back to their respective homes reporting little more than political posturing, angry speeches, hurt feelings, with the few highlights being the restaurants in the city and the reconnections with old friends (those are not to be missed, by the way.)

But are we really going to be "Great Commission Baptists" who believe the "Gospel is Above All" in how we live, love, and serve our Lord?

I am just one pastor of a suburban church. We are not a mega-church. Our influence is small compared to others. I have a great church full of imperfect children of God who just want to see friends, neighbors, coworkers, and family members saved. We want to see disciples made. We want to be equipped to serve well, engage lostness intentionally, and see God's kingdom expand. 

That's what Great Commission Baptists should want. Right?

The Great Commission is clear. 

Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20 CSB)

Great Commission Baptists who believe the gospel is above all will not allow:

  • Protecting a church's or denomination's brand by ignoring sin.
  • Nationalism over the gospel.
  • Abandonment of biblical fidelity (and inerrancy) in order to line up with the latest push from the moral revolution.
  • Political posturing disguised as theology (within the church, denomination, and the community.)
  • Abuse and victimization of others or protection of abusers. (Yes, we need a database of abusers.)
  • Idolatry of celebrity Christians (even in our own denomination.)
  • Legalism disguised as doctrinal gatekeeping. (And to be clear, I affirm strongly doctrinal fidelity as expressed in the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, so I'm not affirming weakening such. I just believe Pharisaical posturing is so very easy and often ignored.)
  • Racism.
  • Classism.
  • Local church autonomy to be diminished, but also will not use autonomy as a false barrier to dealing with very real issues of sin.
  • And numerous other items that conflict with "teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you"

This is what I believe.

I am not running for anything. I am just one messenger attending my Southern Baptist annual gathering. I look forward to connecting with friends, reconnecting with old ones, and making new ones. While others are working to get their designee elected, their agenda moved forward, and their battles won (all valiant desires,) I will be praying that our agenda will be usurped by the Holy Spirit early in our gathering. 

May we see change take place this year in Nashville. And may it be a change precipitated by repentance. I am praying we collectively experience a brokenness next week due to the realization that for far too long we have allowed our own agendas and posturing to take center stage.

WE ARE...

GREAT COMMISSION BAPTISTS!

(I hope.)


What In The World Is Going On In The SBC?

Our denomination is unique from other groups that fall under that designation. In fact, Southern Baptists are not actually a denomination by the full definition of the term. This is due to the autonomy of Baptist churches and the organization our cooperative network of churches that includes an annual convention, state conventions, and associations. This is much different from mainline denominations with boards, presbyteries, bishops, and hierarchical organizations. Click here for a bit more detail on the organizational structure of the SBC.

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While Southern Baptists have long been known as people of the Word, mostly conservative in theology, and focused on missions and evangelism and creators of the wonderful concept known as the Cooperative Program, it remains true that there are chapters in our collective history that are not ones we like to revisit. This is not unlike our own local church, and every church older than a decade within our convention. In fact, even the founding of the SBC was not a high point of our work, being that it was ultimately due to the desire to send missionaries who were slave-holders to the field, excusing the sin of slavery. Yet, God has redeemed that and Southern Baptists have since repented for such actions (though continual and ongoing work on loving our brothers and sisters well is needed.) I won't rehash the history here, but it is worth reading. I recommend the books Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention by Dr. Jarvis Williams and Dr. Kevin Jones and The SBC and the 21st Century by Dr. Jason Allen, President of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

It was back in the late 1970s and early 1980s that a concerted effort to turn the tide of liberal theology was put in place within our denomination. This has been called "The Conservative Resurgence" by those who prevailed. I am thankful for this movement to affirm the inerrancy of Scripture and the effective shift of repositioning our seminaries toward biblical fidelity.

Over the years, some in our SBC family have become frustrated at "the way things are going." This is true for all organizations, so we are not immune. There are blogs and sites set up that hash out all these issues. Some have legitimate concerns. Others, it seems, are sadly positioned to continually stir the pot.

Recently I received an email from one of our church members with honest, concerned questions about our SBC. Based on reports of creeping liberalism, racial division, doctrinal issues, and more, he was asking some specifics and wanting to know what was happening and if we are about to disband or become defunct.

I answered his questions as honestly, clearly, and specifically as I could. I certainly am concerned about the future of our convention, but I do not believe we are headed to a place of heresy under current leadership as claimed by some. However, I do believe we are at a place now defined by disunity and anger.

Perhaps this is nothing more than a great distraction?

Some state it is a moment of reckoning. They are focused on calling out brothers and sisters in Christ (claiming it is in love, but sadly not showing such.) Some have created a sub-network within our convention as a movement of reform or correction. I will not be leading our church to join group for I do not believe it to be necessary, needed, or helpful.

We now find ourselves in a place (well, it is similar to a place previous Baptist leaders and church members have been in the past - just change the issues and names) where if you claim to be friends...or worse yet, aligned with Pastor A, you cannot be friends with Pastor B. 

It's ridiculous. 

I actually have friends within our denominational family who would be considered to be in different camps (or networks.) No, I don't agree with all of them and they likely do not agree with me on all things, but I do know this...each desires to see the lost come to Christ, the church to be faithful, and God to be glorified. You know what? That could be unifying, if we would let it.

There are stories that seemingly come out weekly regarding the latest problems with Southern Baptists. Some are verifiable. Others are as accurate as the latest shopping center tabloids (do they still print those?) Yes...it is a mess. Certainly, we have issues. Absolutely, biblical fidelity and conservative, faithful, doctrine matters. Our statement of faith, the Baptist Faith & Message (2000) is good. We affirm it. It is not inerrant as only Scripture is, but it reveals what we as Southern Baptists (or Great Commission Baptists) hold to be true from Scripture.

So, my answer to my brother and member of my church is...

"We have not abandoned our doctrinal beliefs. We hold to the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture. We believe the Great Commission...though we are not seemingly making disciples as we should. We believe the Great Commandment...though we are apparently not loving others very well. I believe repentance is needed. I believe unity is the desire, but not unity for unity's sake. We must be unified in the calling to proclaim the gospel clearly, to live holy, to be the ambassadors for Christ he has called us to be. Unity in other items simply leads us off-course and keeps us off-course."

With all the confusion, frustration, name-calling, positioning, sub-networking, etc. that has recently occurred, knowing that a growing tidal wave about to hit the beach (apparently, our beach is in Nashville and the wave is scheduled to hit in June at our annual meeting) I am so thankful for my brother-in-Christ and our SBC President, Pastor J.D. Greear and the message he brought this week to the SBC Executive Committee. Not every Southern Baptist approves of the work J.D. Greear has done as our president. I do approve and I believe he has been placed in this unique position for such a time as this. Rather than simply reinterpret what God led Greear to preach, I encourage you to take the time to watch his message yourself. The link is below. (The video below is Greear's message edited from the full plenary session found at the SBC website. The full plenary session is almost three hours long and the original video is found here. I only edited to pull Greear's message from this for quicker viewing.)

Friends, our convention is not perfect. Yet, I believe we have been blessed beyond what we deserve. God has redeemed us for a greater story. Be encouraged. If we can avoid the distractions that pull us from our calling, we will be known as Great Commission Baptists not because we chose a new alternate title for our denomination, but because we are focused, united, together for the sake of the gospel. 

Better days lie ahead. Let's press on.


The Ravi Zacharias Scandal & the Danger of Creating Celebrity Christians

I will often get questions from church members, even those on staff, regarding the feasibility of using a curriculum item or teaching series by certain teachers. This has seemingly multiplied as more and more pastors and teachers have shifted from the "Good to listen to" list to the "We won't use that material." In some cases it is due to doctrinal errors. Yet, some are due to overt, revealed, moral failure.

The most recent, and perhaps the most frustrating among evangelical leaders, has been the revealed sinful actions of Ravi Zacharias. For years, Zacharias had been celebrated as an accomplished apologist in the church. His gatherings at public universities where he would debate atheists and take questions from students have been viewed by millions. His soft-spoken demeanor and intelligent way of engaging in these venues with what appeared to be true care and love was unique. I enjoyed his teachings and viewed numerous clips such as these. I have also read his writings and books.

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Photo credit: lausannemovement on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA

A couple of years ago I had a meeting with the general manager of a local Christian radio station. This station has faithfully presented great preaching and teaching over the airwaves in our community for decades. We had hosted a fiftieth anniversary celebration for them a few years back and we were discussing another community gathering sponsored by the station. One of the potential speakers they were talking with was Ravi Zacharias. At this point, I mentioned that there were some stories circulating about Ravi and they may wish to look into those before booking. The stories were floating around on the internet and being shared on social media, but by and large, they were not known (or were being ignored) by most Christians.

The stories were concerning, but they had been refuted by Ravi and most people just believed the man whom they saw as a purveyor of truth and therefore viewed the accusers as just seeking money or notoriety. 

Grieving the Death of Ravi

Ravi Zacharias had been ill for a while and in May 2020 he died. There were many who mourned his death and postings asking for prayer for his family members were flooding the internet. This was a time of grief and I, as well as many others, were sad that he had died, was praying for his family, and wondering what the next phase of his ministry (RZIM) would be.

Grieving More Deeply at What Has Been Revealed

It has been almost a full year and more and more stories of Ravi have come to the surface. The ministry had called in an independent investigating team to see what these stories held. The truth of the one who built a ministry declaring the truth has become known.

Years of sexual sin has been admitted by the ministry after reviewing the evidence. There are many stories now covering the issues. Here are some...

His ministry (RZIM) posted a well-written and clear open letter. Click here to read.

The Crushing of Idols

Ravi was gifted a platform and he used that well, when it comes to his teaching. Yet, it seems he also used that well when it came to victimizing others. Ravi Zacharias was a celebrity evangelist. He was...dare I say "idolized" by many. This truth even comes out in some of the stories revealing that dark side. Idolatry is a terrible, abhorrent thing.

I have heard many sermons on the sin of having idols.

I have not heard many on the dangers of becoming an idol.

In this case, the celebrity (even posthumously) has fallen. The idol that many held has been crushed. Even more tragic are the responses I read and hear from Christian brothers and sisters. 

"There but for the grace of God, go I"

Well-meaning Christians brothers and sisters respond to the stories as they continue to be revealed, but often the responses are little more than salt in the wounds of the victims. Clearly, in this age of #MeToo and #ChurchToo and even #SBCToo, there are women (and men) who have been victimized sexually by those in authority (in religious authority) and to read and hear the tepid responses by so many causes some to relive their own pains of abuse.

Certainly, we are all susceptible to the sins of the flesh, but that does not minimize, must not cover up or sugar-coat, the years of intentional, strategic, well-thought out sexual abuse at that hands of this man. There are victims. That means Ravi was the victimizer.

"It's their words against his"

I read this in a comment online. In this case, it is much more than that. RZIM has confessed the accusations are true. They have stated after the investigation that they believe these accusations. Here, in the ministry leaders own open letter it states, "We believe not only the women who made their allegations public but also additional women who had not previously made public allegations against Ravi but whose identities and stories were uncovered during the investigation."

"It's not fair to accuse him after his death"

It is fair. Why? Because the ramifications of his acts remain. Victims are still alive.

"Even David sinned sexually and remained king"

Ravi Zacharias is not King David. The stories are both tragic. They are both evidence of the power of sexual sin and lustful desire, but it is not right, nor helpful to just lean into David every time we see a leader fall. David is not to be our model. Christ alone is.

"I just won't believe it"

This is the kicker. This comment was posted on the Baptist Press's Facebook page under their article on the subject. Responses to this person's comment were strong, and mostly in love. The "I just WON'T believe it" was emphasized. This is a statement of willfully ignoring the facts of sinful (and in this case criminal) acts simply because you do not wish the story to be true.

Perhaps this is the logical result of evangelicals declaring "Fake News" to everything in the mainstream media that is offensive, perceived to be skewed, and certainly written from a non-biblical worldview. Yet, just because a story says the opposite of what we wish does not make it false. 

"I just WON'T believe it" is akin to "I choose my own truth" and that, my friends, is not what Scripture teaches.

How Many More?

Ravi's failure has become just another in a long list of previously respected Bible teachers and leaders we will no longer affirm in our church.

It is disheartening at a minimum when reading of Ravi and others. It is also a clarion call to the church to ensure that we never elevate a man or woman whom we really, really like into a position that is reserved for Christ alone. 

Sadly, there remain many who are guilty of similar sexual abuse acts within the church. In most cases, they are not celebrity pastors. They are not heads of international ministries. They are not well-known outside a small community. They have abused and continue to do so. In some cases, they just shift to another small church where they begin again, leaving victims in their wake who wonder where God was, where he is, and why the church puts up with and seemingly excuses such.

In my denomination (Southern Baptist Convention) there has been a call for a database churches could access to discover such stories. Under the banner of autonomy, that has yet to be set up. Since I am simply a pastor of a local church, I am likely unaware of all the legal ramifications and issues that may make something like this untenable. Yet, I also pastor a church that has a tragic story in our history. In our case, the abuser was hired after doing the same at a previous church. I think it's time we figure out how to make such a clearinghouse work. Otherwise, we will have more Ravi stories, but sadly...more will remain unveiled and the hurt will continue.

"I just don't want to believe it...but it is true. God help us."


What Burdens You?

Last year a book titled Younique: Designing the Life that God Dreamed for You by Will Mancini, Dave Rhodes, and Cory Hartman was published. Mancini and his team are well-known among pastors and church leaders for their practical, easy to comprehend, and contextual works on church leadership, vision development, and contextual engagement. Books such as Church Unique and the recently published Future Church have proven and are proving to be very helpful to many pastors and ministry leaders.

Younique is a book focusing not on the organization or organism known as the local church, but on the individual Christ-follower seeking to live obediently and abundantly (that's how Christ defined our lives as Christians.) I do recommend the book as a whole, but in this post, I want to address one element that Mancini and team reveal.

The Passion Funnel

There is much presented in the book about personal giftedness, interests, and calling. I won't get into the details of each as Mancini's group - Future Church Company is available for consultations and will gladly provide such training for churches and leadership teams. 

Life funnelHowever, in reading about and working through a cohort with other leaders on this subject, the concept of the Passion Funnel continues to resonate with me. To best understand, picture a funnel (duh...thus, the name.) At the top, think of FIVE THINGS THAT INTEREST YOU. These are things that you enjoy doing. At first, you may try to overly spiritualize these things, but think more broadly (and yes, I know ultimately, everything is spiritual, but work with me here.)

You have your five interests. They could be things like: fishing, reading, watching sports, playing board games, collecting coins, etc. These are your hobbies, the things you enjoy doing in your free time.

Now, slide down the funnel a bit to the next level.

Think of THREE OR FOUR THINGS THAT EXCITE YOU. These would be things that give you energy. These are things you look forward to doing. 

The next level down are the TWO OR THREE THINGS THAT DRIVE YOU. What are the things you must do? These are those things that get you up in the morning. They energize you. They make the day seem shorter and feel productive.

Now, for the bottom of the funnel. This is the ONE THING THAT BURDENS YOU. This is not what gets you up in the morning, but what keeps you up at night. This is not something that creates unholy worry or anxiety, but that which God has placed within your unique design that others just may not have. Even other brothers and sisters in Christ may not resonate with that which burdens you. It often is a challenge or a quest. This burden is your holy discontent. It is the calling that reveals God's love for you, your love for him and others, and your answer to why you were born when you were, where you were, and why you have been placed by God where you are now.

This is the burden that keeps us from just existing and waiting out our days on this earth. It motivates us to live full and abundantly as Christians for God's glory and the impact for his Kingdom.

What burdens you? 

For me, the overwhelming lostness in our community and throughout the world keeps me up at night. This is expressed in my great concern for the families who are struggling, for the marriages that are failing, for the children who are questioning truth. 

Thankfully, God is not relying on me. I am relying on him. He has created us in his image for his glory and has called, commissioned, and placed us where we are.

As our church's leadership team discussed our unique individual designs this past week we realized (or more likely remembered) that God has not created us as clones, but as unique works of art with glorious differences all for his glory. This is not a reality simply for pastors or ministry leaders.

Imagine what God's church would do if every Christ-following image-bearer within the body lived fully from their uniquely created and redeemed heart, recognizing that which burdens them (and knowing that is part of God's design as well,) and prayerfully following God's calling within their own heart, family, community, and ultimately the world. 

Don't get stuck in the funnel. That opening at the bottom of the funnel is strategic, so that as you live in community, you do so in a healthy, God-glorifying, other-impacting way.

_____________

This concept and more are explained much better and in more detail in the book Younique: Designing the Life that God Dreamed for You by Will Mancini, Dave Rhodes, and Cory Hartman. I highly recommend it. Click the title of the book to secure your own copy. 


Becoming a Healthy Church Takes More Than a Resolution

Last Sunday, I preached the sermon for our church's in-person and online gathering from my home office. The new year begins with a two-month sermon series on the the doctrine of the church. The irony of preaching the first sermon in a series titled "Healthy Church" from home due to being quarantined did not escape me. (Last week we had a positive COVID-19 test in our household so we are in quarantine.) 

Preaching via video is not my preference and had we received our COVID test results earlier, I likely would have asked one of our associate pastors to preach last Sunday's message. Nevertheless, God used our gathering (in-person and online) to set the table for a series of messages calling for collective and individual change as we corporately seek to be a healthy, multiplying, church.

Healthy Church HD Screen

There have been many books, articles, and sermons written on what it takes to be a healthy church. We are highlighting just a few characteristics over the next two months, knowing there are many more designators of health within the body than we will be able to cover on Sundays. 

In our series, we are highlighting the following attributes of health for the church:

  • The Healthy Church Prays Expectantly
  • The Healthy Church Gathers Intentionally
  • The Healthy Church Preaches Boldly
  • The Healthy Church Gives Generously
  • The Healthy Church Serves Gladly
  • The Healthy Church Worships Truly
  • The Healthy Church Loves Unconditionally
  • The Healthy Church Equips Strategically
  • The Healthy Church Lives Authentically

For the final message of the series, we have Jared C. Wilson preaching on what it means to be a Gospel-Driven Church and to live authentically in the fellowship of faith.

The challenge to remain healthy is not unlike the physical challenges we face individually. Many are making resolutions to exercise, eat healthier, and to do healthy things. These are good, but we all know that to become and remain healthy requires more than a quick fix. It takes time and effort, but the results are worth it. The same is true for the local church.

We Need More Healthy Churches

I am praying that local churches will take needed steps in 2021 to become and remain healthy. This will require more than a theme and graphic for Sunday mornings (we have both a theme and a graphic, so I'm not saying don't do this.) It begins with prayer, with total submission to God, and just as disciple-making is not instant, so too is healthy church living. We must remember that health is not determined by the size of the church, the notoriety of the pastor, or the number of unique ministries offered.

To my pastor friends seeking to lead well during this era of the pandemic–stay the course. I am praying for you. We are seeking not to lead our churches back to whatever is defined as  "normal" but toward what is defined as biblical.

Hang in there. Lead well and know that you are not alone in this endeavor.

 

_________

Resources

Mark Dever has written an excellent book titled "Nine Marks of a Healthy Church." It is a great place to start in evaluating and leading the local body well. Yet, even Dever admits there are more than nine marks to what it means to be healthy. May God reveal what you and your church need at this juncture in order to be strong, healthy, God-glorifying, and multiplying.


You Might Be a Consumer Christian If...

Jeff Foxworthy has made a living off one joke. The "You might be a redneck if..." joke launched his career and he has done very well, to say the least. 

My friend Mike Williams has done stand-up comedy in churches for years and he had a set where he copied Foxworthy's model, but gave it a Baptist identity. I still remember some of his punchlines.

You might be a Southern Baptist if:

  • Your pastor's name is written in dry-erase marker on the sign out front.
  • You ever bummed a cigarette off a deacon.
  • You have never sung the third stanza of a hymn.

There are more, but these are the ones I remember.

It was earlier this week as I began reading a new book by Will Mancici titled Future Church. This book, along with his others Church Unique and God Dreams should be read by all church leaders. It clarifies some things about the American church and how we are structured that need to be addressed. As Mancini and co-author Cory Hartman were working on this latest book and moving toward publication date, the pandemic hit. As I read now, it is clear that the revelations given by Mancini and Hartman are not only timely but essential for the local church today.

Upper and Lower Room Churches

I won't go into all the details of what the authors are defining. You would need to get the book for the nuts and bolts of all this. However, the concept of Upper Room and Lower Room churches is so essential I will try to summarize it here.

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People who go to and stay at a local church (we'll talk pre-pandemic era) often do so for one of four reasons (in addition to the Holy Spirit's lead.)

These are:

  1. Place - the location of the church building or gathering is important. For some, the building holds memories (the sacredness or "sacred cow" syndrome) for the members. Often these are of bygone days when great spiritual moments occurred in the life of a person (where they were saved, where they met their spouse, where they were baptized, etc.)
  2. Personality - the pastor is not only an initial draw, but that which keeps people coming. How many friends of yours tweet or post graphics featuring their pastor and comments or phrases he said during a sermon? He's engaging. He's funny. He seems to care. Then...if he leaves a percentage of attenders drift away as well. Oh, it may not be the lead pastor either. In some cases, it is the associate pastor of the designated "most favorite ministry program" who is the draw. That leads us to the next element.
  3. Programs - whether it is AWANA, the women's Bible study, the senior adult trips, the youth group, or any other such ministry or program, these draw many people. These are not bad, but they certainly are not the fullness of what church is or should be. Think of these programs as entry ways or onramps to the church. Sadly, some tend to stand in the entry, or park on the onramp. You know how frustrating that can be, especially if you are behind them. Lastly...
  4. People - the people are the church, right? Yes and no. The people who are Christians make up the church and it is the people gathered who are the church. We (all of us) are relational beings and that means we need others. Even introverts who secretly want to live as hermits actually need others to be healthy and obedient to all the "one anothers" of Scripture. What happens is even in open groups, a tendency for perceived "us four and no more" develops. Why? Not because we do not like others, but that we are like Lego pieces and all our connections are snapped together with no room for others (thanks to Larry Osborne for that illustration.) Mancini states, "When people get their identity from friendships at church, they resist the proverbial open chair." (Future Church, p. 27)

Mancini and Hartman reveal that these four elements of church connectedness and church growth are part of the lower room. They are the most easily accessed areas (if you picture a house with a lower floor and an upper floor.) Yet, it is the upper room where the church's vision, mission, and disciple-making strategy is cemented. The challenge we all face is moving those from the lower room to the upper room. It could be said that Jesus had thousands in the lower room of his ministry (remember the crowd who received free food from Christ) and at one key moment only 120 in the upper room (a literal upper room in Acts 1:15.) 

The clarity in this illustration helps me in understanding some of the challenges and realities we now face in the local church. The pandemic is revealing much of this, not creating it. Like other pastors, I have decried the growth of the consumerism in the church (while confessing that much of our programming and structure actually fuels this reality.) Now, I see that most people are not intentionally desiring to be consumer Christians. It may simply be that they are just enjoying the lower room and have never been led to the staircase leading to the upper room.

But beware, consumer Christianity is so very easy.

Consumer Christianity and the Lower Room

So, as I seek to help brothers and sisters with a bit of self-diagnosis, here are some things that may reveal you have slid into consumerism (and this is no joke)...

You might be a consumer Christian if, (since the pandemic hit):

  • You haven't watched your church's online service in its fullness.
  • You long to get back to "normal" so you can take the kids back to the fun mid-week program at your church.
  • You haven't joined a Zoom or online group with others in your church family.
  • Your Sundays have been filled with other activities and you aren't sure you will adjust your calendar to attend post-pandemic.
  • You have "attended" numerous other churches online and like the music at Church A, the preaching at Church B, and the events of Church C. You basically created a buffet church (it's the Golden Corral of Christianity...let that sink in.)
  • You haven't prayed with other believers.
  • You haven't partaken of the ordinance of the Lord's Supper with your church family (and you never thought about that until you read this.)
  • You use the pandemic as your reason excuse for not gathering as the church, but have gone to grocery stores, restaurants, shopping centers, the zoo, theme parks, ball games, and other places where crowds are gathering (without as many guidelines as your church has put in place for safety.)
  • You don't miss the church.

Consumer Christianity has been manufactured well in our nation. The church growth movement that fueled the offering of ministries and events as custom-fitted, marketable religiously-themed items not only left many people in the lower room of what should be the healthy church, but left them with many others people (thousands even) so that it felt normal.

This cancerous, sinful, short-sighted church strategy does not make disciples, but only creates fake disciples (thanks to Mancini for that term.)

So, you may discover that you have found a nice, comfortable sofa in the foyer of the lower room of church. It's comfortable, but does not transform lives. 

But this is not an easy shift.

I am shaken by Mancini's revelation on this. He says "The bottom line is that I underestimated the power of the Lower Room. Its gravitational pull is not the tug of a minor moon. but the force field of a black hole." (Future Church, p. 35)

The good news is that no one has to remain in the lower room. While the lower room is not bad. It is not unChristian. It is not evil. It simply is not enough. It is not the fullness of church. When the lower room is all there is, consumer Christianity reigns. No one has to settle in to consumer Christianity. That is not the way.

It is time to move up to the Upper Room. Praise be to God, he has removed many of the items that left many settling for religious God-stuff, with no transformation and ultimately...no maturation as a Christ-follower (and for some, a revelation of a non-existent relationship to God through Jesus Christ.) Repent. Come home. And...come on up.


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

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

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

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

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

Rise of Celebrity

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

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

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

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

The Inevitable Fall

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

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

It is tragic.

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

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

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

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

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

Why, Then Would Pastors Want This?

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

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

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

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

What To Do?

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

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

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

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

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

Pray for the Pastors 

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

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

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

Recommended Reading

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

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


What the Pastor Is Expected and Obligated To Do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hospital Visitation

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

Counseling

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

Community Events

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

Funerals

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

Weddings

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

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

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

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

Weddings are Big Business

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

It is painful to watch.

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

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

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

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

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

When do we say NO to weddings?

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

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

Grace Abounds

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

Be Steadfast, Pastor

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

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

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


Celebrating Others Failures Is Not a Commendable Trait

Perhaps it is simply human nature?

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo credit: VisualHunt / CC BY

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

Condemnation Aplenty

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

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

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

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

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

Some Get It Right

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

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

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

Praying for Sinners Is Not Excusing Their Sin

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

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

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

Terrible People Who Get What They Deserve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Racism Within the Church

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

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

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

Racial Diversity Within the Church

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

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

Addressing Systemic Racism Within the Church

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

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

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

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Patrick & Selena Hayle

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

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

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

QUESTION:

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

ANSWER BY SELENA HAYLE:

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

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

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

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

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

Listen. Learn. Then, Do Something.

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

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

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

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

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

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